Yesterday, I interviewed renowned gaming journalist N'Gai Croal about stereotypes and diversity in games.
Croal's interview is part of a special week-long series called "Black Professionals in Games." Today the series continues with Morgan Gray, Senior Producer at Crystal Dynamics. The 31 year-old San Francisco native, who's half-black and half-Caucasian, is a seasoned gamer who's tired of being the regular white guy:
"I am sick of playing the average white dude character. And I'm sick of playing a black stereotype. ... As a player I want to have more experiences other than the futuristic super soldier white guy to the unlikely hero white guy. There's that line where you're playing you, and you're playing the character. It's sort of like, are you behind the character pushing? Are you holding hands with the character in your mind? And for me, I'd like to get more of relating to this character."
And here he is on one of the most popular characters from "Gears of War":
"Here's the thing: Cole Train on his own, no harm no foul. But what is Cole Train? Cole Train is basically like every other effin' black character in a video game. Like here comes the urban stereotype. Where is this 1990's -- not even 2000 -- black slang, where does this fit in this futuristic world that doesn't even take place on Earth? They go really far to do a lot of fictional justifications for this culture that they've built, and they go right back to this urban stereotype for the black character.
I'm not knocking Epic; the game was fun and gorgeous. But it's just a lack of thought, right? All it does is reinforce dumb stereotypes and it sort of reinforces casual racism."
Read on for Gray's thoughts on how game developers can increase social awareness and diversity, black characters in Japanese games and why "GTA: San Andreas" was "scary."
Although Gray majored in History and Philosophy, he got his start in game development as a QA tester at LucasArts in the mid-'90s. After showing off some "Warcraft" maps and "Doom" levels he made, he got a job as a level designer at Totally Games working on "Star Wars: X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter," "Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance" and "Star Trek: Bridge Commander." Then following a brief period at Cinemaware as a designer, Gray came back to Totally on the production side, where he worked on "Secret Weapons Over Normandy." Finally, he came to Crystal Dynamics in 2004 doing production on "Project: Snowblind," and then "Tomb Raider: Legend." Since then he's worked on business development mainly centered on the "Tomb Raider" franchise.
Multiplayer: You've had some experience developing games. Have you ever felt that your race presented any advantages or disadvantages in your career?
Gray: Not as far as disadvantages go. Not really, since I pretty much stayed in development, and development is sort of a hodge-podge. No matter however you slice it, everyone's sort of an outcast in a way. None of us are 90210, you know? [laughs] There are different degrees of coolness and hipness but none of us are being voted most popular in high school. We were all doing something different from the norm, which is cool by me. I'm not saying we were total geeks or anything but we definitely were not the Abercrombie and Fitch crew growing up. In dev, I would say it's been a little neutral. I don't think it's been a negative or a positive.
I think any sort of negatives would come from -- there’s not a lot of black folks in games. I used to joke that I can't wait to go to E3 and see all five of them and hang out [laughs]. It's a little different now. I think the disadvantages are just the general society ones. I'm black -- well I’m half-black technically but -- I'm black, I'm 6'3", so people can misread sort of like dominance plays or intimidation because I'm a big guy. ...
I think outside of dev, in the PR realm of promoting projects and meeting with fans, I think it comes as a surprise to a lot of people. Like "Wow." I think when people think of games they think of Japanese cats, they think of white cats. They just assume. I think that meeting different people from the press for the first time or public exhibitions of the game some people are like, "Wow, okay." I think maybe if I was working for a Japanese company, it could probably be more of a difference. I'm sure at some point we'll talk about my thoughts on the portrayal of black people in Japanese games. [laughs] I think it's been a mix of being focused in dev and working exclusively in the San Francisco area, which is pretty mellow. All things considered it's not like the deep South, and just maybe being lucky. I don't think [my race] been too much of a plus or minus.
Multiplayer: So you feel your race hasn't played a factor either way?
Gray: I think it's hard for me to tell. I think some people could assume there's some cool PR-ing going on it, like here's this black dude and "there's a story there." Or here's this white guy who has a hundred percent equal skill and talent. But at an E3 lineup where you have all this press, [a black person] may stand out more because he looks different. It hasn't really been overt like, "Wow, I'm getting hooked up 'cause I'm brown" or "I'm being held back." Maybe it's because the game industry or the dev side of things is still so young that that kind of crap really hasn't entered into play much -- so no. I'm assuming women have it tougher, just like they do in society in general, but you know... [laughs]
Multiplayer: Why do you think there aren't as many African-Americans in game development?
