Una Conexión Hispana, Part 2: Hispanic Representation, Symbolic Annihilation, and a Way Forward

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Una Conexión Hispana, Part 2: Hispanic Representation, Symbolic Annihilation, and a Way Forward

This is part two of Una Conexión Hispana, or A Spanish Connection, a letter series we’re running this year in celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month for Paste Games. The goal is to accomplish a rare feat in games: have two Hispanic writers in conversation about the state of their representation in the industry and their hopes for the future. Your can read part one here.

Hey there Moises!

I’m really glad we’re having this conversation about the status of Hispanic and Latine representation in games because as much as it’s a topic that’s been bouncing around in my brain for a long time, it’s pretty rare I get a chance to talk about it with another Hispanic person who is into videogames. Now that I think of it, this may be the only time I’ve been able to do so. As much as my family members are willing to indulge my one-sided ramblings, I’ve never been able to vent about it with another person in the weeds of game coverage.

To answer your first question, “Do you have any Hispanic or Latine heroes in videogames?” the answer is sort of, but not really. The only character approaching this for me is Miles Morales from Insomniac’s recent Spider-Man expansion. Like me, he’s half Puerto Rican with a parent who grew up as a first-generation immigrant in New York. When I picked up the game for the first time, it felt more than a little surreal to be playing as a protagonist who shared my ethnicity, and I remember thinking how much this would have meant to me when I was younger. Miles’ voice actor, Nadji Jeter, gives an excellent performance and some moments authentically engaged with Miles’ Hispanic heritage, like when you help prepare for Christmas dinner.

But as respectfully as they treat his background, these Insomniac games have some off-putting qualities that make them a little hard for me to fully indulge in. For instance, it doesn’t sit great with me that Miles’ mentor, Peter Parker, helps the police create an extensive surveillance system meant to monitor every move of its citizens. Additionally, even though Miles’ mom, Rio, is a politician actively running for office, the story makes very few political stances. It feels like these characters’ ethnicities exist in a hermetically sealed bubble, safely unchallenged by those around them and free of any significant prejudice or discrimination. It’s fine that the game isn’t fundamentally about these things, as not every story featuring minorities needs to be a race relations drama. But it feels odd that topics like minority-police relations or how Hispanics interact with politics feel undercooked, even though Miles’ parents are literally a cop and a politician.

I think it says a lot that despite these problems, Miles is one of the most notable examples of Hispanic representation I can think of, especially in a big-budget title. As you pointed out, the list of characters that qualify is vanishingly small, and the majority of depictions are downright depressing. The most common style of portrayal is cannon fodder enemies found in games like Far Cry, Red Dead, Max Payne 3, or Grand Theft Auto. In these titles, brown people are criminals, gangsters, or dissidents that the white protagonist nonchalantly blows away in large numbers. On the rare occasion you get a playable character, they are likely to resemble Rico from Just Cause, goofy one-line spewing parodies of Latino machismo. And as you alluded to, and Natalie Flores has explored, portrayals of Latinas are similarly stereotypical, defined by hypersexualization and exotification.

For most of my life, this mixture of non-existent and poor representation existed as a frequent but vaguely defined irritation, but I recently took a college class on diversity in media that helped crystallize many of my grievances. One useful framework for understanding what’s happening here is Cedric C. Clark’s four stages of media representation, which breaks down how minorities are depicted in fiction. The first stage is non-recognition, which is when a group is not represented at all. This phase has also been described by the somewhat dramatic but appropriately grandiose term “symbolic annihilation.” Over time, members of the non-represented group can come to feel marginalized and ignored by society due to their absence from popular stories. The second stage is ridicule, where a group is depicted, but in roles meant to mock and affirm the dominant culture’s feelings of “superiority.” The third is regulation, where minorities are presented more positively but only within the confines of sanitized roles that endorse the existing social order, such as police officers or government officials. The final stage is respect, which Clark said was generally reserved for depictions of whites. In this mode, characters are presented via the full range of characterization: they appear as heroes, villains, and everything in between.

