Stereotypes in Gaming: Where is the Line?
“I’m like my mother. I stereotype. It’s faster.” – Ryan Bingham, Up in the Air
A few weeks ago I was at a party, and I made a joke to non-white friend based on a certain, less than pleasant racial stereotype. They were not impressed. I did not, of course, mean it in earnest, but that’s by the way. Much as I want to believe, we don’t live in a post-racial world.
I picked up Guacamelee this week and was immediately captivated. Who wouldn’t be? It’s a beautiful looking Castlevania-ish platformer with nimble gameplay. Most importantly, it’s overflowing with charm: charming characters, bad and good, charming environments, charming music, even charming boss fights. If I were writing a review, it would probably be titled: “The Charmingly Charming World of Guacamelee.”
But what’s so charming about it?
Around the time I entered the second village, I could not stop noticing that everything — and I mean EVERYTHING — in the game is based on a Mexican stereotype. The protagonist is Juan, a luchador. His sidekick is named Tostada (Spanish for ‘tortilla’). You form a stylized calavera (“sugar skull”) as you beef up your stamina. Boxes of agave and tequila can be found everywhere. Along the way, you’ll accept such quests as helping an old woman find the ingredients for her enchilada and finding the missing member of a Mariachi band. And of course, expect Mariachi music to follow you wherever you go.
To some degree, this is expected. It’s set in a highly stylized ancient Mexico. A similar game set in, say, Victorian England would probably find a number of British stereotypes. But Guacamelee reaches a point of ridiculousness before long, you just expect everything looming villain or character to be based on some sort of racial platitude.
Do I think it’s racist? No, for the most part, Guacamelee feels like a celebration of all things awesome about Mexico. I’m sure the developers at Drinkbox suspect, like myself, that anyone who does not enjoy a good enchilada has no soul.
When does a celebration become reductive? Where is the line? Is there a line? I’m Canadian. You be hard pressed to find a cultural group more easygoing. (Well, stereotypically.) I’d probably think a Canada-themed game is hilarious. But if the main character was a mountie who said ‘Sorry!’ every time he defeated an enemy, his sidekick was a moose, the enemies were beavers and geese, the power-ups were maple syrup, Kraft Dinner, and poutine, my life bar was shaped like a maple leaf, and the villain was a lumberjack, I would wonder just what the f**k the developers knew and thought about my country.
Guacamelee is guilty of nothing new. Stereotypes have long been a part of gaming. I mean, Mario, probably the video game icon, is a blatant Italian-American stereotype. And some of it definitely borders on insensitive. Have you heard the goofy faux-Italian in Mario & Luigi RPG series? What about the live segments of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, where the bros. got calls on their pizza-phone? Ever wonder why the stock enemies are called ‘goombas’? There isn’t even a celebration of Italian culture going on here. It’s mingled in with a hallucinogenic blend of drug, medieval, and astronomical imagery, none of which decisively dominate the series.
Yet accusations of racism are few and far between. No one seems offended by it. It genuinely doesn’t feel racist, despite that it kind of is. Similarly, Guacamelee doesn’t seem to have offended any Mexican or Hispanics. I guess what I’m wondering is whether or not it’s become O.K. to use stereotypes in gaming. If so, why? Other genres don’t get away with it, at least not to the degree video games do. Look at the reaction to the “niggabots” in Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, or retrospective general assessment of Crash as a mess of simplistic stereotypes or lame-brained attempts to undercut obvious stereotypes. The controversial fires are already sparked on Johnny Depp’s upcoming portrayal of Tonto in this summer’s The Lone Ranger.
It’s not even that games aren’t ever accused of racism Look at the tempest surrounding Resident Evil 5. When the trailer’s were first released showing white protagonist Chris Redfield mowing down waves of black zombies, people were shocked. And I can certainly see why. Seeing a heavily armed white man lay waste to waves of Africans smacks of classic racist imagery. When you get down to it, though, it’s a Resident Evil game. Mowing down hordes of zombies is kind of the point. In the earlier, American/European set entries, the protagonist took on primarily white zombies. And 5 was set in Africa. If there was a zombie outbreak in Africa — North Africa, at least — the zombies would be predominantly black. Neither Sheva nor Josh, the game’s two most prominent African characters, felt like stereotypes.
Another series that excites controversy with each release is Grand Theft Auto. GTA indeed seems to create controversy in its every aspect: the violence, sex, combination of sex and violence, language, music, and, yes, racial and cultural insensitivity. (Remember the controversy surrounding Little Haiti in Vice City?) It’s a series that makes heavy and, yes, undeniably insensitive use of cultural and racial stereotypes. Some of the Grove Street Family members are boilerplate gangsters, and Niko and his cohorts are ridiculous Eastern-European/Irish/gay caricatures.
But unlike Mario or Guacamelee, there is an overriding sense of satire. CJ and his friends are conflagrations of the characters established by movies like Boyz N the Hood and rappers like N.W.A. Gay Tony as an absurd flamer is a send-up of the hopefully outmoded idea many held of typical gay men. Ken Rosenberg is the typical Jewish gangster lawyer, sending up characters like Hyman Roth in The Godfather: Part II and, especially, David Kleinfeld in Carlito’s Way. If stereotypes are reductions of a culture, the characters of GTA are ridiculous exaggerations of the reductions.
If this article seems like its rambling on its way to point, I apologize. It doesn’t really have one. It sprung from thoughts I had while playing an excellently designed video game, guilty of nothing that has not been perpetrated by dozens and dozens before it. But is it alright to do so just because the precedent has been set?
I guess my ‘point’ is there in the title: when and why is it O.K. to use stereotypes in games? Stereotypes seem to me one of the most harmful types of casual racism. They are not overt like a slur, but they are wrapped in a blanket of fun and goofiness that makes it ‘alright.’ And it’s the type of thoughts that, unfortunately, can be infective. A person might think something like, “All Mexicans like burritos.” A stupid but harmless statement, but it could still lay a foundation of racial or cultural essentialism — a fundamental belief that there are any qualities that apply to “All Mexicans.”