"African-Americans are big consumers of [video games]; they should take a role in making them."
Gray: Drives me crazy, drives me crazy. I think as a point of pride you can say beyond a shadow of a doubt African-American folk have always embraced the entertainment arts and have done extremely well and set trends -- whether it was music or dance or athletics. ... African-Americans are big consumers of [video games]; they should take a role in making them. For starters, I think within the past four or five years, there's been an emphasis in the role of academics to show pathways and doorways into games. Whether it's game-specific colleges or programs like Carnegie Mellon's master's program. It's just people didn't know how to get into games. When I got into games it was like, "Well, how do you get into games?" You stumble through QA, or maybe you're doing something in art that would lead you through the door, and maybe you would go through design there. The programming guys had the easiest shot. It was just an unknown. Even [Shigeru Miyamoto] was an artist. He got a shot to draw a crazy gorilla one day, so it was just random.
I think across the board for everyone, no one really knew how to get into it. I think that was the diminishing factor. I think the lack of emphasis on the broad spectrum on how games were made means that people don't really understand the various roles people can play. It's not just programming. It's not just art. All these disciplines, there's so many ways to get in. In creation of games there are 50, 60-plus person teams. Down to sound engineering, you'd think there would be more transfer over from guys working on their beats down in the garage, and they'd want to apply that to video games. Maybe there hasn't been a lot of advocacy, that your passion and your skills can lead you to this path. I was at the "blacks in gaming" event at GDC. Each year it gets bigger and bigger but it's still like, "Wow, this is still kind of small." We need to think broader. I just don't think the information is getting out there, probably specifically to the black youth in terms of what can be done. Or like, "Hey, you know you frickin' love 'Soul Calibur.' You know how that this algebra stuff that you hate now in class applies to you working on cool games like this?" I don't know if the connections are being broadcast well enough in general and specifically, too.
Multiplayer: What do you think would be the solution for that?
Gray: I think when you have programs like what EA is doing, like the "Madden Challenge" program, I think a little more exposes that move out of PR hyping the product and more in just lifting the veil on the game industry. Like some more features on web pages talking about game development just in the nuts and bolts side of things. "These are dev teams, these are the different roles people play." I think when you see unlocks in games that are all "making of" videos, those are great right? There's one half that you're pandering for your product but there's another half like, "Wow, I didn't know that games' sound engineers did full work like they do in the movies." I think that people have more of an understanding of what people do in movies than in games. But then again who knows what a key grip is, right? What does the best boy really do? It's just kind of hidden. So I think getting it out there in web stuff, getting some more on TV whether it's Spike, G4, Cartoon Network that showcase game development. ...
"It seems that corporations are more than happy to put a basketball into someone's hand -- how about a math degree?"
But I just think that more programs like that, more stuff into games that talk about how the game is made, not what the game is about. And obviously they're doing stuff at a college level. I think applied curriculum even at a high school level would be good like, "Hey, here's a little virtual project. Let's take the new XNA game base that Microsoft put out there for free." Have people do little mini game projects, and maybe even stretch the term game. "Let's make mini electronic entertainment." Because museum installation stuff, there's many overlaps there. Get a group of people, take something virtual, create an experience and the earlier age you can do that, the better. ... More stuff like that hitting African-Americans in venues where they get this information. Maybe it's advocacy, maybe it's going out and speaking in classrooms. Maybe it's the after-school program aspects. I'd love to see more corporate sponsorship. It seems that corporations are more than happy to put a basketball into someone's hand -- how about a math degree? Why not? [laughs]
Multiplayer: That seems like a great solution. At GDC, Sony Online Entertainment announced a scholarship for women aspiring to work in game development. But I remember there was some criticism about how it singles women out, how it's sexist against men. I'd imagine that scholarships based on race would also garner that kind of criticism...
Gray: Is the alternative that you don't reach out to anyone? That's unacceptable. I think -- and I obviously don't have the mathematical data on hand for this -- but I think if you look at the broad spectrum of scholarship offerings, you would find that males and/or white males are far from underrepresented in terms of their options. [laughs]
Multiplayer: And if you look at the bigger picture, it's clear to see that women and racial minorities are underrepresented in the industry.
