Diversity in video games is one of the most hot-button issues in the gaming community. It’s certainly not an easy task: making your games inclusive is complicated and fraught with theoretical difficulties, and even well-meaning video game companies are bound to make some profound screw-ups. Or, more often, these same companies are tone-deaf to the community they want to represent and their portrayals come off as more insensitive and stereotypical than anything else. This can happen when certain races, nationalities, sexual orientations, etc., are included but in stereotyped, offensive, exaggerated, or outright ignorant ways.
One of the most common complaints is that minorities and people of color are objectified, stereotyped, or erased in video games. Despite the fact that gamers come from all walks of life, under-representation is still a serious problem. This is such an obvious issue you have major software corporations like Nintendo, Ubisoft, and BioWare developing games to try and break this trend with Arms, Pokémon Sun and Moon, Far Cry 4, and Mass Effect, respectively. Breath of the Wild was a breath of fresh air when it comes to diversity since it’s no secret that The Legend of Zelda has been lacking in dark-skinned humanoid characters. Yet for every groundbreaking inclusion of proper characters that happen to be people of color, different nationalities, different religions, LGBT individuals and so on, there are just as many attempts that end up further alienating the community they were aimed at representing, either through malice or (more often) just sheer ignorance.
Here are 15 video games that tried to be inclusive, but ended up just being racist or offensive.
15. Include Native Characters, But Depict Apaches As Savages?
Activision’s action-adventure Gun was well-received by critics and audiences at the time of its release. The game, which played like a Wild West version of Grand Theft Auto, won numerous awards, including Game of the Year titles from several publications. But not everyone was pleased with the violent shoot-em-up.
Gun‘s depiction of Apaches as shrieking, tomahawk-wielding savages lead to the game being boycotted by the Association for American Indian Development. Having a half-Apache protagonist in the form of Colton “Cole” White didn’t make up for the game’s unflattering and stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans. Though later Cole sides with them after learning of his ancestry, the player also has no choice but to gun them down by the dozens in the opening chapters. Gun‘s legacy remains controversial, and it’s not certain if a sequel will ever materialize.
14. Stereotypes Abound, Even In Space
On the surface, BioWare’s beloved and acclaimed Mass Effect science fiction series seems pretty inclusive not only to human races but alien ones as well. But in creating some of the characters and species for the games, the writers of Mass Effect have been accused of using offensive racial stereotypes to create some of the different alien species.
For starters, the backstory of the Quarians parallels stereotypes of Roma people, often called “gypsies,” in that they constantly travel from one system to another, never staying in one place, and are treated as thieves and second-class citizens because of it. Another, the Volus, are money-changers and traders with nasally voices who seem based on stereotypes of Jewish people as bankers and crooked merchants. Then there’s Jacob Taylor, the only possible black romance option in Mass Effect… who cheats on you with another woman and gets her pregnant. Oh.
13. These Just Seem A Little Controversial
If there’s one game that dominated discourse in 2016, it’s Overwatch. The media darling of competitive multiplayer first-person shooters, it took the gaming world by storm and not a little bit of controversy to go along with the massive critical and fan acclaim.While Tracer’s victory pose soaked up most of the media attention, there was also the issue of alternate skins for some characters.
For one example, Pharah’s legendary Thunderbird skin was accused of appropriating culture since Pharah is Egyptian and the skin is clearly reminiscent of Native American traditional dress and regalia, including feathers and a painted face. For another, Lucio’s legendary skin celebrating the one-year anniversary of Overwatch portrayed him as a jazz musician. On the one hand, Lucio is a Brazilian DJ, but on the other, some players questioned always portraying black men as athletes or entertainers, which nearly all of Lucio’s skins seem to be.
12. The White Man’s Burden
Resident Evil 5 raised some eyebrows right from its debut at 2007’s E3 conference, where the trailer depicted a white American protagonist killing a horde of mindless diseased zombified Africans. Reviewers immediately made comparisons between the game’s preview and Victorian perceptions of Africa as a”dark continent” with primitive, savage inhabitants. Initial reviewers also claimed the problematic themes of a lily-white square-jawed hero mowing down poor black people by the score became more pronounced as the game continued.
The second trailer for RE5 introduced a more diverse range of enemies to shoot and the South African character of Sheva Alomar, who assists Chris Redfield in his mission. Though some viewed her inclusion as suspicious, the developers insisted she wasn’t a response to the racism accusations.
