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Gaming’s “Woke” Label Phobia

Fine, I’ll say it. I hate the video game industry.

It doesn’t matter that my dad used to give me my bottles while playing Crash Bandicoot one-handed, or that I accrued over 300 hours in Apex Legends in a single month during peak COVID-19. None of my love for my silly little games matters when the industry that pumps them out does not want me, or anyone else darker than a sheet of copy paper, visible on screen.

Photo Credits: Genshin Impact Wiki

To set the scene, my former favorite game, action RPG Genshin Impact, has found itself shrouded in controversy and after its latest, disappointing updates.

The 3.0 Sumeru update was the most highly anticipated Genshin update since the 2.4 Lantern Rite event sequel, primarily due to leaks on Twitter all but confirming the addition of more darker-skinned characters to befit the Sumeru region’s Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) inspiration. Genshin developers had set a precedent for taking inspiration from real-world people and places, with the three previous nations and their characters drawing on German, Chinese, and Japanese influences. Thus, fans expected Sumeru to be no different from the Mondstadt, Liyue, and Inazuma in-game regions.

Instead, they were met with one-note, stereotypical, and appropriated designs—a disappointing mismash of cultures, unlike the three previous respectful, accurate fantasy homages to places found in the real world.

Looking at a region full of rich culture and a great variety of ethnic features only to create white characters that appropriate cherry-picked aspects of that culture is not representation. It’s blatant whitewashing. Using stereotypes in character conceptualization to ensure your audience registers the traits of a certain ethnic group is not representation. It’s racist.

No matter what Genshin Twitter would have you think, this incident is not a special case. It is unsurprising and disturbingly common. Both of these things are normalized, as far as the video game industry is concerned.

For instance, the Horizon action RPG series has continued to appropriate Native American culture for its white characters while using such descriptors as “savages” or “primal” throughout game releases—despite controversy each time. Ice/Psychic-type Jynx of the Pokémon franchise greatly resembles a racist caricature of a black woman, even after an infamous redesign. Further, some of the most well-known depictions of Black and Latino characters in video games are depicted in the Grand Theft Auto series, but they have always been stereotypically shown as drug dealers and gang members. These games were all still well-received and widely beloved, some even becoming elevated to cult-classic status. By contrast, other massive games such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead, Deathloop, and Mortal Kombat did not resort to such stereotypes to feature a diverse cast.

Yet, something interesting happens when the gaming community learns of a previously white-casted series, game, or franchise making strides towards adding representation to a place where it was previously absent. They get furious.

Battlefield 1 was met with complaints that the developers were “pushing a liberal agenda” due to the game’s campaign, set in World War I, allowing you to play as a member of the Harlem Hellfighters and a Muslim Bedouin woman fighting alongside Lawrence of Arabia. If they weren’t crying over “historical accuracy,” they lamented the idea that Black characters had an advantage on dark multiplayer maps, which they felt was unfair despite being an issue of skill. The revelation that Spider Man: Miles Morales, in which you play as an Afro-Latino teenager living in Harlem, would include Black Lives Matter commentary was oddly dismaying to certain fans.

A game attempting to rectify a lack of proper representation is viewed as a betrayal by those who find comfort in the industry’s apolitical nature. However, they conflate the existence of minorities with political agendas. It’s seen as threatening the status quo; games that amplified diversity from the start are simply never included, games that uphold it are justified and supported by the fans, and games who deviate are virulently attacked.

Controversy around a game makes it less likely that people will buy it, and because the gaming community is overwhelmingly white, companies are forced into making the business decision to appeal to the majority—to run the opposite way of doing anything that would get them labeled as “woke.” It is this “woke label phobia” that creates this endless cycle of deprivation, reinforcing the very reason for its origin.

The more accustomed the industry gets to projecting a monolith of whiteness, the more abnormal adding color seems to appear, and the more controversy it causes. Ultimately, more controversy leads to a greater loss of revenue for these companies–the primary decision-making factor in a capitalist entertainment industry.

At some point, though, the cycle has to break. In some ways, it already has. The fact that representation has been done–and done correctly–is self-evident, and the only way forward is upwards. More people of color entering the player base would diversify the demographics and influence the profit incentive greatly. However, having more people of color in the industry at the head of these studios is invaluable and inevitable. In the not-so-distant future, there will come a time when the community is forced to either accept diversity or not play any games at all.


Shajaka Shelton is a junior in the College majoring in English and minoring in Journalism.


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