Are MMOs Racist?

Entertainment has come a long way in 75 years.

Entertainment has come a long way in 75 years.

Aion. Everquest 2. Warhammer Online. What do these three, big-budget MMORPGs have in common? If you said “a fantasy based themepark setting” then you’d be right but unfortunately that’s not the answer I’m looking for. Instead, the correct answer would be “they’ve all created alternate appearances for the Eastern/Western markets”. Yes, each of these games has changed the way player characters look depending on the region the game was released in. You see, for a reason that I cannot fathom, some MMO companies feel that players are so utterly shallow that they would refuse to play a game that didn’t meet their expectations of racial stereotypes.

For those of you that don’t know, my wife is Japanese meaning that my future children will be born with black hair, pale yellow skin, slightly slanty eyes and a genetic disposition to be able to manipulate technology with ease. And I’ll love them completely, without hesitation or qualm, not caring in the slightest about their racial heritage. I’ll also be assuming that their Oriental legacy will imbue with some sort of latent Karate power – in fact, I’m secretly hoping we have twin boys who I can name Ryu and Ken or, in the event that we have a single girl, Zangief. Jokes aside, and maybe I’m in the minority here, but I don’t even give race or heritage a second thought in my day-to-day life and it certainly doesn’t affect my views towards entertainment or gaming.

I, for one, think the argument about regionalising games to appeal to cultural differences is a load of tosh and highly doubt that a European or American would dislike a MMO purely because the characters don’t meet their vision of Arian perfection or that a Korean wouldn’t want to play a game simply because it’s not “manga” enough. It seems to all stem from some money-backers opinion that in order to be successful, products need to conform to a specific and outdated set of beliefs. World of Warcraft seems to be doing well enough in China and it’s not had to change all of it’s avatars to be Bruce Lee rip-offs. Or put it another way: I’m a big white Brit but sometimes I eat noodles too.

Racial stereotyping aside, this change of appearance between regions also goes further than a few tweaks to facial features. The SOGA models in EQ2 went as far as to completely revamp every character model turning them for SOE’s attempt at pseudo-realism into almost cartoony, WoW-like graphics. The oriental version of the Ogre, for instance, looked nothing like the Everquest Ogre and instead more like a Chinese Klingon. Although some people loved the SOGA models more than the originals, I didn’t, and, to me, there were just an example of selling out on the artistic integrity and vision of the game to try and earn a few bucks more by appealing to the stereotyped views of the Asian market. The concepts, vision and artistic design behind games are not minor, inconsequential afterthoughts that can be swapped in and out depending on where the products sells.

A few MMOs do it right though and I have to take my hat off to developers like Sigil and Funcom for their strong portrayal of Asian races without compromise. Vanguard and Age of Conan didn’t beat around the bush hiding the ethnicity of it’s races or try to please everyone who played the game. They created races who proudly demonstrated their heritage and never tried to hide it, a testement to the fact that maybe gamers like the idea of playing characters with different racial facial features.

I concede that racism is probably too strong a word to describe this stereotyping but it’s still sad day when we see cutting-edge games built using cutting-edge technology yet conforming to old, silly ideas about race and culture. Let’s ditch this attempt to widen the Eastern/Western divide even more than it already is and just enjoy the games we have the way they were intended to be. Besides, it will help us all prepare for our future Chinese overlords.


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  1. My wife has this same problem with Anime: she feels it’s almost a self-loathing kind of media because of the Westernized, stylized eyes. Hers comes from a very close friend she had who was from Japan and hated the fact that she couldn’t have the big blue eyes my wife does.

    I don’t know where I fall on it, honestly.

    I’ve never really given it a thought. I’ll play the characters I think look coolest or give the best bonuses, or have the best combination of those two. Sometimes that means a halfling or a Rodian or a Drow or a Warforged or an Ogre or a Draenei.

    I have one thing, though, and it has nothing to do with races. When possible, I make all my characters look old. Or most of them. I don’t think that makes me prejudiced against young people.

    • Gordon says:

      I usually go for the races that I cannot with (and look the most cool). Having a good backstory and interesting lore helps a lot too. I definitely usually avoid the “hunky white guy” type avatar though. It’s just so cliché ;)

  2. Borror0 says:

    Different cultures are different. For example, in the West tanned or darker skin is generally viewed as attractive; in the East, pale skin is viewed as generally attractive to the point where cosmetic companies sell product to make skin look paler. The two cultures have different views about aesthetic.

