Videogames today pride themselves on creating an immersive and believable world, no matter how fantastical that world might be. Developing an open-world video game involves building a diverse environment and compelling missions that will make you want to travel to the far reaches of the map. Certain worlds are much easier to build: a rainforest, the city streets of Los Angeles, a castle fit for a king. To create a world from scratch involves much time and effort, and to fill that world with differing characters you can interact with presents a challenge as well.
Borderlands 2 (released September 18th) is a first person shooter role-playing game that tosses you right into the space-western pandemonium that is the planet of Pandora, and everything is bigger, louder and full of guns. For a game that boasted “bazillions of guns and customizations,” there is shockingly little ethnic variation on Pandora.
See, while the monsters and lands of Pandora seem to have gotten more colorful, the characters in it (save for a few exceptions) have remained White.
Similarly to Miranda’s feelings about Firefly, I love Borderlands 2, yet I can’t help but see the flaws. On one hand, it feels like a step forward in one area: there are women of all shapes and sizes, whose strengths and weaknesses defy the boxes we tend to put video-game women in. The Siren Maya, for example, does not need saving, nor does she exhibit features that would make her badass-ness come at the expense of her being relatable. On the other hand, it is impossible not to notice and point out that the vast worlds of Pandora are somehow lacking in any real people of color, and are devoid of women of color, in particular.
Out of the four characters you can choose to play, one is a woman (Maya, imbued with mystical Phaselocking powers), one is a POC (a Gunzerker named Salvador, who can wield two weapons at once), one is a White man (a Commando named Axton), and one is a masked assassin of unknown ethnicity (Zero). In addition, two of the main four characters from the first game are POC, and one is lighter-skinned but voiced by a Black actor. Aside from maybe three NPCs (Non-Playable Characters, essentially extras), these are the only four people on the entirety of Pandora that seem to not be White.
I understand that creating a game with a diverse world is challenging, but a diverse world without diversity among the characters doesn’t work. Characters such as gentleman and hunter Sir Hammerlock, or gun salesman Marcus, have accents that secure the idea that Pandora and the surrounding planets hold dialectical differences among the people, so why couldn’t there be people of all different races represented?
Some might argue that since Pandora is fictional, it is also “post-racial.” However, “post-racial” is not your get-out-of-representation-free card for using White as your default setting, nor do four POC characters out of the hundreds you can interact with equal a game whose characters are diverse.
Despite the fact that there are people who seem to worship content creators, criticizing that content is not blasphemy. To really be able to love a TV show or a video game, you need to be able to understand that it won’t always be flawless, and when it isn’t, there isn’t anything wrong with pointing it out.
You can simultaneously love to watch a show, but note that in a futuristic world that fuses Asian culture with others, there are no Asian people. You can play a video game for hours and still be struck by the fact that – right down to the Pandoran bandits you need to fight – nearly everyone is White. And you can bring it up, analyze it, suggest or criticize, and then choose to pick the controller back up. The problem comes from shutting people down who dare to criticize content, and from acting like you are somehow more learned or more tolerant because you decide to not criticize it.