I love the way that Waking Mars approaches the ethnicity of its characters. The astronaut heroes just happen to be an Asian guy and a black woman. These details never really come up in the story, yet they are quite obvious during the dialogue scenes in this Martian-botany, cave-exploration game. I was pleasantly surprised to see that for this dynamic duo, race is an afterthought.
This uncontroversial yet uncommon approach to representation in interactive media speaks to the future (humanity is exploring another planet, after all). In essence, it echoes the same sentiment many have about the shifting demographics of the United States, where a diverse coalition of Americans recently reelected President Barack Obama.
In Waking Mars, available on mobile and computer platforms, you play as the scientist Liang and are guided by his colleague Amani. They’re trying to find out what happened to their roving robot and better understand Mars’ plant life and history. Developer Tiger Style presents characters that are intelligent, capable, and don’t give in to any lame racial stereotypes. Liang doesn’t do kung fu, and Amani isn’t some Aunt Jemima-style caricature. These digital people of color represent a diverse, post-racial, intergalactic future (similar to the Star Trek series … except Mr. Sulu was a martial-arts master).
Though the U.S. is quite far from being at the same point — both in terms of technology and race relations — Waking Mars presents a forward-looking, optimistic view. Political analysts seem to agree that a broad coalition of blacks, Latinos, Asians, women, QLGBT, etc. helped secure the election for Obama. People of color specifically are outpacing whites in terms of birth rates. The country is only going to continue to become more diverse, and developers need to start recognizing this change.
How many games can you think of that star a generic, white male in his mid-30s? Maybe a better question would be, how many titles can you identify that don’t? In her book, Rise of the Video Game Zinesters, author Anna Anthropy says that, “The population who creates games becomes more and more insular and homogenous: It’s the same small group of people who are creating the same games for themselves.”
As Anthropy later argues in her book, however, that’s becoming a thing of the past.
With the rise in popularity of indie titles (and their lower production costs), developers can take more “risks” like having an Asian guy and black woman be the heroes. When will big-budget releases follow? I would hope that mainstream audiences can take a story and its characters for what they’re worth and not need a white male protagonist to anchor every experience. The massive popularity of Dora the Explorer, a children’s cartoon featuring a tech-savvy, bilingual Latina girl … and her monkey, gives me hope for the next generation.
“With the right mixture of traits, the characters come alive and feel worthy,” says
Tiger Style co-founder and creative director Randy Smith. Even though he was talking more about the style of storytelling his team used in Waking Mars, the developer’s approach to character design is universal. For Liang and Amani, “their dynamics are compelling, their plights are sympathetic, and they have a way of writing their own backstories.”
If you agree with this approach, please support these kind of games to show that an audience does exist for well-developed protagonists who happen to be from minority groups.