Chungking Espresso

Gears of War and Gender/Race

Posted in Game Analysis, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on October 16, 2008

Let me start off being fair and unbiased here. I do want to get a job in the industry some day, so I’m going to continue my practice of mixing praise and criticism of commercial video game products: Gears of War set a lot of technological benchmarks when it came out. Ian Bogost, a staunch “boring games” advocate, praises Gears as an example of how important visual texture has become in the latest generation of video games. We are finally at a point in video game history where we can have a complex, layered image that approximates to fine art (painting in particular). The drop-in cooperative play pioneered by Gears (for shooters) effectively placed an industry standard on games that calls for the death of the (80’s-2000’s) single-player dominated period of gaming history lamented by Celia Pearce as antithetical to the whole concept and history of play. Perfecting wall-locking cover tactics in the combat mechanics in Gears has also moved both tactical and arcade shooters forward light years as far as playability and realism are concerned. All of this aside, Gears of War is still a game – a commercial product – designed to “take lunch money away from 14-year old boys” (Fron 7), rife with racist stereotyping and more subtle gender exclusivity, and a product that must be ideologically challenged if one wishes to loosen the hold of the Hegemony of Play on the games industry.

Bogost, while exploring the question of whether a game company’s name/brand could carry qualitative data, asked (paraphrase), “What do we know beforehand about a game built on the Unreal Engine? I mean, besides that it’s going to be bad-ass.” This sums up in one (conjoined) word Gears and any other game produced by Epic. One could unpack this term to mean “macho,” “violent,” or (not surprising) “epic.” Violence doesn’t need to be expounded on much, because the literature on gun violence in video games as antithetical to female and pacifist gamers is so extensive (Fron 8, Laurel 17); however, the “macho” nature of most character models in Epic games does deserve particular attention here. Just as Barbie has been criticized for setting unrealistic aesthetic standards for young girls (Laurel 46), one can posit the grotesque muscularity of characters such as Marcus Fenix and Augustus “Coal Train” as disappointing body ideals for young boys. Contrast this with the more measured depictions of the male body in games such as Grand Theft Auto (any of them) – striving for realism – and Halo – exporting the need for physical strength from the human body to a mechanized armor shell. Finally I’d like to use the unpacked notion of an “epic” game to make the point that most other art forms have moved past the “epic” for numerous reasons.

Harold Bloom’s new conservative literary criticism aside, the study of literature at the university level has moved beyond the cannon of “old white men’s” literature to embrace varying ethnic and gendered voices – even spawning a breakaway from English departments in the form of even more liberal Comparative Literature studies. Gears of War is a video game analogue of Homer’s Iliad: unrealistically muscled male bodies throwing themselves against each other relentlessly, in waves and waves of meat and blood. I’m not even going to go into a discussion of the cinematic abortion that is Troy, which manages to be even more boring than a book (the Iliad) that essentially reads like the biblical Numbers. From a strictly feminist angle, the Greek epics present an absolute low point for the depiction of women in literature. Women in the Odyssey, Iliad, and Aeneid (Roman, later but based on the same literary model) are pawns for the gods (even goddesses) and men, subject to caprice and mostly valued for their beauty alone (Dido, the brilliant queen of Carthage, meets her untimely end god-struck into loving Aeneas). Most (not all) contemporary shooter games present females in roughly the same way: they should be seen and not heard, and if they are seen they’d better have killer breasts. Females are utter garnish in Gears. Lietenant Anya Stroud, a tight blonde, is the only female COG member seen in the game, and through most of the Gears experience she acts as a glorified telephone operator – directing laser strikes and providing tactical terrain information by radio. The only other secondary female character is Myrrah, the so-called “Locust Queen,” who definitely has a controlling influence on the Locust swarms but can be discounted as a model for human female players on the fact that she represents the trope of the insect hive queen (I am unfamiliar with feminist literature praising the insect queen).

My other major qualm with Gears of War is from a race depiction standpoint. Fact: I am a while male upper-middle class student gamer. Fact: many of the fans of this game are Asian and Black males (even some females). Question: how did popular culture move from the comical use of the name “Coltrane” as an offensive racial epithet in 2001’s Royal Tenenbaums to blanket acceptance of it as the name for the Black character Augustus “Coal Train” in 2006’s Gears of War? I have tried on numerous occasions to find blog posts or game reviews that call this character and his name into question on race depiction grounds and have come up with little or nothing to show for my research. Coal Train has all the markings of a stereotypical black male in action movies (with notable recent roles filled by Denzel Washington et al): he acts as the first line of combat (as with the reprehensible use of Blacks for first line offenses during World War II), he often rushes into action without thinking through strategic combat issues, typically finds himself in dangerous situations that Marcus (white) must bail him out from, and spouts self-aggrandizing, sub-literate comments all the while (“I’m the Coal Train baby!”). I do not consider it a substantive rebuttal that “because Hollywood does it so can video games.” Gamer culture strives to establish its constituency as more intelligent (geek chic) than the mainstream movie-goer, so let’s evolve on this issue. Please. Even the ancient, pre-political-correctness writings of Homer and others celebrate the Ethiopian king Memnon as a paragon of virtue, beauty, intelligence, and loyalty. His valiant death at the hands of Achilles leads Zeus to reward him with immortality. The most problematic aspect of my analysis here is the fact that Gears has effectively co-opted black players in support of Coal Train’s “bad-ass” character depiction – evinced in the Gears Rap embedded above. Currently I have no good explanation of this (if I had the time I’d ask Fox Harrell). One answer might be that the Hegemony of Play has become so compelling and accepted that people don’t even think to criticize racist depiction in games that they love to play.

