Me, Myself, and Harell

My cousins really love Skyrim. Generally, they love games where they have the freedom to create and shape the characters that will eventually represent them in gameplay. They are also darker than I am, their heritage from Afro-influenced parts of Puerto Rico (which is practically the whole island, if I’m speaking honestly).

They sit cross-legged in front of our older cousin’s television, their coarser hair bobbing as they giggle in anticipation for a new game. When they start creating, however, they go straight for the lighter skin tones. The make noses thin and eyes blue and I have to tell them “they don’t look like you.”

Their response? “They’re prettier.” “They have better stats.” “Their skin doesn’t look weird like the black ones.”

I presented this dilemma to Dr. Harell before his lecture in class. Having attended his lecture the night before, these events and these questions were already stirring in my mind. I asked why this happens, and looking back I realized how big of a question it was, but Harell answered which much finesse and care for an already distressed student.

Dr. Harell echoed his commentary on phantasms to me, how the people who code also code in real life problems into games that should be unproblematic in concept (characters are genderless, we don’t code in genitals and sex, it’s just a game). But with any source of media comes commentary of representation. With commentary comes challenges for games to strive for more aesthetically pleasing characters. But the characters who get left behind in this pursuit? You guessed it; the attempt to create diverse characters has come with issues of stereotyping and coding in particular features of minorities.

Let’s look at this set of elves from Skyrim with different skin tones.

Which one do you gravitate towards? Which one looks “good” or “nice?” Which one looks evil?

This echoes, again, what Dr. Harell was saying in talking about the Clark’s doll experiment. What happens when we give people of all ethnicities a choice to recreate themselves? What would they choose? And how is their decision telling of a larger issue?

This reminds me of when I use to play Runescape. If you don’t know Runescape, it is an old MMORPG that was one of the forerunners of online multiplayer games. Like most MMOs, you are able to create a character by changing skin tone, hair, clothes, and gender. The last time I played was when I was twelve, about seven years ago. And like with any technology, things change rapidly.

This is back on ’07.

And this is how it looks now:

“DESIGN YOUR HERO” in ’15. I haven’t been on Runescape for a longtime and this caught me off-guard.

But I digress, because we’re not talking about how Runescape made the graphics superbly better, we’re talking about a twelve year old Puerto Rican girl with unruly hair and tan skin creating pale white avatars with straight red hair victimizing herself in-game so other players can notice her. We’re talking about the insecurities forced onto minorities so that’s all they notice. We’re talking about how black and brown characters don’t look as good in the code as their white counterparts.

We’re talking about how you have a whole generation of black and brown children living in this age of technology seeing things like this,

Cole from Gears of War
Sazh Katzroy from Final Fantasy XIII
Barrett Wallace from Final Fantasy VII

caricatures of black and brown people in games, compared to this,

Gordon Freeman from Half-Life
Commander Shepard in Mass Effect series.
Edward Kenway from Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag

actually developed characters. Not caricatures, characters.

Who are we, then, conditioned to take more seriously?

4 thoughts on “Me, Myself, and Harell

  1. This is an awesome post! I noticed something with the pictures you chose here at the end and the last line. You ask us who we’re to take more seriously. Quite frankly, Cole is a pretty serious character. But my question is in what way? I would argue that Cole is a substantially developed character, but he is stereotypically created. I think your post hints at, but doesn’t directly ask a very important question; Why are characters like Cole serving a stereotype whereas Commander Shephard walks free? Why do coders feel a need to perpetuate societies stereotypes?

    1. Hey! Sorry it took so long to reply. Yes, Cole is a serious character, but not in the way he looks. You have to play the game to find that out, and for impressionable kids image is huge. I guess my focus is on the stereotypically made characters and not their actual character development, which we both agree on here. Thank you for letting me clarify that!

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