Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Day 4 Coverage: Game Heroes Are Too White?, Pocketwatch Games, Playdead, LBGT in the Video Game Industry
Featuring International Game Festival Winners Monaco and Limbo
What Color Is Your Hero?
Speakers: Leigh Alexander (Gamasutra.com), Jamin Brophy-Warren (Kill Screen magazine), Mia Consalvo (MIT), Manveer Heir (Raven Software)
So why should anyone care about the demographics of video game heroes, whether they're White, Black, Hispanic, or Asian? Well, the image of others (stereotypes) as well as the self-image of a person can deteriorate when that person doesn't feel like they are represented and thus not valued (and this runs deeper than the reasons behind bogus sensitivity training - we're talking about self-worth). But on principle, it just feels wrong that American video games almost always has a white hero, considering that the demographics of America are much more diverse. Here are some quick stats for video game characters seen within the first thirty minutes in top video games produced before 2006 (there were a lot more limitations and measures taken to make the data fairer, but I won't get into it here):
White 80%, Black 10%, Hispanic 2%, Bi-racial, 1.3%, Native American: 0.04%, Asian 5.03%
Compared to the U.S. census data on race, Hispanics and Native Americans are overwhelmingly underpresented. For those games, there are no main characters that are Hispanic or Native American.
Blacks are usually represented as athletes or gangbangers
According to the data, Asians are overrepresented by 26%. However, I asked the panel whether there was any data on the Asian spread (there was none), because I suspect that most of the "Asians" in that category are Japanese and not Chinese, Korean, Philippino, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indian, and any other races deemed "oriental".
Games that allow for customizable avatars are a good step, but many times, it's just a palette swap. The sociological and cultural identities of each race usually aren't taken into account.
Source: NewScientist (obviously)
As to why main characters are predominantly white, the panel sites many reasons. For one, many American development teams are white males, so it makes sense not only that their fantasy main character would be a heroic version of themselves, but also that they would be afraid to create an unauthentic non-white character. For them, it would be easier to put more liberties on stretching the character emotionally when they are white (as we can see in Heavy Rain). On a business and marketing level, it's (regrettably) understandable that they would be "risk-averse" to creating a character that may not be as identifiable to the white majority of American people. I would add that Americans view the white male body as the generalized vessel of physical struggle in the working class, which is a large reason why the majority of action star heroes in film are also white.
So what the panel calls for is for the indie community to create games with non-white characters that connect with all Americans. Because as we all know, the big developers just have indies deal with risk, and then steal their most successful ideas for their own. (Even so, I don't think we'll ever see "Gay Asian-American Ninja F***s S*** Up". Of course, if we did, I would totally buy one million copies of it.)
Pocketwatch Games: Monaco
Winner of both the IGF Excellence in Design Award and IGF Seumas McNally Grand Prize, Monaco (What's Yours Is Mine) is a four-player action stealth title where characters must work together to steal and escape from multi-floor buildings. A single-player version, which plays differently but still works the same, and a level editor is shown here.
Inspired by classic French heist movies and retro-styled video games, the graphics are heavily pixelated... because as we all know, the more pixelated it is, the more indie it is. As you move your character through the overhead blueprint view of each black-and-white floor, any part of the map that your character can see becomes colored. The closer an area is to the character, the more colorful that area becomes. An Okamithief, perhaps, but in a very good way.
Of course, you and your team can't just waltz into a building without any resistance. Guards patrol and block areas, with question marks above their heads if they spot someone suspicious. But since you aren't Solid Snake and have no ability to fight back, guards have the upper hand if they happen to find you, especially since they have guns (and you do not). Thankfully, if one of your friends becomes a pool of blood, and all of your friends need to be alive for the you to advance to the next floor (that's a true "no one left behind" co-op initiative), you can revive anyone within about five seconds. Still, you'll have to be quick and sneaky, going through locked doors (just by pressing against it for a few seconds), running down hallways, and stealthily stepping past a guard's backside.
To assist your team, each member has a special ability: the Locksmith can get through locked doors faster and use smoke bombs, the Cleaner can knock out guards with chloroform, the Prowler has enhanced speed, and the Hacker can see through walls with a thermal scanner and hack spy cameras wih ease. Any character can walk up to a terminal and deactivate an electrical system or alarm, or scan the entire area using the camera system. Monaco has the perfect mix of cooperative play, stealth, and action. Watch the YouTube trailer here (with great use of Liszt's 'Danse Macabre', by the way). No release date is known, but it should be available through Pocketwatch Games' website soon and at least one console. (Gotta put that $20,000+ prize money to good use, eh?)
Also winner of two IGF awards - one for Technical Excellence and another in Visual Art - Limbo abstractly follows the story of a young boy lost in the woods with stunning black-and-white graphics. Everything is black except for the gray mist between the redwood trees and the white, innocently hopeful eyes of the boy. If a game can be crafted from soft darkness, this is it.
The design of the 2D platformer is simple: Get the boy through the level. All he has is the ability to jump, climb ropes, and drag objects, so the puzzles themselves aren't terribly difficult, but they definitely punish you for failing. A spider's leg can pierce the boy and fling him half a screen. A piston can squish him from above. A bear trap can rend him into two. Deep water drowns him. Soldiers shoot him. If this sounds like a trial-and-error adventure that submerges itself in child-crushing gruesomeness, you wouldn't be too far from the truth.
And because the boy is still covered in shadows when he dies, you are left filling in the blanks of his death, his scrawny and frail frame limping like a broken rag doll onto the dirt. Limbo's muted and creepy aesthetic in sound and shape has shades of Icoand Shadow of the Colossus - lofty comparisons for sure, but the inspiration is palpable. Limbo is planned to release in the summer on XBLA tentatively between 1000 and 1200 points.
IGDA: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender SIG
Many homophobic players don't recognize that some of the developers who make the games they play are homosexual, bisexual, or transgender. So here is a partial list of companies in which the attendants at the meeting are employed (no names will be revealed): Electronic Arts, Bungie, Raven Software, Sega, Blizzard, Wizards of the Coast, Zynga, Gamepro, GamesRadar, WB Games (and Game Revolution, of course). And not just in PR or "artistic" jobs, but also as managers and executives. Much of what was discussed really isn't relevant to many of you, but if you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender in the game industry, know that you aren't alone.