Toldain Talks

Because reading me sure beats working!


Toldain started as an Everquest character. I've played him in EQ2, WoW, Vanguard, LOTRO, and Zork Online. And then EVE Online, where I'm 3 million years old, rather than my usual 3000. Currently I'm mostly playing DDO. But I still have fabulous red hair. In RL, I am a software developer who has worked on networked games, but not MMORPGS.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Blacks in MMO's

Prime, in honor of Black History Month, gives a rundown of black characters in video games and highlights how he thinks the gaming industry can do better.

Now, as a black gamer, I don’t want to single myself out in saying that creative black characters should entirely cater to representing me in whatever fashion. Nor do I exclusively desire to experience the personage of the black-American. What’s even more imperative is the element of portrayal, seen through the eyes and respective thought processes of all gamers. This unfortunately, is most commonly based on worldwide mainstream media and/or simple unfamiliarity. It’s no secret that the game industry–in the Western hemisphere–is mostly populated by white males, be they designers, artists, programmers, public relations executives, etc. Fairly and honestly, those in creative positions will more than not, imagine and implement characters in their likeness. The same can be said in the Eastern world of development, though what they are more successful at in doing is designing the white male character, and they do it often.

Ok, one point. Being a software developer and sometime gamedev, I think I can safely assert that we are generally very careful to make characters that aren't like us, because the general public would find that pretty boring. We want characters that are stronger, faster, better looking, braver and sexier than us. (I'm speaking in general here, most gamedevs don't have my fabulous sexy red hair.)

But one is always on safer ground making characters based on familiar people. It's the old "write what you know" thing. Otherwise you end up making caricatures. (Image from Prime.)

But there are lots of black people in America on the street and in the movies. So maybe folks could look around a bit more. Consider Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies. Prime mentions Will Smith in I am Legend. Queen Latifah is one of my favorites for black women, in Chicago and Taxi, they both used stereotypes and went beyond them. Any part that Samuel L. Jackson plays is both authentically black and way off the "black rails".

Lets look at EQ2. Skin tone can be chosen for many of the races, so you can play a black human or dwarf. The only black that elves seem to come in is the blue-black of a Tier'dal. I can't specifically recall if you can be a black barbarian (it doesn't seem very nordic, does it?) or a black gnome. Hmm, the gnome thing should be fixed, because gnomishness is really a state of mind now, isn't it?

There aren't any black hobbits. There weren't any in Tolkien either. Genetically speaking, there's no real reason for there not to be, but you'd have to find hobbits that had lived in a very warm climate for a long period of time. Erudite, at least in EQ1, were ALL black. There was this whole city of them, devoted to intellectual and scholarly pursuits. Not bad. Though Erudite culture is kind of weakly portrayed in the game as it stands today. If you never go into their ghettovillage, you might not know they exist. As opposed to Frogloks. Gnomes apparently suck up all the geek cred, leaving little room for the Erudite, who seem paler than they were in EQ1.

When I stop to think about memorable NPC's in-game, I realized that beyond Lucan D'Lere and Antonia Bayle, the most memorable NPC's are dragons. The whole black/white thing works in a very different way with dragons. Most of the other memorable NPC's are the evil boss of some dungeon. Varsoon, for example, or Mayong Mistmoore, I remember them, but mostly I remember that they wanted to kill me. I'm afraid I can't remember what species they were beyond humanoid. Varsoon is a lich, was he human once? Probably.

The other kind of NPC is the quest giver. None of them spring to mind as being black, but that could just be my memory. I find it actually kind of odd how I can not notice certain that certain people are black. The other day I bought some books at Borders, and got most of the way through the transaction when I realized the man checking me out was, in fact, black. He was a "Bill Cosby" kind of black man, though not as funny. By that I mean he wasn't shaved or threatening. He was middle-aged, and wore glasses. Really, just an ordinary American. AND he was black. The not-noticing thing bothers middle-class blacks, it makes them feel invisible. So I'm making an effort to notice.

Have you noticed any black quest-givers in game?

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Anonymous Karaya said...

This is a thing that's always bothered me about EQ2's character models. You can choose from a broad spectrum of skin color, but the bone structure of the face is definitely tilted strongly towards white european. So you can make a toon with dark skin, but when you get up close and see the features, it just looked like a white guy whose been painted black.

Now I'm sure if you mess with the individual features enough, you could get something close to a more authentic african facial structure. But that would be the extreme for some of the features. If you just keep hitting "randomize all", you're just gonna keep getting "white" folks with all different skin colors.

What I'd like to see is something along the lines of the Asian-featured Mara NPCs. If a player makes a human or half-elf toon, allow the player to choose from, say, 3 basic facial structures - african, asian, or european. Then they can mess with the individual features on top of that.

What I do like, however, IS the fact that certain races in the game are limited in possible skin tone. Different races have different features, in EQ and in the real world, and skin color is one of those features. Fantasy races just have more exagerrated differences, so we sometimes forget that all the non-animal demihuman *races* are variations on one *species*, evidenced by the fact that they can interbreed (half-elves). So of course the different races are going to have their own ranges of skin tones.

Now, given that high-fantasy is generally based on european culture and mythology, all the various races tend to be some exagerrated variation on white folks. Which is why I was very happy, when I started playing EQ, to see that a race had been included that was specifically modeled after black folks - erudites.

IMHO, I think at this point, we have way too many non-human-based player races in EQ2 (frog, lizard, dragon, cat, rat, troll). AND we have TWO faerie races!? I think it's high time we went back and looked at the old-school demihumans and made an effort to represent more real-world races. Make it possible to play an asian person, not just a squinting white person!

10:13 AM  
Anonymous Psychochild said...

If you make a black NPC then draw a attention to it, this can more appalling as not having any black characters at all. It's also complicated by the fact that many NPCs in MMOs aren't really fully-realized characters, but rather vending machines for quests or items or they are walking bags of xp and loot. The color of their skin really doesn't make a difference in terms of gameplay. But, if you ignore skin color and everyone's white, that can get you slapped with the "racist" label.

To further complicate this, you have to worry about how others perceive your work. The Resident Evil 5 thing you mention in another post is a good example: people are assuming the worst (and partially giving the company a free pass) because the company making the game is Japanese. The Japanese have a reputation for being quite culturally homogeneous and therefore culturally insensitive; of course, that view itself could be seen as being more than a little racist since it doesn't apply to every Japanese person.

But, the point remains: would we be having the same discussion if the developers were primarily of African descent? And, are people bringing a lot more cultural baggage to the discussion since it is black characters in the spotlight, and the people discussing the issue are primarily from the United States? People point out that there wasn't a similar outcry when the setting was a rural Spanish village.

It's also really interesting about LotRO, because Tolkien had some racist elements to the story. The Southrons were very clearly described as being darker-skinned than the other characters. Having darker-skinned human player characters goes against that aspect of the book.

Ultimately, I think the goal would be to be able to have a variety of races in the game, but the race of the NPCs (or PCs) isn't an issue. The same as talking to a male or female NPC shouldn't make that much of a difference.

4:38 PM  

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