This story begins at a low-key birthday party of a good friend of mine. Rather than opt for a decadent college bacchanal, she simply decided to invite a few friends to dinner at her family's house, somewhere in the manicured sprawl that is Orange County, California. While her (white) mom and (Asian) dad put the finishing touches on their (Korean) barbecue, my friend and I relaxed in the backyard, alternating between eyeing the rain clouds that come with SoCal winters and chatting with the other guests: her (white) boyfriend and her two other good (white) friends.
Now, all of us had been known to enjoy the occasional videogame every now and then, so the conversation quickly turned to the latest release - Shadow of the Colossus. One of the other partygoers asked the birthday girl if she had ever played Shadow's well-known predecessor, Ico. She stared blankly. "What's it about?"
"Well, you see, you're a boy, with, uh, horns, and there's this girl, and ... "
How would you describe Ico? I sure as hell don't know how to describe it. But blame it on the social awkwardness of being surrounded by upper-middle-class white people, or on having to be the fifth wheel - for whatever reason, I found myself jokingly interjecting:
"Actually, it's an allegory of race relations in the United States - the white woman is using the brown man to keep the black man down."
Blank stares all around. I tried again.
"With a stick."
Homeboy turned to me with that you-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut- butter look.
"So! How about that Phoenix Wright? Did I mention you get to yell 'Objection'?"
With each new generation of consoles, videogames have grown up a little bit more, gradually coming into their own as a medium of expression. While videogames tackling serious themes and subject matter is nothing new - see Missile Command and its depressing outlook on World War III, for example - videogames are rapidly becoming more and more accurate facsimiles of the real world. And with these increasingly realistic game worlds, we will be bringing in, consciously or unconsciously, more and more of our very real-world problems. Race is on the tip of our tongues these days, whether we're watching Chappelle's Show or Crash. But pick up that PS2 controller and no one dares drops the R-word. What's going on?
We are, by and large, concerned with the propagation of racial stereotypes in any form of mass media; we want to be depicted as people, not shallow, refined characterizations, and yet most of us barely notice that most black videogame characters are boxers or basketball players. Asians show up as ninjas and kung fu masters and, sadly, you probably won't find a whole lot of Chicano-Latino individuals outside of Border Patrol.
This is a larger issue than simply that of window dressing. While Street Fighter II's Balrog will have the same standing Fierce Punch regardless of whether he's white, black, brown or yellow, the images we take in through different channels of mass media all affect the way we understand race. If all boxers are black and all Asians know kung fu in our fighting games, we will come to strongly associate boxing with blackness and kung fu with yellow. Our news teaches us that black people loot and white people find, our movies teach us that Asian people in the United States simply can't speak English and, by and large, our games are teaching us that heroes are invariably white. As videogames continue to grow as a medium, it becomes less and less absurd that they might be dictating, as well as reflecting, our racial common sense.