Sure, there’s the occasional obvious racism, like your classic stereotypes — Barret Wallace in Final Fantasy VII is the only black character, and of course he uses heavy weapons, speaks in broken English and is vaguely homoerotic. City of Heroes has a similar problem, with the only in-story black character being the “Back Alley Brawler.” Even the Mass Effect franchise, which is usually considered smarter and more progressive than most other games, has only one possible black romance option — and if you pursue it, he cheats on you and gets another woman pregnant. Also, he’s in charge of weapons on your ship and his father is a criminal. Also, he constantly says “dyno-mite!” like Jimmie Walker and kills aliens by slam-dunking over them. (We only made two of those things up.) One of the oldest villains in video game history is Ganondorf, and not only is he the only non-white character in the first few thousand iterations of the Zelda series, but he’s also a member of the “thieving Gerudo race,” which, like the Redguard, are obviously based off an existing people: Gypsies.
In Warcraft II, the “Trolls” are a species of idiotic subhuman warriors, so, naturally, they speak with an obvious Caribbean accent and make blatant references to living in Jamaica.
We’re not even going to get into World of Warcraft’s race of Pygmies, who actually speak by repeatedly hollering “boogada boogada.” You guys know Pygmies are a real people, right? We know they’re amusingly short to us white devils, but we didn’t see any “You must be at least this tall to be racially offended” sign at the entrance to the arcade.
But hey, like we said, that’s all pretty superficial stuff: Some racism in modern video games is so ingrained as to actually be fundamental to the gameplay.
So What’s the Deal?
Way back in 1974, Dungeons and Dragons took a cue from Tolkien and set a fantasy standard in gaming that lasts to this day: The race of your character influences gameplay in a meaningful way. Elves are good at bows and magic, dwarfs are heartier and use axes, and humans are for players who are unimaginably boring or painfully indecisive. Now, more “realistic” fantasy games like the Elder Scrolls series allow your characters to choose real-world races — but still base their in-game stats around race. For example, the Redguard share skin pigmentation and cultural signifiers with the Moors, and share their stats with “black people,” as in the walking stereotype we’re trained to expect from watching cop dramas and episodes of Maury. In Skyrim, Redguards have an Adrenaline Rush perk that augments their athletic abilities, while in Oblivion, Redguards took a massive penalty to intelligence (effectively meaning that in the Elder Scrolls universe, black people were too stupid to use magic — that world’s analogue of technology). The only other playable race with a comparable intelligence penalty was the Orcs, which the game commonly referred to as “Beast Men.”
This isn’t the stuff of yesteryear; it’s all still present in video game design. Despite the fact that African-Americans and Latinos play more video games than any other race, they’re still getting treated as second-class citizens in the properties themselves. That’s right: Even in an interactive medium completely free from the boundaries of reality, we’re still slapping up “no coloreds” signs on all the Fairy Fountains.