11. Ignorant Natives And Christian Missionaries… What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
The second DLC for Fallout: New Vegas has the Courier journey to the valley of Zion (formerly Zion National Park) in Utah and get caught up in a conflict between three tribes: the White Legs, the Dead Horses, and the Sorrows. Zion is beautiful and Joshua “the Burned Man” Graham is a compelling and badass character. So what’s the problem? Well, looked at a certain way the DLC is based on stereotypes of Native Americans, especially in the way you interact with the tribes, who are portrayed as ignorant and superstitious. Not to mention the New Canaanites are white Christian missionaries, which echoes some rather uncomfortable history in the Americas.
While Honest Hearts doesn’t feature real tribes but rather post-apocalyptic creations, it doesn’t help that the white civilized Christians in the story have enormous control over the fate of the tribes, and tribal characters essentially do the player’s bidding.
10. Why Would Anyone Out Themselves Like This?
BioWare got accused of misrepresenting the transgender community with the character of Hainly Abrams in Mass Effect: Andromeda, which is surprising for a series that has garnered so much praise for its inclusiveness when it comes to LGBTQ+ characters and romance options. In the player’s first conversation with Abrams, she discloses not only her old name but her transgender status, very personal information that LGBTQ+ people would not do with a total stranger. It doesn’t even make sense for the character’s development since Hainly wanted a fresh start on Andromeda.
The depiction was considered so tone-deaf and insensitive that BioWare issued a formal apology for the character and changed the relevant conversations in a subsequent patch. The company even took to Twitter to admit that Abrams “was not included in a careful or thoughtful way.”
9. Panda People As A “Mystic Asia” Fantasy
Blizzard’s massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft may have achieved legendary status in the world of gaming, but that doesn’t mean it’s immune from offensive portrayals. One of the most infamous instances of this is the Panderan, a race of humanoid panda bears included on the Mists of Panderia expansion. While beloved by fans, from their over-the-top outfits and Fu Manchu mustaches to mystic martial arts and broken “Engrish,” there’s almost no Asian stereotype the Panderans don’t fulfill.
Not only that, but a new monk class and a “diligent pupil” storyline ripped straight out of a kung-fu film are part of the expansion, and their beliefs regarding nature are obvious imitations of yin-yang imagery and themes like ancestor worship. All this comes together to form a rather heavy-handed “mystic Asia” fantasy, complete with references to acupuncture and bowing as a courtesy.
8. Because People Of Color Are Too Stupid To Use Magic, Apparently
The Elder Scrolls series has produced some of the best video games of all time, particularly Morrowind, Skyrim, and Oblivion. As any fan knows, Bethesda’s open-world fantasy role-playing games take a page out of Tolkien’s book in that your character’s race has a big effect on the mechanics of gameplay and how the story unfolds (Elves are good at magic, Nords love melee, etc.). While that itself isn’t a problem, issues can arise when the stats reflect real-life stereotypes, such as the case of the Redguard race’s stats in Oblivion.
The Redguard are obviously based off the Moors in both culture and skin pigmentation, but their default stats in Oblivion include minus 10 points in intelligence, willpower, and personality while possessing a racial ability called Adrenaline Rush which boosts their athletic abilities, uncomfortably dovetailing with stereotypes about African-Americans. These troubling stats were removed from its sequel Skyrim.
7. This Is The Video Game Version Of Blackface
The 1997 North American release of Revelations: Persona is famous for the changes made to the game to make it “less Japanese” and more appealing to an American audience. Developer Atlus altered the names and appearance of several characters to this end, including the class clown and troublemaking street-dweller character Masao Inaba, who also had a penchant for graffiti and breaking into dance moves. So, what’s the problem? Well, the U.S. version makes him African-American.
Yep. Apparently deciding a more “race-appropriate” version of the character was needed and this couldn’t possibly offend anybody or reinforce negative racial stereotypes, his name was changed to “Mark” for the American release of Revelations and his dialogue was changed to cringe-worthy ebonics. Ironically, this was done to make the cast more racially diverse in possibly one of the greatest misfires in history. The change was reverted in the PSP version.
6. Just Everything About This Woman, TBH
Few critics or fans would deny that Deus Ex: Human Revolution is an excellent game, but that doesn’t mean it’s immune from being an offender when it comes to race issues. Being set in a sci-fi future, you’d think racial stereotypes wouldn’t be a problem. But you’d be disappointed upon running into Letitia the Trash Lady, an African-American woman NPC in the game who speaks with an absurdly exaggerated dialect invoking the stereotype of the Uncle Tom-era slave.
