When you love something, you want to know it loves you back. It’s why we look for ourselves in art: We want to see reflections of our struggles acknowledged, and we long to hear stories where we can be heroes. As a Black and Indian child of the 1990s, I was starving to see myself in the media I consumed; besides Will Smith, things were scarce.
In the late ’90s, video games had only started to feature voice acting and recognizably human characters. I wasn’t looking for a relatable dark-skinned character as much as I was looking for a game starring a human being and not a wise-cracking bobcat or a dragon who would become a fast friend.
Since then, much has evolved: From the graphical shifts of eight-bit and 16-bit pixelated characters to 3D polygonal character models in the mid-’90s, to the near-realism and embrace of virtual reality that has defined the 2010s, games of today are unrecognizable when compared to the Super Nintendo titles I played as a child. Today’s games industry rivals Hollywood in both profitability and, more notably, production values.
For the most part, technology is no longer a limiting factor for the creative vision of game developers. If you want photorealistic renditions of known actors, it can be done. Living paintings, playable novels, interactive horror movies: They all exist, and have active fanbases to boot. Almost anything can be created in a video game—and almost anyone. Blockbuster game franchises, such as the globe-trotting treasure hunts of the Uncharted series and the gritty alien warfare of the Gears of War titles, have used performance capture technology to bring life to their digital stars. Made famous via Andy Serkis’s turn as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy starting in 2001 (as well as his turn a decade later as Caesar in the Planet of the Apes trilogy), performance capture technology allows a physical actor’s performance on a soundstage to be used as the skeleton for a computer generated character in the final product.
The possibilities, as Serkis has demonstrated, are endless: Free from the limits of their physical bodies, talented actors can embody any role their skills can match.
As more games embraced performance capture technology, I was ready to see how many opportunities a truly colour- and race-blind casting process would create for people of colour in gaming. But my optimism may have been misplaced.
The use of performance capture in games has only become notable within the last decade, so examples are relatively limited. But even in its infancy, developers have used the technology in the same, questionable way: to cast white people as non-white characters.
In 2016’s Uncharted 4: A Thief ’s End and this year’s Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, two characters that are portrayed onscreen as women of colour—Nadine Ross, a steely South African mercenary, and Chloe Frazer, an Indian-Australian treasure hunter— were voiced and motion captured by white women, Laura Bailey and Claudia Black, respectively. In Gears of War 4, Kait Diaz, a determined Latina soldier, was performed by two people: The motion capture actor, who performs the physical movements of the character, was Aliyah O’Brien, a Canadian of Irish, Spanish, and Welsh descent; the voice actor was, once again, Laura Bailey.
The issue doesn’t resolve itself when we focus on purely voice acting roles in gaming; if anything, it gets worse. From the daughter of a slave fighting for freedom in the historical fantasy of Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, to an orphaned girl building a relationship with her adoptive guardian in the choose-your-own-adventure style storytelling of The Walking Dead, some of the most widely celebrated characters of colour in recent years (Aveline de Grandpré and Clementine) have been voiced by white women (Amber Goldfarb and Melissa Hutchinson).
To rely on technological advances to deliver diversity is to engage in active cruelty toward your hopes and dreams. On paper, technology that allows anyone to be anyone else should be the true equalizer in terms of diversity in casting. And in some cases, it has been: Merle Dandridge, an actor of Black and Asian descent, has performed the roles of Black-Asian women, Black women, and an elderly white woman, all in the last few years. But far more often, the games industry has used the smokescreen of digital performance to cast the same handful of mostly white actors across every role possible. It’s literally colourblind casting—there’s scarcely a person of colour to be seen.
Video games are a mongrel art form, inheriting the strengths and challenges of every medium that preceded them while dealing with problems that are wholly unique. It’s also a relatively young medium: Super Mario Bros. was released in 1985, Pong in 1972. Every decade brings a massive upgrade in technology that, in turn, transforms the idea of what a video game can be. Performance capture technology is even younger. The technique has its roots in rotoscoping, an animation method popularized by famed cartoonist Max Fleischer in 1915. He would trace over the individual frames of a live-action film reel to create a cartoon character that appeared to move with the fluidity of a human being (popularized in Talkartoons such as “Minnie the Moocher,” which featured the rotoscoped dance moves of Cab Calloway). Rotoscoping was later adopted by animation powerhouses, including Walt Disney, over the following half-century, but it was a time-consuming, labour-intensive process.
