Friday, March 22, 2013

The Man Behind The Helmet: Diversity and Race in Video Games

This weekend I am traveling to Boston for the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) East. PAX East is most easily described as a gaming convention. Over the past several classes we have discussed various mediums and how race has been portrayed through them. In my presentation I talked about the role Nichelle Nichols played on Star Trek and its impact on television, we have looked at different music and how its was used to present a message about race in the US, and most recently we have begun looking at plays. Since I am on my way to PAX (in the airport as I write this) I thought it might be interesting to look at how race has been portrayed in video games. I know that some would find it controversial to examine video games the way one would examine plays, books, music, or other forms of art, but I would argue strongly that video games are an important art form in our society which have an ever growing following.
At PAX there have in the past been many interesting panels about the role of race, gender, and sexuality in video games and the communities of people who play them. Given that video games are a relatively new medium, each of the subjects have been only lightly studied and they continue to change as video games mature as a medium. What one often sees when they examine video games throughout their short history is that there is a striking shortage of diversity in the characters of major titles. Now when I speak of diversity I do not count characters that are part of a fictional races that is part of the cannon of the particular game. I also do not count the many games which allow the player to customize the main character to their liking. I am primarily referring to games with strong story driven narratives in which the player assumes the role of a single main character in the game. In such games there seems to historically be little diversity in main characters, they are often white males. There are exceptions of course, at the end of the first Metriod game it is (spoilers) revealed that the character Samus is a woman. By and large, however, video games were a reflection of their players who were for a long time primarily young white males. The demographics of ‘gamers’ have changed significantly over the past decade, and the industry is rapidly beginning to diversify its titles to keep up. There is one character who I think is both responsible for and a reflection of the changes occurring in gaming culture: the Master Chief of the Halo series.
Halo: Combat Evolved was released in 2001 with much fanfare and has since spawned 3 sequels, a prequel, several spin off games, many books, animated series and a massive following of devoted fans. For many ‘gamers’, including myself and many of my friends, Halo was our first real step into gaming culture. What is interesting, and was largely unprecedented at its time, is Halo’s broad appeal. Here was a game that was the first real ‘blockbuster’ for the industry that brought in a whole diverse new array of players. Halo’s success is a credit to its deep story and engaging game play, but also in my opinion to the character Master Chief. Master Chief is a complex character, you are given little back story about him in the first game and he speaks very little. He also never took off his helmet. This to me was key to what made the Master Chief so compelling to so many people. You had no idea what he looked like. He could be anyone. He could be you.
This mysterious man behind the helmet had a unique appeal in an industry that was dominated by a homogeneous set of characters in leading titles. The mystery around the Master Chief and his background allowed players to imagine their own backgrounds for him. Where he was from, what his family was like, what he looked like were all up to the players imagination. This mystery is what appealed to me and many of my friends about the master chief. Through middle school and high school the Master Chief remained the most popular video game character among those of us who played video games. It did not matter if they were black, white, latino, or asian, all of my friends had a fondness for the Master Chief. In his mystery, the Master Chief was diverse.
The Master Chief has appeared in 3 games since the original Halo was released in 2001. Through Halo 2 and Halo 3, the mystery of the Master Chief remained as his story continued. The Halo story was meant to end with Halo 3, but Microsoft found that the franchise had been a large driver so sales of the Xbox 360 and were thus reluctant to let it end. So Microsoft purchased the rights to the Halo franchise from its original create Bungie and set up 343 Industries to develop more Halo games. Last year Halo 4 was released and was presented by Microsoft as the long awaited return of the Master Chief. I was very skeptical about the game. It has, in m experience, never been a benefit to a game franchise to be sold by its original creators to a larger company. When larger companies such as Microsoft, EA, or Activision purchase rights to games, the result has often been the demise of beloved game franchises. Nevertheless, the desire to continue the story of the man behind the helmet compelled me and many of my friends to return to the Halo universe.
I have to admit that as I played through Halo 4 over winter break last semester I was pleasantly surprised. The game had all the feel of a Halo game and was true to the franchise. It continued the compelling story that brought me into the world of video games. While not perfect, Halo 4 was still more than I had hoped for. It expanded upon the complex relationship between the Master Chief and his AI Cortana through a masterful plot. After I finished my first play through, I played through the game on ‘Legendary’ (the hardest difficulty) because in past Halo games completing the campaign on ‘ Legendary’ rewarded you with a bonus scene that revealed more about the story. What I got for all my hard work was about a 2 second extension of the ending cinematic. In those two seconds what the player say was a brief glimpse of the Master Chiefs face. This was, I assume, an attempt by Microsoft to create buzz for the game. Finally, after a decade, the Master Chief’s face would be revealed to the fans as a reward for their devotion. My friends and I who played the game, however, did not feel reward. In those extra few seconds Microsoft managed to ruin a large chunk of the mystery of the Master Chief that Bungie had worked so hard to create and that  had made him so compelling to such a wide audience. In revealing the Master Chiefs face, Microsoft did not even seem to attempt to set itself apart from the industry norm. The glimpse that was offered was that of a rugged looking, white male.
The revealing of the Chief’s face was, to me, a tragedy. This character had done so much to help bring diversity to the gaming community. He was whoever the player wanted him to be, whoever the player needed him to be. For some of my friends who grew up in rougher household than my own or were lacking for male influences, the Master Chief was able to in a very small but very significant way fill a void that they felt. I have more than one friend who had truly cherished the Master Chief who had their image of their childhood hero crushed by this slight glimpse. It may seem strange that some of my friends were so attached to this character, but without reviling names I can tell you that a friend looked to the Chief as a role model as he struggled to get through awkward stages of middle school. He is black and his believed that the Master Chief was black. For him, like me and many friends, the Chief opened him up to the world of gaming where many of us bonded and maintain our friendships to this day. After high school, my friend joined the Marine Corps, a decision made for a variety of reasons among which he will admit was his affinity for the Master Chief. When he finished Halo 4 in January I got a message from him on Facebook that, without going into too much explicit detail, was not kind to Microsoft. He was upset at what Microsoft had done to this character that had helped shape his life. He animatedly refuses to accept Halo 4 as cannon, and I don’t blame him.
What Microsoft did at the end of Halo 4 was I think a real setback for the industry. Video games are struggling today to diversify and real progress had been made. In many recent top titles one can find female protagonists, homosexual protagonists, and protagonists of many ethnicities. The norm, however, continues to be games with white male main characters. By revealing the face of the Master Chief, and by sticking to the norm in his appearance, Microsoft ha denied ‘gamers’ a source of, admittedly ambiguous, diversity. There is alot progress yet to be made in the video game industry in catching up to its customers in diversity, and actions such as those by Microsoft in Halo 4 do not help.


