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Ready Player Juan: An Interview with Carlos Kelly

Latinx families play video games more than any other demographic in the US—especially during and post Covid. Yet, we are still absurdly underrepresented.

Frederick Luis Aldama

“As more players are awakened to the intersections of identity, more players will be awakened to how video games poorly represent POC, women, and LGBTQIA+ people, especially Latines.”

Latinx families play video games more than any other demographic in the US—especially during and post Covid. Outside the U.S., Latin America and the Hispanophone Caribbean are the fastest-growing markets for video games.

Yet, we are still absurdly underrepresented. And, when we are built into video game storyworlds, it’s business as usual: White savior narratives with Latinos portrayed as criminals, Latinas hypersexualized, and settings as only tropical-exotic or urban-gritty.

In the first-book length study of all things Latinx in video games, Ready Player Juan takes us on an eyes-wide-open critical journey through this representational history. It formulates an innovative way of understanding how video gamers and video games cross borders and construct new borderland experiences and digital mestizaje subjectivities.

I had the pleasure of learning more about the book and Latinx representation in video games from its author, Carlos Gabriel Kelly González.

It may come as a surprise to some, but Latinx play video games—and do so communally. Is this somehow related to your playful and yet serious “Player Juan” concept?

For me, “Player Juan” is an amalgam of tropicalized Anglo viewpoints that dictate the possibilities for Latine characters and limit how players can fuse as the player-character with Latine protagonists. Latine players combat these stereotypes, this amalgam, through our creativity while we play. For example, the tight-knit group of homies I game with are all Latine, and we play together less than before but still dream of a game that will pull all of us together again, like our WarZone days. Once, the homie Lee called an armor satchel (an item that allows one to carry more armor) a “Satchi Watchi”; now we call fanny packs, bags, backpacks, and such satchi watchis.

Can Ready Player Juans actively transform an otherwise color-blind video game narrative space?

Latines can combat our absence or continual stereotyping in games through interfaces that allow character creation—although this creates a dynamic where developers don’t have to write diverse stories because they rely on players to infuse diversity. In Starfield, I made a woman space explorer named Selena, which the characters in-game pronounce in a non-Spanish way, but still awesome—with my next character, I’ll try to call my character Carlos to see how NPCs pronounce it. In Baldur’s Gate 3, I invoked Tejana superstar Selena Quintanilla again by naming my half-orc, half-human woman warrior, Selena.

As I play, I infuse this fantasyland with Latinidad through my character’s name and my ideas/embodied experiences.

What do Latinx video game players want from video games?

I can’t speak for us all because video games and video game development still struggle with gendered views, especially among men, and sadly, especially amongst Latine men—reflecting on our gender privilege is just too much for some Latinos. As more players are awakened to the intersections of identity, more players will be awakened to how video games poorly represent POC, women, and LGBTQIA+ people, especially Latines.

Speaking in general, we need Latine representations that honor our socio-cultural and linguistic variations, meaning that we don’t all speak the same Spanish or with the same accents. Latine men are not all criminals; we don’t have to be crime-adjacent or womanizers to be credible/legible Latine representations. Latina characters don’t all need to be hyper-sexualized. What would a Latina character look like if Latinas designed her? Latina characters almost all have the same body type and are drawn in ways that privilege the male gaze.

More matter-of-factly—we need Latine protagonists. For example, why can’t we lead the way in Star Wars games? Disney brings Latines to Star Wars TV, but I guess video game developers at EA will continue to ignore the possibilities of intergalactic Latines.

What is digital mestizaje?

A new way of seeing challenging developers, scholars, students, etc., to front the tension of mestizaje, of cultural clashes, that occur while playing video games and/or consuming digital objects online. Mestizaje is an inherently loaded and complex term that invites the interrogation of competing forces of creation and annihilation. It is a colonial tool of power utilized to conquer Indigenous peoples in the Americas and beyond, and it also created entire peoples.

My upbringing on the borderlands weaves my Mexican and American culture in ways that highlight the cultural clashes Gloria Anzaldúa writes about in her seminal book Borderlands. This mixing, this mestizaje of cultures, creates cultural clashes that reveal new ways of being/seeing that can inspire empathy for other communities.

The goal of digital mestizaje is to make people see the constructive and destructive of a digital object, not to forget that what we consume is produced by people who see the world in a certain way, and when it comes to video games, how mostly white developers continually see the world without Latines.

I consider digital mestizaje a challenge to read the tensions and ambiguities in how we consume digital objects more carefully.

In AAA video games, what are the typical ways Latinx playable and non-playable characters are represented?

Without a doubt, Latine characters are almost always criminals or crime adjacent. Our Spanish is sprinkled in for effect, but never full-on conversations or Spanish that goes beyond talking smack to enemies (Spider-Man: Miles Morales). In Starfield, perhaps one if not the most anticipated release of 2023, I met the leader of the Crimson Fleet, Delgado, an NPC who speaks a gritty accented English. He is a pirate leader of a vast criminal enterprise . . .

[Insert Image Delgado]

He speaks Spanish only through curse words, unique phrases that point to Latin America, but without knowledge of those curses, you might think he is from Spain. Delgado is a proxy for larger Latinidad to see themselves in him. Like Manny from Last of Us 2, his Spanish language exists to invite Latines of any Latinidad to be satisfied with seeing themselves in one Latino character.

