Prejudiced Gaming: A History Of Racial Stereotypes In Video Games

Joel Harvey

For most of us, racism is abhorrent. For some though, it’s seen as a cheap way to sell video games.

Step forward Big-O-Tree Games; an indie game developer who like to make games that scream racist abuse and dress it up as “edgy humour”. Sigh.

Big-O-Tree (“hilarious” wordplay like that in a name should be an instant red flag to their dumb intentions) have released a game called Dirty Chinese Restaurant on mobile devices. It’s a game where you run a Chinese restaurant by killing cats and dogs and etc etc. You get the idea.

It’s a deliberately offensive game in order to provoke reactions, and to write about it in too much detail gives it exactly what it wants. So, we’re not getting into it. Suffice to say though, it’s a game that’s understandably not gone down well with the Asian American community. Congresswoman Grace Meng tweeted out her condemnation:

Sadly, all this noise is like oxygen to companies like Big-O-Tree. They thrive on baiting such controversy, using it as fuel to sell more games off the back off the back of it. Of course, they’re not the first in gaming history to use racial stereotypes like this and unfortunately, they probably won’t be the last either.

Custer’s Revenge

In the early days, gaming was hardly considered an “adult” pursuit. It was, y’know, for kids. You wouldn’t expect many games in the early eighties attempting to engage the player in a deep and meaningful discourse about modern politics. Equally though, you wouldn’t have expected games like Custer’s Revenge either.

Released in 1982 on the Atari 2600, Custer’s Revenge made it perfectly clear that it was “not for children” on its packaging. What it failed to make clear though, was that it wasn’t for adults either. At the least, adults with a brain.

It was a game (which for Custer’s Revenge, was a very loose description) where you played as a naked General Custer whose goal was to rape a Native American woman. No, seriously. Even in a time when political correctness hadn’t quite landed, people were shocked by the disturbing content here.

Despite the controversy (or probably because of it) Custer’s Revenge sold approximately 80,000 copies. Which is an entirely depressing sales statistic.

Street Fighter II

This is a tough one to take, but the greatest fighter in the history of video games has some questionable characters. We’ve glossed over such issues over time, likely because of how much we all love Capcom’s classic.

But look again, and it becomes plainly obvious that most of the characters were based on lazy national stereotypes: Dhalsim is a skinny, fire-breathing Indian with “yoga powers”; Blanka is a savage Brazilian beast from the jungle; Guile is a blonde-haired American soldier; Zangief is a big Russian who likes to fight bears; Vega is a vain Spanish bull-fighter; and T. Hawk is a Native American complete with headdress. It’s all there, isn’t it?

Now, SFII is an incredible game. There’s no denying that. And its characters are cemented in gaming history as being the most memorable video game icons ever to grace our childhood. But if you bypass the nostalgia and reassess them today, properly reassess them, you can’t help but feel that with modern eyes, they’re all a bit iffy.

And let’s not even start with some of the original plans developers had for Chun-Li: she was to have a lower health bar because “women aren’t as strong as men”. Yeesh.

Jynx in Pokémon

Humanoid Pokémon are weird at the best times. Who wants a creepy Mr Mime when they crack open an egg? No-one, that’s who. Jynx was no exception, but she was made worse by the racial overtones to her appearance. Don’t believe us?

Here’s the case for the prosecution: her original design (one which can still be seen in older Pokémon titles and cartoons) was a black faced character with thick, protruding lips; she would wiggle about seductively, luring people in with her strange rhythmic dancing; and in Manga books, she was able to summon voodoo dolls. That’s damming evidence.

The controversy surrounding Jynx grew in America as Pokémon began to take over the world in the late nineties. This furor eventually forced Nintendo to redesign the character to having a purple face, instead of a black one.

But like a Magic Eye, once you see the problems associated with Jynx’s design, you can never un-see them: Jynx is a very, very racist Pokémon.

Spanish For Everyone

This seemed harmless enough on first appearances. A Nintendo DS game which purported to be aimed at kids to teach them Spanish. Fine. Except the plot isn’t good enough for you, and it isn’t good enough for me; what we’re saying here was that it was dodgy. Very dodgy indeed.

In Spanish For Everyone, you played as a white boy who has a Latin American friend; a friend who steals your DS, and you have to chase him down to Mexico to get it back. Oh, and aside from him being a thief, the heavy implication in Spanish For Everyone is that his family is part of a drug cartel. Wow.

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