Gray: In the industry and in the end product. Both sides of things, and anything that gets more people playing games -- I dream of a world where the concept of games equals that of TV, that it's socially acceptable for everyone of every age rage to sit and use this box for their entertainment purposes across a variety of content. From the games we have today to the "where's the Food Network game" experience, or the gardening game experience. Where it's a virtual experience for all the stuff that people do right now. I also secretly wish for the day there is a President in the White House that uses games as his chief source of entertainment. I think we're like 10 to 15 years away from that, but that's gonna be awesome.
Multiplayer: Is diversity important in the video games industry?
Gray: Yes. Well, first I'll answer as a player. I am sick of playing the average white dude character. I'm just done with it. And I'm sick of playing a black stereotype. So one, people are always saying, "There aren't a lot of black video game characters." And I'm like, "What are you talking about? 'Madden' and 'NBA '08' man." [laughs] "Crackdown" made me smile. He's a cop. I mean, he's all future urban but he's a cop and he's black, and even though you can select from like 16 different characters they picked the black dude as their one [to represent the game]. He never talked, he never had a real characterization to him, so I was like "thumbs up." ...
"Gordon Freeman could have been a black guy."
But as a player I want to have more experiences other than the futuristic super soldier white guy to the unlikely hero white guy. There's that line where you're playing you, and you're playing the character. It's sort of like, are you behind the character pushing? Are you holding hands with the character in your mind? And for me, I'd like to get more of relating to this character. But the fear is that if the industry is dominated by white cats, then the characterization is going to be extremely shallow and extremely one-dimensional. Because when the public thinks about African-Americans, the norm is they get what the news feeds them. "For the black reaction, let's go to the ghetto. For the white reaction, lets go to Beverly Hills." [laughs] Why not go to the trailer park for that reaction? And anyone who doesn’t fit that mold is considered an exception. Which is like whoa, whoa, whoa -- perhaps you should have the understanding that, outside of race and culture, economics is pretty much the determining factor for a lot of people's lives. But without that understanding, it's always going to be, "Here comes that street-smart pimp archetype." And here comes the attempt at breaking norms like, "Here's this black guy, he's super awkward, no athletic ability and he's a super genius." Like where's just the rounded cat? There’s not reason that Marcus Fenix in "Gears of War" couldn't have been a black guy. Like there's no reason that you can't just take any character -- like Gordon Freeman could have been a black guy. Easily. He doesn’t talk!
Multiplayer: That's funny that you say that. I actually wrote an opinion article about avatars and how if it doesn't affect the story then why not create a choice or just throw in something else just to see what it would be like?
Gray: Yeah, if there's zero fictional impact, why not? Why not as a default, why not as an option? And I'm not knocking Valve. Because they have a black scientist and his biracial daughter. That's another thing -- we need to see more biracial stuff. I have to give props to "Bioshock" for its little hidden gem at the end of that. It made me spit out my coffee playing the game in the morning. I called my wife into the room and said, "Look, it's us!" [laughs] But yeah, from a player's standpoint, I'd like to see more options. I would like to have more chance for expression. Like "Mass Effect," [I was] Morgan Shepard, one of a couple million Shepards that existed. It was cool that I got to make him a little brown.
Multiplayer: Yeah, and I'm Tracey Shepard. So why do you think diversity is important from the development standpoint?
"I'm a little worried that we're running the risk of derivative games because... we're bringing outside world things and trying to make them into games."
Gray: From the development standpoint ... When guys were first doing games way back in their garages in like the '70s and '80s, the sky was the limit. Anything they did could be new. "We could do a game about a frog crossing a freeway -- sweet! How about delivering papers? Sweet!" If I went to pitch a game right now that was all about delivering newspapers, I'd be laughed out of the room. But [back then], it was like whatever they could virtually simulate, they were going for it. Then us developers, we all played that stuff growing up, so we started putting spins on it and evolving; trying to do more world simulations that they couldn't dream of before, but basically using the lexicon of what came before us to inform our decisions. So now we're here in 2008. I'm a little worried that we're running the risk of derivative games because for most of us, we're bringing outside world things and trying to make them into games. Now we're getting into a place where people are bringing games in to make games. Where's the crazy innovation there? The guy who is a great visual artist who doesn't know how to paint. That's not as good as the guy who knows how to paint who then learns a tool like Maya and applies that foundation of art skills. Because then this becomes self-referential.
