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Monday, March 4, 2013

League of Legends' Person of Color Problem

This post was brought on by a discussion I had with a friend, in which, as a joke, he exclaimed "There are no black people in League of Legends," referring to the character list. While perhaps a crass way to put it, he had a point. But League of Legends is one of the most popular games in the world right now, that had to be wrong. Yet I could not think of a single dark skinned champion to save my life. So I did the responsible thing and did some research, below are the findings and some analysis.

As of today there are 111 Champions released, of those, there are 63 that are clearly identifiable as human and have at least some skin color visible. This does not include Yordles or anyone who is not human. I confirmed this by going through the entire list and checking their primary (default, canon) skin. If it was very unclear I tried to use other apparently lore-appropriate skins (as in ones that were not simply novelty costumes) to clarify. To be fair to the developers, I'll throw out the 11 that are of indeterminant race (Viktor, Brand, Zed) or esoteric (as in, not found on Earth) skin colors (such as Evelyn, Ryze, Elise). So we're at 52. Full disclosure, I did include Kayle who's default skin is fully armored, because the majority of her skins depict the same character (a Caucasian woman with blonde hair).

The findings were concerning.

Of the 52 champions examined, only 8 of them were persons of color (~17%), with 7 of them being east Asian (mostly Ionian, which seems to be a hybrid of Japan, China, and southeast Asia). Of those 8 several were difficult to determine (such as Master Yi) but in general, they had relatively fair skin (Irelia, for example, has extremely fair skin which some pink in its shading). I won't go into artistic analysis of what it means to draw an "Asian" character with Western traits or proclaim to know how "good or bad" that is. I can say that mixing standards of beauty can create difficulties, with my go-to example being a fan's "remake" of Faith from Mirror's Edge. In brief, a fan felt that Faith should be resigned to be more in line with what the fan felt were Asian standards of beauty (the image on the right, the original is on the left). That however, is a topic for another day. In this case, I will defer and count the characters.

But something about the above should have stood out even more. To me, it was that of 63 Champions, only ONE was non-Asian or Caucasian in color. Who? Karma. The game puts her as an Ionian native, the aforementioned stand-in for Asia, but her darker skin color and name derived from Hindu mythology would implicate that she is Indian.

Ironically, also a character the developers have to this day been unable to properly balance.
Hispanic? Not a one. African American? Nope, maybe a skin (I couldn't find one). Native American? MAYBE Udyr but it's nigh impossible to tell. Suffice to say, if there are characters that are meant to be persons of color, it's almost impossible to be certain; maybe people see their own race in certain ones, but by and large the cast is as lily-white as a high-priced private school.

But Clock, they just make characters based on their audience! They are complying with audience demands!

The "Free Market" which this sort of claim is essentially appealing to, is actually extremely racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic...basically phobic to everything that is not the majority. This means actors can get away with socially reprehensible behavior by waving the flag of "Oh it's the markets fault." which simultaneously shifts blame to the victims (the consumers who apparently don't want to consume progressive media) and absolves the developers. This creates a chicken-egg problem that I personally think should rest more on the shoulders of developers, but sadly due to modern corporate law, likely won't any time soon...despite that opening up to other ethnic groups can broaden your audience; or that offering different standards of beauty can open the discussion. As it is, a large portion of the Earth's population is not represented. This may be a "Fantasy" setting, but if their fantasy is "There are no POCs in our world" then I am not sure Riot is a company I want to support.

Lets be honest here, League of Legends is the most played game in the world, and has followings from Brazil to Asia...I'd venture that it's access is nearly worldwide. If the racial distribution in game is meant to even vaguely mirror that of real life, it means a mere 17% of their player base is people of color.

This is rather saddening to me because League of Legends has a rich setting and backstory to draw from, and could easily involve people of color without resorting to tokenism. I am not advocating that they start releasing POC's just to fulfill some kind of quota, but I can think of no legitimate excuse as to why they haven't. Nor am I arguing that the Riot team is necessarily being racist, but the results do speak for themselves. So perhaps they should weave POCs into the rest of the rotation, just as our modern world has woven culture and appearance.

1 comment:

  1. Great question. Very interesting analysis. The findings are surprising, but what's nice about this article is the discussion that's being opened. It's always risky though. People are loathe to admit to participating in a racist/sexist/-phobic system and rightly so. Even I get upset about it's implications, but hopefully we can all recognize that recognizing something is wrong doesn't mean we're hateful criminals. Sometimes in revealing this information the point is to become AWARE, in the hopes that we'll critically examine it and support positive change.