I played and reviewed NBA 2K16 recently, and the issue of racism made me uncomfortable throughout the experience, although I assumed that this was intentional. In the story mode, the white characters are subversively portrayed as horrible people with black characters portrayed as cliched stereotypes, and you are a part of an African American family regardless of your chosen skin tone. I could look past that purposeful experience, but the options for customization highlighted a problem I’ve experienced in a range of games.
Character customization isn’t always necessary. I have played enough games where the story dictates that I’m a grizzled middle-aged white man, or a tough woman in short shorts, or a robot/alien/foreign creature, and that’s sort of fine with me. Sure, I wish that there were a greater variety of character types, but I don’t need to be able to tweak my hair and eye color in order to identify with a protagonist in a game.
The problem comes in when customization options are offered. Once you tell players that they can create a character, they will probably want to make some version of themselves, or their friends, or their loved ones, or how they wish that they might look. As gaming has progressed, there have been all kinds of additional customization options offered to gamers, to change head shapes, hair colors and styles, and even customize an epic beard if they so wish. However, the options available still show some ingrained racism.
I really noticed it again recently when I played NBA 2K16. I was sort of trying to make a male version of myself in the game, although my husband said it looked like a mashup of him and Geoff. After much tweaking, this was about as good as I could get it.
Try as I might, I just couldn’t get the eyes and nose to look the way that I wanted. I fiddled with sliders and there are a bunch of tools to work with, but I just couldn’t get it right. More often than not, I’d get irritated with recreating my character again, instead opting to pick a pre-made head and tweaking the hair into a red mohawk so I could find my player easily on the court and leave it at that.
And it’s in the pre-made heads where we see the inherent racial thinking of a game. Sure, there were some fair skinned options in NBA, but the majority were darker skinned, I presume because they are working off the assumption that it fits the target market. Plenty of other games are the inverse – predominantly white male options with the odd “ethnic” looking character thrown in to balance things out.
In the NBA example, I think my issue was that while the skin tone might change, the rest of the features didn’t. It was only through the use of sliders or checking the full range of chins and cheeks available that I could make my character more angular, or soften the edges if I so wished. I ended up feeling like I was doing something strange or weird by trying to make my player white. And it highlighted something important.
Of course, this is something that a huge part of the gaming community faces in the majority of games, but the other way around. Most character customization screens default to a white male character. If you aren’t one, changing your race or gender can heighten a feeling of ostracisation. Of course, if the customizations don’t even let you look right, this can be even worse.
Representation in gaming is such a tricky topic to navigate and everyone has, and is entitled to, their own opinion. However, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t think that all genders and races need to be represented in every game, but if a game offers the option for customization, those options have to be representative.
Last Updated: September 28, 2015