How Nintendo Is Pushing for Racial Inclusion in 2015

In a video games climate that has been decrying the prevalence of rehashed themes and narratives, perhaps the matter of racial inclusion can serve as one catalyst for greater change.

by Jose Cardoso on September 2nd, 2015

Take stock of Nintendo’s character cards and you’ll observe a deck populated with unusual specimens: alien plant life, cutesy dinosaurs, jumping crocodiles and anthropomorphic mushrooms. Differences in colour among the characters create range, a mix of visual interest and character development. Yet the more you step away from this collection of fantasy creatures and into the realm of Nintendo’s human characters, the less diversity is a staple.

If you were to ask someone with a cursory knowledge of Nintendo’s properties, chances are they would list primarily white characters: Mario and Princess Peach (Super Mario Bros.), Link and Zelda (The Legend of Zelda) — the usual suspects. Despite having some characters of color like Great Tiger (Super Punch-Out!!), Agent Spin (Elite Beat Agents), Beedle (The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass), Anthony Higgs (Metroid: Other M) and Gaston Gray (Endless Ocean: Blue World) — these exceptions are outweighed by the overwhelming presence of white protagonists, game hosts and supporting characters.

Interestingly, while Nintendo has been the recipient of criticism for its lack of social consciousness, very little of this critique has centered on racial inclusion. It’s apparent that Nintendo is keeping their fingers on the pulse of games culture, where there’s been a call for greater diversity; while this movement has prompted more female roles, characters of colour are still few and far between. Still, Nintendo’s 2015 direction shows a commitment to increasing racial diversity in both debuting properties and established franchises.

Characters from Code Name STEAM: Tiger Lily, a healer from Peter Pan; John Henry, from the African American folk tale of the same name; The Fox - a sniper character who wields the Fox Rifle, and Queequeg, a notable character from Moby-Dick that specializes in machinery. (Descriptions via Nintendo Wikia.

The first of Nintendo’s new IPs for the year — Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. — is guided by a bizarre science fiction premise, where a living Abraham Lincoln recruits a robust gamut of agents for an organization known as the Strike Team Eliminating the Alien Menace (S.T.E.A.M.). The playable roster includes humans, animals and other beings, many with origins in legends and literary works. The ratio of white characters to characters of color is in favor of the latter (excluding bonus characters), thanks to the game’s representation of different cultures and nationalities among the human characters. A tribal princess (Tiger Lily), a South Pacific whale hunter (Queequeg), a freedom fighter hailing from Mexico (The Fox), an African-American railroad worker (John Henry) and an island queen (Califia) — none of which are white. But despite its accomplishments in gameplay, originality and audio design, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. will live on as one of Nintendo’s misunderstood gems, with anemic traction and poor critical reception. Within the context of racial diversity and inclusion, it’s even more of a shame that the game hasn’t been appropriately recognized.

Luckily, other new Nintendo IPs are also bringing innovation and social shifts within games culture. Its recent shooter masterpiece, Splatoon, was first revealed last year at E3, gaming’s largest and most talked-about convention. In the debut trailer, the squid-inspired characters (called Inklings) were shown with all beige complexions. But prior to the game’s launch, Nintendo tested out the online servers with a preview download, a demo that hinted at a certain aspect of character customization that would appear in the final product: the ability to choose from seven different skin colour options. Truthfully, it’s a small touch in the scheme of things, but the fact that they allowed for greater diversity in this area demonstrates that they are aware of the need to represent other races and have non-white players feel connected to their avatars.

Heralding Change

Characters from Splatoon, customized with the skin tone feature.

Both Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. and Splatoon are examples of games already released that boast racially inclusive themes or features. But what lies in Nintendo’s future? It’s reassuring to see that among forthcoming releases, there’s further evidence that Nintendo is working to be race-conscious in their design choices. This is true even with established franchises that have been governed by defined rules and universes for years, demonstrating that Nintendo is willing to break with history if it means servicing positive change.

Animal Crossing is one example. This relaxing take on civilization begins with the same story: You are the only human (barring friends) in a town full of animals for neighbours — a town that you live in, manage and develop communal prosperity. It just so happens that your human avatar as an Animal Crossing villager… is white. While newer games in the series have made great strides towards player customization with a growing assortment of fashion choices, options for character features are still limited: skin colour is not a variable. Four games into the series (the latest being New Leaf for the Nintendo 3DS), this has yet to change. But perhaps aware of the calls we now see in gaming, the newest installment will change that: the interior design-focused spin-off — Happy Home Designer, launching in September — is the first time that players can choose their Villager’s skin colour. This will bring a welcome touch of ethnic representation to a series that probably should have had such a feature implemented long ago.

Screenshot from Animal Crossing with a brown human character alongside a Kangaroo.

In past games, I’ve favoured the clown mask as my personal gear of choice, but something tells me I’ll be less inclined to do so in the future, now that I can represent myself in the game with greater accuracy.

Nintendo is also preparing to address this matter of diversity with — of all things — the next Mario game. The iconic figure is having his 30th Anniversary soon, and to commemorate, Nintendo has launched a campaign where players can submit videos expressing their appreciation with comedy, art, even stop motion animation. This is in connection with the release of Super Mario Maker, a game that promises to inspire new waves of content creators with the prospect of creating original Mario levels. In the editing interface of Super Mario Maker, your default cursor is a human hand holding a Nintendo DS stylus. However, you will be able to change the cursor to something more in keeping with Mario’s universe — like the cat paw from Super Mario 3D World. But if you want to preserve the “hands-in” feel, Nintendo says that the skin tone of the hand can be changed also. Having this option is a bonus that contributes to greater inclusion and acknowledgement of the diverse fanbase that Mario has built over the years.

Untold Stories

Artwork from the new Super Mario Bros, featuring Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, and classic game elements like pipes, coins and Question blocks.

It’s true that Nintendo’s historical lack of racially diverse characters has in some ways meant a company that creates with a less colourful palette. Yet it’s evident that Nintendo, with the above examples of socially-conscious actions, is intent on pairing creative ambition and technical innovation with moves toward such diversity and inclusion.

The unsatisfactory level of racial inclusion in video games both historically and currently is damaging, from the standpoint that there are stories that still need telling, connections that still need forming and roles that still need challenging. Kids especially need heroes to look up to, characters that will impart lessons they will carry with them as they get older; people in general need characters they can identify with in struggle and/or circumstance to draw hope, inspiration and understanding. Games can serve as powerful, interactive tools for purposes beyond amusement — education, skill-building and therapy, as some examples — and in light of their far-reaching influence, it behooves designers and producers to channel their creative efforts towards challenging the status quo. As it stands, it’s a great disservice to minority gamers that such roles are considered luxuries and exceptions in today’s landscape, and how in some cases the roles they can look to are one-sided representations, potentially fueling stereotypes. We as gamers should question why profiles are reinforced rather than approached in a lateral fashion.

In a video games climate that has been decrying the prevalence of rehashed themes and narratives, perhaps this matter of racial inclusion can serve as one catalyst for greater change. It’s a culture that in some ways is self-policed; calls for greater diversity among game characters have gained considerable traction, spearheaded by various advocacy groups and other epicenters that rally for social change. Individuals and groups that are minority by definition are inciting cultural discussion and pushing both creators and partakers to reflect on how representations (or the lack of them) are affecting the community. It will take a great deal to usher in a paradigm shift on the backs of outspoken members alone, but we who are underserved by current conditions can certainly make our voices heard and sway influential forces like Nintendo toward greater racial representation and inclusion in games.