People of color are more visible in games today than ever before. We’re even seeing many taking center stage, such as Bayek in Assassin’s Creed Origins, Alex Hunter in FIFA 17’s single-player campaign “The Journey,” and Kait Diaz in Gears 5, not to mention the rosters of Overwatch and Apex Legends.
Yet even if that appears to be progress for people of color, it’s not always the case behind the scenes. Making a woman the face of the macho Gears series may be a bold move, but if you go by her last name, Kait is also a Hispanic woman being played by a white actor, Laura Bailey.
It’s far from the first time Bailey has played other races, including a Chinese woman in Binary Domain and, most notably, black mercenary Nadine Ross in Uncharted 4. Similarly, we’ve seen other white actors taking on roles of other ethnicities, such as Troy Baker as Hong Kong-born dictator Pagan Min in Far Cry 4 or Melissa Hutchison as Clementine in Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. Bailey even reprised her role of Nadine in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, alongside Claudia Black who plays Chloe Frazer, an Australian woman with Indian heritage.
Whitewashing is prevalent in all other kinds of media, too, but it’s more ambiguous in games. Rather than facing censure, many of the above performances have even been rewarded with nods from BAFTA and The Game Awards. That gray area precedes games to the animation industry, where actors frequently voice other genders and races, some even done by the same person. In these circumstances, the vocal performance ultimately matters far more than the person’s background.
After all, Bailey’s first voice acting gig was as the young Trunks in the dub of Dragon Ball Z, while much of her back catalog has been dubbing for anime and games that are Japanese in origin. So voicing game characters of different ethnicities may not seem like much of a leap.
For voice actors like Cristina Vee, whose career is also largely in anime and Japanese roleplaying games, that’s the appeal of the profession in the first place. “On camera, there’s still such a restriction on the roles that I can play just because of my physical appearance,” she says. “I could have spent my twenties playing the same sassy, tough Latina girl, or I can be whoever I want.”
Nonetheless, as someone who’s also in the position of casting and directing voice talent, Vee draws a line when it comes to photorealism. “When you’re portraying somebody who’s supposed to be a real person on screen, there isn’t any excuse not to use actors who are true to that person’s background,” she explains.
But simply matching an actor’s background to their character isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. “Voice acting requires significant technical acting abilities — automated dialogue replacement, timing restrictions, facial sync, battle chatter, breathing techniques — so finding qualified actors is limited to skilled and experienced talent,” says Keith Arem, CEO of PCB Productions, whose past works includes Judgment and Sleeping Dogs.
While voice actors working remotely from a home studio setup is common, a lot of recording still takes place at a professional production studio like PCB, which looks for talent already based nearby in Los Angeles. Of course, there are exceptions, as the predominantly Asian cast for Sleeping Dogs required Arem to expand to Hong Kong and Vancouver to fill all of the roles.
Vee’s recent casting project was for Indivisible, a crowdfunded action RPG celebrated for its diverse representation reflected in its appropriately casted characters, and one of the largest, most in-depth casting projects she had undertaken to date. “We wanted as many different kinds of voices and people from as many different backgrounds as we could, and we wanted to look for unheard voices as well,” she says. “There were 17 core characters and I was getting about 100 auditions per role.”
To get this right took time, with the initial cast filled early on for the Kickstarter beta build, while other roles were cast as characters were finalized. It also helped that Vee started out in casting with developer Lab Zero’s previous game Skullgirls.
However, casting is quite often the last thing on developers’ minds. Martin Vaughan, casting director at Side UK — whose work includes the FIFA series, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and Apple Arcade launch title Assemble With Care — explains, “Most of the time, I’m brought on board fairly late into the overall development process. By then, characters and storylines have been established, artwork has been created, and placeholder voices may have been used for the characters.”
If there is a lack of diverse characters to begin with, then it’s difficult to suggest changes that late in development. Casting directors are ultimately following the brief they’re given. But where character breakdowns are clear, with bios, voice description, and art, that information can greatly help with casting appropriately for the most authentic performance.
Even so, things can get tricky. Due to the highly confidential nature of the games industry, actors often don’t even know what game they’re appearing in, and when it comes to reading a role at an audition, the character breakdown can be equally as opaque. A white actor might not even be aware that they’re auditioning for a person of color role, and vice versa. But even if an ethnicity is stated, and appropriate casting is encouraged, it’s also illegal to exclude white actors from auditioning for a person of color role. Furthermore, for these auditions, many developers literally are casting blind by just listening to the audio file. Blind casting — also referred to as nontraditional casting — was meant to allow people from marginalized backgrounds to play roles that had been written as white. But if a white actor is taking an underrepresented role, then it’s clearly not working.
