Colorblind Character Design in Videogames

Posted by on Oct 18, 2010 in Articles | 5 Comments


Non-white characters are a shameful rarity in videogames and when they are present (aliens and monsters don’t count) they’re often so ambiguously raced as to be completely indeterminate. I was reminded of this a year back while playing Resident Evil 5 cooperatively with a friend over Xbox Live. About a third of the way into the game I made a comment about how Sheva Alomar, the black female character, was perhaps designed to allay concerns over racism that erupted after the initial blitz of promotional footage. My friend responded, “Sheva is black?”

While I was surprised by my friend’s misrecognition of Sheva, the more I thought about Sheva the more I began to see the ambiguity. Her accent is a blend of American, British, and South African. Her features are what might be considered traditionally white especially in the facial logic of videogames. Most importantly her skin is that familiar shade of light brown used by many game developers, as well as in Hollywood film and animation, to signify a safe and “attractive” blackness/brownness which recalls the disturbing racist denigration of dark skin tones which are so pervasive they’re even present within racial groups.

Since that conversation I began to notice that Sheva’s ambiguity is not an isolated case but rather a strategy commonly used in videogames. For example, consider the following characters:

Alyx Vance (Half-Life 2)

Jade (Beyond Good and Evil)

Commander Shepard (Mass Effect)

There are exceptions, of course. For instance, Border House recently explained how Bioshock 2‘s Grace Holloway was a rare instance of mature black womanhood being done right. And in RPGs like Mass Effect characters are extraordinarily editable and allow players to approximate whatever physicality they desire. However, Commander Shepard still adheres to ambiguity in official promotional materials and is the suggested template when the player is prompted with creating a character. While players may or may not use the suggested option, any changes are understood as deviating from the standard Command Shepard, both literally and figuratively.

So what might be the motivation, from the standpoints of the developer and publisher, to create ambiguously raced characters? In some cases the character might fit the logics of the world they are trying to construct or the mixed heritage of the character. For instance, Half-Life 2‘s Alyx Vance is both Asian American and African American. I think Alyx is an example of a wonderful character whose ambiguity is productive and not gratuitous, especially given the fact that her father, Eli Vance, is one of the few excellent older black men in games. Alternatively, benevolent developers could be trying to create characters that represent a large variety of people. So before I proceed, let me be clear: in some cases I think ambiguous characters make sense and are productive.

Eli Vance (Half-Life 2)

But what does concern me about the trend toward the racial ambiguity in games is the possibility that ambiguity is adopted as a way to effectively occlude large swaths of difference from videogames in favor of forms of representation more palatable to a presumed white user base. To put it another way, I fear that race is being censored to the point of disappearance, whether done with positive intentions or not. The result is a gaming landscape dominated by whiteness.

Chris Kohler explored this issue in a slightly different way on Wired back in 2007 when he expressed confusion over what race Jade from Beyond Good and Evil was. He couldn’t tell if she was meant to be Asian, Black, White, Latina, Arab, or otherwise. He concluded that she seems to be none of the above and all of the above and that this indeterminacy is precisely what the developers were going for. She’s a racial everywoman able to appeal to any market. Instead of creating characters of varying races and ethnicities developers create a character like Jade who stands in for all non-white difference.


What’s most interesting to me about the article is the comments section. Wired readers represent the standard responses to discussions of race in videogames that many readers of this post will be all too familiar with. Allow me to paraphrase these arguments.

1. It doesn’t matter what race Jade is because she’s an alien

2. Jade isn’t a race because she’s a videogame character.

3. Trying to attribute a race to Jade is racist because race is a myth.

The common thread between the above comments is an ultimately reductive post-racial colorblindness that seeks to solve the problem of race by getting rid of reference to race all together: “We’re all equal so stop talking about race already.” The problem with this, as Nick Lalone most recently pointed out in his gloss of Lisa Nakamura’s Digitizing Race (and other texts), is that “blindness to color doesn’t work because there are cultural differences between races/ethnicities in society.” It’s incredibly convenient for people already well off—or free of the burdens of racial discrimination and damaging socio-historical circumstances—to want to dismiss race because it saves them from having to acknowledge and deal with the divisions, discriminations, and racisms that continue to oppress. Colorblindness effectively closes the case on racial inequalities mid-session preserving hegemonic power structures that privilege whiteness. Business continues as usual, but underneath a rhetoric of equity.

Anti-racist activists who battle against this colorblind silencing of racial inequality find themselves caught in a bind: we want to destroy racism and end racialogical thinking but race continues to affect and define people’s lives; as a result, we must maintain race in order to describe and diagnose oppressions. And perhaps the most difficult concept for those less experienced with critical race theory to grasp is that race is a manufactured and segregating force but its also a useful cache of culture and history.

In an adept game of trickery, colorblind ideologues that choose to ignore existing inequalities, for whatever motivation, place the guilt on progressives for calling attention to the problems caused by race because to do so requires an attentiveness to race itself. From the perspective of the colorblind, racism now is found in the identification of race even if the attentiveness to race is pointing out an injustice.

