Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine: On Race and Sex in Saints Row IV


So, this week I went against my better judgement and rented Saints Row IV. I got drawn into the hype. I heard a million other podcasters talk about how it was just plain, old “stupid fun”. And this was the kind of week that I needed some good old fashioned stupid fun. But I didn’t think that old fashioned was the same as sexist and racist. And it started off quite nicely when I was still working with the voiceless, faceless me. And then I came to the part of the game that I usually enjoy almost as much as actually playing games themselves. The part that I can spend, literally, hours focusing on if there is nothing pressing me forward. The creation of my character. I like to play characters that look like me in some way. Even if they are not human(oid) I like for them to have some kind of Sam essence.

saints_sexIn this game I wanted to make a president that looked like me. So I made an African American woman and I immediately started to notice a lot about the rhetoric of the body in this game. I could not be full figured and strong. The more I filled out my frame, the weaker I became. If you don’t think you can be full figured and strong….just try me. Hell, I throw a 50 pound kid around for shits and giggles. And then I notice a slider in the character screen for “sex appeal”. So, the experienced gamer in me should have known to have just pretended that I never saw that slider…right? Yeah, well I slid it and the more I slid it to the right the wittier my quips became! Nope, just shitting you, the larger and more jiggly my breasts grew. And let  me tell you about my breasts (in the game). They jiggled, a lot. Not just when I ran or jumped, but when I rotated my character model to see it from all sides. They jiggled and momentum took over and they kept jiggling. Just what I always wanted…more jiggly boobs. 

But I pressed on and moved to what I thought would be less problematic, things like voice. There are seven or eight voices to choose from. 3 male, 3 female, and Nolan North’s. I chose the one that grated on my nerves the least and moved on. Than then I moved my taunting moving. Awesome, to be able to customize my sh*t-talking moves. This time out there were ~30 moves to choose from and they had names that hinted at what they might be, but the only way to find out for such was to click on them. Of the ~30 moves about 25 of the taunt moves were sexual in nature and more than half of them mimicked oral sex. And not consensual oral sex. Some of the taunt moves involved forcefully grabbing an unseen partner’s head, forcing it to my crotch area, and holding it there will I gyrated in some manner. What kind of shit was that?

After the taunting fiasco I gave up on the customization and decided to just move on to game play. Now with all of the positive press that I had heard it had to get better, right? Wrong. My thick lipped (all 5 choices for lips open to my African American character looked like they belonged in some racist cartoon strip. And it just got worse. My presidential character jiggled all over the screen, slapped high fives, used her “witty” urban dialect, and bopped around with a walk that looked like it was out of a Steppin’ Fetchit show. This was what people were finding so friggin’ funny? I was so offended by what I saw that I had to keep playing. No, really. It was like watching a train wreck. It couldn’t get any worse, right? And if it did I was going to have to be there to see it! Oh yes, and then there were aliens. Big aliens than grab women around the neck and make some witty remark about how they might use them before beaming them up into their spaceships.

saints_groupI could go on and on, but I won’t. And look folks, I understand that there are folks out there who are going to say but the situations and movements are the same for all characters regardless of race and sex. I get that. I watched LPs to make sure that this was the case. What is most offensive here is where this comes from. These characteristics, moves, dialects, colloquialisms, etc. do not exist in a vacuum. They have history. They have historically been used to exploit folks of color. I don’t find a team of Caucasian, Asian, or Saints Purple gang members dressed in costumes from 1970s Blaxploitation films while running around killing people and mimicking forcing them into performing oral sex any less offensive than the same gameplay involving African American characters. There is bias, hatred, and oppression tied up in all of that shit. And, the game play wasn’t all that great either. The story was trite and the gameplay too simplistic. Just run around and shoot shit. Destroy stuff to get more “cache” to buy more offensive shit.

In the end I thought back to the folks that I had heard recommend this game on the interwebs. Game reviews and podcasters who I read and follow regularly. I wondered, “Now, why the hell would they do that?”. Then I realized that there was no malice in their actions…just ignorance. Because their blues (or blacks and browns) really are not like mine. They really may have been oblivious to what was tied up historically and rhetorically in what Deep Silver and Volition were throwing at gamers with Saints Row IV. But that doesn’t grant anyone a pass. Ignorance is no excuse under the law or in game development either. Devs have to know what they are doing at all times and this is the very reason that there must be more diversity in dev houses. This is why I do the work that I do and why I push to get more wanna be game designers and programmers in humanities courses where they are asked to look at these things more closely and think about what they actually all mean. There is much work to be done, my friends!

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4 Responses to “Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine: On Race and Sex in Saints Row IV”

  1. Kunzelman says:

    This is a great article, and it really gets at some of the reservations that I’ve had about SR4 and its position as an exploitation game. I feel like SR4 is just as problematic in its re-presentation of the problems it is lampooning as any other game that purportedly criticizes through recreation.

    • dr. b. says:

      Thanks! But I’ve been struggling with why this is so much more problematic for me (as in can’t play it problematic) than GTAV and I think that the answer is nostalgia. I am working through this in my head and on paper for my post this week. Let’s see how it comes out ;-)

  2. Richard Jones says:

    Yeah, I’m sorry for recommending Saints Row 3 to you.

    • dr. b. says:

      Richard! We’ve missed you! :-) No apologies necessary. The games weren’t for me, but they have really been fruitful in terms of getting me to think about that fine line of racial representation that exists for all of us and just what it takes to cross it. Keep an eye out for my post this week to see how I muddle through!