Quest Log: Stereotypes in Games

quest log iconQuest Log is a feature in which I set out on adventure to learn how something works. This might be game mechanics, social issues, or technology. The goal is to gain a greater understanding of the topic and spread awareness.

This time I’m on a quest to demystify the phrase “stereotypes come from somewhere, you know” which the person using it always implies “this stereotype must be true, then.” Since it’s February, I thought I’d revisit some popular stereotypes about people of color and review their history. After all, these things do come from somewhere …just not where most of us tend to think. Also, this is a two part series. In this one, I specifically about stereotypes in some games and in the follow-up post I’ll discuss a few more and their history.

The Noble Savage

Games that employ this stereotype:

  • Turok
  • World of Warcraft
  • Street Fighter
  • Age of Empires III

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What’s it based on?

The term Noble Savage was probably coined by English writers during the colonial period and it was used to describe Native Americans (though this has certainly been used for other indigenous groups from other lands; here, I want to discuss Native Americans in particular). It was picked up by everyone who encountered the term thereafter, especially those who had never seen the indigenes the term replaced. Wherever it comes from, it’s not from Native Americans and it’s never been an accurate description of them. It’s a caricature invented for the comfort and intrigue of Europeans. It’s the invention of colonial racists whose primary concern was distinguishing themselves from “others” and to justify conquest. When we use this stereotype today, we’re tipping our hat and honoring those good (and by good I mean terrible) folks.

It’s disturbing that even in 2014, in the 21st century, the stereotype of the noble savage still persists despite how well documented the history of Native Americans is and their present day lives. Most people still think of Native Americans as protectors and companions of nature, as highly spiritual noble people with a fighting spirit. Just do a Google search for “American teams indian mascot” and it will guaranteed pop up the exact same type of imagery for each team – a so-called “indian” with dark hair, reddish skin, feathers, face paint, axe, or other stereotypical garments.

In addition to the way this stereotype reduces an entire people and culture to myth and dehumanizes them, one of the awful consequences of this myth persisting into the present is that it neatly places Native Americans in the past — removes them from our present – by superimposing this image onto the group. Native Americans still live here in all their diverse physical features, customs, and aspirations. Many tribes are barely hanging on to life in the bleak existence on most reservations, but this isn’t the image that the stereotype conjures. The stereotype of the noble savage contributes to our collective amnesia, simultaneously positioning Natives in our national conscience as a people of the past and constantly reinforcing the romantic, comforting imagery of the colonials. It’s an easy thing for game developers to grasp, who are more interested in their own games than in respectfully depicting any culture or the people within it. That’s not OK. People deserve far better and so do our games.

The Dangerous Black Men

Games that employ this stereotype:

  • Grand Theft Auto
  • Resident Evil 5
  • Ethnic Cleansing

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Many games employ this stereotype, and it’s not limited to only black men, but extends to really any race that’s non-white. They’re always dark, always violent, always up to no good. It’s very safe to assume in our games that if it’s not white, then it’s not right …so shoot it on sight. Grand Theft Auto is the worst offender in my opinion because it’s a celebration of these stereotypes and then some. I’ve heard some gamers argue that it’s all satire/parody, but I don’t think those words mean what they think they mean. GTA is no such thing.

What’s it based on?

This stereotype has many nasty, hairy legs and is a great example of the multi-dimensional nature of stereotypes. They are a combination of bad ideas woven together to create a total and negative picture of a person or group of people. The dangerous black male is an amazingly prolific stereotype in America, but it crosses over to the “angry black woman” stereotype as well because it emphasizes the aggression of dark people. There’s plenty of testimony from blacks about white people generally avoiding them on the street (say, crossing the street if they see a black man coming), harassing them in stores, and drawing their children and purses closer should a black man appear on a bus or train or any other public facility. So where does this stereotype come from and what’s the real root of this fear of black people?

In the early years of the American republic, there was a national belief in the inferiority of non-white peoples. To prop up that belief and give it credibility, all sorts of reasoning was invented via philosophy, religion and even science. In fact, Thomas Jefferson has quite a few memoirs and essays describing his thoughts on the “nature” of blacks, some of which included a belief that they require “less sleep” because of “their” bestial “nature”. Another was his belief that, due to this bestial “nature”, black men were dangerous [1]. Still more stereotypes were designed to inspire fear in fellow whites by spreading the idea that black men were sexual predators who especially preyed upon white women. This particular myth was exactly the kind of thing to rile up chivalrous white men who made it their duty to protect the virtue of white women. Such myths and stereotypes spawned real laws, such as Jim Crow’s “reckless eyeballing” which could get a black man killed if he so much as looked in the direction of a white woman.