And I think in terms of cultural and gender input, that plays a factor in it, too. If we're just constantly going to be suburban white guys, then it's gonna become pretty limiting. And it's always obvious whenever you see the big examples of mixing things up. You get better games and broader experiences. I think Maxis is probably leading the charge at this with its games and its emphasis on women and being family-friendly, both pre- and post- EA buying them up. I just think you get a chance for broader experiences, and I think you get a better understanding of sensitivities, too. "You don't see why that's offensive? Well let me tell you, and if you don't like this, now it's no longer offensive, even cooler." It broadens the information pool at the developers' disposal, and I think it ends up as a better end product especially since we're not in a place like Hollywood where we can do a lot of focus tests because generally, we can't focus test until our game is in decent shape. At which point publishers generally want to rip it from our hands and put it on the shelf. [laughs]
Multiplayer: Before you mentioned "Gears of War." Did the Cole Train character bother you at all?
Gray: Here's the thing: Cole Train on his own, no harm no foul. But what is Cole Train? Cole Train is basically like every other effin' black character in a video game. Like here comes the urban stereotype. Where is this 1990's -- not even 2000 -- black slang, where does this fit in this futuristic world that doesn't even take place on Earth? They go really far to do a lot of fictional justifications for this culture that they've built, and they go right back to this urban stereotype for the black character. I'm not knocking Epic; the game was fun and gorgeous. But it's just a lack of thought, right? All it does is reinforce dumb stereotypes and it sort of reinforces casual racism. It's almost like, "Cue the drum beat, here comes the black character." It's f--king Arnold from "Good Times." [laughs] So I think if the dev teams, and marketing teams and PR teams teams were more diverse, and better thought was given towards staying true to their fictional narrative, that once you say you're in the future and you're in this alien world, is this really how this person is going to talk? When can we have the black guy that walks on to the screen that doesn't sound like the black guy? [laughs] Can he just be "the guy"? In "Halo 3" there's the black Sarge. He's fine, he's the military archetype, but that's great. That's what the game is about. Here's a bunch of military stereotypes in the future.
Multiplayer: To play devil's advocate here, you say diversity in games is important but the norm is to appeal to the broadest audience possible, which may account for all these stereotypes. Yet, the video games industry is doing well and making money. So what if someone said, "If it ain't broke don't fix it?"
"Our narratives and our universes, it's still amateur hour and I just think we could be doing more."
Gray: Well, the thing is, does fixing break it? Yeah, we're making great money. Why don't we try to better our our science-slash-business-slash-art? Because it's like the three parts of game development. It's doing great and it wants to appeal to the broadest audience. So, I think, we're all youngish people, none of us are fire-and-brimstone old die-hards and things. Why not use our medium to push social consciousness, social awareness? Why not try to make society better? People are always talking about how we're negatively influencing the youth. F--k them. [laughs] The dude at home playing games is probably better off [playing games] than doing any other activity I did as a kid. [laughs] But why don't we use it as a vehicle to do [push social awareness]? Why don't we use it as a vehicle to more accurately reflect the real world? We make more money than Hollywood, we're pushing boundaries. But our narratives couldn't even hold up to what people consider trite narratives on any primetime TV show. We still rely on old stereotypes, run-of-the-mill archetypes, retelling the same basic story premises -- and of course, one could argue that there are only five stories. Comic books are doing more in terms of narrative than our industry does as a whole. So I feel we [get] bonus points for interactivity. We totally own that way more than a comic book. But our narratives and our universes, it's still amateur hour and I just think we could be doing more. We need a great mix of our summer blockbuster hits and our Oscar movies, and we don't have enough Oscar movies. And I think we can have -- using Saving Private Ryan -- we can have our summer blockbuster Oscar-winning movie, too. A lot of s--t blows up and the story-telling is not trite. Except of course Spielberg has some triteness to it, pulling the heart strings, but he pulls them so well, we love him for it. So yeah, that’s where I stand. It's not about broadening the audience or making more money. It's about why can't we be more creative, more mature and grow up.
Multiplayer: But it seems that publishers want to stick with the same formula -- sequel after sequel or licenses -- so how does a developer try to foster these new ideas?
