It was during my second playthrough of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead that it hit me.
I was near the end of the game and had come across yet another new group of new survivors. They looked at Lee, then at Clementine, and back at Lee. They had questions, and I was once again forced to explain my relationship to the girl. I found it irritating that I needed to keep explaining why I was traveling with this child every time I met a new group of people.
That’s when I realized why I had to keep explaining myself.
Lee, my character, is a black man. Clementine is a white child. Everyone we met could tell that we weren’t related, and naturally, they were suspicious. Had Lee been a white man, it’s likely they would have been less suspicious or even assumed Lee was the girl’s father.
The more I thought about it, the more interesting the question became. I am a white male, and have had very little first-hand experience with others treating me poorly because of my race. I have never been stopped by police because of the color of my skin, or had a business owner cast a suspicious eye on me when I walked into their shop.
Playing as Lee, those moments in The Walking Dead gave me an admittedly small, limited experience of something many African-Americans and other minorities face on a daily basis in real life. Because I was invested in Lee as a player, it didn’t feel like the NPC’s were simply reacting to another character. It felt like they were reacting to me.
While America has made progress toward healing the deep wounds of the past, one need only to look at the tensions and blatant racism that bubbled to the surface in our last two presidential elections to see that we still have a long way to go.
As sympathetic as one might be to the challenges people of color and other marginalized groups still face, there has always been a gap between those who understand their struggles in theory, and those who must actually live with that reality each and every day.
So we must ask ourselves: Do videogames have the potential to help us bridge that gap in some small way? I think they do.
Unlike movies or even books, videogames allow players to step into the life of a character. Games by design encourage us to become the characters. We suspend our disbelief and get the chance to walk in the shoes of action heroes, genetically enhanced cyborgs and magic-wielding wizards. It’s something few, if any, other mediums have the ability to do.
What if that same power was used to put players in the place of a black teen living in the inner city, or an undocumented immigrant struggling to make a better life for himself. What if they let us step into the role of a gay, lesbian or transgendered character? What if, instead of giving us a huge gun or godlike superpowers, a game placed us in the skin of someone living on the margins of society?
I’m not saying videogames will completely solve complex problems like racism, sexism and homophobia. What I’m saying is that the medium has the potential to let us face those issues on a personal level. They are an opportunity for us to live, to a certain extent, lives that we may not have a very good understanding of. Using videogames in this way could help us gain a better understanding of those different from us, create empathy and become a tool that contributes to a constructive dialogue about some very difficult issues.
In order for this to happen, the people who create games need to put some serious thought into the characters they create. Simply throwing in a token character isn’t going to be enough. We need to see how a character’s race, gender etc. changes how other characters perceive them. In Lee’s case it meant that whenever he met a new character, his skin color immediately lead the questions about his relationship to Clementine.
When Crystal Dynamics releases its reboot of Tomb Raider, will heroine Laura Croft’s gender actually play into how other characters treat her? Will players experience the uncomfortable leers and catcalls from males that many real women all over the world deal with on a daily basis? Will we be placed in the uncomfortable position of knowing how it feels to be seen as an object valued solely by our appearance? Probably not.
In the end, I understand that videogames are first-and-foremost a form of entertainment. I’m certainly not arguing that we should abandon explosions, boss fights and exciting gameplay for excruciating slogs into difficult social issues. But, like film and literature, there’s no reason not to push the boundaries of the medium in a mature and thought-provoking way while we are being entertained
The Walking Dead achieved that, and I hope to more see games that truly take advantage of the unique, immersive possibilities videogames offer us.