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Of Skin Tones and Protagonists

I write about how the predominance of caucasian and/or american game characters is starting to get just a tad bit overdone.

I’m writing this after recently having seen the new Starcraft 2 advertisement. (http://www.youtube.com/starcraft) Now this is something that I’ve been thinking about for quite a while and I highly doubt it’s a new train of thought, however, its one I have every intention of reiterating here.

See, I’m an avid Starcraft fan and the next installation ofthe game has me practically bouncing off the walls. So much so, that I didn’t think the game could ever do wrong in my books. That is to say until I saw this video. To clarify, it’s not wrong, per se, but something I find mildly irritating and rather indicative of a trend I’ve noticed. What’s gotten me to write this article is the portrayal of Kerrigan… or to be precise a characterin the ad that I’m pretty sure is Kerrigan. I mean, so far it’s a no brainer. How many female operatives have been surrounded by the zerg  in the game thus far? Of course, I canspeculate that it is in fact another Ghost that the current Kerrigan is tryingto capture and zergify in imitation of what was done to her, but that’s one fora fan site. So, assuming that that red head is indeed pre Zerg Kerrigan, Ishall proceed.

 

The Old Kerrigan, Starcraft I 

Kerrigan, as I remember her from Starcraft I and before shewas zergified, looked unassuming. She wasn’t unremarkable (in fact, anythingbut) but, given that it was harder to model back then, her main allure and character was seen through her voice, actions and the face given served as abasing point for what the tiny pixellated sprite was supposed to look like. Other fans will have noticed that Kerrigan used to have a rugged look about her but more importantly, her skin was a much darker shade. In this clip however,she’s been skin bleached for starter’s and more visually appealing… and I meanvisually appealing in the sense that she’s suddenly got a body to die for. Gone are the rugged looks, the impression that she’d been through a lot, seen farmore than she deserved to and done a lot of legwork for good ol’ Arcturus Mengsk. Judging by the new look, I believe they may have just taken the model of Nova from the scrapped SC: Ghost project and tweaked it to make it look somewhat like Kerrigan.

Kerrigan’s 'new design' strikes me as somewhere between fanservice (can’t believe I’m even saying that…) and something bigger that Ibelieve to be true – Games and most other media are hesitant to portray protagonists of different ethnicities (you may read skin color) thinking, as I can only assume, that their major markets won’t identify with them. Most games aregenerally made to cater to the American and European population after all and for some reason games fail to realize that both societies are now more an intrinsicmix of different ethnicities than being, quite frankly, predominantly Caucasian.True, they hold a majority of the population but then again, aren’t gamessupposed to be made for everyone? In an idealistic sense at least.

Another example is the recent Prince of Persia movie. Why isit that everybody in the movie except for Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton at least lookpassably Persian or as if they made a half assed attempt at it but failedmiserably? I can understand not getting it right but if everyone’s trying whydo those two manage to look like Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood indifferent clothing? To the extent that Gemma’s accent is still so very noticeably british. And if I were permitted one more example, the new MortalKombat movie. Scorpion’s had an ethnicity change as well. I just can’t helpasking why.

Just how many video games out there are there where theprotagonist isn’t Caucasian or American? Admitted there are a few like this but they’re like marshmallows in a badly made sundae – few, kind of disappointing but still relished as if they were made of pure awesome. While we’re on thetopic, even when characters of different ethnic origin are used, I find them to be stereotypical and somewhat contrived and sometimes they could be the same as any other general protagonist but with different skin and outfit. They don’t bother to change the accent much, nor the outlook…

RPG’s allow one to dabble with different skin tones these days, but once again you find that these features all tend to be arbitrary. Brink for example, from what I’ve seen so far, allows a variant from the general Caucasian protagonist by allowing the player to be African(/American). But this has no bearing on the story whatsoever. I’m not going to go into whether or notthey have options that allow you to look oriental or even Indian. What matters is the fact that these options are only added to please a very specific demographic and are only added because they have no bearing whatsoever on the actual story.

I’d love to see a game where you can see things from a different perspective. You’d think that game developer’s would jump at the chance at a different angle, but its either them who are hesitant or thepublishers who won’t give ideas that follow that train of thought a greenlight. This indicates not racial bias particularly but a narrow mindedness. I don’t think people are willing to take a chance with different ethnic perspectives.

Would it be so hard to explore a character’s motivations were based off a different religion? Or if he reacted to things differentlysimply because he was brought up in a different community and culture?

I understand that this is something that can’t be changed overnight and that it’s easier to portray what one has experienced and knows intimately than to venture into the unknown.  There’s also the issue of being called out for not portraying something properly, despite a sincere effort to keep a character real. Add to that the risk you run of hurting sentiments, which in issues like this can snowball into something much larger. I know Fallout didn’t release in India because Microsoft didn’t want to hurt Hindu sentiments. I believe the two headed cow in the game is called a Brahmin which in the Indian Culture is a Hindu priest/educator social class. Also, cows are supposed to be sacred to us, though that’s more overblown than it should be. The point is - there are some risks that can be run by trying to portray someone from a specific culture, especially when it’s made a major selling point and attempt to hype it. That only invites higher expectations and I believe would generally leave a player mildly disappointed. I can only ask, why not just downplay the whole issue? Does the fact that someone might look different need to be advertised so much. I’d liketo see it become more of a staple thing, more along the lines of an aspect thatis intrinsic to a character and makes them more real, believable rather than something that sets them apart.

Of course, one can attempt to find some common ground, kind of like the anime vein of art where character’s can be viewed as Asian and/or caucasian but somehow I don’t think that sort of ambiguous presentation could apply everywhere.

With all of that being said, I merely aim to question the single minded view of how game protagonists should be. I’d like developers to consider all their options and going back to the Kerrigan example that sparked this article (*cough* rant *cough*) I think we need to move away from established ideas of what characters ought to look like. I believe there was an article on the site earlier about alternative female models and that they don’t necessarily have to be busty, scantily clad babes to be popular, that pertains to this as well.

In closing I’d like to say that I’m not the only one who’d like to see more variety in game character’s out here. Especially for linear stories.

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