Latinidad in video games is tokenized, stereotyped, and given less imagination regarding cultural and linguistic representations. It’s either cardboard cutout Día-de-Los-Muertos aesthetic or a criminal.

What are the typical ways that video games ghettoize or tropicalize Latinx spaces?

We appear as English speakers with heavy accents. Nothing is wrong with the many ways a Spanish speaker might speak English with an accent yet accents often situate Latines into assumptions about a lack of intelligence or undeserving of citizenship/rights/empathy. We are not real people designed by gente in our communities, with research about our communities, or co-created with Latine writers; instead, developers (a majority white men) turn to discourse about Latines that reproduce stereotypes ad infinitum. It is much easier to pull from your ignorance than to do the work of getting things right. We may not even appear as characters; instead, we might appear as a setting for white heroes to do their thing.

Why does it matter to create authentic storyworlds and Latinx characters in video games?

Latines are continually denigrated as people, no matter where we are from or born; US Latines struggle to belong in a nation that is too ignorant to see how much we make this shit run. Our communities are some of the hardest working people, and my bias might say we are the hardest working people—check the staff at your university or corporate office; if you ever wait in line to cross from Tijuana to San Diego, you will get a glimpse of how hard we hustle. These stories matter because, without them, people will stew in their ignorance, leading to the hatred we see in viral videos where Latines are subjected to racist vitriol and policing by everyday people.

All our televisual media needs help to represent Latines more accurately; in video games, it is even more critical because the world consumes video games more than film, television, and music combined. We need these stories to add to the ongoing push to highlight Latine stories in other media. More Latine stories will challenge Player Juan and provide us the space to fall in love with games and stories that center our embodied experiences.

[Pull quote: “More Latine stories will challenge Player Juan and provide us the space to fall in love with games and stories that center our embodied experiences.”]

Can you talk about 3 video games (AAA or not) that get it right?

Tell me why this was one of the more challenging questions to answer. The indie game Guacamelee! 2 honors the humor and brightness of Mexican culture by taking on the popular luchador motif.

I am writing about this in my next book, and although it has limitations in the ways it represents Latinas (like almost all video games do, because I mean, men gonna men) it succeeds in creating a story in which a Mexican must save the day, where Mexican people are centered (in the Mexi-Verse), and where Día de Los Muertos becomes a central game mechanic versus a tropicalized setting to be destroyed in benefit of a white heroes’ story (Tomb Raider Shadow of the Tomb Raider).

[Insert Image Tomb Raider Shadow of the Tomb Raider]

Spider-Man: Miles Morales is one of the most successful AAA games ever. It’s the 3rdbest-selling game of all time for PlayStation and the most popular superhero game. I have yet to play Spider-Man 2, which is out now and invites players to switch between Peter Parker and Miles Morales. In Miles’ standalone game, players finally see his Blackness and Latinidad marked by cultural signifiers completely missing from Spider-Man (2018).

The most iconic scene from Miles’ standalone game is the celebration of Noche Buena as part of the introduction. Game introductions are central mechanisms for establishing the player-character connection, and the fact that Noche Buena and not “Christmas” is the holiday celebrated means the world to me; I cried during this scene, which is also a moment where whiteness is absent. How many iconic video game moments omit whiteness? Not many, I’ll tell you that.

The indie game Life is Strange 2 blew me away because of how it situates players in the daily struggle to belong as a Mexican American. I saw and relived my embodied experiences as a Mexican American by navigating the game’s story as Sean Diaz.

Never have I played a game that recreates my lived experience so well. However, most of the player base is not at all prepared to encounter their own whiteness as the ones who make life difficult for others. This game is powerful because it makes people confront the rhetoric and discourse perpetrated and promoted by everyday people and our politicians.

None of these games are perfect, but they are the closest thing to powerful Latine experiences in video games.

What’s the future of video games by and about Latinx intersectional experiences?

The future is that we need to tell our own stories and be invited to tell our stories by those with the resources. We need companies to shut up about diversity and actually F****** do it. White people dominate the industry because their communities have historically had more resources, opportunities, and access to knowing they can study game design or work in game creation.

Companies must go into communities of color to build and support game jams, STEM, game design, and coding. Latines need a seat at the table, and it begins with these multibillion-dollar companies investing back into our communities. Stop with the lip service already.

I want to see more Latine content creators, game developers, and Latines in positions of power in major video game companies. I want to see more Latinas in video games, from the creation of games to content to everything in between. I especially want to see more diverse Esports teams and more academic programs that support game studies and Esports and recognize that video games are the future of university campuses. Game studies majors and minors will be the way to recruit students and faculty at all levels/fields.

Additionally, I am a storyteller and creative who would love to write better, more inclusive stories that center Latine protagonists or that carve space for Latines in fantasy games. I would also love to write poems that appear in the lore folks find in games. I hope to get a call from one of my favorite developers, such as Insomniac, Bethesda, Blizzard, or any other major video game company, to invite me onto their writing team and/or Latines into their writing room. Will it happen for me, maybe, or not? But I sure hope it happens for our community, for the storytellers who have beautiful ideas if only white developers and CEOs would listen.

Thank you, Carlos, for this interview and the gift of Ready Player Juan!

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