[Warning: text and only one ytmnd ahead]
Today I went on a shopping trip that raised some questions about the minority videogame experience. Doing a little birthday shopping, I took an excursion to the "(compass direction) Side" of the city I recently moved to. Unlike my own neighborhood, in which Crate and Barrel and Whole Foods constitute grudging concessions to the merely upper-middle-class shoppers, the ______ Side has a reputation for crimes, drugs, and violence. It also has shopping malls, which are apparently too convenient and reasonably priced for the townies.
So off I went. Citysearch had mentioned the "working man" clientele of the mall, which I found out means "not white". It was actually quite a diverse crowd, lacking only Euro-Americans and Indians. The stores were typical mall fare, with a few urban chains and value stores thrown into the mix. The kiosks, on the other hand, were riotous celebrations of numerous cultures. One rack of graphic tees juxtaposed a snarling Tony Montana with a soulful Martin Luther King, Jr. It seemed meaningful somehow.
It's a rule that I can't walk past a game store without checking it out, so I went into the EB Games near the food court. Two clerks were crouched behind the counter, eating caramel apples that one of them had neatly dissected with a pocket knife. A few pairs of teenage and preteen boys roamed the store. I waited for a ten-year-old to move away from the Gamecube games so I could rifle through them (an all-too-familiar occurrence). While waiting and eavesdropping on the sundry game-related conversations, it struck me that I couldn't name a game in the store that had been created by African-American, Hispanic, or Middle-Eastern developers, mirroring the demographics of the boys shopping.
This by itself isn't exactly news, so I'll use an analogy to plumb more deeply. My girlfriend's parents were political refugees who fled from their home country to the United States. She credits television shows like "Little House on the Prairie" and "Full House" with teaching her a set of social values that her parents weren't very familiar with. It exposed her to a set of mainstream societal rules that she now navigates effortlessly to her advantage.
More succinctly, all those television shows taught her about white people.
Is that what games are doing now, too? Although games-as-art is still a spirited debate, many games have progressed past the walk-right-and-punch-stuff school of scriptwriting. Even if the script of a game doesn't have a heavy moral undertone, it still makes certain base assumptions about the way the world works. Delayed gratification pays off in the long run; money is associated with power; heroes are glorified above all else; the easiest way to win is to follow the rules. These assumptions and others are so fundamental that we don't usually even stop to question them.
Even games developed in Japan that are intended for multi-region distribution are often written with an eye to traditionally Western sensibilities. Ultimately, games often test the player's social values as well as her reflexes. What is a script, after all, but a story about what is wrong and what is right? And what is a man? A miserable little pile of secrets!
I'm curious as to your thoughts, particularly the thoughts of the minority gamers among us. Are games increasingly making more and more cultural assumptions? Does the interactivity of a game make any cultural influence more or less powerful than the effect of, say, watching a Western film (culture, not Eastwood)? Or do games speak a universal language that people anywhere can appreciate?