by Greg Magee
Representation. That’s a word that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For me, representation has never been an issue. I see white males in every form of entertainment — books, TV, movies, video games. When you’re white, it can truly be difficult to see an issue with representation, as everything seems normal to you. But a person of color might have to watch specific channels, view straight-to-DVD films, research books prior to purchasing them, or even read a daunting heap of game reviews just to find content with relatable characters. This process requires far more work, both mentally and emotionally, than what I have to do. Being white is an advantage and a privilege when it comes to finding representation in media.
Imagine growing up as a person of color in society. Sociological research clearly shows that people of color, especially those with darker skin, have less access to resources than whites in the United States. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that despite a decrease in minority imprisonment, black and Hispanic males were 6 and 2.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white males in 2012, respectively. Given these discouraging facts (and others that I cannot cover in one article), we can gain insight into why representation in media matters to many people of color.
We might even start to see why criticism of representation (both positive and negative) occurs when a person of color is included in, say, video game box art. The fact that many representations of people of color in games are stereotypical cliches — such as magical turban-wearing genies, angry and loud black men, or threatening Middle Eastern men — adds salt to the wound of social disadvantage. So when box art (just the box art folks, not the game) for a beloved franchise comes from a AAA, international company, maybe the company should be a little tactful with the direction of said art.
Last week this Far Cry 4 box art was criticized as racist by some Twitter users. Five days after this criticism, an IGN article provided a quote of clarification from Far Cry 4 creative director Alex Hutchinson:
“Just so it’s clear for those jumping to conclusions: He’s not white and that’s not the player.”
At this point, Hutchinson’s statement is irrelevant. By itself, the box art doesn’t have clear context, and it doesn’t matter who the player is. When a random person walks into a game store, they will see the cover, not Hutchinson’s quote addressing the content. As the box art stands, the central figure looks white, and he’s dominating a brown, submissive character holding a live grenade, which links the character to post-9/11 stereotypes about foreign-born brown people. Keeping with this cultural insensitivity, the white-skinned Asian man is sitting atop a defiled Buddhist statue with gun porn all over the place. I don’t think the artist intentionally wanted to offend people with racist imagery, but unfortunately, that’s what happened.
Some argue that the Far Cry 4 box art isn’t racist or that it shouldn’t be offensive. I would ask a question, though: if you saw a painting of a smiling white male cracking a whip over a person of color picking cotton in a field, would you argue that no person of color should be offended by it? If there is no indisputable context for the picture, why should the art be above offense? Just because the reason for offense may not be obvious to us — or if the intent of the artist is innocent — doesn’t mean we are correct to declare that it shouldn’t be offensive.
If people of color tell us that something is racist, we should listen and not automatically “agree to disagree,” as that gets us nowhere. Hopefully, as we move forward in the conversation about representation in games, we can open our eyes to criticism related to race and other social issues. Through interaction, games provide a unique opportunity for telling stories that can help broaden our understanding about representation of all kinds.