Saturday Soapbox: Are Games Racist, Sexist - Or Just Bad? • Page 2

The medium must earn the right not to be regarded with suspicion.

It began with an astonishing YouTube video showing a minor character you find in Detroit, a black vagrant and informant called Letitia. "Weeelll shee-yit, if it ain't the Cap'n hisself," she says on meeting the player. "Dayum!" Her speech is a crude caricature of an ancient stereotype of poor African Americans from the deep South - a stereotype that, taking Human Revolution's 2027 setting into account, is a century out of date, as well as being crass and inaccurate. It's so awful and jarring that it's briefly, appallingly, funny.

Evan Narcisse of Time pointed out that it wasn't really a laughing matter. "The horrible broken English Letitia speaks is so far removed from any actual slang that it renders the character practically extra-terrestrial. It's not from an alien planet, though. That slang harkens back to the worst blackface minstrelsy of the last century."

It does. But - at the risk of sounding like one of the apologists Narcisse invokes in his column - it's not the racism of the clip that shocks me so much as the fact that a game as highly regarded as Deus Ex could contain a scene so deeply, so irredeemably bad.

It is profoundly embarrassing to me that you can find such terrible writing, lazy characterisation and toe-curling acting in what will probably (and not without reason) be upheld as one of the best games of this year - even as an exemplar for the gaming form.

You wouldn't ever find a scene this bad in a Michael Bay movie. Or a Paul W. Anderson movie. Uwe Boll? Maybe, but maybe not, even. It would certainly be considered below acceptable professional standards in any mainstream film or TV. But strip away the racist overtones that brought it to our attention - make this miserable pantomime of exposition an all-white, all-male affair - and I'm afraid to say that it would appear quite normal content to find in a major modern video game.

Are the people at developer Eidos Montreal who wrote, cast, directed and performed this scene racist? Probably not. For all I know, the worst you could call them is culturally naïve. But I know one thing for sure - they're talentless, and worse, thoughtless.

"It has never been our intention to represent any particular ethnic group in a negative light," said publisher Square Enix in a statement. I believe it, but intentions are neither here not there - the game has blundered into racist caricature through sheer creative ineptitude.

The problem with Letitia isn't the theory, it's the cack-handed practice. There's nothing inherently wrong with casting a character that lives on society's underbelly as black, and indeed it would be wonderful if games could begin to depict and even tackle social problems in their content the way a TV show like The Wire does.

There are even signs that we're getting there. Games like Portal 2 and Uncharted 2 exhibit characterisation, dialogue and human drama as nuanced and credible as their Hollywood counterparts, albeit in the realm of fairly fluffy and unchallenging light entertainment. LA Noire, meanwhile, for all its stodgy plotting and slight lack of charisma, demands respect for managing to document the social issues of mid-20th century Los Angeles in an open and serious manner without making any howling gaffes.

But, let's face it, these titles are the exception when they should be the rule. The medium seems to be intent on pursuing human storytelling, but the vast majority of games are, by the standards of the other art forms they so obviously aspire to, terrible at it.

Games ought to be able to deal with sex without being called sexist, race without being called racist. But until their writing improves to the extent that characters like Letitia cease to exist in bad games, never mind good ones - until the games industry's overall standards of what I can only think to call 'humanity' improve - they never will.

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Oli Welsh

Oli Welsh


Oli is the editor of and likes to take things one word at a time. His friends call him The European, but that's just a coincidence. He's still playing Diablo 3.


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