    Staples Inc, the world’s largest office supply store, runs under the name of “Bureau En Gros” in the province of Québec because they know that québecois are more likely to buy from a company with a French name over one with an English name, so it gives them an edge over their competitor in the province.

    In either case, it’s not racism or thinking that customers are shallow. It’s adapting to the market. The audience will vary from country to country. K-pop has a very different aesthetic from American pop music, for example. Both are pop music, but they are aimed at different crowds. It makes sense for MMO companies to adapt to how the market is. It’s not based on prejudices or stereotypes but on fact: certain things are more or less popular in certain cultures.

    • Gordon says:

      I agree with that to a certain extent but I also wonder how much of it is companies pushing their preconceived notions on the market without the data to back it up. If there is data, I’d love to see it.

      The fact that games like WoW can perform well in the Chinese market without having to change the way their humans look to make them more Asian to me says that gamers are a lot more open minded than local distributors believe. I mean, Final Fantasy sells very well in the US and the game isn’t altered to make it less manga-esque. In fact, it’s probably one of it’s attractions.

      • Borror0 says:

        I suspect that many studios do market research before adapting their graphics to other regions. Art is expensive, so it would be illogical to spend so much money without anything supporting the decision other than mere assumptions.

        As for WoW and FF, I don’t think they are good examples.

        Final Fantasy started in 2D, where characters looked neither Asian nor Caucasian. They look 8-bity! It had the time to gather quite a following before it started to have Anime-like looks. Plus, it’s not like there was not a significant overlap between gamers and anime fans.

        As for WoW, the game had already millions of players elsewhere. I think that is a solid proof that the gameplay is quite solid on its own and would do well anywhere in the world. The question is more, “Would have it done as well has some modifications been done to its graphics?” And it’s look like WoW’s aesthetic was really Western. Also, it did do some minor changes like removing skeletons so it isn’t unaltered.

  3. “…to me, there were just an example of selling out on the artistic integrity and vision of the game to try and earn a few bucks more by appealing to the stereotyped views…”

    I can understand how this can be interpreted as selling out, but I think it’s done more in the spirit of adapting to a culture, rather than appealing to stereotyped views. I think Borror0 put is very nicely. It’s not always about being “racist”, sometimes it’s simply trying to sell a product by making it “make sense” to a different market.

    This is an insightful article though, and made me smile. I’m Asian myself, and married to a big white guy who loves to eat noodles too :P I too will also love my future children completely, with not a care about their racial heritage.

    • Gordon says:

      Yeah, Borror0 definitely has some good points :) I think racism is definitely too strong a word… I suppose I think it’s more about racial stereotyping and player profiling than anything else.

      Really happy you enjoyed the article :)

  4. KaarBaak says:

    A little disappointed when I read the article. Seeing the headline I was hoping it was going to be about games making races identical mechanic-wise in the name of “balance.” (think Fey tank).

    I played EQ2 for almost three years. I didn’t realize until reading this article that the SOGA models were to appeal to different races. I just thought that some gamers preferred a different look. Also, as I recall implementing the models only affected how a player sees other players and did not affect how you looked to other players.

    It just seemed like they added more options…and we usually applaud more options, don’t we? And as pointed out above…it’s not about race…it’s about appealing to more players in order to make more money. Crediting a feature with moral or ethical motivations is giving the “suits” too much credit.

    But, I do enjoy reading blogs with original subject matter like yours.


    PS: ironically, Transformers2 is on the TV and it’s racist undertones put SW Ep 1 to shame.

    • Gordon says:

      “it’s not about race…it’s about appealing to more players in order to make more money”

      I just really wonder how much data there is to support those claims though.

      “PS: ironically, Transformers2 is on the TV and it’s racist undertones put SW Ep 1 to shame.”

      Transformers 2 has racist understones?! I had no idea. Do tell! :)

  5. Wiqd says:

    Yea I’ll have to go with KB on this one. I don’t think it’s about being racist, I think it’s about accommodating other races’ likes and dislikes. People cried out for the SOGA graphics in EQ2 and I for one like them WAY better than the originals. Same for Aion: Westerners cried out for a more western-style appearance to choose from and were accommodated.

