Life Is Strange is an incredibly good game. I know, I know, I’m late to this party, but it’s true. New installments have me salivating. Chloe Price has me swooning. I am simultaneously tickled and intrigued by Life Is Strange, and I’ve gone from curious about it to pushing it on anyone who will listen in a series of days. I thought I’d actually be able to hold out playing it until the fifth and final installment arrived; I thought wrong, and after bingeing all four available episodes in one week, I am desperately hungry for more.
Part of why I gave in was because I saw so many people—women, especially—singing its praises. That’s no accident. The game is praiseworthy at the very least. But as I played through it, I found myself wondering why I hadn’t seen anyone mention what seemed to me like a pretty glaring issue with the game, particularly in regards to its cast. You see, for as progressive as it is—for as good as it is—there’s a gigantic elephant in the room when it comes to Life Is Strange, and it’s this: every single member of the main cast is … drumroll, please?
White. Very white.
Life Is Strange has a main cast of six: Max Caulfield, Chloe Price, Kate Marsh, Warren Graham, Victoria Chase, and Nathan Prescott. It also focuses around the disappearance of a girl named Rachel Amber; the tension between Chloe and her stepfather, David (as well as the tension between David and the student body); and the relationship between several students and their photography teacher, Mr. Jefferson. And here’s the extent of the problem: every single character I just named is—at least ambiguously—white.
Now, a few of you out there may be about to accuse me of nit-picking. I understand. Criticism of a title this well-received can be hard to hear. However, 1. I promise you this is a real problem, not one I’m conjuring out of nothing, and 2. I resent the use of the phrase “nit-picking.” Here’s a quick etymology lesson: “nits” are lice eggs. They’re nearly invisible to the naked eye, and they stick very stubbornly to strands of your hair. If someone doesn’t come along and pick all of them off your head, you’ll soon have a head full of lice if you don’t already. Ever had lice? It’s not a fun experience. 0/10. Would not recommend.
Point being: nit-pickers are doing you a favor. You’d be wise to sit still and let us do our work.
It’s incontestable that video games have a big problem with race. Society in general has a big problem with race—that it manifests in games is probably inevitable. But that doesn’t reduce the breadth or the severity of the issue. Cracked.com’s JF Sargent ran an article in 2012 on racism as a game mechanic that’s still incredibly timely. Racist caricatures are commonplace in every genre of game imaginable. Characters that enforce cartoonish, racist stereotypes are common even in games as “progressive” as Mass Effect. Violence against brown and black bodies is so commonplace in video games that it rarely even garners comment.
All this has roots within the industry itself. In 2014, the IGDA Developer Satisfaction Survey reported black developers comprising only 2.5% of developers—a mere .5% higher than it was in 2005. As a community, we are spectacularly bad at talking about issues of race in gaming. We have a habit of refusing to acknowledge legitimate criticism of racism in games and in the community, and immediately shutting down or attacking anyone who brings it up.
For gamers of color, this lends to an atmosphere of intense hostility that they must navigate with caution for fear of harassment and dehumanization by other players. Dr. Kishonna Gray, Assistant Professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies, and a researcher of immersive online gaming environments, said this about harassment of gamers of color:
“Most gamers of color have isolated themselves into private parties, private chats, or just don’t engage verbally at all. […] What’s happening is a virtual ghettoization of minority gamers. Because a person’s identity is automatically revealed when a person speaks, they are targeted. I call it linguistic profiling. As soon as someone hears how you sound, they engage in this practice. They hear how you sound and react based on that. So a lot of black gamers are called derogatory terms because of how they sound. They don’t have to do anything but sound black.”
If this sounds familiar to you, it may be because trans gamers experience this as well—“sounding” like a member of a marginalized group is enough to elicit abuse in most online environments, be you a woman, a person of color, mentally or physically disabled, or gender non-conformist in any way, shape, or form. Gamers of color, who are vastly more numerous than so-called “common knowledge” would assert, are stuck dealing with many of the same problems: inter-communal cruelty, online harassment, and in-game slurs and stereotyping.
“So,” you’re saying, leaning back in your chair and wincing, perhaps with Die Antwoord playing in the background somewhere, perhaps tugging nervously at your turtleneck and surreptitiously clutching your pearls. “Video games maybe have a teensy-weensy problem when it comes to race. What does any of this have to do with Life Is Strange?”
