As an African American, it does not make me happy to have to write a post like this at this time. I would argue infighting is one of the main reasons that so many groups with a seemingly common goal fail to accomplish real change within whatever context. Whether it’s government, healthcare, or the games industry, I think infighting among special interest groups happens too often and always to the advantage of those fighting against change. But I will also not stand by and just let people, of any race including my own, spout off takes that are not only blatantly wrong but also detrimental to people of color in the long run. So while I did not want to write this post, and had not originally planned to write it this week if at all, I felt it was important and necessary.
Little Devil Inside is an upcoming indie game from a Korean developer called Neostream Interactive. And by Korean I don’t mean Asian people living in America. I mean actual Koreans born and raised in Korea. This game was shown during the PS5 Reveal presentation earlier this month. In fact, it was the topic of last week’s blog post. Little Devil Inside was one of the trailers I liked most from the entire presentation. In this game, you explore different parts of the world (unconfirmed if it’s the real world or a made up one) and hunt monsters. These monsters include dragons, krakens, giant felines, and many other things. There are also humanoid, but not necessarily human, enemies found in the various lands you explore. The game looks absolutely awesome and I’m looking forward to playing it. I will probably even contact the developer and request a review copy.
Soon after the PS5 Reveal presentation, some YouTuber, who I won’t name here, decided that they were offended by this trailer. Specifically they were offended by a specific group of humanoid enemies shown in the trailer. Again, these enemies have not been confirmed to be actual humans. And this world has not been confirmed to be our world. But this YouTuber decided they were offended. Specifically they were offended on behalf of us Black people. I don’t know the YouTuber personally. I don’t know if they are or are not Black. But I know that they were offended specifically because of how this character design resembles Black stereotypes to them. They proceeded to post their opinion online and that opinion went viral ultimately causing the development studio to apologize profusely and promise to change the designs. The YouTuber ultimately accepted the apology, once again on behalf of all of us Black people, acknowledged that they felt the developers, a group of Koreans with no history of African slavery or systemic racism against Black people, were sincere in their claim that they had no intention of offending Black people or trying to further stereotypes. After the apology was given and accepted, the YouTuber followed up by making the claim/demand that all studios need to have a person of color in the room to ensure things like this don’t happen in the future. And by person of color they meant Black person because obviously Asians don’t count as people of color . . . There are a number of things that need to be unpacked here.
First, let me start by saying social media influencers have too much power. A single person should not be able to make a tweet on behalf of all Black people, cause a viral outrage, and possibly end the careers of an entire studio of developers. Sure it’s an indie studio with only 12 core employees so it’s not a ton of people, but it’s still a flagrantly abusive level of power for someone I’ve never even heard of before to have as an unelected member of our society. That’s the first issue I want to layout. But now let’s actually talk about the real problems with this entire scenario.
A big problem, which has only gotten worse over time, is that Americans tend to dictate the terms of reality to the rest of the world while ignoring the fact that their reality doesn’t apply to the rest of the world. Take sexism as an example. In the United States of America, the tech industry is bogged down by sexism. It is difficult for women to get jobs in the tech industry. Or at least that’s what I’ve been told and led to believe for most of my life. I’ve never actually worked in the American tech industry so I can neither confirm nor deny this claim. But I do work in the Taiwanese tech industry and have for several years. I can say with the utmost level of assurance that sexism is absolutely not a problem for the tech industry in Taiwan. I might be inclined to say racism was, but not sexism. I’d even go as far as saying that women might outnumber men in the Taiwanese tech industry. And that’s at all levels. Sales, engineering, PR, marketing, and so on. It would be insulting to the industry as a whole for someone to claim Taiwan’s tech industry has a sexism problem. What that means is that the issue(s) American women are complaining about and fighting for in the American tech industry doesn’t apply to Taiwan. So when certain policies and expectations are set by Americans concerning this issue and then forced onto the rest of the world it becomes a real problem. This is probably even more true with racism.
There are two types of racism: systemic and individual. The former often manifests itself within the latter. Many individuals are racist because the system has taught them to be so. Also, many people don’t see themselves as racists because the system has done the racism for them. So they don’t see their beliefs and actions as racist because they’re just behaving normally within a system that’s inherently racist so they are literally incapable of even recognizing their own racism. America is rampant with both types of racism.
