I wrote this critique in 2013, and though the column in question was well-intentioned and much better than a more recent column that just whined "Diversity is so hard, and I always get in trouble when I try!" it ultimately suffers from envisioniong diversity as a form of cultural tourism than a reflection of real life.
I welcomed Brandon Sheffields’ column in the latest issue of Game Developer, pointing out the white male heterosexual dominance of video game “casting”. I’m going to quibble a bit, though. For one, I have trouble believing that white people are deliberately chosen as video game characters because they are “safest”. I don’t sit in on those kinds of meetings (“I vote for female Klingon”), but I just have trouble envisioning a scene where someone says “let’s make the character non-white”, and cooler heads caution “better not, we’re going to get a lot of criticism.” In fact, as in film, there doesn’t seem to be much reluctance in casting non-white characters in non-protagonist roles, particularly as ethnic decoration, or to sex up lead females with bigger boobs and smaller outfits — actually, I have been witness to this type of decision, where a publisher (and our company management) insisted on tarting up our female characters, even more than the game artists wanted to!
More plausibly, the subject doesn’t come up and there’s a default assumption the character is white, or if someone does suggest a non-white character, it takes some decision-maker out of his or her comfort zone, and maybe the “safety” rationale is raised, just as dubious as the catering-to-the-market rationale that film studio executives use, when they say, great idea for a movie, but can the lead be a white guy? (Or, as Sheffield points out, in the case of recent Hollywood anime remakes, can the entire cast of this Japanese story be white?)
Which brings me to my next quibble. Sheffield states that film has done more to advance racial understanding than to hinder. Maybe in one particular year, here or there, but overall, I doubt it. We’re all programmed by our culture, including film (if you’re going to claim a medium enlightens, you have to admit it can reinforce negatively, too, and there go the defenses about not promoting violence, it’s an art form, etc.), and I think if film was overall a net force for positive social change, we’d all be holding hands and singing “We are the world…” by now.
In any case, Sheffield cites Spike Lee and Pedro Almodovar, but films that really make a difference are those that have a mixed cast without being self-conscious about it in settings that we can relate to. Sheffield asks if portraying an Indian character in a game would bring in more Indian players (I assume he means Asian Indian), and concludes not. I think they would, as long as you’re not talking about Apu in a Simpsons game. I just read a story on the Fast and Furious franchise where some of its success was attributed to it’s multi-racial casting. There are some TV shows I watch (e.g. The Mentalist, Bones, The Closer) largely because they regularly feature Asian-Americans like me and for the most part not involved in a story about Chinatown gangs, human smuggling from China, or martial arts (although there is always one such episode).
Oddly, the shows I just cited are crime shows and most of the crime fiction I read have the “white man writing” syndrome where all the characters including the protagonist are assumed to be white (and women are described in terms of how hot they are), and you know this because any non-white character is specified as such when they are introduced, often accompanied by some banter in the form of “hey, you’re white” “hey, you’re black” and some attempt at an ethnic patois. If found it very distracting in the Spenser novels, for example. And speaking of Boston, I have three native Bostonian friends — multigenerational Jewish, Chinese and Italian — and if you closed your eyes and asked them to say “wicked awesome”, there’s no way you could tell which is which.
And that’s the nice thing about writing — you can leave some things open to interpretation. I was actually startled when I saw The Lord of the Rings how white the cast was (except for the orcs). Somehow, when I read it in my childhood, I didn’t visualize it that way. Of course, it’s likewise understandable that white people will assume a character is white unless otherwise specified (I did that with the Alex Cross character of the James Patterson novels until I saw Morgan Freeman in the role), but it can go too far, as with the casting agent I saw interviewed on TV who said Latino actors aren’t getting a lot of roles because there aren’t parts written for them. Implying most roles are written explicitly not for them? Most of the sample scripts I’ve seen while I’ve worked on my never-going-to-be-finished screenwriting project don’t have character descriptions like WHITE MALE, or NOT LATINO. The same goes for video game characters. Personally, I think it would have been cool if Nathan Drake was an Asian-American (for that matter, Indiana Jones, too).
So when Sheffield concludes, saying how in a recent project he attempted to create four characters of different races that were “quite different” from his life experience as a Caucasian male, I don’t see why he had to try that hard, unless he normally writes game stories involving British ancestry, dining on haggis or welsh rarebit or whatever, or a game where the character is prone to severe sunburns. I’m glad that he’s encouraging developers to stretch a bit, but don’t get the idea that you have to stretch that far. We’re not that different. Just close your eyes.