  1. As someone who has loved video games since my youth, I feel I must comment on your post, and not just because I am jealous of your journey to PAX. The video game, while it is a new medium, is one that has been marketed primarily to children and white men. Despite the potential of video games as an interactive art form, one which is much more active than a conventional play or a novel, I feel as though the industry has rested on its laurels, content with a few minority characters because that model sells well. Characters that are not white are frequently fringe characters, a representation of otherness (as Tosh is in Starcraft, or Barrett in FFVII) or as a filler character, someone who unthreateningly represents white culture (Louis the Distric Account Manager in Left 4 Dead) but never the protagonist. Similarly, when a woman is introduced to a video game, she is often sexualized (there are too many examples to post). Even, sadly, Sammus in the later Metroid games (as we can see in her zerosuit: It came to no surprise to me that

    The consumer backlash against this tradition is small, and frequently falls on deaf ears, because the consumers are still primarily white men. As a girl, I've personally been exposed to the dark side of the video game community. In team games, I almost never turn my mike on because I dread the reactions of other players. If I am playing poorly, it becomes a matter of gender. If I am doing well, it must be because my boyfriend has taught me to play. Racial and gendered slurs are thrown around chat logs and forums as though they held legitimacy; it is a toxic environment that discourages any mention of race and flames those who disagree into the ground. Despite all this, I have hopes that the industry and community surrounding video games will eventually become an innovative and open-minded one. There is so much potential there. But, the community is not there yet, and that will hold the industry back.

    1. Becca,

      You're absolutely right. I remember there being many in the gaming media who were upset at the most recent Metroid game because it took what had traditionally been a strong and independent female lead and made her seem weaker and more dependent on men. Despite the poor reviews in the media, Nintendo did nothing to even respond to the criticisms. Similar criticisms have been made about the new Tomb Raider game. I have not played the game yet, so I don't know how far that goes.
      I'm glad you brought this up though, because my friend and I noticed something interesting at PAX this year. There are ALOT of people who dress up in cos-play at PAX as their favorite characters, but by far the most cos-played character this year was Chell from the Portal games. It was like every other girl was cos-playing as Chell. My friend Tyler summed up what we thought should be taken away from this pretty well when he said, "Hmmm, it's like when you have a compelling female lead who is not overly sexualized in a game you will actually have girls who play and really enjoy the game. WEIRD I KNOW!" So I think, or at least hope, the great success of games like Portal that have leads that break away from the mold will serve as an example for the rest of the industry that you don't need white male leads with scantily clad women at their side in order to sell games.

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  3. Hey JB,

    I read your post with Claire, and we were actually pretty saddened by its conclusion. I'm glad you mentioned something of your experience with PAX this year (I don't "do" video games, as my mom would say, but I can appreciate how having a female character who is not sexualized would appeal to female gamers). I am interested to know if any panels at PAX this year directly addressed the lack of diversity in the majority of popular video games.

    Also, I will say: though the idea of the Master Chief as belonging to any race or gender that the player wished simply because of his anonymity may be a step in the right direction, it really seems a far cry from where video games should be as a representation of the increasing diversity of gamers.

  4. Dear John,

    Thank you for writing this personal essay. You have done some very good work here drawing upon personal experience and considerations of games as both an interactive art form (a very provocative assertion) and a vehicle for a new kind of personal affiliation that evolves and emerges for players out of a form of participation. Video games represent unfamiliar territory for me, but I am interested in the ways that these forms of entertainment and intellectual activity can reinforce or break down social stereotypes. I have a lot more thinking to do following your post, but I think you have provided us with a great deal of material for further consideration. I am drawn to your thinking about games and the gaming community as offering social spheres that can disrupt the limitations of "real life" but what happens when we go to them for these other possibilities and they fail to broaden our imaginations?


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