Gray: I don't know per se that publishers want to stick to the same formula. The end thing is that any character or narrative that you do needs to be accessible. It can't be really aloof. We can't do Fellini movie games yet, probably. They just want a game that's fun, and they want it on budget and on time. I think developers, and the developers' vision, is a bigger limiting factor than publishers -- not that I'm a big publisher apologist or anything. But generally, they just care about the main character. So I guess step one is for supporting cast -- can we get better at that? And we can give them what they want for the main character; really, they care about the visuals of the main character. What does he or she look like? That's the big thing. How can we market this? How can we plaster this image over every magazine and website banner ad? But in terms of the actual story, they don't really care that much. Because really, they're like, "How does the story lead you into the next room to get a great screenshot? And be fun?" So if assuming we're getting the fun part right, there should be broader freedom with the game. So on "Tomb Raider: Legend," obviously Eidos cares about the story line, they want it to be quality. There wasn't so much of an interest in the secondary characters or any of the plot nuance. It was, "What's the elevator pitch to the story so we can understand it? And make sure we feel it resonates from a brand message and how do we message this out?" It's really just on the high level. And on a high level in games, we're not doing so great, we're not doing so bad. Most of us aren't shooting for the stars. Many that do fall on their face, and maybe that's a good thing. But the details of the story, the nuts-and-blots, the guts of it, it's pretty much developer freedom.
Multiplayer: Clearly, you as a developer are ready to diversify game development but do you think gamers are ready to see this change?
Gray: Why not? I mean, first we got to think in the context of we're in our little imperialistic bubble called America, right? But there's a big-ass world out there. [laughs] There's a broad world out there, a lot of different cultures. Even outside of race and class, we're already dealing with different cultures of gamers consuming the same product. I think gamers already are super diverse. If you look at the number of different -- we'll take ["World of Warcraft"]. "WoW" has -- I can't even remember how many different subscribers. I think they're just making their own money down south now. I think they have their own printing press.
Multiplayer: I think they have 10 million...
Gray: Yeah, Jesus. If you look at the player base, and you look at aside from what you'd expect like, "I'm a dark elf." Because dark elves are like ninjas everyone wants to be a dark elf which is cool. People aren't playing the human class. It's gnomes, it's dwarves. If people are willing to express themselves or play around in their avatar or their identity with fantasy creatures, why wouldn't they do it with actual humans and play around? I think in "Counter-Strike," you often see the black character model. I know there's not that many black people playing. [laughs] I think people are having fun. I think there's the dark side, some people personify a stereotype when they play it. Obviously, "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" was a celebration of that. I don't think it bugs people.
"Make a way for people to relate your character regardless of whether they have the same skin color or sex organs."
I think what bugs people is when "I can't find an avatar" or "I'm being presented an avatar that I can't relate to." And maybe that's surface level on the skin and look, and maybe that's characterization. Like, "Man, I don't want to play this dude, he's whiny." [laughs] I think that's the central core. The easy fix is to provide options, provide player-created avatars. The more difficult fix is if there's a story and a narrative that you want to tell. It's like anything -- make a way for people to relate your character regardless of whether they have the same skin color or the same sex organs. And that's a challenge movies face all the time. Because you have a physical human being and yet somehow you have millions of different people to buy in and so that is more of a narrative problem than it is a visual problem.
Multiplayer: You mentioned "San Andreas." My next question was "What do you think of the way African-Americans have been portrayed in games?"
Gray: Oh man... So "GTA III," -- a Mafioso stereotype with a huge amount of cinema fiction to support that. It's sort of a cultural joke. We all know that Italians aren't like that but we know Mafioso gangsters are. Do we remove race from it? No, they're just gangsters. "Vice City" is just '80s "Miami Vice." So even with the Cubanos and Latinos we know all Cubanos aren't like that. "San Andreas" gets scary because it's basically what people think black people are. Like obviously not everyone is Tupac, not everyone is like N.W.A. gun-toting. But the greater society still said -- I guess maybe there's not enough time between the height of gangster rap and that game. Because it basically affirms society's present belief that all urban black guys are just like this. I don't think the global expectation that all Italian people are mafiosos has existed since the '30s. But it did at that time. And if ["Grand Theft Auto III"] came out at that time, it'd be a hundred percent "Yup! It's just a game about the Italian guys." So that's just the risk, the scary thing for "San Andreas" in that it's too soon and it's too close and it's going to be consumed by people with no proper filter, right? There are already a bunch of suburban kids trying to emulate this fantasy that came from rap music. It's a fantasy -- Dr. Dre came from a middle class home. These guys were making money, they were making product. The real guys, the real OGs, probably not so glamorous. [laughs] A little scarier actually.