I’m so glad you asked.
Not unlike trans gamers, gamers of color face a profound lack of representation in the games they play. In 2002, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 87% of all human heroic characters in video games were white. Almost ten years later, in 2011, University of Southern California Professor Dmitri Williams found, in a survey of 150 games across all platforms and ratings, that only 10.7% of game characters were black; only 3% of characters were “recognizably” Hispanic and none were playable; and Native American and biracial characters were practically non-existent, both as playable and non-playable characters.
Games with completely white casts aren’t just a dime a dozen—they comprise the majority of games. Arkham Knight has an almost completely white cast with the sole exception of enemy henchman. The same goes for The Witcher 3. I’d wager you’d find it more challenging to name a game you’d played in the past year that didn’t feature a white-majority cast than one that did. Even the Borderlands series—arguably one of the most diverse and progressive franchises currently in production—features a predominantly white cast in Borderlands 2 and Tales From the Borderlands. Life Is Strange certainly isn’t alone in being a forward-thinking game that fails on this particular point.
And this failure isn’t without repercussions. Media representation is incredibly important for a multitude of reasons. In the words of Elizabeth Fierro, representation:
Gives those represented a stronger sense of self-affirmation and identity;
Gives audiences something to aspire to (the origin of the phrase, “If she can’t see it, she can’t be it”);
Helps to expand audiences’ understanding of their own capabilities and the capabilities of others (by dispelling assumptions relayed to them through constant negative media portrayal);
Provides a more realistic portrayal of the diverse society in which we live;
Fights the idea of cis, straight, heterosexual, and male as default.
Lack of respectful, proportionate representation can be damaging not just to individuals but also to entire societies. One study suggests that children use media to evaluate themselves and their worth and roles within society. Lack of representation heavily impacts the self-esteem and aspirations of girls and children of color, who almost never see themselves depicted as successful, heroic, or independent. Studies have continuously found that children are aware of social inequity from a young age. They notice when people who look like them are not represented in media, or represented as less powerful or important. In fact, they notice when anyone represented in media is represented less often, or as less smart, less powerful, or less important. It’s how we form implicit opinions about race and gender as children. And as adults, it’s how we justify those implicit opinions.
Representation—how marginalized characters are represented, and whether or not they’re represented at all—has a very real impact on how gamers interact with one another, and with our society at large. Games that fail to represent characters of color implicitly communicate to gamers that people of color don’t exist in the world around us, and that if they do, their importance is inherently less than that of white people. It’s a quiet kind of racism, but that doesn’t make it any less insidious.
In the spirit of fairness, Life Is Strange does, at least, include a few characters of color among the students and faculty at Blackwell Academy. There’s Daniel DaCosta, Stella Hill, and Hayden Jones who are all in Mr. Jefferson’s photography class with Max, and in Episode 1, she can have small conversations with all of them. There are two black authority figures at Blackwell: the principal, Ray Wells, and the science teacher, Michelle Grant.
But there are several problems with this strictly background type of racial representation. For one thing, it means that there’s only ever one or two representatives of an entire race of non-white people present in the game, which is ultimately reductive. Nowhere is this tokenism—let’s call it what it is—more readily apparent than in the depiction of the game’s only two East Asian characters: Brooke Scott, who has a drone, and Courtney Wagner, who is one of Victoria Chase’s groupies. Both have a single personality trait: Brooke has a drone, as previously mentioned, and it encompasses most, if not all, of what you can talk to her about. Courtney is allegedly “into fashion,” though it’s not ever specified what kind. (Expensive, one assumes.) Usually, in a game as well-populated as Life Is Strange, having a single personality trait would be more than enough for side characters like Brooke and Courtney. But since they’re the only two visible East Asian women in the game, their one-dimensionality has a racial bent, as does their adherence to the “quiet and catty” stereotype.
The depictions of Principal Wells and Ms. Grant also take on this “dual-sided tokenism.” Like Brooke and Courtney, their personalities are largely one-dimensional. Ms. Grant is shown to be a morally-upright person—heroic, if tragically ineffective. And that might be enough to balance the scales … That is, if Principal Wells weren’t a dangerously incompetent, power-hungry alcoholic.