While it is nice to have a shiny academic theory to affirm what we and many others have felt first-hand, one of the most alarming aspects of Clark’s framework is it feels not much has changed for Hispanic representation since he wrote about these ideas in 1969. These problems are widespread across other forms of media as well, and while there are examples of Hispanic characters in film and television that arguably exist in the coveted fourth stage of “respect,” I think they’re more an exception than anything else. For games, things are even worse, with mostly non-recognition and a smattering of mockery as the norm. Even the best example I could come up with so far, Miles, feels like a textbook example of the “regulation” stage, considering his comfortable relationship with the police.

And the thing is, I completely agree with you that the things we play and watch can have a real effect on us. Growing up, I was one of the only brown people in a Massachusetts suburb, and while I had my family, I felt almost completely alienated from my culture due to where I lived. During the Bush years, I had to listen to some of my classmates loudly complain about the “hordes” of “illegal immigrants” that were “flooding” into the country from Latin America. While I always knew this type of sentiment was xenophobic bullshit, I won’t deny that hearing it hurt. And it hurt all the more because I didn’t feel like anything I watched or played was in my corner. Videogames were always my favorite form of escapism, and while they helped me avoid thinking about these problems, their refusal to meaningfully push back on this toxic ideology meant they couldn’t affirm what I had experienced. As George Gerbner wrote, “representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.” Considering how much I’ve always loved fiction, not having many characters that looked like me made it seem my experiences didn’t matter. And perhaps worse, when I did see Hispanic characters, they were often painted in caricature.

So, where do we go from here? If I had to diagnose a major reason why most games wobble between the dismal first and second stages of media representation, I’d say it’s because of a lack of Hispanic and Latine developers. One game that arguably reaches the final stage of media rep is Guacamelee, and it’s no coincidence its art direction was helmed by Mexican-Canadian developer Augusto Quijano. In an article, Quijano described how the game features Mexican characters with a broad range of personalities, “good ones, bad ones, funny ones, sad ones, dumb ones, and smart ones.” He also said: “Telling stories is important. Stories are the fastest way to experience life from someone else’s point of view. This is the cornerstone of humanity. Without empathy, we can’t learn, nor can we teach effectively. It’s only when we can escape our own point of view that we can grow.” By drawing on personal experience, Hispanic and Latine developers could potentially push back on symbolic annihilation and stereotypical portrayals in the medium.

That said, I think there are some important considerations with this approach. Having more Hispanic designers, programmers, and artists won’t automatically fix the situation because they also need to be in positions where they can substantially affect what ends up in the final product. For instance, one of the many sickening accusations that came out of the recent Ubisoft scandals is that a high-ranking member of Assassin’s Creed editorial board would insist the game’s protagonists must be a “straight white alpha male.” The videogame industry has frequently come under fire for discriminatory practices that hamper marginalized groups, and until this is addressed, it will be difficult for Hispanic developers to fight existing tropes and bring authentic characters to life.

All of this isn’t meant to imply it is impossible for things to get better or to demoralize those attempting to make a difference. But personally, it’s hard for me to imagine these problems going away without things like active recruitment pushes or structural changes in how the industry works. We’ve seen quite a few cases of unionization in the games space in recent months, which could help challenge some of the existing hierarchies that demand more “marketable” white protagonists, but still, a great deal of support from non-Hispanic devs would be needed for this route to pan out.

And with all that said, I’m also a little hesitant to encourage other Hispanic people to enter the meat grinder that is the modern videogame industry, a space constantly under fire for allegations of abuse, harassment, and overwork. Again, conditions can improve here as well; they have to, but any recommendation comes with heavy caveats. I’m curious what you think about all this, Moises? Am I being too much of a doomer? And as people who write about games, what do you think we can do to potentially help the situation?

Elijah Gonzalez is the games intern for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing the latest indies and AAAs, he also loves film, anime, lit, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.