But the fantasy world, it just reaffirms their thinking and now they're playing it, and there's no way to parse the parody aspects, the subtle commentary. I'm not saying Rockstar is a bunch of racist evil dudes, but other games are like: here are a bunch of stereotypes, both cultural and racial and we're going to embrace them, lampoon them, parody them, overemphasize them. "Grand Theft Auto" represents the world that should not be. [laughs] Like it's the worst of us, right? But I don't think when it comes to "San Andreas," that people are going to be able to parse that because it was so close to their perception of the real world instead of knowing it was pure playland. So that's where that game kind of scares me a little bit because this is doing more harm than good.
From a gameplay standpoint: "Great, like why did I have to start off on that freakin' bicycle?" [laughs] I hated that part. So far ["San Andreas"] is the only "Grand Theft Auto" that I didn't beat because if I have to hear one more "nigger" drop out of someone's mouth knowing it was penned by a bunch of white cats -- I'm like I'm done here. I can't play this; I'm feeling filthy. So that's my thing with "San Andreas." I'm not saying it's a bad game; I'm saying without the proper tools to understand what's really going on there, it's just risky at what people's takeaway will be.
Multiplayer: Speaking of what people take away from things, the "Resident Evil 5" trailer. Have you seen it?
Gray: Yeah! Absolutely not racist. Zombies in Haiti? Hmm. I think they're gonna be brown. If we were going to do a zombie game in China: wow, a lot of Chinese zombies. I think it's just the "Here's the bunch of people that are primitive," which is actually the elephant in the room, and the racist perceptions. ... But it takes place in Haiti, home of the zombie, right? No one complained -- where was the outcry for the poor Spanish villagers in "Resident Evil 4"? I guess no one noticed that in previous "Resident Evil" games? They were hard to tell because they’re pretty stylized as zombies, but they're pretty much all white people in this mansion. I mean Raccoon City was in middle America. ... I think the reaction to that is the wrong reaction. I think the bigger outcry is why once again don't we have a black lead character in a "Resident Evil" game? How about that first? Here's another white cat. Hell, where's the Asian dude in a "Resident Evil" game? It's always white guy/white girl.
Multiplayer: I think some people just didn't feel comfortable with the imagery it invoked, like they saw it as like a military man going in...
Gray: Going in and taking out all of these indigenous people?
Gray: Well, I love zombie lore; I'm a fan of everything zombie. I don't know if you read Max Brooks' "World War Z"?
Multiplayer: Yes, I have.
Gray: That book was like a Bible to me. I mean, that's always the parallel with the zombies, right? The zombie story is all about modern technology versus primitive hopelessness, right? Like the Vietnam parallel. Here comes a badass with everything at your disposal, and it doesn't matter because these things are just a force of nature. You might as well be fighting a wave. When you look at current zombie cinema, it's kind of like that. It's like, "Hey, I've got everything I need." And these primitive things come at him and the lead hero gets f--ked. Because in the best zombie fiction and even in the "Resident Evil" series, you never win -- you delay, you never win. So making the military parallel -- honestly, there are countries at war right now, it makes people sensitive. But if they’re making that parallel and going that route like maybe war looks like this and the military comes in and f--ks up indigenous people, it might make them think, "Yeah, maybe real war is not so good. " Still -- it's zombies. I think you can get over-sensitive about it. I think if it was like "Resident Evil 4" in the ghetto or something and the zombies were doing hip-hop dancing, I'd be like, "Oh God no." But everything I've seen so far doesn't make me feel like the guys at Capcom are not treating the subject matter correctly. There may some type of crazy Japanese storytelling techniques but nothing struck me as offensive. I thought the reaction was misplaced and there are other things that people could and should be outraged about.
Multiplayer: At the beginning of the interview, you did mention Japanese games in general...
"[The portrayal of] black folks in [Japanese] games has generally been poor."
