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Space for Rent: The White Savior in Video Games


Tweet of the Day: In Humility and Privilege

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Yes, I just noticed this trend. What trend am I talking about? The White Savior trend in video games where in a white male hero swoops in  and saves the day. Now, the easy and lazy explanation for this phenomenon is that most game designers are American (male/white) and their product is marketed to American teenagers (also male/white). Thus the hero represent those that create them and play them.

Easier to identify with or so the theory goes. Yet even in Japanese games (the other video game design powerhouse) many heroes default to the white European male standard perhaps to appeal to a American and European markets. But there is more, there is always more. The White Savior reeks of white supremacy and western imperialism. The white male hero has superior skill, stamina, wisdom and morality. He is the only one that can solve age of problems with a turn of a phrase or a pull of the trigger. He masters skills that take natives years to learn. And to seal the deal, there is often a prophecy (or two) that confirms the mighty outsider as the true hero of the land.

One could explain some of this in game design terms:

Why does the hero is the one to fix everything? Because a) you can’t have everything be a Ragnarok type event at every single turn. Side quests are designed to serve as an introduction to the game and as a way to pad the game’s runtime in (hopefully) fun ways?

How come the hero saves the day all by himself? Creating a balanced ally AI is difficult. They either are too dumb to be useful, get in the way or so competent they turn the player into a spectator watching the game play itself.

Why can the hero learn skills in minutes that would take NPCs years to master? In game time runs much faster than real time otherwise some games would take months if not even years to finish.

This is all well and good but it doesn’t address the key problem, a white male protagonist as the hero that ignores, appropriates or overrides local culture to save the day. Some game designers are taking up this issue. In the last generation we saw games like Dragon Age: Origins, Fallout 3 and Farcry 3 subvert this trend, up to a point. Dragon Age: Origins allowed the player to create a character from different fantasy racial backgrounds (human, elf, dwarf) although the default was the human noble (fantasy humans cultures being molded after western feudal culture). Fallout 3 allows a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds (if using vague terms like Hispanic or Asian, but hey, progress) and the Apocalypse made any racial/ethnic distinctions moot. Farcry‘s storyline plays this straight, subvert its, mocks it and back again. Yet the game play still has white male twenty something turning into a killer messiah for the people whipping out an entire army of pirates/mercenaries almost all by himself while rescuing his weakling friends.

As a new generation of games both give us more iterations of past titles and (hopefully) bring new IP, I think it high time to chuck the White Savior out the window. It is time for heroes that represent a wider set of players, experiences and stories.

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