Race and Video Game Avatars

I recently received an e-mail from a OS.CB reader regarding choosing a human character of a different race to play in a video game. The letter is as follows:

I’ve been struggling with coming up with an answer for this question, so I thought I would ask for your opinion on the matter.

As I was playing World of Warcraft, I decided that I would like to make an Alliance character. Sifting through the options, I chose to play a human mage. Being human, you can choose from a variety of skin colors. This is where the anxiety began for me; I really liked the look of having a black female mage. I had zero intentions of stereotyping her in any way; I just liked how she looked.

It comes down to this: as a white woman, I was too afraid to create a black character. I was afraid that I would be called racist, or accidentally offend people. My question is this: Can I, as a white woman, play a black female character, or is that too offensive?

I have done the same in Oblivion; I shy away from creating Redguard characters because I feel I don’t have the right to play as a black character.

I just wanted to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Video games often give us a way to explore different aspects of ourselves. When we’re given a choice over character development, oftentimes we will choose avatars that are in some way different from our “mundane” personalities. I have, in the past, criticized men who play as women, but I think that the important deciding factor in whether or not having a woman avatar is sexist lies in how the female persona is treated, not in the gender of the player. I think it’s important to ask questions such as: Has she been picked because she’s a hot piece of ass? Exotic in a way that a male couldn’t be to the player? Roleplaying wise, has she been picked to play The Girl, or is she a well rounded character who happens to be female?

My first thought on the matter of race would be to treat it as much the same thing: choosing a human character of another race is not inherently wrong, but it can become offensive if you treat that character like The Other. But, of course, I have the same dilemma that my reader did: as a white person, I’m coming from an outsider’s perspective and so I’m not in a position to judge if, in fact, the two situations (a man playing as a woman, or a white person playing as a person of colour) are comparable in any significant way.

So, with this reader’s permission, I have decided to post the question to all of you: What do you think of a white person picking for their avatar a character of colour that’s clearly relatable to real life racial delineations and does this change when discussing a fantasy race that doesn’t have clear correlations to real life?

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9 thoughts on “Race and Video Game Avatars

  1. I don’t want to sound too dismissive, but I’m not sure it matters in a game like World of Warcraft where most playable races are grossly stereotyped: the Trolls are Jamaican voodoo’rs, complete with “Ja mon” lingo; the Tauren are aboriginies of the “we couldn’t be bothered to differentiate so we’ll just call all of them things like Wildfeather and Stonehoof and make them live in huts made of animal skins” sort. From what I’ve played of Alliance, the humans are designed to be basically American (white, no matter what colour the player chooses), the Dwarves are beer-swilling Germans/Scots, and the Night Elves … well, they’re the Night Elves.

    It also depends on which server type you’re playing on; I’d think that rping as a black character would have a lot more significance on a server dedicated to fulltime roleplaying than a normal server where roleplaying is optional and frequently absent.

    But more than that — at risk of sounding ignorant, I imagine, and if I am please do call me on it — I think the most important factor in choosing an avatar is whether you can stand to look at it for as long as you’re playing. In this woman’s case, she says she’s doing it simply because she likes the look of the character. When you’re playing a game like WoW that could easily consume three to six months of your life just playing to endgame, much less running around doing all the cool things endgame characters can do, you almost have to ensure that the character you’re playing is a toon you can stand to see for those three to six months. (Either that, or you learn to play in first-person and hope that an enemy isn’t sneaking up behind you.)

  2. Not having experience with World of Warcraft or other MMORPGs, please take my response with a grain of salt.

    I respond to seeing POC video game characters the same way I respond to seeing POC on television – I get excited when I see them in a non-stereotypical role, just being people. For me, seeing an Asian character who wasn’t in a samurai or ninja game would be great. When I saw commercials for Grey’s Anatomy, I was pleased to see Sandra Oh in a “normal” role, not as the typical foreign exchange or mousy/nerdy Asian girl.

