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Should Your Avatar's Skin Match Yours?

Yifan Wu for NPR

Most people who play video games just want to have fun. But is there the potential to do more than that? This week on Ask Code Switch, we're answering a question from Catina in Northern Virginia. She reached out to us because her son was trying to counter racist bullying in the games he played, and wandered into the tricky territory of appropriation:

Dear Code Switch,

My 11 year-old son loves playing online video games like Roblox and Minecraft where he can create his own avatar. Sometimes he will choose a black or brown skin for his character. We spend a lot of time talking about race, and when I discussed digital blackface with him, he told me that he is trying to fight underrepresentation, discrimination, and racists in the games he plays. He's a good kid and really wants to be an ally. What advice would you give him?

Hey Catina,

In the time since you wrote this question, you say that your son found that making characters of color didn't help his cause, and that he stopped doing it. But this is actually a question a lot of people have. There's a lot to think about, especially when it comes to figuring out when it's acceptable to play a character you don't share a race with. Like, can video games be a vehicle for allyship?

In a video game, you can be anyone. Your avatar might be an ideal version of yourself, it might be a meme, it might be an original character (do not steal). In a medium that's all about imagined experiences, it would be absurd to be confined by your real-world identity (and impossible for many players of color). Video games have different norms than real life (for instance, in many online games, it's relatively acceptable to walk up to someone and like, kill them), but players and developers bring their real-world ideas and biases with them. Unlike reality, the circumstances of your character's world were crafted by artists and programmers.

It might help to take a look at Rust, an online survival game that takes a unique approach to character creation. In 2015, they implemented randomly generated and completely immutable faces and skin color to the default male character model. In 2016, they added the possibility of being a woman. There was backlash, to say the least. Loudest were cries, largely from white cis men, that the "Social Justice Warrior" agenda of forced diversity was ruining gaming. Weird, though, because in earlier versions of the game everyone had no choice but to play as a bald white guy, and that didn't seem to ruin the experience for anyone. (In case you were curious, critics from the trans community were not wild about the idea of an unchangeable gendered body.)

The developer, Facepunch Studios, said that it was a utilitarian decision so players would have consistently identifiable features, and that within the Rust world, attributes were doled out in a random and even spread. That's all well and good.

But Rust strips race of context, making an attempt at neutrality. Everyone is born into the game an adult, naked and afraid, facing a vaguely post-apocalyptic death parade. The characters have very little personality outside of the player, and they all play exactly the same way. It doesn't take place in a society where historical power dynamics affect everything.

What got weird was when they tried to claim another benefit: In an interview with the video game website Kotaku, Rust's lead developer, Garry Newman, said, "I would love nothing more than if playing a black guy in a game made a white guy appreciate what it was like to be a persecuted minority."

It's easy, almost comforting, to think that embodying a video game character that looks different from you gives you an elevated understanding of those people. But Lisa Nakamura, director of the Digital Studies Institute at the University of Michigan, says for a white kid to experience racism while playing a video game "does not actually improve the suffering of other people who he's aligning himself with, because he still is benefiting from his whiteness in other parts of his life."

Rust is also a unique example; not every game is able to depoliticize itself as much. Red Dead Redemption, with its old timey spaghetti western setting, tried to skirt around issues of race. So while the character customization in its online mode allowed players to choose from a wide range of skin tones, the computer controlled KKK treated everyone the same. Some players, though, thought the setting gave them permission to carry out virtual lynchings of black characters and unrepentantly use the N-word. Players on the receiving end were not getting a window into life as a black person or the stresses of everyday racism; they were witnessing over-the-top expressions of white supremacy.

"I would call it toxic empathy, " says Nakamura. She says that because you don't actually live in the body of the character you're playing, the abuse you experience as that character becomes much easier to dismiss. "So if somebody comes up to you, and you're playing a black character and they call you the N-word and ... it doesn't bother you, then you feel like, 'Well it isn't that big of a deal.'"

Namakura says that choosing a character outside of your own identity can risk turning into what she calls "identity tourism."

"I coined that term in the late '90s to describe why I saw so many white men creating female Asian avatars that were half naked," she says. "I mean, they were just obsessed with samurai, and with Asia, you know? We would call them people who have 'yellow fever' today, but they didn't understand what it was like to have somebody 'ching-chong' you, or they didn't really know any of the difficulties of being a racial minority. They were just interested in the exotic part."

There's a 2009 study that examined representations of race in video games. It found that, "With the exception of African Americans, the representation in games bears a strong resemblance to the game developer workforce itself," i.e. white men. Black men were only well-represented in games that replicated real-life sports leagues. The study states that, "outside of sports games, the representation of African Americans drops precipitously, with many of the remaining featured as gangsters and street people."

is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the editor of Woke Gaming: Digital Challenges to Oppression and Social Injustice. She says the way non-black people approach playing as or writing characters who are black men often comes with dangerous assumptions about physical power and aggression.

"They've been conditioned to see black men in particular as being this larger-than-life, physically capable body. ... That conditioning goes back to the plantation," says Gray. Through a digital avatar, you can play out racist fantasies about black bodies, all without an actual black person involved. It gets very Get Out.

At the same time, black players get bullied for their identities, whether or not they're playing as black characters. For instance, over voice chat, players will get targeted for "sounding black."

"There's this questioning, 'Wait, are you black?' and then people engage, like, 'Oh there's a n***** in the world, get this person out of here.'" Gray says. "I've talked about my own personal experiences with gendered racism [on Xbox Live], you know, where people are talking about me on welfare, all my kids, all the crack that I'm on."

There are broader forces at play than your individual actions in video games: social pressures and customs in a community of gamers, but also the way that community was curated through a marketing strategy and moderation systems. People who make games affect far more than any one player can.

Just in character creation systems, developers can make sure there are there options for a broad range of characters. They can create a full range of skin tones, options for monolids that aren't slant-eyes, black hairstyles that go beyond cornrows and cartoon afros. They can guard against creating a fantasy race that's taking on stereotypes from a real-life race. (Looking at you, Khajiit.)

It's not inherently exploitative to play as a character of a different race, but it requires players to be aware of the context they and their characters exist in — and that it's not going to truly help them understand what it means to live in a different body.

So gamers: If you want to fight racism and injustice in video games, you can't do it just from inside the game. Look at how the content moderation systems work, and who is accountable to that. Look at the labor issues in games and think critically about what you're willing to support.

And then, look at your real-life community and who you welcome in. It's less about what you do in the game, and more about what the game allows you to do.

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Jess Kung
Jess Kung (they/them) is a production assistant on Code Switch. Previously, they interned with Code Switch and the podcast The Document from KCRW in Santa Monica. They are a graduate of Long Beach State University.
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