The character of Letitia was accused of being a caricature of the “mammy” archetype and deliberately invoking the stereotype of black slaves in the American South. Developer Square Enix issued a public apology denying any racist intentions, but the character comes off as either overtly racist or blitheringly insensitive at best.
5. Minstrel Face, Anyone?
Square Enix’s talents for making role-playing games like its acclaimed Final Fantasy series, coupled with Mark Twain’s renowned novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer seems like a unique and winning combination. Produced in 1989 for Family Computer, the Japanese version of the original NES system, it seemed poised to be a bold experiment in the RPG genre by basing a treasure-hunting fist-fighting adventure on a classic American novel. If only it weren’t for the fact that its black character sprites are animated like blackface or Sambo caricatures.
That’s right: the character of Jim in the game is shown with jet-black skin, huge lips, and beady eyes. So in short, the great anti-racist novel’s shrewd, wise, and polite character Jim was turned into an excuse for racist portrayals. Often cited as an example of racism in video games, Square’s Tom Sawyer was never released outside Japan.
4. Get Punched By Racial And Ethnic Stereotypes
Made famous by internet memes regarding its Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! installment, the Punch-out!! series of boxing video games made it all the way from old-style arcade machines to the NES and eventually to the Wii. Its popularity seems to be in spite of the fact that you play a white kid from the Bronx who gets punched in the face by a line of stereotypes that range from the insensitive to the outright racist.
In fact, nearly every character employs some type of stereotype about their race or nationality: there’s a Chinese guy named Dragon Chan, an Indian guy named Great Tiger, a Japanese guy named Piston Honda, an Italian guy called Pizza Pasta, a Russian named Soda Popinski (originally Vodka Drunkenski), Glass Joe (a weak, surrendering Frenchman), Von Kaiser (a violent thick-mustached German), and Don Flamenco (a dancing Spaniard), just to name a few.
3. How Not To Deal With Gender
Returning to the representation of LGBTQ+ individuals, BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition has received praise from critics and fans for its portrayal of characters that are straight and gay, and the inclusion of Cremisius Aclassi, a trans man character serving as the Iron Bull’s lieutenant. Krem’s story has been praised and influential in many ways, being characterized as one of the best of the overall lacking portrayals of LGBTQ+ people in modern video games. But it’s not without its faults.
Many gamers have criticized the questions the player character can ask Krem, some of which are quite ill-advised. They include asking why he is “passing as a man” and just outright asking, “Are you a woman?” While it’s clear BioWare’s heart was in the right place in including Krem, it seems games these days can’t be inclusive without at least one horrible misstep.
2. Let Me ‘Axe’ You A Question
This sequel to Valve’s zombie shoot-’em-up that everyone was playing circa the late 2000s had already generated controversy about its cover art, which originally depicted a mutilated hand. The ESRB forced Valve to alter the art. After release, one commentator complained about parallels between the game’s setting and Hurricane Katrina. But Left 4 Dead 2 also faced some criticism of the second foursome of survivors, who are one-dimensional and stereotypical in comparison to the characters from the first game. That goes especially for the two African-American characters Couch and Rochelle.
Some who played L4D2 regarded Rochelle as the stereotypical “sassy” black woman. Notably, she says, “Let me axe you a question” whenever the player wields an axe. While he is a lovable and fun character, Coach also has a habit of yelling out cliches and it’s easy to see how someone could take that in a poor light.
1. World Peace Through Offending Every Nation
There’s no doubt Street Fighter is one of the most iconic and beloved fighting franchises of all time. Memorable characters like Ryu and M. Bison are instantly recognizable. Street Fighter became a monster hit. But if we look past the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia two decades later, we realize the terrible truth: Street Fighter was pretty racist.
Don’t believe me? Let’s review. Dhalsim is a skinny, yoga-practicing Indian character who wears shrunken heads around his neck. E. Honda is a Japanese sumo wrestler with a bathhouse for a level. Zangief, a mean and muscle-bound Russian who fights bears. The Brazilian Blanka was a beast-man from the forest. Balrog is an angry black boxer, etc. Plus, knowledge that Chun-li, who was for a long time the game’s lone female character, was originally supposed to have a shorter health bar because a woman couldn’t possibly be as strong as the men, doesn’t help.
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