Motion capture technology as we know it today was developed as a tool in the field of biomechanics to track and analyze the movements of athletes in the late 20th century it was almost exclusively used for research and educational purposes. The core technology is largely the same: Pingpong ball-like sensors are attached to a bodysuit that the actor wears, allowing a stick-figure rendition of their exact movements to be recorded by a selection of cameras. Performance capture, however, specifically refers to an actor’s facial and finger movements being mapped to a digital character. While the technology has evolved and refined since those early days, the core mechanics remain the same. Today, motion capture studios can be found across Canada, working on projects across television, movies, and games.
But the games industry, like the tech world at large, has a systemic problem attracting and maintaining employees from diverse backgrounds. According to the International Game Developers Association’s (IDGA) 2015 developer satisfaction survey, 75 percent of developers polled identify as male, 73 percent identify as straight, and 76 percent identify as white, European, or Caucasian. Meanwhile, just three percent surveyed were Black, seven percent Latinx, and nine percent East Asian. This homogeneity becomes all the more apparent in a creative field. Video games offer a spectrum to tell unlimited stories in an ever-growing number of formats, yet they’re almost exclusively being told by a single group. This could be a matter of a group of creatives stumbling before they learn to walk, or it could be an accepted evil in the performance world. But it’s easy to trace a line from the lack of diversity behind the scenes to a lack of diverse characters being created, and in turn, a failure to hire and cast actors of colour in digital performance roles.
Canadian developers and motion capture studios are not exempt from this trend. Far Cry 4, an action-adventure romp set during a civil war in a fictional world based on Nepal, was developed by Ubisoft Montreal and Ubisoft Toronto and released in 2014. In a game stacked with people of colour (and actors of colour to match), it’s more than disappointing that both the lead character, Ajay Ghale (a Nepalese-American) and the primary antagonist, Pagan Min (a brutal monarch born in Hong Kong) were voiced and performed by white men (James A. Woods and Troy Baker). The same goes for Gears of War 4, by Vancouver-based developer The Coalition. Side characters of colour are voiced and motion performed by actors of colour—including some high profile names like Jimmy Smits and Justina Machado. But when it comes to lead characters (including the aforementioned Kait Diaz played by Laura Bailey), well-known white actors tend to show up as people of colour, such as Robin Atkin Downes as heroic Lieutenant Minh Young Kim.
None of these casting choices have created much backlash. While the issue of whitewashing in film has become enough of a social media talking point to result in actual change, the cultural footprint of gaming is too small, and too white, to generate anything close to that level of organized outrage. But that doesn’t mean gamers of colour don’t exist, and it’s no excuse for a young industry to inherit Hollywood’s racism and dismal view of diversity. It’s not too late to believe we can do better.
Then again, the nature of this issue is complicated by the layers of technology inherent to the problem. The #whitewashOUT movement led by American comedian Margaret Cho in response to the release of Ghost in the Shell in early 2017 was easy to grasp: A Japanese character named Major Motoko Kusanagi in a movie set in Japan, based on a Japanese franchise made by Japanese people, was played by Scarlett Johansson. The grievance there is clear and obvious, and a social movement is born.
But digital performance? Voice acting? This is the realm of thought exercises and appeals toward devil’s advocacy. If Black people can sound white, why can’t white people provide the voices for Black characters? If a white woman can speak with a convincing Mandarin-accented English lilt, why should she be excluded from auditioning? All these questions and more can be found in any online message board or Twitter thread about the Uncharted controversy, and they’re not easy to answer. But solutions can be found, if you know where to look.
The closest neighbour to performance acting is voice acting, and Roger King, president of Ethnic Voice Talent (EVT)—an agency that gathers voice actors across dozens of accents and languages and helps get them cast for the right roles—has been working in that world for decades. King, a voice actor who traded days in the recording booth for the responsibilities of a talent agent, started EVT to address a growing demand in the market for non-white voices—not just professionally-trained voice actors speaking non-English languages, but accented English roles as well.