    On the other hand – I don’t want just a white character painted yellow. I want some acknowledgment of racial identity, whether that means a little cultural background or a full-blown treatment of racism. So if I was in WoW and saw the hypothetical character, I would probably be excited … then disappointed when I realized she was just “colored” on the surface. Granted, I don’t know if you have much/any opportunity to role play in a way that would allow for treating the race issue, so I don’t want to tell this person not to make her character. Just be careful: make sure she isn’t exoticized, make sure her background is just as complex and mundane as a “normal” character’s.

    As for non-realistic fantasy races, that’s iffy. It’s true that there isn’t a real-world history behind elves like there is for black people. But the same habits of exoticizing the Other, or treating them as homogeneous, show up. (For example, D&D emphasizes the versatility of humans, but other races tend to be described as having certain common skills or temperaments. Sci-fi fiction does this kind of thing all the time.) So, again, I would say that you should do what you can to avoid an analogue of racism: don’t treat characters of the non-standard race as the Other.

  3. That makes sense and I agree with you, especially if the person in question is playing on a server dedicated to role-playing. On normal servers, pretty much everyone plays at “surface level” with regards to their toons.

    Then again, I play Horde on a player-versus-player server, so the humans (POC or just plain white) are my enemies regardless of whether they’re roleplaying. 🙂

  4. I get annoyed when men who play female characters think that doing so gives them insight into what it’s like to really Be A Woman; I think I would be similarly annoyed by a person who thought playing a non-white character gave them insight into what it was like to really be non-white. You also make a good point about appropriation, although personally I’m not particularly bothered by people making characters that they find sexually attractive; I’d be more bothered if they were role-playing them in a squicky way, but just the physical appearance aspect doesn’t usually bother me.

    But that aside, I really wish that I saw more non-white characters. I primarily play CoX, so almost all the characters are humanoid; very few of them are non-white, and most of the ones that are are stereotypical Asian schoolgirls or ninjas. I have some non-white characters, including a controller named Marie Laveau, and I find it interesting that Marie got comments on her afro almost immediately, when no one has ever commented specifically on the wild pink ‘do of my primary toon in the six months that I’ve been playing her. Obviously people aren’t used to seeing Black characters (particularly Black women?) in CoX (see: http://wickedqueen.net/blog/index.php/2006/07/02/208/).

    One reason for this may be, in addition to the largely white demographics of their playerbase, that the avatars don’t really allow for a lot of non-white options. There ARE face sliders, but that requires a fair degree of know-how to make a good-looking face, and there are so many presets that I don’t think many people use them. There are a few distinctly Asian-looking faces in the presets, but I don’t think any that look African. Furthermore, the afros (big and small, the small being so small as to be almost non-recognizable) are pretty much the only recognizable Black hair–while there are a couple of braided styles, they’re in the Princess Leia mode rather than the modern Black cultural one. As a friend has pointed out, afros aren’t really in style now anyway, so it’s almost as if using recognizably Black hair also means creating a retro toon.

  5. Though I haven’t really seen WoW, I agree with pretty much what’s been said so far. it depends on whether there are certain racial and gender scripts at play when a type of character is ccreated by the gamemakers and when the player creates and customizes a character. i think, i’d like to think, that in most cases it’d be harmless and people aren’t really thinking about it but from some of the stories i’ve heard from friends who played games like Ultima Online, I know people can choose the female characters and such and then play out their own sort of misogynistic fantasies much like how i’m sure theres a certain level of that going on in terms of race in other games. I remember one story he told me where a male player chose a female character only to dress her in rags and then go around to other characters to perform a “virtual lapdance” for currency. and then again, if people aren’t really thinking about it when they choose their characters, it could play into certain racial scripts that people have on various levels of awareness.

    And though this is very embarrassing to say, I do admit that when I played Diablo I a long, long time ago, I named my Rogue archer character something very sexist and insensitive. And just as well, it’d be messed up if someone chose the, Black mage or magic guy and called him “Shaquille.”