Racial Alchemy and White Hegemony

Videogames predominantly function as colorblind media and the trend toward complex character creation systems or racial ambiguity in character design are effects of this colorblindness. So while videogame audiences are increasingly diverse (e.g. African Americans spend more money on games than whites) they adhere to a colorblind marketing strategy that appeases the desires of 18-35 white males. The result are gaming experiences that offer two equally less than desirable choices: on the one hand, characters fulfill stereotypical notions of racial others or, on the other hand, in what’s coded as a “progressive” move, difference is an amalgamation of otherness that divorces itself from the pressing racial politics of the every day in favor of an ideal post-raciality that doesn’t exist. Videogames and their ambiguously raced characters present the best case scenario for whiteness. Gamespace becomes a past/present/future free of troubling politics and division where the violences of difference are solved and the only racial others are beautiful white people with almond tans.

And don’t get me wrong: there’s a place for this kind of fantasy because, in some cases, it is motivated by a progressive desire to see to the end of race. But when ambiguity is the sole option, post-raciality is transported from the realm of dream to myth. Ambiguity, as a mythic construction, thus occludes substantive engagement with the very real differences that manifest themselves in daily life which, rather than being ignored, need to be described, understood, and worked through.

Evelynn Hammonds (2000) has written about this vision of a racial future, where race disappears in a mixing of genetics that levels current racial categories. In her study of a speculative fantasy of future-race conducted by Time in 1993, Hammonds diagnoses how our mythic post-racial futures often are strictly controlled and manipulated in the interests of dominant powers. In her example, Time used computer morphing technology to create “The New Face of America” by mixing together the photographed faces of individuals of different races. Hammonds points out that to even embark on this peculiar alchemy is to assume that “the existence of primary races is as obvious as the existence of primary colors in the Crayola crayon palette” (315). Compounding this clear adherence to racialized thinking, the “cyergeneticist” in charge of creating the composite face has not organically or naturally generated “The New Face of America” but manufactured it. Hammonds expresses this point eloquently: “With the Time cover we wind up not with a true composite, but a preferred or filtered composite of mixed figures with no discussion of the assumptions or implications underlying the choices” (312).

My interpretation of ambiguously raced characters in videogames is similar. What troubles me is how these racial amalgamations, similar to the “morphies” Hammonds studies, are created with a set of investments driven by market research and sales numbers, and in productive contexts that are significantly lacking in diversity. The premise of amalgamation is that all races mix into one, but built within that premise is an uncritical acceptance of a priori racial separation. It’s no surprise then that what we end up with in games are non-white characters that are expressed through the lens of whiteness, suppressing the beauties of real world differences to the point of indistinction. When ambiguous characters are understood as racial amalgams appealing to white desire, we see that ambiguity doesn’t solve race; in fact, it does the exact opposite. Racial ambiguity represents difference as deviations from a white norm.

The only way to stop this destructive raciology is to stop envisioning our past, present, and future, in and outside of games, as the flattening of all difference into one race and instead embrace an infinite continuum of difference.


  1. Kent
    October 20, 2010

    Hey Tanner,

    This article is interesting and perceptive; thanks for writing it.

    The post-race vs. progressive argument is increasingly dizzying. Four years ago I read all about how race didn’t exist. So I wrote a paper on the junction between body and self where I posited that race was a social construction, yes, but we couldn’t get rid of it because social constructions are still relevant to actual experiences. These days I feel like even that argument is dangerous because, as you say in this article, it is often used to brush away any significant discussion of race by denying its “real” existence.

    Playing the “who’s racist?” game can be exhausting. I sometimes feel like we get so caught up in righteous finger-pointing that it’s impossible to have any real discussion that doesn’t amount to “this is racist” or “this isn’t racist.” I have a hard time even imagining what a discussion of race that doesn’t boil down to this would even look like. Maybe anything I even THINK about race is so clouded in caveat that I can’t get to any productive places.

    The answer isn’t to stop talking about it, but I don’t know what the answer is.

  2. Tanner
    October 20, 2010

    I share a lot of these frustrations and concerns. While I think it’s important to identify racism when it’s seen, I find that exploring solutions to race tend to be more fulfilling and productive. That’s why this article isn’t about calling out certain games or developers as racist, because those claims are hard to make and often shut down dialogue. What I try to do, as evidenced by this article, is to consider ways of working with race to get beyond it—as bizarre as that might sound.

    The answer I have been working with is derived from Deleuze’s notion of difference in itself. Instead of categorizing and demarcating groups of people based on similarities, if we focus on differences and proliferate differences, racial categories and racism no longer can take hold. That’s what troubles me about colorblind game design—it, under the guise of being a large tent, selectively edits differences so that many people cannot see themselves in games. My goal for games is not so much about having Filipino characters or a Jamaican characters (although both would be welcome alternatives to bald, white space marines!) as it is about not reducing all difference to white,
    brownish, and nothing else.

  3. Emmy
    November 24, 2010

    Speaking of ambiguous brown, I was surprised that several people thought Janet from Date Warp might be black. (She’s Indian – it *is* made explicit at one point, iirc, along with the clear last name) I guess some people are used to seeing dark-but-not-too-dark characters, especially female ones, in that way…

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