Tokenism forces characters to accept the burden of symbolically portraying an entire race. It removes the opportunity for nuance, and for the true exploration of complex characters of color. The depiction of Principal Wells isn’t inherently problematic; he is a complex, flawed character in exactly the way David Madsen or Mr. Jefferson is. The problem stems from the fact that David and Mr. Jefferson—as white men in a majority-white cast—don’t act as representatives of the entire white race. They’re allowed by the narrative to be flawed or corrupt without making a definitive statement about the nature of all white people. As one of only two black characters in the game, Principal Wells isn’t afforded the same liberty. His personality is inexorably linked to his race, which is a pretty big issue, considering.
The second problem with background representation is that it relegates characters of color to secondary roles as sidekicks and bystanders. It suggests that the stories of characters of color are somehow less than those of white characters; less interesting, less evocative, less powerful, and less poignant. Life Is Strange’s characters of color don’t get the stage time or stage presence of their white counterparts. Most of them appear only once or twice, and none of them ever independently interact with Max the way Victoria or Chloe or Nathan do. They appear in the background as garnishment—fun little extras that Max can choose to interact with or not—and that’s where they stay. With the sole exception of Principal Wells, none of them really participate in or even add meaningfully to the plot. This is representation at its laziest and least committal, and the fact that thus far I’ve seen no one mention it is … strange. For lack of a better word.
So, why do we stay silent? This isn’t a particularly subtle problem. I noticed it immediately, and I’m white as hell. Sure, critique of Life Is Strange’s racial representation is likely discouraged by a lot of the same things that generally discourage people: fear of bigoted retribution and harassment, an experienced resignation to these sorts of things, a lack of inter-communal support. But Life Is Strange is considered to be relatively progressive, as a game, and so is its audience. Why should a game that’s been held up as feminist by so many be exempt from this kind of scrutiny?
Well, for one thing, it’s difficult to talk about racism that’s removed from the connotation we have of it. We think of racism as something that completely contradicts something’s inherent goodness. Good people—good games—can’t be racist. As The New York Times reporter Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his article, “The Good, Racist People”:
“In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. […] The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion.”
In conversations about racism—particularly when the object of criticism is beloved by many—we can sometimes regard the accusation as more damaging than the racism itself, which is as absurd as it is regressive.
But I think, also, that it’s easy for the white women of Life Is Strange’s audience to overlook the race problem because it doesn’t affect them. White women are strongly represented in Life Is Strange, broadly and with great skill. There are enough of them that they each get to be their own characters with agency; their complex personalities can stand apart from their femininity.
This is a pretty common problem with white feminism: it creates a false standard of equality, where parity for white women is likened to parity for all women. But this ignores the intersectional experiences of women of color, who often experience much more severe societal disadvantages than their white counterparts. As Julia Serano so succinctly put it:
Life Is Strange does women and other people of color a disservice by not including them in a proportionate, realistic way. And in doing so, it does all women a disservice. Parity for a fair few is not parity for all—it’s our feminist duty to recognize that, and to demand better.
You might be sitting there thinking I’m asking too much. “It’s never enough for you people,” you might be saying. “You finally get a video game with a complex young woman as a protagonist and you’re still complaining.” But here’s the thing—I don’t think asking for more when the alternative is nothing is a bad thing. We are starved for women-centric media. That’s true. But that shouldn’t mean that we become willing to consume anything with no comments on the taste or the content. We’re fighting for equality here. Equality for only some is equality for none—that’s how equality works.
Life Is Strange isn’t a bad game for failing to include characters of color in a nuanced, meaningful way. Weird though it is to say, “racist” isn’t synonymous with “pure evil, devoid of good attributes” (although for the record, racism itself is, absolutely, pure evil, devoid of good attributes). A work can be racist in big and small ways without otherwise being “bad” or intolerable. By all accounts, I think Life Is Strange is an incredible game, well-worth playing. But it wouldn’t be worse if it included more people of color; it would be better. It would be stronger. It would be more feminist, more inclusive. I don’t think we do anyone—white women included—any favors by ignoring that.
Real life may be strange, but it includes all types of people from all sorts of ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. All of those people deserve to be able to see themselves in a game as “progressive” and—no sarcasm quotes—awesome as this one.