In my opinion, individual racism requires two things: intent and knowledge. You have to be aware that something is racist and you have to intend to offend with the racist act. If both of these things are not true then it’s not racism. The act might be racist in a certain context, but the person doing the act is not a racist. Though they may be a victim of systemic racism causing them to unintentionally act in a racist way. For example, people who vote for a candidate that supports policies that will disproportionately hurt the Black community are not necessarily racists. Because they may very well support those policies for reasons that have nothing to do with how they will affect the Black community and may not even be aware of those negative effects. These people are not intentionally racist. They are victims of systemic racism guiding their decisions. It’s still a problem and they do need to be properly educated on the issue, but labeling them as racists is inaccurate until they are made knowledgeable about what their voting decisions will do to Black communities.
On the other side of the coin, if you don’t know something is racist and you do it then you aren’t a racist, because you didn’t know the act was racist and didn’t intend for it to be. That doesn’t necessarily make it OK. But it’s another example of the actor not being racist. So before moving forward I want to make it very clear that Neostream Interactive is not and did not intend to be racist with their designs in Little Devil Inside. And most people, including the YouTuber, agree with that statement. Neostream Interactive is not racist against Black people. Or at least this issue is not proof of that if they are.
So if we can move past the issue of the developer being racist, which I think we can and have already explained why, then all we really need to discuss is what is and isn’t OK for developers to do. And this is the much more important question in a globally active and relevant creative industry. Though many Americans hate to acknowledge it, not all games are made by or for American audiences. And even within the American audience, not all games are made for all American players. So what is and is not OK for creatives to do with their time, effort, and money? This is the question that continues to plague this and many other creative industries. In this specific instance, are the designs created by Neostream Interactive for these supposedly offensive characters problematic? Or more to the point, should the developers be forced or expected to change them?
Now the main list of complaints regarding these designs were that they resembled Black stereotypes. Specifically they had darker skin, dreadlocks, wore masks that had had big red lips, and the dart blowers they hold resemble marijuana joints. Now you can say these natives are Black, in the American sense of the word, but that’s not confirmed given there’s no locational context, no breakdown of how race works within the world of the game, and no specific confirmation that they’re even humans given the fact that they’re wearing masks. Also, they’re not dark skinned, as in Kenyan, they’re just darker skinned as in not Caucasian. But that includes a lot of different people. If you took all the people in the world that have skin tones similar to the characters in the image other than those of African descent you’d still have several including Indians, Middle Eastern/Arabs, Maoris and other native island populations, Filipinos, Sri Lankans and other Southeast Asians, and the list can go on. To just say “well they aren’t White so they must be Black” isn’t really accurate. I’m not gonna be one of those White people that goes “you’re the real racists” because that’s a stupid argument that doesn’t hold any water given the context that it’s always used in, but I will say that no it is not fair to just ignore several different non-Black ethnic groups simply because you are Black and as an American think the world revolves around you. I’m an African American but as an expat I’m aware that there are people who aren’t Black that have darker skin than me around the world.
Of course many people will then say what about the dreadlocks. Sure you can argue the skin doesn’t automatically mean Black but when you add it to the dreadlocks it’s a no brainer. Again, that’s an assumption. Yes dreadlocks are stereotypically applied to Black people, usually Jamaicans because of iconic figures like Bob Marely, but people all over the world can and do have dreadlocks. You might remember a White band called Korn that was famous for having them. But I can show you countless examples of non-Black dark skinned people with dreadlocks. Just Google “indian dreadlocks” and you will find countless pictures of dark-skinned, non-Black people with epic dreadlocks. So to just assume these are Black people is pretty unfair. Especially when the developers are Korean. They are much closer to places like Southeast Asia and India both physically and culturally. It’s not ridiculous to think they pulled inspiration for the designs from a culture other than African tribesmen.
The masks I don’t agree with at all and I hate that people do this. Black face is a very culturally specific issue that applies to pretty much only North America. And really it only applies to the United States in an overwhelming majority of scenarios. Because Black face is specifically about African Americans not being able to work in show business so White people dawned makeup to simulate Black people both on stage and in movies rather than allowing Black people to represent themselves in the form of Black actors. You can’t really apply Black face to any other culture because no other culture has a long history of making movies with Black characters in them, outside of African countries, that had the resources to produce films. Even today, an overwhelming percentage of movies with Black characters in them only come from North America or the UK. Korean films don’t really have Black people in them. The only one I can even think of is Snowpiercer. Which has a Korean director, the great Boon Joon-ho, but I don’t know if I’d call it a Korean film. It’s based on a French graphic novel, filmed in the Czech Republic, and starring a white guy, Chris “Captain America” Evans. It’s as much a Korean film as a Mexican guy using kimchi in tacos is Korean food. Black face doesn’t really apply to most cultural histories because most of them didn’t and still don’t put Black people in their films to begin with. Now that in and of itself is racism, kind of, but it’s not Black face. So to expect people outside of America to register Black face within their content is wrong. And it happens all the time and it irritates me a lot.
