Latin American representation in games is getting better -- but it's far from perfect
Growing up playing videogames in a half-Cuban household, Latin American representation has always been hugely important to me. When I would encounter well done Latinx characters in games, it was always a very significant moment -- it helped to make me feel like big-budget, AAA developers cared about my voice.
I’m not alone in feeling this way. Discussion of gender and racial diversity in games has grown considerably over the last few years. It’s not all negative: we can see with protagonists like Prey’s Morgan Yu and Mafia 3’s Lincoln Clay, to give two recent examples, that characters of color can and do make their mark in big-budget games. But characters like these are still few and far between compared to the vast numbers of white protagonists available, and meanwhile, the people making up AAA development teams here in the West remain predominantly white men.
While we can’t change industry demographics overnight, we should encourage developers to reach outside of their experiences when creating stories. For that to happen, it’s important for us to talk about how characters of color are depicted in games, when they’re handled well as when they’re handled poorly.
Take the recently released Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands, which has met with lots of criticism blasting its repetitive missions and annoying vehicle physics. But one issue that remains under-discussed is the game’s Latin American characters. Taking place in Bolivia, Wildlands includes a large group of Latinx characters, but there are more than a few problems with how these characters are represented.
One of Wildlands’s biggest fails is DJ Perico, whose stereotypically thick-accented English is highlighted with the occasional Spanish curse word. By writing him this way, the game distills an entire language down to a comedic device, and he is even presented as a jester of sorts, someone who rose to his position as DJ of Santa Blanca Radio because the game’s main antagonist found him entertaining. This attempt to present a stereotypical and problematic character as funny only comes across as a dated and offensive type of representation. It feels like a step back compared to how we’ve seen Latinx characters represented elsewhere.
Contrast DJ Perico with two of videogames’ better and more popular examples of Latinx characters: Dom from Gears of War and Rico from Just Cause. While I don’t think these characters are perfect, I do believe that they provide the best versions of Latinx representation at the AAA level, and interestingly enough, they each managed to do this in different ways.
By using Latin America an inspiration without having to label him as a particular Latinx group, Dom Santiago becomes almost general-purpose as a means of representation. This type of representation, in combination with Dom’s role as best friend to protagonist Marcus Fenix, could have very easily fallen into tokenism, but I think that developer Epic Games does an excellent job of presenting a character who is Latinx while not defining them by their ethnicity. This is particularly evident when looking at the story of the Gears of War series. Dom’s mission to find his wife and his motivations are a large part of what drives the games forward, especially in the second game when Dom finally finds her. He isn’t relegated to a sidekick or disposable humor character. On the other hand, while Dom and characters like him help developers to avoid any specific stereotyping or misrepresentation, you could argue that it presents one unified vision of what a Latinx person is, failing to acknowledge the many countries and cultures that make up Latin America.
Just Cause approaches its hero’s representation from the opposite direction. Rico Rodriguez is given a clear and defined personal and family background. He was born in Mexico and grew up in Medici, a fictional nation heavily based on real-world Mediterranean countries. Connecting Rico to these locations provides a depth that Dom lacks as a Latinx character, letting the developers draw on real-world experiences related to these areas.
Just as a character like Dom could have easily fallen into the role of token Latinx character, Rico could have been presented in a very stereotypical way, something that often happens when developers try to represent a culture they are not deeply familiar with. Luckily this was not the case: series developer Avalanche Studios focuses on Rico’s upbringing and how the oppressive government of his home country affected him. Defining Rico through his family and childhood helps Avalanche Studios to avoid stereotypes, while also allowing for a story to which a large variety of Latinx gamers can relate.
Personally, the Just Cause games provide me with the sort of Latinx power fantasy that I had always wanted. The series allow me to effect change in a government that was similar to the one my grandparents fled from and made me feel that, in some small way, their story mattered.
While I think Dom and Rico are great versions of Latinx representation in gaming, games like Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands serve as an uncomfortable reminder that games still have problems when it comes to these topics. If videogames want to keep maturing as a medium, I think that it is critical to continue focusing on representation, as this not only draws more people to videogames but also allow for games to diversify. If we care about how people are able to see themselves in media that should include asking studios to pursue ideas and inspirations from previously untapped sources. Ideally, this should include more developers from marginalized backgrounds, allowing for different groups to be heard in the industry’s highest profile games.