A hundred years later and the myths and stereotype persist. While today stereotyping is less acceptable, we’ve seen that in practice it’s as prevalent as it’s ever been, and we have codified it into law once again as Racial Profiling.

Despite the fact that most acts of violence in the United States are committed by white men, you’ll rarely find a person crossing to the opposite side of the street to avoid us nor do we make up the lions share of prisoners. Nor are white men stereotyped as dangerous. A white male can shoot up a movie theater and be confident the police won’t shoot him on sight. A black man can stand in his own drive way, on his own property and be shot to death by the cops. Stereotypes aren’t just bad, but can be fatal.

How does this impact gamers? Whether we like it or not, the constant barrage of this kind of imagery in our games does affect our attitudes and thinking.

The Woman

Ah, does woman ever come in a multitude of ….oh, wait! She’s usually just one thing: The sex object. Sex objects are what you’d expect of any object: not very smart, no personality, very vulnerable, somewhat incompetent and totally willing to have sex. Generally, women in games are made for the eyes of men, designed for a male audience to enjoy. Their representation, in other words, disregards the fact that some young woman is watching and may feel bad about it. Women have been fighting a long hard battle in games to improve their representation and in recent years they’ve made some headway. But they’ve got a looooong ways to go still.

What’s it based on?

This one’s more ancient than usual. Many civilizations the world over began as patriarchal and many continue to be so. Within that structure of society, women play the role of property whose primary function is reproduction because men do everything else. And that’s my very abbreviated history of this long, complex explanation. Simone de Beauvoir wrote the most thorough and comprehensive history on this and I’d recommend it to any interested in more details.

Today, women continue to be seen as objects whose express purpose is the pleasure of a man. Video games reinforce this with each release that features a woman. In fact, let’s look at one of the more interesting examples in gaming history of how the stereotype of the woman combines with others for a deadly power combo.

I won't even talk about the "revenge sex" implied by the title of the game itself ...

I won’t even talk about the “revenge sex” implied by the title of the game itself …

Anyone remember Custer’s Revenge? There were at least 3 major stereotypes colluding in that game for total degradation and disaster: Jezebel (the licentious brown woman), the woman as sex object, and the Native American as painted with feathers. The creator of the game actually believed that in designing this he was bringing levity into the game or at least that’s the rumor (who knows). The question is why he believed such stereotypes to be appropriate or funny and why he thought others would too. This is exactly the kind of harm a video game can do to it’s audience, both in offending that audience and in making them more accepting of this kind of imagery.

Do games still employ this extreme imagery? All the time. Worse, game developers are working with such outlets as Playboy magazine these days to further humiliate female game characters for the pleasure of a male audience — despite women making up half of the gaming population! However, it’s not a far jump when you think about it. The sexualization of women in games does lend itself to magazines like Playboy and men’s/lad mags. Now we ought to ask ourselves if there’s something wrong with that picture.

Games employ stereotypes as much as all other media and entertainment, but woe to you who would use this as a defence. Games should raise the bar, not aim for the same standard. They do tremendous harm to our community by reinforcing stereotypes about its members and it lowers the quality of our games. These devices shun the people you and I play games with. It makes many among us feel unwelcome and devalued. It makes it easier for many of us accept and adopt these toxic attitudes by constant reinforcement.

Yet we all participate in this. Every time I plop down money for a game with these features (knowingly), I’m tacitly condoning it. We don’t like to hear it, but it needs to continue being said: When we buy games which contain this kind of content, knowingly, we are no better than its content creators and we’re on the same level as those who actively believe in and perpetuate those stereotypes. There’s no meaningful distinction between a person who uses a sexist slur and a person who hears it and does nothing about it.

I’m hopeful and optimistic that, as a community, we can do better at detecting and condemning stereotypes. After all, we can’t have a community at all when it’s divided up like this. Stay tuned for the follow-up article on stereotypes.

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