Gray: Yeah. I'm a fan of anime, manga and obviously Japanese video games. So the first thing is that the Japanese story aesthetic is just different from the Western. How they do character and how they do their story is different. So everyone will laugh like, "Yeah, that was really weird." But that’s sort of the Japanese thing to do, right? Like in a role-playing game here comes a 10-minute dialogue. Or in "Metal Gear" -- "Let me tell you about my childhood in Croatia." "What?" I thought we were fighting? Okay, commence your talking." So that's weird. But their take on black folks in games has generally been poor. It's either been here's this '70s pimp, here's ultra hip-hop dude, or here's a straight-up thug. F--king Barret in "Final Fantasy VII" -- they put a gun on the guy's arm. It's just like, "Yeah, black guy with built-in gun." Okay, that's really, really weird. So it's generally been s--t characterizations that are way racist or way just hokey racist. Maybe that's where they get the [pass] because coming from a different culture it's so laughable. And it's like wow, nobody does that soul brother '70s stuff anymore. I don't know anyone who uses the phrase "dig." [laughs] But it's a double whammy of cultural ignorance coming from a different society than ours mixed with a wrong scale in the timeline. But it's not like the Japanese cats -- hip-hop is big out there. And to use the example from manga and anime and the game side of things, every character is a little hokey. And when it comes to black stereotyped characters, they're extra hokey. Except Barret and the gun arm, I'm like, "Yeah. No." And I guess Mr. T with the Priceline commercials are up there; there's a whole lot of Mr. T in Japanese games. Or even Balrog. It's just like "ugh."
And there's like zero, zero black women in these games. I don't know how black people breed in these worlds, but I'm assuming they'd be getting progressively lighter over time because there's no black women there. [laughs]
Multiplayer: [laughs] I think people can argue though that these are classic characters that you're knocking, and what you see in these characters is what you don't see in the "Resident Evil 5" trailer.
Gray: No, they can totally make that argument and they'd be valid. Because really what's offensive is in the eye of who gets offended, right? I'm just saying I saw a marketplace, and I saw zombies that happened to be brown. In "Resident Evil," I'm like fine, so here come the indigenous zombies because we're not in middle America. So it didn't really give me -- and who knows, I could play the game, and I could see a horrible black-on-black crime making each other zombies or look at all these poor devolved people, and even the ones that aren't infected are devolved. Then I'd be like, "Oh man, that's not so hot." [laughs] But the trailer alone… I don't really see it on this one. I think Cole Train bothers me more. [laughs]
Multiplayer: Stereotypes aside, so what games would you like to see for African-Americans and the population at large?
"Where is The Roots for 'Rock Band'?"
Gray: Well, for starters like we said before, I'd like to see where there's no need to worry about fiction or narrative or alienating people on those. Like why not see more African-American lead characters? I'd love to see more African-American characters. I'd love to see more secondary characters that don't reinforce the hip, urban stereotype. Where you would think there would be a big overlap -- like everyone loves "Rock Band," everyone likes "Guitar Hero" -- where is more music that also appeals to a black demographic for these games? Like where is The Roots for "Rock Band"? They play live instrumentation. Where's The Roots download pack? That sounds like a no brainer, right? Everyone in the world likes that game. ...
For games that allow avatar generation, more key art that shows that. "The Sims" does a really good job of showing a pan-cultural/sexual world. It's not like they have, "Here's our key Sim." They sort of have a bunch of Sims. "Mass Effect," they picked the Shepard, and I like it because they were trying to make a story for a role-playing game, and they had a character they could relate to. "Mass Effect" did kind of a good job too. "Mass Effect" totally respected its fiction in that we're in the future, there's a whole lot of nice ethnic people from different backgrounds getting busy and making kids and everyone is gonna sort of look like a hodge-podge. For the most part, with their humans they totally respected that. And they sort of took out racism and used xenophobia which I thought was a great sort-of analogy to racism now sort of with the female human character. But I think more of that. And I think you know what? Not even make a big deal about [race]. Just like, "Oh, the character is black."
Robert Heinlein did something with "Starship Troopers" -- the book, don't talk about the movie -- but the book, it was genius. So you read this whole book and you read this whole story. You go with this character from high school to boot camp to wars. You get this character, you fall in love. In the last three pages, he says one line that made me completely re-evaluate the book and value the book even more. He said, "It's nice to speak in my native Tagalog." And I'm like, "This dude is Filipino?" He just didn't make a big deal out of it. I just assumed it was a white guy in the future. And that kind of thing, can we not make a big deal about it? And games still seem to make a big deal out of it.
Multiplayer: Just slip it in there...
Gray: Yeah, just put it in there. And bam, there it is. And that's the most mature way you can do it. We spend way too much time -- this is funny because I work on "Tomb Raider" -- we spend way too much time on our characters, when all the character really is is a tool used to interact and explore the world, and the player is really the one we should be talking to, not the character. I know this odd because I work in "Tomb Raider" [laughs] which is super character-focused. But we need to spend less time on our avatars and more time on our game worlds.