I don’t like Gears of War‘s Augustus ‘Cole Train’ Cole as a character, but he at least sounds grounded in some sort of reality. Epic design director Cliff Bleszinski once told me that after seeing the “Terry Tate, Office Linebacker” commercials from a few years back, he and the Gears dev team thought that type of character would be the kind of person you’d like at your side in a war. I believed him. It doesn’t make me like Cole Train’s role as loud, crass brute any more than I did before but I believe the motivation for his existence.
I can’t imagine anything Eidos Montreal would say that would make the existence of Letitia understandable. The problem generally tends to be one of under-representation. If there’s only one black character in a game and he acts in wince-inducing fashion, then your construction of that character’s going to be called into question.
But that’s not to say that there’s a magic algorithm that diffuses upset. Jenny Alexander—Adam Jensen’s old police buddy—speaks in full, understandable sentences and she’s apparently black. Even if there were five noble, upstanding black characters, it wouldn’t make one insulting persona okay. Because the insulting one still isn’t a human being.
Some people reading this might counter with, “Ok, fine, Letitia’s just a poorly drawn character. What’s the harm in that? Weak character construction isn’t racist.” But it’s what this particular weak character construction draws on that makes it so appalling. Making her a black, jive-talking street person echoes decades of racist imagery about poor African-Americans. That imagery’s said that blacks are too inherently dumb, lazy or foreign to America to share in the American Dream. It’s “those people, they’re not like us” talk.
Oh, I can imagine some of the responses to my criticism: “You want to censor creativity. You just want everything to be politically correct. It’s just a video game; what’s the big deal?” Those responses are wrong. To those who’d retort in that way, I ask this: Can you stand by Letitia? Could you sit someone in front of one of the best games of the year, have this sequence come up and not squirm at her every line?
If you care about respectability for video games, then this has been a big year. The Supreme Court decision that establishes First Amendment protections for video games, the NEA’s funding for interactive digital art and next March’s The Art of Video Games exhibit at the Smithsonian have all signaled an acceptance for the medium that’s long overdue. The question now is what game designers and developers will do with that acceptance.
When the player leaves the Letitia conversation, she offers, “I bees right here waiting for you, Cap’n.” Hopefully, you won’t be, Letitia. Not in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, nor in any other game.
[UPDATE: Square Enix has issued the following statement on the matter: "Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a fictional story which reflects the diversity of the world's future population by featuring characters of various cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. While these characters are meant to portray people living in the year 2027, it has never been our intention to represent any particular ethnic group in a negative light."]