Blackfacing: The Ambiguity of Race in Gaming

Higgin’s article in this week’s reading brought up some salient points in analysing the state of race in contemporary gaming. The theory that the choice of being a Black character within a predominantly White gaming narrative in various MMORPGs was put forth as an aberration rather than a normal, acceptable decision. Using World of Warcraft (WoW) as an example, Higgin describes the choice to shade one’s player character darker presents itself as a rejection of the standard White human body of the race.

While Higgin brings up several rather intriguing approaches to the race conundrum, this blog post offers an alternate view to this affair. Gaming companies continuously face pressure from the community to make their games more politically correct, to grant an acceptable division of racial representation in their games, or to avoid ambiguous and offensive stereotypes that may potentially devastate the reputation of the company; all to the point where the outcry of their PR departments effectively strangle the creative development of the design team, prohibiting the exploration of questionable ideas, no matter how salient they may be to the game or even if they were meant as a designer’s take on a real-world affair transcribed into the gaming environment.

This crippling fear more or less stunts the growth of radical ideology in gaming – it is much safer to remain in the domain of White hegemony rather than explore the tenuous boundaries of racial representation. Lets stick with the tried-and-tested Tolkein and Lewis foundation rather than risk lashbacks from the gaming community. Higgin mentions the slight, by noticeable, adjustment to the ‘Leeroy Jenkins’ card in the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game where the character has an obviously lighter skin tone than its original namesake. The finalised revision of the card in Blizzard’s newest Warcraft extension, Hearthstone, adopts this change as well. Some may interpret this as blatant racism, while I choose to view it as a clever PR move on Blizzard’s part: Higgin states that Leeroy Jenkins embodies a fairly racist parody towards Black culture as described in popular culture – the colloquial ‘Tyrone’ rushing headlong into a situation without thinking first, armed with the stereotypical fried chicken that Black people supposedly enjoy. The skin tone change simply removes these negative connotations from Jenkins’ character, transposing them onto a harmless White avatar – after all, the only acceptable form of racism is racism against one’s own race, isn’t it?

Likewise, other companies suffer from the lack of ability in exploring these racial boundaries. League of Legends, a popular Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre game recently released a hero character called Lucian. What’s so special about Lucian? Well, he’s Black. His release brought about a storm of racist innuendo, disguised and undisguised, proliferated throughout the forums that engage with this game. Initially deemed to be a weak ‘Marksman’/’AD Carry’, a character role within the game, Lucian was subjected to non-stop abuse from the community – abuse that was directed towards both the character and its creators. The character was described to be a weak one simply because he was Black, rather than as a result of his subpar character abilities. Moreover, his playstyle was associated with the racist trope of Black people and their tendency towards theft as described in popular culture. The character’s ‘dash’ ability and his toting of twin guns placed him as a stereotypical ‘hit-and-run’ Black car thief in the eyes of the community. It was a norm, rather than an exception, that games wherein Lucian was played contained derogatory chat messages commenting upon his race. Riot Games probably did not intentionally create such a stereotypical Black avatar for their videogame – a combination of factors simply made Lucian’s character a prime target for racial discourse in the community; being the first Black character released in the game definitely did not help his position as well. Ironically, when Lucian began to see more play-time in the professional circuit of League’s ESports culture, the derogatory racial comments about his weakness changed into derogatory racial comments about how ‘op’, or overpowered, he was simply because a professional team managed to use his abilities in an unorthodox way that proved to be fairly strong. Despite a paradigm shift in his capability as a videogame character, the racism towards the character clearly remains.

Hence, while most gaming companies do not intentionally exclude or compartmentalise race within their games, it is more often than not the community that restricts the actualisation of racial harmony within videogame culture. Companies simply adopt a neutral position, because sitting on the fence ensures that nobody gets offended; and if nobody gets offended, the company’s reputation remains intact which in turn translates into continuous profit. If the videogame community is quick to critic and dissect every foray into this racial debate, it can only blame itself for a lack of progress in this frontier.

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