Japan, for example, gets accused of doing Black face all the time. But it’s not really fair to accuse them of something that has nothing to do with their history. And then people say “well they should know better in 2020”. But why? Why should they know better? Do you think people in Japan spend their days learning about the racist history of the American film industry? They don’t. Most Americans don’t spend their days learning about the racist history of the American film industry. So why would a bunch of people in a country that has for all intents and purposes no (a negligible amount) Black people be aware of these sorts of racial offenses? Do you as an American know all the different cultural faux pas of Japan? I bet you don’t.
Can we also acknowledge that the masks aren’t black? They’re white. If anything, this is White face. So the entire premise of these masks representing Black face is just ridiculous. You’re taking a piece of these designs out of context, blatantly ignoring the rest of the design, and declaring a racist stereotype. That’s not fair. What if I saw a Canadian person drinking beer and called them a Nazi? They’ve not said anything offensive or anti-Semitic. They’re not wearing Nazi memorabilia. They didn’t vote for a racist candidate. They’re just drinking a beer. And I said well beer is stereotypically German and Germans are stereotypically Nazis so by drinking a beer you are emulating Nazis and thus that makes you a Nazi. That Canadian person, and hopefully every other person, though I doubt it in 2020, would say I was insane. And I would be. Because you can’t just apply pieces of things with no context to other things and label them racism. These characters aren’t dark skinned people with big lips. They’re darker skinned people with white masks that have big lips. But that’s just tribal mask designs embellished with artistic license to make them standout in a video game.
Google “tribal masks”. Now the first thing that’s gonna happen is that you’re going to assume they’re all African tribal masks and that’s you being a little racist by exclusion. There are native tribes from all over the world and many of them carved masks. To just assume all tribal masks reference Africa is not only exclusionary, but also wildly inaccurate. What you will notice is that many of these masks have thick, exaggerated lips on them. Not just in red but in many colors. Are there African masks like that? Absolutely. Are there also masks like that from other cultures? Absolutely. Now I am happy to acknowledge that a great many of the masks in the general Google search are/will be African masks, but to just assume that this Korean team was absolutely trying to depict Black people would be confirmation bias based on that fact. Also, that actually would be to their credit if they were trying to depict authentic tribal masks, because the real masks do have large pronounced lips. So it’s not a reference to Black face or Black stereotypes. If anything referencing Black people, it’s an attempt to be accurate in the depiction of African tribal masks. So not only are the masks not black in color but they’re also not necessarily Black in terms of cultural background. And even if they are, they’d still be an accurate depiction of the source material. So I consider the red lips, and by extension the masks as a whole, to be a non-issue. I could debate the skin tones with you. I can debate the hair. But the masks cannot be seen as racist. Unless you want to go the cultural appropriation route but I’m not gonna even dignify that line of reasoning in this particular discussion.
Now the dart blowers I’m 50/50 on. Not on whether or not it’s some sort of attack on Black people but whether or not they resemble joints. Let’s be very clear, blow darts are a type of weapon that have been used by multiple cultures and not stereotypically applied to African tribes. If anything they’re a stereotype of Central and South American native populations. Africa you think spears as the stereotype, not blow darts. So if anything the presence of dart blowers should move you away from the assumption that these characters are meant to be Black. But after doing some research I can understand why people would say the dart blowers look like joints. Real life dart blowers tend to be much longer than the ones in this picture. They can be this short but it’s very rare. So saying they look like joints, though no one is saying they are joints, is a fair opinion to have. But if anything that just means that these aren’t necessarily humans at all and thus the same standards of representation shouldn’t be applied to them. Or this isn’t meant to be our world at all, meaning we shouldn’t be applying any of our standards to it. Also, I think it’s really offensive to say that only Black people smoke weed. I’ve known potheads of every race. There was a time where weed was applied as a stereotype to Black people but that’s one of the few instances of racism that I think we’ve actually moved past as a society. Probably because White people were given permission to profit off it legally. But joints for sure aren’t a stereotype of Black people. If anything they’re a stereotype of hippies. Now if those dart blowers were brown and looked like a Philly blunt then sure I’d get on board, but a regular white joint is not iconic to Black people.
