This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.
As a nation of people who came here from elsewhere, America is nothing if not diverse. This is especially true of the Lower East Side. Within a short radius of the East Village neighborhood where Shawn Alexander Allen grew up, you will encounter a wide variety of cultures living on top of each other, including but not limited to Puerto Ricans, Pakistanis, Dominicans, and Latinos. “We’re in New York, the land of great character design,” said the 32 year-old Allen, who is looking to capture the city’s famous multiculturalism in his upcoming game.
This is a bit of a breakthrough. In the past, diversity is something games with which have struggled. A fairly recent study found only 10 percent of characters were African American and fewer than 3 percent were Hispanic. The numbers are bad, but Allen believes the problem is worse than that. On the off-chance a game happens to portray a character as non-white, they are typically presented as ethnic cliches, rather than actual human beings with real issues and complex lives.
“People are people,” he says, “but it’s super easy to get sucked into a Hollywood one-dimensional stereotype.” Look across the racial topography of games and you will see what he is talking about. Allen points out how the character of Lee from the popular Walking Dead adventure game series is a mirror image of the angry black man trope. “Why do pretty much all black men in games have to be criminals?” he says.
Allen became so frustrated with announcement after announcement for new games starring white males that he quit his job at Rockstar (the studio who makes Grand Theft Auto) and started developing his own game. Treachery in Beatdown City, funded through Kickstarter last May, was the result. The game is a throwback to beat ‘em ups from the arcades of the ‘80s, games like Double Dragon and Final Fight, but updated with a progressive twist. His game features characters who look and act like people you would cross paths with, should you decide to jab, punch, and headbutt your way through the streets of New York. (Probably not a good idea, by the way.)
The first thing he did was scrawl out elaborate character sketches for the good guys, not only taking pains to give them unique ethnicities, but also to present them true to life. One character that you can play as is Mexican, but he is not a masked wrestler, or a member of a mariachi band. He is muscular, light-skinned and of Spanish descent. He is also partly based on a friend of Allen’s who lived undocumented in the US. “I’m kind of questioning the idea of what an illegal immigrant looks like,” Allen said. Then, there’s the darker-skinned fighter, inspired by a Jamaican friend who is learning Capoeira and idolizes Bruce Lee. “One time he did a dragon kick at the store that went pretty far,” he told me.
Of course, Allen based a character on himself. As it turns out, he is a member of a multiethnic occult biker gang in the game. “That is based on growing up in New York. The Hell’s Angels were just around. It was kind of scary to walk by a spot with skeletons and flames spray-painted on the wall,” he says. Games with accurate representations of people from different ethnic groups are more than socially correct; they’re also fundamentally more interesting, because they create worlds where cultures and histories intersect. “We need more people creating games from their own perspectives,” he said.