    I remember playing different people Starcraft on battlenet and people had some of the most racist screen names that many times made fun of Blacks and Latinos. When a guy (assumably) has a name like “BigDikJAMAL” and talk incessantly about how they “have a big penis. And I love white girls” then obviously these people are just performing blackface without the literal digital character.

    So i guess as long as people are being aware at the implications choosing, naming, customizing and interacting (not using stereotypical language or speech of the race/gender of the character) as a character has…

  6. I find myself regularly (if not frequently) impersonated others — not in role-playing games, which I don’t play — but on internet message boards. And I find I don’t do it to stereotype, but to take best advantage of the stereotypes of others (mostly, white males).

    Often, I will find myself with a “simplistic” question — about an issue that I don’t know anything about, but which I know there are lots of experts out there. If I ask a simplistic question on a message board as “Richard”, I will often be ignored by experts who are all involved in their own expert-level conversations.

    Post the same simplistic question the next day as “Beth”, and suddenly there are tons of guys looking to help out a newcomer girl.

    I recognize that maybe by taking advantage of the stereotypes of others, I am maybe helping to perpetuate them. (Or not. Has evidence really been an important aspect of stereotype perpetuation?) But in any event, I get my answer.

    One can extrapolate a similar motivation for role-players, taken to a different level, with perhaps therefore a different relevant analysis.

  7. About half of my Alliance characters on WoW have the darkest skintone available to their race. However, I don’t think I play my characters as culturally black. I’ve been heartily dismayed with Warcraft because unless someone makes a darker skinned avatar, you don’t see any characters that aren’t glow-white. Maybe I’m missing some NPCs (other than the Dark Iron Dwarves, lets not nitpick) but all I see is a whitewashed land. So I got to questioning, why? Why does any fantasy genre have to be all white? I’d just got done reading LeGuin’s Earthsea (I’m a late bloomer) and I decided that there wasn’t any logical reason why I couldn’t make any character of any skintone if I made an actual person out of her?

    But I do make the distinction between skin tone in a fantasy world and real world race and culture, and I’m pretty upfront about it. It’s not my intention to create a fantasy analogue of a real world black person, I feel any attempt to do so would be putting on blackface and performing a racist minstrel show. I simply make my characters as people, and play them as people, and the rare instances the subject of race has come up (someone making a racist statement) I handle it by telling the offender they’re a moron.

    WoW isn’t the first game I’ve made non-white characters for, but it’s the most whitewashed I’ve seen so far. To be honest, I much prefer D&D Online, where I’m seeing characters and NPCs of all skintones without racist stereotypes. Maybe I just haven’t spent enough time playing yet.

  8. I think way too many people are focused on race as an issue. I just wish our society and culture could overcome the skeletons in the closet and mature.

    I think the original poster shouldn’t be afraid to use a dark skinned toon in her video game and be afraid of offending people. But obviously she must be on a role-playing server and should remember to stay away from stereotypes. She should treat her character like a believable persona and insert some of her own personality into it. If you offend someone they wont be scared to tell you in WoW and learn from it.

    For the record Guild Wars is a MMRPG with an expansion (Nightfall) that has nothing but African facial features when designing a character–I ran into a player once who was mad at this fact. I myself, being white, had mixed feelings about this, but I got over it fairly quickly. Most players still use mostly white skin tones when creating characters and I believe that just reflects the player base. I made a male character completely African in appearance, but I just play him as myself (not role playing in the traditional sense). Unfortunately his name may be offensive “Mosefus Jenkins” and regret naming him such. But now I have too much invested in him and unwilling to delete him. By the way, my first character was female and I would be offended if someone was sexist/offensive to her and would let them know it–I also treat her with respect. I have some emotional investments in my characters.

  9. One more thing–Guild Wars unfortunately does perpetuate the super model beauty stereotype in our cultue. I play it because it is a good game, but obviously morally flawed. Does that make me morally flawed?

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