Indie survival MMO Rust recently changed how players were assigned characteristics for their avatar.
Everyone used to start as a bald white man, then the developers decided to alter avatars' race and face.
Here's the catch: You don't get to choose.
As lead developer and studio owner Garry Newman wrote: "Everyone now has a pseudo unique skin tone and face. Just like in real life, you are who you are — you can't change your skin color or your face. It's actually tied to your SteamID [how the game recognises you]."
Many white gamers expressed concern
Thus player choice of skin color was removed. It should be noted that you don't see your character, as it's first person. Other players, of course, can. Newman continues:
"There's a lot of skin colors in the world, and it's really easy to appear racially insensitive when doing this. This is compounded by the fact that everyone is really used to seeing [the player avatar] as a white guy, so when you see him as a black guy it feels like he's just 'blacked up.' So we're spending a lot of time trying to lessen that effect."
Many white gamers expressed concern, as Megan Condis documents, disliking being forced to think about race and having to play someone who didn't match their own race. "The problem is lack of freedom of choice," one claimed.
Writing on Steam, another user said: "I was going to buy RUST today! But I am a white guy and dont [sic] want to take the chance [!] of playing a black character." Another said this was "forced politics."
Ignorance about race dynamics in games — and media in general — is coming to light here. As a person of color, I am almost always forced to play a white person in games. This is quite standard, given straight white men are predominantly the main character in games... and, well, every creative medium.
You see the problem. When white gamers are forced to play people not of their race, it's "forced politics"; when I'm forced into the same scenario, it's business as usual. When you complain, you're making a fuss and being political. The argument is a bit scary when you break it down: The only way games can avoid politics in this situation is to pretend that people of color don't exist.
We should raise concerns about race, but it needs to be consistent. Race shouldn't only be an issue for gamers when some white gamers express concerns.
Color me invisible
Consider the current darling of media and consumers, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I've currently put in a total of 170 plus hours into it, and it's one of the greatest games I've ever played. I even adore the white male lead for his dad jokes and genuine love for his friends.
Reviews have lavished praise, perfect scores and awards on it. While some reviews have mentioned issues such as sexism, none I read mentioned another crucial misstep: Not a single human in the game is a person of color. [Editor's note: Hey, wait a second, Polygon's review did in fact bring this issue up!] And it's tied to a central issue here that gaming as whole needs to face: Concerns of minority groups are not only ignored, they're so often not even considered.
Let's look at a few uncomfortable facts. Almost every Witcher 3 review I came across was written by a white man — excellent writers and all of whom I respect. But games media itself is, like the tech world, a very white-male dominated area. This is why we got a hundred articles confronting the Witcher 3 devs about less pretty grass physics, but not a single article asking them about no people of color.
As a person obsessed with graphics, and still sore about Watch Dogs, I'm concerned about downgrade questions, too. But I'd hope more folk would be asking questions about entire races not existing in a game world and why that is. But the lack of persons of color, and the lack of questions about our absence, comes from ignorance rather than animosity.
It probably just wasn't even considered. That is itself the major issue. It's not just that people of color weren't in the game, it's that so few people in the gaming press noticed.
Just as major media and consumers have been vocal about gender representation — with Call of Duty and now FIFA including playable female characters in upcoming games — we should want such discussion about race as well. Diversity of voices should be key, and we should actively want and demand voices of color alongside white men.
This isn't historical
Many players have responded to concerns about the lack of people of color in The Witcher 3 by saying it's because the world is based on Slavic mythology.
Because Slavic people are predominantly white, it therefore is in keeping with nods to that mythology to only feature white people in the game's world. Just as you would feature Indian people if you were making a game based on Indian mythology, so you would do the same for Slavic.
But this misses a crucial point: Things are not equal. We are not in a medium that features predominantly Indian men, Chinese women, or focuses on stories from Africa. We're part of an industry that frequently tells the stories of white people and stars white people.
That's why whitewashing — casting a white actor to play a character of color — is not the same as race-bending — casting a black actor to play a white character.
"Historically accurate" is a common defense for awful actions in fiction
As Anjali Patel highlights: "Whitewashing takes over the limited space people of color have to exist in the entertainment industry as complex, multifaceted individuals, and then shuts them out completely.
On the other hand, says Patel, "Racebending ... counters that, in a way. It demands a space for people of color to exist in franchises where they are severely underrepresented."
Thus, wanting more people of color in stories that focus on mythology for a predominantly white culture doesn't work the other way. Wanting white people in spaces dedicated to people of color ignores that stories of white people already dominate this and other creative industries.
