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Sombra, King, Dominic Santiago, Rico Rodriguez, and ummm… Reaper? While some of these Latinx characters are regarded as fan favorites, you may be hard pressed to find just a handful of other standout Latinx characters in gaming today. In a landscape where diversity is being pushed further and further, as a Latino gamer, it feels like we’re falling by the wayside. And while I love cheering on other marginalized groups as they enjoy their time in the spotlight, I cannot help the desire for more characters that look/sound like me.
In my own experience, I’ve noticed a few different types of exposure for Latinx culture and characters in gaming. Some of this exposure is beneficial, some do little to push the envelope, and others serve to harm; Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands is one such harmful title. In fact, I could barely play the game for that very reason. In Wildlands players shoot their way across modern-day Bolivia fighting against violent drug cartels. The cartels themselves are not even Bolivian, they are in fact Mexican, a puzzling (and seemingly lazy) choice on Ubisoft’s part. Players traverse the in-game world in pursuit of a drug lord by the name of “El Sueno,” a name about as creative as the rest of the game. During my playthrough, I was floored by how uninspired the game’s overall design was. I couldn’t even turn on a radio in a vehicle without hearing music about drugs, as if to say South American life revolves solely around these illicit substances. Rather than creating an in-game world as narratively rich as it is scenic, Wildlands comes off as a “bad-hombre simulator”. Instead of feeling like a carefully crafted experience, it felt more like a hodgepodge of stereotypes more befitting of conservative daytime television.
Titles such as Wildlands only serve to reinforce images that we see in other mediums such as television and film. They present us with crucifixes and patron saints, drugs and wanton violence. This misrepresentation only harms games as a whole, robbing the medium of deeper, thought-provoking content. The perpetuation of these false narratives hurts Latinx gamers — who may become the target of racial remarks and slurs. Publishing a game like Wildlands seems extremely counter-intuitive for Ubisoft, the publisher of Tom Clancy titles, who are currently combatting that behavior in games like Rainbow Six Siege. I also found it odd that Ubisoft, the same publisher who creates photo realistic renditions of Renaissance Italy, could not come up with a more realistic representation of modern-day South America. After being confronted by the Bolivian government for their incredibly problematic portrayal of the nation, Ubisoft had this to say in an official statement:
“Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands is a work of fiction, similar to movies or TV shows. Like all Tom Clancy’s games from Ubisoft, the game takes place in a modern universe inspired by reality, but the characters, locations and stories are all fantasies created solely for entertainment purposes,” it said. “Bolivia was chosen as the background of this game based on its magnificent landscapes and rich culture. While the game’s premise imagines a different reality than the one that exists in Bolivia today, we do hope that the in-game world comes close to representing the country’s beautiful topography, and that players enjoy exploring the diverse and open landscapes it moved us to create.”
When Latinx culture and characters are not being used to perpetuate stereotypes, it feels like our respective cultures are used as a backdrop rather than anything remotely meaningful. This type of representation does little to push the proverbial envelope. Day of the Dead imagery is present in more games than I can count and tropical settings are used as the backdrop of games like Tropico and Just Cause, drawing on imagery reminiscent of former island dictatorships such as Cuba. MLB 18: The Show and Grand Theft Auto V are the only top selling games in 2018 that feature Latinx characters — as if to say we are only capable of swinging bats and shooting.
In stark contrast, Sombra, a character from Overwatch and a somewhat recent darling of the gaming world is unapologetically Latina without being stereotypical. She seems to be exactly the kind of representation we need: in-game lines in her native Spanish, an endearing animated short about her origin, and a deep backstory to boot. Carolina Ravassa, the voice behind Sombra, is a Latina herself by way of Colombia. She worked carefully in crafting Sombra’s persona by adopting a more witty and sarcastic personality as opposed to the “fiery Latin” archetype we see so often in media.
Ravassa addressed this deliberate characterization during a panel at Blizzcon 2016: “I didn’t want to make a Sofía Vergara, I love Sofía, but lately that’s all Hollywood wants from us and we’re more nuanced, we’re all different, we all have different accents.” She continues by saying, “I didn’t want this, like, stereotype, and I like that she doesn’t look stereotypically Latina either, because I don’t. So it’s interesting that she’s got so many layers.”
A recent standout among games has been Mulaka, a rare gem out of the indie scene. This adventure title was developed by Lienzo, an indie studio based out of Chihuahua, Mexico. Throughout the game, players learn about the rich culture and traditions of the indigenous Tarahumara. Developers working on Mulaka worked painstakingly to include authentic myths and legends recorded in the native Tarahumaran tongue. According to the developer’s blog, Lienzo worked with renowned anthropologists in an effort to create a realistic and honest portrayal of this ancient society. Even the mesmerizing in-game soundtrack was recorded using traditional indigenous instruments. This kind of portrayal illustrates just how deep and informative games can be. Latinx nations have such broad and sprawling history, that it lends to innumerable possibilities in terms of storytelling.
Some would attribute the lack of Latinx visibility in games to a diversity issue in the gaming industry itself. There certainly are poll numbers and data that illustrate the divide between the number of Latinx game developers, and the number of Latinx gamers. In 2017, the International Game Developers Association surveyed 963 devs and only 4% identified as Hispanic or Latinx. In a 2015 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 19% of Hispanics categorized themselves using the term “gamer”, the highest number reported compared to 11% and 7% of non-Hispanic black and white people respectively. We could see some change in the future in the disproportion between Latinx gamers and developers with added pressure from fans and a greater effort from studios to push diversity in the workplace.
Representation and inclusion are crucial for all gamers, it creates a sense of belonging. Increased visibility in gaming says “you are welcome here, you are one of us.” Seeing characters who look and sound like you can make an incredible impact, especially on young gamers. It teaches impressionable fans that they can be the hero/heroine as opposed to a non-playable character, the villain, the thug, or the druglord. With such sparse Latinx representation in games, it is easy to feel forgotten, but with gaming industry talent like Carolina Ravassa, and titles like Mulaka and upcoming Spiderman title featuring Miles Morales, perhaps a new age of positive representation is just over the horizon.
Editor: Amino Yusuf