Clive Thompson has a pretty interesting column in Wired about the casual (and sometimes overt)racism in video games, specifically in massive online games and other games that include different races as a way to offer variety and replayability. He writes:
Except that races inside games often seem to reflect, in a creepy way, some of our most regrettable biases about race in real life. For example, when World of Warcraft first came out, players were amused, stunned or both to discover that the evil trolls spoke in … Jamaican accents. Aaron Delwiche, a game academic at Trinity University, asked his student Beth Cox to analyze all the “emotes” in World of Warcraft — the spoken greetings or hand gestures Blizzard pre-programmed into each race. She found that Trolls were “disproportionately more likely to make violent or sexual statements,” Delwiche notes. (Some of their sentences were even scripted in Ebonics: “You going to axe me out?” says the female Troll when you hit the “flirt” command.) In the same way, the “good” alliance characters tended to employ Western, Christian-like symbols, while the evil horde had totems and shamanistic magic.
I think these examples are actually more a function of poor game design and storytelling than of unconscious biases and racism. The two examples Thompson gives — an upcoming Lord of the Rings game and World of Warcraft, which is a latter-day LOTR knockoff — are derivative orcs-elves-and-dwarves fantasy. Most massive online games — most role-playing games, for that matter — seem to be in that vein. Combine derivative, overused fantasy tropes with the need to program in hundreds or thousands of basic responses and interactions with minor characters, and it’s no surprise the developers fall back on what turn out to be casually racist assumptions and treatment of the characters. A game could try something “new” and reverse the good-and-evil moral order, making elves bad and orcs noble. But that would still be using the same old fantasy motifs and characters.
Of course game developers should acknowledge the casual racism and try to weed it out of their stories and characters. But I think this is a case — sort of like the debate over whether on-screen displays (aka HUDs) are good or bad — where there’s a deeper issue of poor game design.
On the other hand, casual racism is what gives so many old-school video games their charm! What would Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out be without Soda Popinski — who’s pale and drunk because he’s Russian. Or Piston Honda, who says in between rounds: “Sushi, Kamikaze, Fujiyama, Nippon-ichi.” For that matter, I don’t see animated movies teaching girls anymore that dark-skinned fat whore-witches are evil and white buxom barely legal mermaids are pure and good. If the video game industry heeds Thompson’s call, where oh where are our kids going to learn this kind of prejudice? Won’t somebody think of the children???
— March 12, 2007