November 8, 2023
Written for all gaming enthusiasts, Ready Player Juan by Carlos Gabriel Kelly González fuses Latinx studies and video game studies to document how Latinx masculinities are portrayed in high-budget action-adventure video games, inviting Latinxs and others to insert their experiences into games made by an industry that fails to see them.
The book employs an intersectional approach through performance theory, border studies, and lived experience to analyze the designed identity “Player Juan.” Player Juan manifests in video game representations through a discourse of criminality that sets expectations of who and what Latinxs can be and do. Developing an original approach to video game experiences, the author theorizes video games as border crossings, and defines a new concept—digital mestizaje—that pushes players, readers, and scholars to deploy a Latinx way of seeing and that calls on researchers to consider a digital object’s constructive as well as destructive qualities. Read an excerpt from the book below.
In the past decade, I have taken to thinking more deeply and critically about video games, which has been my longest running and most beloved entertainment choice. Video games, just the words bring me joy and a possible connection to others— “you play video games?” A ‘Yes’ (a more common answer as the years have passed) always fills me with energy, excitement to know what this person plays and what games they love, or what console they play on, “oh PC, so cool!” I mean whatever people are playing on, I am pumped to hear their stories.
Games are full of stories, whether from the game’s narrative or from the people recounting a moment from their gameplay experiences. I once learned about an amazing game from a former student at a youth summer camp where I taught. The student chatted me up about all the games they played when at home. With excitement he pointed to a game’s alternate and shifting storylines, how cool it was that you could be three different people, and how there were consequences beyond what he was used to all in studio Quantic Dream’s Detroit: Become Human. I was also impressed by its story and how personal decisions left me asking what if I had chosen differently? Was there another way? The storytelling in video games compels me to play, to think about the game even when I should be doing other things; I revel in the stories video games provide.
Like the young boy at the camp, I didn’t know one could study video games beyond making them. I thought playing and enjoying games was all there was for me. I came to know this only because I was in a PhD program, which makes me think of how many people from other marginalized groups do not know or have the access they need to study video games? When you think about the low number of Latinxs in gaming production or in games’ representations, it isn’t surprising to see very little about Latinxs or games that continually stereotype us when that’s all we see in media. Then add the fact video games have always been an expensive hobby. The PlayStation 5 (PS5) is currently $750 in Brazil (2021, July), that’s over $250 more than the $500 US retail price. Or what about the 16-year-old Max Hayden buying and reselling PS5s for a total profit of over $1.7 million dollars? Video games and the new consoles are expensive and for the most part, because of the pandemic you are lucky to get one. All this to say that I have been fortunate in my access to the worlds made possible by video game creators and I consider it a privilege to be able to study, play, and love these stories.
We are living in a boom period for video games, in every sense of it. The attention to gaming has led to streaming favorite players, to esports competition, to websites dedicated to critiques and reviews, to next generation consoles, to more films and TV series about video games, to Twitter updates on where you can snag a next gen console; video games are it right now. Before I started to get into this research, I used to think video games had to prove they were worthy of attention or study, etc. This stance was a way for me to answer the criticism of video games being a waste of time, to study and examine the games I love to show people what was up! Yet, video games are worthy, and this idea runs less circles around me than before. However, I am plagued by yet another concern, this one more critical to unlocking the full potential of the stories I love in video games. In the face of this undeniable and infinite growth video games continue to lack diversity, especially when it comes to more completely capturing the extent of non-White peoples’ humanity. We just don’t see many stories not centering whiteness.
Video game storytelling has the potential to be boundless, to create what our other media cannot achieve, and yet we continue to see the same characters and the same stereotypes. Without diversity how can video games aspire to technology’s boundless possibilities? I’m reminded of Christopher González’s Permissible Narratives and how he writes about the limits experienced by Latinxs who were publishing their stories. He investigates how the early success of Latinx narratives set limits on the types of Latinx storytelling, creating a phenomenon of what was or is deemed permissible, which was/is based on audiences’ receptions to what stories they thought were authentic Latinx stories. He writes that “the earliest Latino/a authors were already attempting to break from a priori expectations of what types of narratives they could create; what they lacked was narrative permissibility from their audiences” (González 177). We continue to see this in the way Latinxs are represented in video games, with not much being permissible beyond the stereotypes involving White protagonists and Latinx side characters—if we even make it that far into the script.
Game production in the US (and globally) needs a more well-rounded dialogue that makes space for marginalized peoples, and no Naughty Dog Studios (creator of Last of us Two), you don’t just throw in a Latinx character and expect us to be like, “cool, cool, you did it!” I love that game, but it tokenizes people of color and treats us like horror movie characters where we have a role and then we do not, usually by brutal death. This role given to marginalized groups is usually in the service of expanding upon the protagonists’ story, just like Manny in Last of us Two. Thus, as consumers of games and producers of games we need to recognize that with the growing popularity and the immense storytelling power of video games comes responsibility— yes; Uncle Ben/Aunt May telling Spidey with great power. . . you know the rest.
Video games can and do provide a multitude of experiences that work on us physically, mentally, and emotionally. Again, which is why it is so critical to be more inclusive instead of recreating the same White male lead with a slightly modified 5’o clock shadow. When it comes to Latinxs, we really don’t exist in the same ways that White characters do. In fact, Latinx masculinities (in mostly male bodies) exist only in stereotypes, and I can only name three playable Latina characters in the last 20 years: Isabella Keyes, Christie Monteiro, and Sombra. Notable here, Sombra was only added after the launch of Overwatch, again pointing to how Latinxs are afterthoughts. How is this possible when according to Pew Research, Latinxs are considered the fastest growing group of people to identify as gamers? (Pew). Latinxs are continually underrepresented as marginalized peoples in all our media even though we make up the most sizeable portion of non-gringo peoples in the US. This erasure, this ignoring, this way of seeing worlds without Latinxs just can’t stand anymore. As gamers, as people, as heavy consumers of video games (the highest consumers of video games) Latinxs deserve better.