If it’s not obvious, I think all four of these complaints are not valid claims that Neostream Interactive has been racially insensitive and that these are offensive depictions of Black people. Because as I’ve shown, there’s no hard evidence that these even are depictions of Black people. And if they are, they’re not offensive. They’re fairly accurate depictions of tribesmen wearing traditional masks, other than the short length of the dart blowers. So this comes back to my original question: what is and is not OK for developers to do? More specifically what is and is not OK for a group of Korean developers to depict in their games? Because that’s what this is really about. This is about Americans deciding what is and is not OK for non-Americans to depict in their art. I assume at least some of these Americans are actually Black, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t. It is 2020 after all. These people who have complained don’t actually want more racially sensitive depictions of Black people in this or any game. What they actually want is for Korean developers, among other foreign, non-Black developers to not depict Black people in their games at all. And that’s a different issue altogether.
There are two commonly occurring opinions on the representation of Black people in visual art forms. Usually you either are fine with anyone doing it as long as they don’t cross certain obvious lines. Or you don’t want anyone doing it except for Black people. There are other opinions, but these two are the most commonly occurring. Sadly, a lot of people take the latter view. Not just Black people. A lot of people think that only Black people should be allowed to depict Black people. Many will offer a compromise and say well if you aren’t Black you can hire a Black person to make sure your work is racially sensitive. I have major problems with that compromise though. First off, it puts forth the idea that one Black person gets to speak for all Black people. Like the YouTuber stated that Neostream’s designs are why every game studio needs to have a Black person in the room. At least when depicting people with darker skin in their games. The YouTuber didn’t make that clarification in the posts I saw, but I will give them the benefit of the doubt that they wouldn’t expect a Japanese development team making a game about exclusively Japanese characters to hire a Black person to give their insight about representation. I could be wrong. Again, it is 2020. But I assume they have some level of practicality in their head. But this is a ridiculous level of power to give one person. The argument is literally that this development team is meant to trust this one Black person to represent the views of all Black people accurately. Or at the very least they will be able to determine what will offend the lowest number of Black people while still appealing to the largest number of Black people as a realistic depiction of Black people. We’re not a homogenized group of a singular mind. This post is proof of that. I’m so in disagreement with the opinion that this game is offensive to Black people that I’ve taken the time to write a post more than five single spaced pages long to defend the developer. And I almost never defend developers on any issue.
The first issue leads into the second one. In what world is it practical, either financially or physically, for an indie studio of only 12 people located in Korea to hire a Black person? More so, to hire a Black person in order to make judgements for what probably amounts to maybe an hour of content. Unless this game is just rife with enemies that can be thought of as Black people, we’re talking about enemies in a single area of a game that appears to have several areas. If this was a AAA studio located in the US or the EU, sure. I can 100% agree that they have a Black person on staff. I would hope that the Black person isn’t there just to be the resident Black person and that they can actually contribute to game production in some way. But yes, the Western gaming industry can and should do more to diversify their hiring practices. And no hiring a bunch of white women is not enough to consider the diversity issue dealt with. But an indie studio located in a place where the number of Black people is so low that the word negligible isn’t even low enough to describe the percentage of available candidates is ridiculous. I live in Taiwan. The country has a population of 23.78 million people. I would be surprised if there are 500 Black people on this entire island. And if you mean African American and don’t count actual Africans, it’s probably not even 200 people. And to be frank, a lot of us aren’t fluent in the local language, Mandarin. Now I’ve never been to Korea but I would assume it’s a similar situation to Taiwan. There aren’t loads of Black people running around, fluent in Korean, looking to consult on video game wokeness. And even if by some magical coincidence there were, it’s completely ridiculous to expect an indie studio to shell out the money to employ one. Many indie studios struggle just to keep their doors open. So this entire line of reasoning doesn’t make any practical sense.
Additionally, I don’t want people being handed jobs in the gaming industry that don’t actually have any interest or relevance to the gaming industry. I’m an African American that has spent my life trying to break into that industry. The idea of just handing Black people jobs at game development studios that have nothing to do with actual game development cheapens the accomplishment of every Black person who has struggled to and ultimately achieved the goal of working as a game developer. I don’t want to see that cheapened.
