Are MMOs Racist?
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to all stem from some money-backers opinion that in order to be successful, products need to conform to a specific and outdated set of beliefs.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.