It's "what about me?" when everything is already about you.
Further, the defense of excluding people of color from a fantasy game is nonsensical. We are talking about being comfortable with the inclusion of wraiths and magic, but not the mere existence of people of color. Accuracy and realism flew out the window with the harpies.
"Historically accurate" is another common defense for many awful actions in fiction, and it also doesn't make sense when you're not talking about actual events or even the planet Earth. We see this ridiculous excuse used to defend Game of Thrones' most recent high-profile use of sexual assault, even though it took place in a world where magic exists and during a scene that originally focused on another character.
The Witcher world itself features the region of Zerrikania, whose inhabitants seem very much inspired by the Middle East. In the first Witcher, a prominent Zerrikanian character is named Azar Javed, an Arabic name. Like mine! Culture and names are welcome, but skin color, it seems, is not.
You'll often hear "based on mythology" as well as "historically accurate" in the same breath, even though it can't be both. If it's based on mythology, then it's fiction. If it's historically accurate, then we must talk about our ancestors' legendary fights with sirens on the shores of Arg Skellige.
It is incredibly unwelcoming to be shown the door by the same people who open it for fantasy creatures. Gamer culture needs to improve its diversity — not of magical beings, but of the people who are part of its culture. That is, if it wishes to be a safe, open, tolerant space for everyone — regardless of race.
It should be mentioned that The Witcher 3 deals with "racism," but other "races" literally refers to different species: Elves, dwarves and other non-humans face bigotry.
Indeed, it shows again that humans are white humans and everyone else is non-human and oppressed. I'm not against racism being depicted; the game actually portrays racism and bigotry as bad. But even elves have the opportunity to exist. People of color don't.
Again: This is literal dehumanizing of people of color. We are relegated to non-human species, whose treatment is supposed to mimic real-world racist policies. This sci-fi/fantasy trope of dealing with racism by showing inter-species treatment could work — if all the humans weren't white.
If anything, making us short, bearded white Scottish men, or very white, pointy-eared thin people reinforces how dismissed we are — by not even being considered human.
Why this matters
Creating digital representations of people who aren't white indicates a culture and industry who view us as people. It counters the status quo that dehumanizes us by erasing us or casting us as non-humans. We want to be seen as people, too. There's little more to it, for me.
But seeing angry responses to this simple request speaks volumes about the kind of culture we're creating by not diversifying races, genders and so on. Consider: In The Witcher 3, all humans are white and every other being is non-human. That's not exactly friendly or inclusive of people of color. A game can include a diverse variety of monsters, but not a diverse variety of skin colors or races for humans?
And then we see panic and anger when white gamers may be asked to play as people of color in Rust. The double standard is rarely addressed. Being white is apolitical; being a person of color, even simply by existing, is threatening to some players.
In The Witcher 3, all humans are white and every other being is non-human
Again, this seems mostly driven by ignorance, rather than hostility, but that doesn't negate that this plays into some racist mindsets. As Offworld's Tanya D. noted about another major fantasy franchise's poor handling of people of color:
"I hope these missteps simply happen because there aren't many people of color working in the games industry," she wrote. "It's not that anyone on the Dragon Age team is willfully racist or malicious to players; it's simply that someone who doesn't have the lived experience of dealing with racism as a person of color would simply not think about these things."
As she and others have highlighted, the solution isn't simple and we have a long way to go. But it can start at many levels — notably from those in positions of power and platform, whether games media or games development, wanting minority voices and perspectives.
It can start with us reflecting on what we overlook, such as not even noticing the lack of people of color in games or how they're characterized.
We also need to note the anger and hostility to minority concerns from those who are always catered to. We should recognize that such hostility is precisely what we do not want in a culture.
Tolerance, not toxicity, is what we should aim for. That such hostility exists at all is the problem,and it perpetuates the silencing of our concerns — leading to marginalized people leaving white-male-dominated industries altogether.
Games have progressed dramatically — not in terms of graphics, but demographics. With more people from more areas of life being represented, we perhaps are going in the right direction. But when we still have major games made that feature no people of color, when people still refuse games because of characters' race or gender, it means we aren't there yet.
We can be. It's not about changing bigots' minds — it's about all of us wanting to improve. And we can start by listening, and ignoring those who claim that simply existing as someone who is non-male and non-white is somehow political.
Correction: This article originally referred to Azar Javed as being a character in The Witcher 2, instead of the original Witcher.