The majority of King’s clients work in voice-over in radio ads and narration. But he also casts for animated programs and video games. In the 13 years that EVT has existed, King has seen a marked change in how his industry, and society as a whole, treats the idea of a non-white voice. “Back then, [casting directors] would want character actors to put on these stereotypical voices, with a subtle racist undertone,” says King. A character with an accent would almost always be the butt of the joke in a comedic situation, as if saying “HERE COMES AN INDIAN MAN!” is a punchline in and of itself. “Now, there is little tolerance for anyone trying to ‘put an accent on.’ Casting breakdowns will specifically ask for authentic accents only,” he says.
The story of diversity in the voice acting industry is the history of North American immigration in microcosm. When King first started working as a voice actor, there was demand for ethnic voices predominantly from Europe; today, that demand is skewed toward Asian and Middle Eastern voices, as well as readings in accented English over non-English dialects. Likewise, earlier non-English voice acting was mainly created by minority communities, for those same communities. Over time, non-minority businesses clued into the idea that people who speak Urdu as their first language still need to buy car insurance, and that a mattress ad narrated in Chinese-accented English could draw in new customers.
The push for race-accurate casting came from a few different areas. First, practicality: The advantage of having an actual Jamaican person voice a character over a white guy with a Bob Marley accent is that your intended audience can identify and trust the authenticity of your product. Second, technology: The internet has reduced the cost of entry into voice work to the price of a quality USB microphone and a pop filter. With literally every voice actor in the world within reach, the biggest limiting factor in a project’s ability to generate a diverse cast is the willingness to seek out authentic voices. And technology works both ways—if you fall short in terms of diverse casting, the internet can bring passionate feedback into your home in a big way.
But the third, and final change in the world of casting is the world itself. “There is a genuine interest in cultural sensitivity and respect in our society now,” King says.
I spend far too much time on Twitter to share King’s optimism, but I can’t argue with his position: Within decades, he has watched his industry go from cartoony, Apu-from-The Simpsons caricatures of English speakers with accents to principled projects that will outright refuse to cast voice actors of different races from the characters they are portraying on screen.
So if the voice acting industry is making impressive strides toward respect and authenticity in diversity, why are video games getting it wrong time and time again?
“I don’t know if people in the video game industry are getting lazy and not reaching out to the right groups,” King speculates. “It’s 2017.” I’m inclined to agree with him; if you spend enough time following voice and performance actors in the gaming industry, a handful of the same names start to pop up. They’re all beloved veteran actors, they can inhabit any role, and they’re considered a sure bet when it comes to nailing a key performance for an important character—a crucial factor in an industry that’s cost-intensive and risk averse.
They’re also all white people who performed the voice and motion capture for characters of colour. Actors portraying their own race: It’s the riskiest creative decision of all.
Matters of diversity and erasure in the media are only fringe issues if you’ve never felt erased before. Those who have understand the slow insanity of watching shows and movies, reading books and graphic novels, and playing games where there’s no one like you. Unlimited imagination, infinite worlds—and not one where you exist.
What does that say about the average escapist fantasy? How can you escape to a place where you’re not just unwelcome, but you literally don’t exist?
If you’re anything like me, you learn to compromise. I didn’t look like Indiana Jones, but I shared his love of history, archaeology, and old-timey maps. So I chose to see myself in the movies and love them, even though those same movies would see me as a savage devourer of monkey brains. I often felt like a famished mental gymnast, accepting minor injustices and cutting stereotypes as I constantly scavenged for better representations of myself in the media.
Video games as I recognize them today are slightly older than I am. They were supposed to be better, free of the sinkholes that the art forms they emulate have found themselves mired inside. Instead, they are only as flawed or flawless as their creators: a workforce of overwhelmingly white, straight men.
This is how we can have games of infinite narrative potential that still base the majority of their gameplay around shooting and killing the Other. It’s how games can let you create your own character from a select palette of skin tones, but fail to have the facial features and hair options of people of colour—a small detail, but one that reiterates the idea that to a team of graphic animators, my natural-born hair is harder to create and animate than a race of toad-faced alien behemoths.
Most of all, it’s how the miraculous ability to cast any actor in any role becomes a parlour trick; a fun way to turn entire races into a series of digital masks for white actors. It doesn’t have to be this way—the voice acting industry is a testament to that.
But it’s hard to watch a white actress receive universal acclaim for her role as a strong Black woman and wonder if the games industry solved its diversity problem by removing the one variable factor: people of colour.