My secondary (arguably less pressing) racial critiques of Gears cover Dom Santiago and Minh Young Kim. Dominic is an unquestioning, loyal sidekick of Marcus. There’s no problem there, until you consider the fact that he is a token Hispanic character invoking the Cisco Kid’s sidekick Pancho. The trope of Hispanic men’s loyalty to their wives will be invoked in Gears of War 2, featuring a significant story block dedicated to Dom’s search for his lost wife Maria. Kim’s character is less objectionable, but again open to attacks of tokenism. The game presents him as closely following the COG codes of conduct and as more intelligent and deliberative than the rest of the Delta Squad. When the story is finished with him, he is skewered on a sword and replaced by the comically annoying (Aryan) Baird. Also note that, unlike Coal Train and Dom, Kim isn’t voiced by an ethnically matched actor. Instead, we get an underwhelming performance from Robin Atkin Downes in the long tradition of using whites for Fu Man Chus and Charlie Chans. To be fair, Epic clearly attempts to include ethnic minorities in their beautiful gorefest. The question here is why the main character in shooters is almost always white and the secondary characters so stereotypical. This situation carries on into most other video games I can think of, even when a game has a Black main character. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas focuses on ghetto life and community, and while its racial depictions might be acceptable based on the realistic harshness of ghetto life, it doesn’t do much in the way of combatting racial stereotypes (we’ve got the fat one, the one that smokes tons of pot, the Uncle Tom traitor, the troubled older brother). In the roleplaying sphere we have the charged ethnic class of the Redguard in the Elder Scrolls series. This race choice allows the player to be Black in the game, but the numbers-based nature of roleplaying games enforces a trope of Blacks (Redguards) as physically superior and mentally inferior to whites. We can do better than this. We can embed humanistic values in the games we make (Laurel 14). Respectful race depiction and the inclusion of male and female characters without unrealistic bodies can be achieved. It’s not so much important to me that we bury shooting games as the most popular genre, but I think we should look into burying a Hegemony of Play that enforces outdated market research (Fron 2), exclusionary employment practices, and piss-poor character development. (Please don’t make me play the Nintendo Wii just so my girlfriend will want to be in the same room as me while I’m playing games. Please!)


3 Responses

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  1. Brizz said, on October 17, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    Heh, I found this post through Google Alerts.

    First, I have to take exception that anything made with Unreal Engine can be wholesale labeled as violent or anything else. Couldn’t we say that 95% of games that are released now have something to do with violence? Even Audiosurf is about violently ramming your little racer into colored blocks, and in World of Goo you can terrorizingly drop sentient goo blobs from dozens of meters up in the air! Gimme a break, please 🙂

    Second, I have to expect that you don’t realize that a number of employees at Epic are black, and, in fact, one of the lead character designers on Gears of War was black (I assume he is also working on Gears 2). If anything, I think Augustus COLE was stereotypical in the sense that he played football at some point, was in the military and had “rough” language.

    However, I don’t see this as anything more than picking up current trends in society. If I was making a game about a group of military veterans and I wanted to add some diversity in there, would I add an esteemed, glasses wearing, grammar-frenetic, stringy black person? I think it’s only logical that a gruff, mean and bulky character could have played football.

    As far as his character goes, it could equally apply to anyone (and frankly, the points you have made apply to both Cole and Baird, I’m not sure why you’ve chosen to summarily apply them to the black guy).

    To me, your post seems like nothing more than an attempt to find racism wherever it may or may not be. It’s no different than thinking every movie about a particular societal trend is pushing propaganda, or that every novel on a subject is trying to brainwash you into believing what the author believes. In this case, someone wanted to add a character that was kind of mean, tough and bulky. The guy could have been white and it wouldn’t have changed anything except that his skin would have been a different color and you’d have another race issue to complain about (that there are no black people in the game).

  2. chungkingespresso said, on October 17, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    Thanks for the input, though I’m not sure it contributes anything to the discussion. If you don’t think there’s anything amiss with Cole’s depiction in the game, then we’re coming from mutually exclusive worldviews. Nice to have an Unreal expert chime in though!

    First, I didn’t say that everything made on Unreal was violent, I said it was “bad-ass;” then I parced that to mean either macho, violent, or epic. I also skip over the discussion of violence in video games, because it’s boring. I agree that some sort of physical contact is present in *almost* every video game; this discussion is boring, I skipped over it, so give me a break.

    Second, I do realize that black people work for Epic. I mention that the game is wildly popular with black gamers. But there’s a nice tradition in the American entertainment industry of co-opting black labor to create racist content. Read a book on African American Cinema. “Picking up on current trends in society” is covered when I mention that just because other forms of media embed stereotypes, it doesn’t mean that video game companies have to. I also mention that the macho nature of the character models applies to the white protagonist as well; so that means I still think the depiction of their bodies is troubling even when they’re white.

    The Hegemony of Play that I assume you’re referring to as “propaganda” and “brainwash” isn’t about conspiracy theory or politics of any kind. It’s simply a trend in marketing and bankrolling that forces video game content creators to incorporate racist and sexist material. You have no proof that I would have complained if there were no black people in the game. What I will complain and continue to write about are tokens and stereotypes, and I’ll praise the first game coming through the pipe featuring a stringy black intellectual with glasses as the protagonist.

  3. chungkingespresso said, on October 17, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    Forgot to mention that the parcing of what “bad-ass” means in this post is context-specific. There are certainly many games made on Unreal that aren’t “macho,” featuring character models that I find much more tasteful and measured.

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