This was the criticism developer Chucklefish found itself facing for strategy sim WarGroove and its recent expansion when late last year it emerged that its new characters, three who were people of color, were all cast with white voice actors. Ironically, according to the casting director Kimlinh Tran, who also voices a character in the game, the intent was to cast as authentically as possible. But which mattered more: the authenticity of the actors’ skin color or their accents?
“They wanted both at the same time,” Tran explains. When she was brought in for the expansion, the developer had picked a Scottish actor to play the white character Wulfar. For his twin children, presented as biracial, there was then an insistence that they sound like their father.
Finding an actor of color who could convincingly get the Scottish accent down proved a tremendous hurdle. It also wasn’t the only one. Not only did the actor have to sound like a child, but perhaps in a bid to cut costs, the developer wanted just one actor to play both twins, a boy and girl.
The search lasted almost six months without success, despite compromises to the ages of the twins. “After looking for too long, I really should have actually come back and said, ‘Is the Scottish really necessary?’” says Tran. “Ultimately, I think we lost track of what really needed to be represented.”
In the aftermath of the backlash — Chucklefish issued an apology and explanation, while Tran followed up with her own detailed Twitter thread — more people of color did reach out to her, including one actor who could hit the specific parameters for the twins. It showed how finding the right person for the role wasn’t a case of just Googling “black Scottish voice actors” and expecting the perfect fit to magically appear as the top search result.
“You don’t wait to be discovered,” Tran says. From her own experience as a voice actor, she still routinely cold-calls studios to try to get into their talent pool, a way for voice actors to distinguish themselves from the sea of databases and files a casting director or agent would otherwise be trawling through. Vee also has her own go-to talent pool, which ranges between 70 to 100 actors, “people who I know can get the job done efficiently, which is very important for smaller games when there’s not a lot of money so you can’t spend too much time in the booth,” she says.
So besides voice acting being a very technical craft, casting directors also have to factor in the limitations of time and money. And that’s just the games that can even afford voice acting. It’s easy to see how proven talent like the Troy Bakers and Laura Baileys of the industry keep booking roles. Again, the meritocracy argument rears its head. Shouldn’t the role just go to the best actor? And if people of color are able to play white or nondescript roles, why not the other way around?
But the reality is that these equal opportunities don’t really stand up to scrutiny when people of color still have significantly fewer roles available to them. “It’s only fair if the talent pool is a 50-50 split between the marginalized and the not so marginalized,” Tran argues. “You’re not trying to say the best person we could find is a white person to play a black person when you only have 5 percent black people in your talent pool instead of half.”
If marginalized people have fewer opportunities, then it stands to reason they’re more likely to be at a disadvantage in terms of experience and skill set. While the solution might be to just sharpen your skills, that still doesn’t address the socio-economic divide some actors face. “There are friends and peers of mine who can’t find the time to study their craft, and they are usually marginalized groups,” Tran explains. “They can’t study because they can’t find time because they’re too busy working, so meritocracy comes down to who has the time to study their craft and afford the classes. When you think about it that way, it’s stacked against them.”
Factoring in these systemic issues, it’s hard to say that instances of whitewashing are solely the fault of the casting director or the actors. Ultimately, responsibility has to fall to developers both in a position of privilege and in charge of these creative decisions.
As the recent UK games industry diversity census shows, just 10 percent of the workforce consists of people of color (only 2 percent are black, while 6 percent are Asian), which gets considerably lower once you start looking at senior roles. Even for well-meaning white liberal males in the industry, there are going to be blind spots in achieving meaningful diversity.
Nonetheless, the need for diversity in both characters and actors in games is being heard, and many are optimistic about the direction in which things are going. That there was a vocal backlash for WarGroove’s casting is itself a sign that audiences are taking notice, too.
Until the industry becomes as diverse as the spectrum of characters and worlds it’s intending to portray, all people like Tran can do is bang the drum. “Right after WarGroove, I was already casting for another project with a different client,” she says. “I gave them as many black actors that I could, and I had to write in caps: ‘I highly encourage you to consider from this group of people, because if you don’t, you may run into the problem where you may not properly represent the people that you’re trying to represent in your game.’”