Juwan is 15, a resident of Roxbury, and an avid gamer. But he’s got some issues with the attempts at realism in the popular Grand Theft Auto video game series.
“The over-use of the N-word is very irritating,” he said. “I know certain people who use it a lot but in the game [during the black character’s story] it felt like they said it every sentence.”
The game thrives on presenting gang warfare, domestic violence, and robbery with a tone that is misleadingly light-hearted. Its design almost cajoles the player to be their worst self; hey, set this on fire. Steal this. Run this woman over.
To Juwan, the myopic universe presented in Grand Theft Auto — the most recent title of which, Grand Theft Auto 5, was released by Rockstar Games in September — seems duplicitously real and unreal.
“The game has made me notice that things are definitely changing, or at least in this area mainly,” he says. “Now, away from the game, I have been more aware when I’m walking around, more open to what I’m looking at, and being more careful.”
However, Juwan thinks that two-dimensional portrayals of people of color in Grand Theft Auto, or “Middle Eastern” opponents in military shooter games don’t leave lasting impressions on the player.
“I don’t think stereotypes to be true. I don’t believe in stereotypes and, honestly, I don’t know many people who do,” he says.
Jamarhl Crawford, editor and chief of the Blackstonian, a community organization that has been keeping track of shootings in Boston since the Marathon bombing (the city is at 219 shootings so far), is not so sure.
“Play a military shooter online, and see how widespread Neonazi, Skinhead-type rhetoric is. All these games are military based and their squads [players] are [named things] like ARABKiller666. there’s a lot of anti-Black, anti-Muslim, [anti] anything that isn’t anti-white, kind of language thrown around,” he says.
Emotion in games
Magy Seif El-Nasr, director of Game Educational Programs and Research at Northeastern University, has seen some of the benefits of video games for minority communities, however. She has hosted workshops on game design in the US for different underrepresented and minority communities.
“These high school and middle school kids have been using [the workshops] to express things around their emotional state,” she said. “It wasn’t just building ‘games.’”
Seif describes some of her research as looking at the application of games in the education sphere. In a way, she’s looking at how a game is a more perfect coach than a human being.
“I grew up playing games in Cairo, and [through games] I learned not to be afraid of making mistakes,” she said. “That’s partly because of how I grew up. I had to think about problem solving and resourcefulness.”
Still, Seif El-Nasr believes game narratives are not as impactful as they could be because the characters are, in her words, “skinned to be more popular.”
Such was her experience with Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed.
“I was in the Middle East when I played it, and I had an Iranian friend watching me play, and she remarked that is was the story of Hassan ibn Sabbah,” she said, referencing the legendary resistor to the Crusades, most famously eulogized by Marco Polo.
Seif El-Nasr had an interview with Jade Raymond, the producer of the Assassins Creed series, and wanted to know why the story was from the Middle East but the characters were so Americanized.
“[Jade] specifically said they are making this game for the Western audience so they wanted the character to be Middle Eastern but not ‘completely Middle Eastern,’” she recalled.
Having white male avatars is a tradition video games have lifted from Hollywood. Unlike movies, which rely on a viewer identifying with the on-screen character, Seif argues that games should be more daring in their choice of protagonists. Choosing different avatars gives people a chance to assume a different identity. Often times this boils down to the player’s desires.
“There is the feeling of power that assuming a different identity grants you; people want to look like they really want to look like and people seek more power in virtual environments than they have in real ones,” Seif El-Nasr said.
Trailblazing in entertainment
While Crawford has his reservations about the Grand Theft Auto series, he still has hopes about the medium of games tackling historical moments that Hollywood is simply too “white” to do.
“Let’s do a contrast with Hollywood. Have you ever seen a movie about the Haitian revolution?” Crawford said. “How about a movie on African peoples throwing out colonial powers? That’s Assassins Creed 4.”
That game left an impression on Jamarhl. Taking place from the perspective of a time traveller interfering with the historical annexation of the Caribbean, he found the violence to be redemptive.
“It really had a righteous justice. You wanted to kill slave masters, you wanted to free slaves, you wanted to raid plantations and take them over,” he said.
Seif El-Nasr has been looking at the differences between how people interact with movies versus games. “You take responsibility for your character and relate to them more in a game, you can see emotions like regret, or frustration spike for gamers, whereas suspense is a lot easier to create in a movie,” she said.
Jamahrl’s reaction to sabotaging imperialists in Assassins Creed is fascinating to Seif El-Nasr. “Jamahrl’s individual differences may have pulled him into the game the way mine did with the [Assassins Creed] game set in the Middle East. Even if the portrayal wasn’t completely accurate, the catharsis definitely was.”
That catharsis of achievement, wrapped in an immersive environment, is one of the experiences unique to gaming. Mechanics are still the body and soul of games, but designers are going to have to be more considered in how they skin them.