FOLLOWING THE FIGHTERS:
I recently purchased a PlayStation 3 because I closely follow the fighting game scene. Where the fighting games go, I go. I had my eyes set on two brand new, Hi-Definition, 2-D fighting games -- Blazblue (Arc System Works) and The King of Fighters XII (SNK PLAYMORE JAPAN). I have followed the games pre-release, and knew just about everything about them. It was not until I actually purchased and played the games that I realized something-- neither game had a character who was not "White" or described as Japanese (because even these characters appeared "White").
This was actually quite alarming for me, because I just finished delving into Street Fighter 3: 3rd Strike which had an UNUSUALLY diverse cast of characters; 19 characters total, 4 female, 15 male, 5 had brown skin and were distinctly of African descent (none of these were large, BIG characters either), 4 monsters/creatures, 6 Asians, and 4 White Characters. It's as if the "racially discriminatory practice and stereotyping... in the content [the game industry] creates..."(2 Fron et al) was consciously fought against in Street Figther 3:3rd Strike. I have never seen a roster this mixed in ANY fighting game, to date -- despite other fighters having larger rosters. Street Fighter 3: 3rd Strike was released in 1999.
21st CENTURY FIGHTING GAMES, 19th CENTURY VALUES?:
King of Fighters XII has a roster of 22, Blazblue has a roster of 10. Neither game has ONE character of a non-Mongoloid or Caucasoid appearance -- and remember, often in Japanese games, there is no distinction between the Mongoloid and Caucasoid characters save for their names and clothing. Both games however, have ONE huge, buff, and beefy character who is tanned -- in the case of King of Fighter XII, Ralf, who was as pale as any other in previous titles, magically became tanned/brown and extremely bulky. Iron Tager in Blazblue, is not really brown or tanned, he's actually orange-ish/red, but he is the only character who is a non-white/pale humanoid.
So here we have TWO brand new, 21st century fighting games, that still manage to ignore races that make up more than 60 percent of the world population (U.S. Census 2004). I am sure that the main reason for this is because these particular games are meant to be consumed in Japan, North America, and Europe. However, I have a hard time believing that this is the ONLY reason the racial distribution is disproportionate.
WHAT'S REALLY GOING ON:
There is obviously something else at work here, "[Game technologies, game production and game consumption] power structures perpetuate a particular set of values and norms concerning games and game play, which tend to subordinate and ghettoize minority players and play styles" (Fron et al 2). There are certain aspects of games, fighting games in this case, that are viewed as normal and acceptable. Here I feel that the developers of both The King of Fighters XII and Blazblue have said that there is no need for "minority" characters in their games, nor any desirability for their inclusion -- except to sorta/kinda meet the "big, black guy" quota.
King of Fighters XII, is the 12th iteration of the King of Fighters franchise and Blazblue is the brainchild of Guilty Gear developers-- Guilty Gear also only had ONE large, tanned character Potemkin. The developers of these games have been making games for a LONG time. They have been working on fighting games, in particular, for over 15 years -- why haven't their character rosters consisted of more diversity? Why does a game like Blazblue have 3 (out of 10 total characters) blonde haired, blue-eyed characters (people with these traits do not make up 30% of the world's population), but not ONE single character of a race that makes up a substantially larger number of the world's population.
SOCIETAL VALUES, STANDARDS OF BEAUTY?:
This may fall back into wider concepts such as the developers/societal standards of beauty, target markets, and the conventions of Japanese animation-- where both Blazblue and King of Fighters XII both draw inspiration from. Games such as Final Fantasy, Persona, and numerous other Japanese games follow a similar trend--Final Fantasy XIII is about to witness its SECOND playable black male character with Sazh Katzroy, Barrett from Final Fantasy VII being the first. Japanese role-playing games tend to favor ambiguously Caucasoid/Mongoloid characters who share Japanese facial features, but occasionally don blonde hair, blue or green eyes, and other distinctly European features.
Similarly to the statement that "girls must be 'allowed' to play in boys' spaces" (Fullerton et al 3), racial minorities must be "allowed" to EXIST in "white/asian male" spaces. Once a minority character is included, they are expected to play a minor role, and/or fall into a ridiculous stereotype. Few games have broken this cycle; Resident Evil Outbreak, Left For Dead 1 and 2, the Tekken series, and Street Fighter 3 have managed to create minority characters who break the mold, or offer more than just the blatant stereotype.
NEVER PART OF THE GAME DESIGN PROCESS:
Unlike the 20th century board game industry where women, typically white, were a part of the game design and playtesting (Fron et al 6), minorities have never really been a part of the process. Racial minorities have always been subject to being represented by those who are not like them and/or know and care little about them. This trend has continued and has meshed with the "Hegemony of Play" to create the 50 Cent games, Marcus Phoenix in Gears of War, and many other disappointingly shallow characters and game.
WHAT'S TO COME:
I am not entirely sure what is going to happen with the racial distribution in games. Blazblue will have another entry in the series come Spring 2010 and there were two new characters announced -- both characters have Japanese names, both look Caucasoid. The King of Fighters XII is expecting a new expansion or updated roster next year, but there has been no word on who will be included the next time around. Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom: Ultimate All Stars is another fighting game to be released by Capcom JP, but again contains no minority characters -- the game draws from prominent heroes of other fighting games, most of whom are Japanese but look Caucasoid.
I am aware that fighting games have a track record of exploiting stereotypes to no end (see Street Fighter 2, Art of Fighting, Fatal Fury, Virtua Fighter, etc), as this offers a way of immediately distinguishing characters from one another, and gives each character a "built-it" back story. However, games like Tekken 5 and Street Fighter 3: 3rd Strike, have included minority characters that did not adhere to a pre-established stereotype. Elena (SF3) is an Kenyan Princess who practices capoeira, Raven (Tekken 5) is a master ninja in the aesthetic of Wesley Snipes' BLADE, and Sean (SF3) is a Brazilian aspiring and determined student of Ken Masters.
The market that fighting games typically appeal to is similar to the market that the "Hegemony of Play" focuses and caters to. It may take a while before we see more balanced rosters in Japanese fighters, given their roots in Japanese Anime, which adores the Japanese-named-Western-Looking characters.