    Since Aion began in Korea well before it hit the western shores anyway, it would make sense they make something they can relate to. When it released to the western shores, they made something we could relate to. I’m sure there are studies that go with that kind of thing (and I can’t really explain why anime has the western style eyes) but in the end, people relate better to what they know and are comfortable with. I like the SOGA and anime styles of Aion and EQ2 because I love anime. Most westerners don’t. Therefore, it makes sense to give them something they can relate to.

    • Gordon says:

      Ah but no one wanted the SOGA models until they were announced :) Same could be said for Aion. I may be wrong but I didn’t really see anyone crying out for more Western faces. Of course, I think I’m just too naive on the whole subject :P

  6. Tobold says:

    Do you think there are no differences at all between western and eastern MMO audiences? I thought we had quite a lot of data of PvP games like Lineage I and II doing very well in Asia and not at all in America and Europe.

    I wouldn’t call that “racial” though, I think it is more of a “cultural” difference.

  7. gevlon says:

    @Tobold: the game rules can represent a culture, but the appearance of the character and the scenery has no effect to the gameplay. If all WoW mounts would be reskinned to be a heap of smelling dung and all player characters would have festering rots on their body, the game mechanics would not change, yet I assume a “slight” loss of playerbase.

    @Gordon: I’m afraid the game companies are right to be etno-centric (not racist, since they don’t picture other races as inferior, they simply don’t picture them at all). Just consider that in WoW, the most popular horde race is blood elf by a mile, despite having the worst racials for most classes and mandatory only for paladins. Why? Simply because BE is a bizarre overdoing of metrosexual white people. I mean do you really expect a lolling 0/0/71 DK called “ArthasDK” to be NOT racist?

  8. It’s definitely not a case of a bunch of middle-aged white guys sitting in an office somewhere handing down orders that hapless developers must revamp their games.

    When you meet with Asian publishers about your game, one of the things they will discuss with you is whether they feel your art style will succeed in their market. After all, every company is trying to maximize their chances for success, and most American companies rely upon the expertise of publishers and distributors who have achieved positive results in foreign markets.

    So if an Asian publisher comes back and suggests that your game would have a better chance of success if you changed certain elements of the gameplay, interface, character art, etc., it falls to the developer to assess the impact of such changes and determine if the cost is worth the potential benefits. Though you can draw some conclusions based on sales data, often this process involves a leap of faith.

    • Gordon says:

      Always great to hear from you, Steve!

      I didn’t really imagine it was “suits” making decisions on a whim but it’s very interesting to hear your points about Asian publishers etc and increasing the chances success of games in foreign markets. Do you think there is solid data to back up the claims or do you think it’s just all based on suspicion?

      Also, don’t suppose you know how the EQ2 team felt about introducing the SOGA models to the Western market. Was it a tough decision?

  9. River says:

    Screw all this racial stuff, I have a bone to pick with you, why are you gonna name your daughter Zangief, everyone knows Blanka was a better choice.

    Sorry racism is bad too of course, but not as bad as choosing a terrible Street Fighter’s name for your child.

    As for myself, I prefer Samurai Showdown names. Hattori Hanzo for the win. ;)

  10. ixobelle says:

    WoW actually ***DID*** tailor it’s art for release in China:

    Apparently seeing exposed bones on Undead is ‘too scary’ or something, so they remodeled the Undead. Minor, but THERE.

  11. Charn says:

    The SOGA models were introduced when Everquest II, through “Everquest II: East” was introduced to the markets in China, Taiwain, and South Korea by SoE with the help of Gamania (a gaming company located in Taipei, Taiwan). It was (as was stated earlier) the suggestion of the Asian producers to create the alternate “SOGA” models. And I do believe (if memory serves) the models were created and designed by Asian artists and developers.

    Racism is defined as the prejudging or discrimination of a race and that race determines human traits, usually involving the idea that your own race is superior to others and has the right to rule them.

    Now, since SoE was working with Gamania and it was the suggestion and ultimate development of the SOGA models by and for Asians THEMSELVES . . . I don’t think it could be characterized as racism. And though Sony Online Entertainment and Everquest II are devoloped in America (which is ultimately owned by an Asian company) I don’t think race or racISM was a factor . . . they were just looking for the best way to make a buck. And, in the end, that’s why companies devolop these games.

    • Gordon says:

      Yeah, you’re right :) Still, I can’t help but wonder if any of the gamers actually care how Western or Eastern their avatars look at the end of the day and if these decisions are just made by people in boardrooms without any data to back them up.

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