Super Mario For Brown People

As a brown kid, it was tough to find media where I felt like I could relate. As I grow older, it’s become slightly easier to come to terms with this; but it’s very much a continuing struggle.

In video games, this has always been a bit difficult. One of the games that captured my imagination (as it did most people) was Super Mario 3 for the NES. I remember that the game excited me but also kinda scared me (Why was the sun so angry at me?). Its style made sense to my infant mind, but more importantly did not exclude me as an Asian kid. I believe this is because of two things. Firstly, the limited graphics of pixels meant that it was difficult to capture skin colours so most characters were generically white. While this has some obvious implications (Eurocentric), it actually meant that skin colour was reduced to a few pixels. Mario was white and European, did it matter? No. Was he really Italian? I guess he was. But the point is this wasn’t really a representation of the struggles of an Italian plumber. This was fun. There was a target to get to, and you just had to do it to the back drop of some fantastical graphics. Mario and Luigi were such bloated stereotypes it was difficult to take them seriously. When I played as Mario, I was Mario.

Secondly, as a Japanese game (which I didn’t really think of at the time) all the referents where alien in the west. It wasn’t quite a “white” world because culturally speaking all the referents were not there in the West. Tanooki suits? Goombas? It meant nothing to us, it just looked great and meant as a brown kid I didn’t feel excluded. In fact, I felt very much part of this fantasy world, and was glad to spend hours scouring it for secrets (and still do!).

It’s actually the final irony of video games that as graphics in games are now more “realistic” they end up reproducing real world discriminations. I am way more likely to come across stereotypes of brown people in video games in full HD, than I ever was as a child (not to say there were none in the pixel period). This is a real shame, and I feel that as games attempt to capture the “Hollywood” movie feel (for bigger returns) it will simply duplicate the same problematic issues that the cinema has been criticised for.