Lord knows, you can love a work and yet find it immensely problematic. Though I enjoyed Max Payne 3, Rockstar’s latest release in the Max Payne franchise, I have to admit that concerning matters of race, I find the work unsettling. A white hero slaughters endless waves of black and Latino men, his only allies a fair-weather friend who is on the take and a cop who is too cowardly to effect any change in a society he admits is riddled with corruption. He asks Max to act in his stead, essentially begging a white man to do his work for him.
As I said, problematic.
Of course, we do not expect Raul Passos to save the day in a game titled Max Payne 3. However, I think the work provides a classic example of a larger problem in video games and in geek culture in general where race is concerned. For the most part, men and women of color are sidekicks, not heroes. And yet in regards to villainy? That is the moment when it seems all too easy to include us in droves—as zombies, as faceless military grunts, as gang members, as savages.
Balance is needed. I am reluctant to set aside Max Payne 3 as an example of the problem when Rockstar Games has done such a credible job in the past of bringing racial balance to its selection of heroes—Luis Lopez, Carl “C. J.” Johnson, Huang Lee. Though, to be fair, I have just listed a selection of criminals, criminals placed in a positive light, but criminals nonetheless.
Other companies, such as Ubisoft and Valve, have followed Rockstar’s lead and should be commended. However, I generally identify Rockstar as a trailblazer in regards to race due to their selection of lead characters that cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be identified or classified as white. For even when protagonists of color are presented to fandom, skin colors are lightened and features are often “softened” to ease race past more bigoted consumers. Yet the problem does not merely reside with the maker of the game but with the player as well. I clearly remember fan requests for “white” player skins in order to cloak the blackness that racist players apparently felt was too offensive or jarring to endure while playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
And yet I see no demands for brown or tan skins for Max Payne.
Perhaps the “shock and awe” method enacted by Rockstar is the best method to push change? “Here’s our lead. He’s black. Deal with it.” Of course, making said change is a lot easier when done from the safe cocoon of a lucrative franchise. It’s something to think about—not only in blogs, but in boardrooms as well.