I touched upon this issue in my review of Dead Space 2 but I think this topic is worth expanding into an entire post. I’m talking about the astonishing lack of variety when it comes to video game protagonists. It saddens me that in the year 2012, when you are playing a game, your virtual avatar is almost invariably a 30 something, straight, white male with brown hair, a deep gravely voice, chiseled athletic body with a military background and a standard issue 5 o’clock shadow. Oh, wait sorry – sometimes you might get lucky and play a straight, white female with a supermodel figure and enormous breasts who wears a chain-mail bikini or a miniskirt. But most probably there is a dude option in there somewhere.
What does it say about our hobby? What does it say about the target demographic the video game makers try to cater to when they design these character models? Please don’t tell me this is a legacy thing, stemming from the fact that gaming used to be dominated by 12 year old, white, nerdy boys or something. This brown haired macho-dude-bro archetype is actually a recent development. If you look at the older video games, you will see all kinds of different characters: Mario was a short, hairy and overweight Italian plumber, Link is an effeminate elf boy, Gybrush Threpwood is a skinny blond haired dofus who is not very good at fighting, Earthworm Jim is an… Earthworm. Granted, most of them were still male, and white but at least there used to be some variety. The way a character looked was dictated by his personality and his role in the game. As the medium developed towards hyper-realism the brown haired, muscular white dude sort of became a de facto standard.
Let me use Isaac from Dead Space games as an example here. I believe that in the first game he was sort of a Master Chief type character who never removed his helmet. Visceral Games decided to flesh him out a bit in Dead Space 2 and give him a face and an identity. And of course they chose to make him a 30 something white male with brown hair. Why? Because it is the standard. Couldn’t he be a brown skinned guy in his late 40’s for example? I mean, he is an engineer and his combat style puts tactics and smart weapon use over brute force. He has a full body suit that helps him lift things or move around in zero-G. I get why a special-forces commando guy may need to be certain age and body type, but an engineer?
For one, I would love to see a modern game featuring a protagonist with a non-standard body type and play it straight. For example, why can’t you find a game with a main character that looks like this:
I made my Saints Row the Third to be a fat, balding dude with a neck-beard who likes to wear shorts, sandals and obnoxious shades all the time. Why? Because I could. And you know what? He is pretty bad-ass. It’s a pity that you only get to play someone like that in a game with a flexible character designer that will also let you play as a circus clown, or a dude that looks like silver surfer.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Saints Row is great because of the options it gives you. It just saddens me that it is currently the only game on the market who lets you play as a fat black chick:
How many video games are out there in which the default, canonical protagonist looks like Carl from Aqua Teen Hunger Force? Ok, maybe this is a bad example. Maybe I’m the only person out there who would like to play as a fat slob from time to time. Let’s pick an easier target.
How many recent, mainstream video games can you name in which the main, default, canonical protagonist is not white but at the same time not a walking stereotype? By that I mean a black character who is not a gangbanger, an Asian character who doesn’t do Kung-Fu and etc… Can you name at least one game? Because I’m grasping at straws here.
The chick from Mirror’s Edge was Asian, and she did parkour and not traditional Asian martial arts… So not terribly stereotypical with respect to ethnicity. The game doesn’t even mention her race at all, or make a big deal out of it – which is a good thing in my opinion. Another nice thing about her is that she isn’t a sex object. She does not wear revealing clothes, she does not have a sexy taunt move, or some sort of overblown romance. The story does not hinge on the fact she is a female. She just happens to be an Asian girl, but that’s not all her character is about. To me this is great – this is how it should be. It is just a pity she was such a bland and uninteresting character, and that the game was so lousy.
Can you think of any other games that take this approach? That pick a non-standard type of protagonist without making a big deal out of it? Without making it the core concept of the game? I’m drawing a blank. I think this is about it. One game, and a bland and uninspiring one at that. Sexy Asian chick is the best we can do?
Ok, yes there are at least two big mainstream titles out there with prominent black protagonists: GTA: San Andreas and that 50 Cent game. Sadly both depict their characters as violent, gun-toting gangbangers exploiting some of the worst stereotypes we have. I mean, it is 2012 so one would think that there would be at least few games out there with a black hero who is not involved in some sort of criminal and/or gang activity or who does not glamorize such activities. But I can’t think of any. And no, Skyrim doesn’t count because while you may play as a Redguard, it is not a default choice but merely an option.
Same goes for openly gay characters. There is a handful of games that let you be gay as an option. Skyrim and Fable games for example let you marry non essential NPC’s of the same sex if you wish to do so. Dragon Age and Mass Effect games offer optional same sex romance options. I think it is great that these options exist. It is sad that they are so far and few in between though. But have we had a protagonist that just happens to be gay by default? Nope, I don’t think so.
The gaming community is large and rather diverse. There are gamers out there from all ethnic groups and all walks of life. The love of gaming transcends things like the color of your skin, your nationality, your body type or your sexual orientation. And yet, our choices for virtual avatars are painfully limited. This doesn’t happen in different media. Hollywood for example doesn’t seem to have issues releasing mainstream movies with protagonists who are physically attractive, young, white and straight. If we want our medium to be treated seriously as a genuine form of creative expression, this lack of variety is something we should work on.