Finally, this is offensive to creatives as a whole. As a creative myself, I don’t like the idea of people being able to dictate what we can and can’t do to realize our own artistic visions. Yes there are lines. Like you probably shouldn’t make a game where there’s a group of people known for their violence, love of fried chicken & watermelon, and their ability to dance that happen to have dark skin. But that’s a pretty obvious line that’s easy not to cross. But if we’re gonna start saying giving a character dreadlocks is offensive then how are creatives supposed to even create? And that’s why I don’t actually buy into this compromise of hiring diversity consultants. I think it’s a red herring for people who actually just don’t want to see Black characters created by non-Black people. And to be honest I can understand why people feel that way.
I’ve written more than once about the fact that Black people aren’t usually represented well or properly in games. We’re rarely protagonists. When we are protagonists it can be done really badly. And often when they do try to do it the game ends up sucking for other reasons and then the presence of a Black protagonist is blamed for why the game didn’t do well. It’s really hard and unfair. So much to the point that many Black people have given up. They would rather not see a white company make Black characters if the alternative is doing Black characters poorly. I get why people feel that way. At times, I have felt that way. But ultimately I don’t like the idea of preventing anyone who isn’t Black from putting Black characters in their games. For the simple fact that it hurts the goal of normalization in the long run.
I yearn for the day when a developer or publisher announces that a game will have a Black protagonist and nobody cares. Black people don’t care. White people don’t care. No one cares. Not because people don’t like games with Black protagonists and will just ignore the project, but because it’s so common that it’s no longer a selling point. I hope for a time when EA says a new game will star a Black guy and all the White people in the comments section reply by saying that’s nothing special because they’ve already played three AAAs that year with Black protagonists. That’s where I want us to get. Women, or at least white women, are starting to get there. I think it’s very telling that some of the most popular upcoming games and even games of the last generation star women. The Last of Us Part 2, the latest Tomb Raider trilogy, and Horizon: Zero Dawn as well as the recently announced sequel. I’m not saying that female protagonists are now so common that they’ve become a trope, but we are at a point where a majority of gamers don’t think it’s particularly out of the box to have one. At least when it comes to white female protagonists anyway. That’s where I hope Black protagonists get one day.
The fact is that such a level of normalization can’t happen if only Black developers are allowed to have Black characters in their games. We simply don’t have the access and resources to create that many noteworthy projects. There are Black owned and operated game development studios. But all of them are indie and almost none of them are widely known by name. It’s much easier to get a large number of non-Black gamers to play a game starring a Black guy by Ubisoft than it is to get them to play one by an indie developer. That’s just the truth of the market. That means that we have to rely on others to help normalize us in games. Because we literally cannot do it ourselves at this point. So I would rather allow a Korean studio be allowed to have Black characters in any capacity in their game and help to build up the normalization of Black people in games than stifle that normalization process because some people looking to get offended don’t like historically accurate depictions of tribal masks.
I still don’t agree that it’s valid to state with 100% certainty that those tribal characters are Black, but if they are I want you to really think about what that means. A small Korean team of 12 people living in a country where they don’t even really have Black people chose to include them in their game. Maybe not as the protagonist, but that’s still a huge leap in the fight for normalization. There are still AAA titles from Western devs that have zero Black characters in them. The fact that a group of people who collectively might not even know a single Black person at a personal level chose to include them is really spectacular. And the fact that people attacked them for that is a step in the wrong direction, in my opinion. Because now the next indie studio from Asia probably isn’t going to do it. They might think about having Black characters and ultimately decide it’s not worth the risk. We should not be trying to stifle our own inclusion in games. We should be encouraging it. Especially when we believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the developer did not have ill intentions. But instead those people of color are being removed from the game completely. The dev has already stated that they will make their skin tones lighter. That may not mean that they end up being Caucasian, but they certainly will not be Black. Meaning Black people, or at least those who chose to speak on behalf of Black people, literally white washed us out of the game. Solutions like that will never lead to normalization.
Again, I’m not happy that I had to write this post. I’m not happy that some people will read it and call me an Uncle Tom. Even though we’re talking about Koreans and White people have literally nothing to do with this issue. I hate the fact that I was forced to write an opinion against some of my fellow African Americans during this critical moment in Black history. That all makes me very unhappy. But I am not going to stand by and watch what looks like a great indie project get destroyed because of unfounded political grandstanding by social media influencers looking to get clicks. I side with Neostream Interactive on this issue. I’m unhappy they were forced to change their designs out of fear for their project’s success. I think Little Devil Inside looks great and I am sad that there will absolutely be no Black people in the final product and most likely no projects coming out of Korea for quite some time. I wish the studio the best of luck and I can’t wait to try the game.