‘Street Fighter 2’ brings an old racist trope to Nintendo Switch — brown-skinned villains
Street Fighter 2 launches on Friday for Nintendo Switch, bringing the classic fighting franchise to the company's latest hardware. The release also features the return of a couple faces we haven't seen as playable characters in almost 15 years: Evil Ryu and Violent Ken.
That should be great news for fighting game fans and Switch owners alike, but here's the problem: In the game, Evil Ryu and Violent Ken are just brainwashed versions of Ryu and Ken, yet their evil alter egos have way darker skin.
Evil Ryu also gains red eyes and Violent Ken gets some sinister bleach-blond hair. But both share a second, questionable altered attribute: brown skin. This old stereotype of evil, dark versions of white heroes just feels dated and sad.
It's 2017. When can we retire this trope?
In the official Street Fighter canon, Evil Ryu and Ryu are the same person, but they can fight each other in the video game, because, well, it's a video game. Officially, though, Evil Ryu is what happens to Ryu when he loses control of the Satsui no Hado — a source of dark energy in the Street Fighter universe.
Violent Ken, on the other hand, is a brainwashed version of Ken. He's first introduced in the second Street Fighter animated movie when he's manipulated by M. Bison. It's worth noting that in the movie, Ken's skin tone doesn't change.
The video game version of brainwashed Ken first appeared in SNK vs. Capcom, a crossover fighting game, where the violent alter ego still had the same light skin. But somewhere along the way, the dark-skinned Violent Ken was born. Some online sources suggest he was introduced via official character art or possibly even created by SNK to troll Capcom.
Regardless, the image of a dark-skinned Violent Ken stuck. Now, he's poised to make his biggest mark on the gaming world yet thanks to the Nintendo Switch.
This issue isn't limited to Street Fighter.
Unsurprisingly, dark-skinned villains are a pretty common trope in video games. In a series like Legend of Zelda, the heroes are white with blonde hair and blue eyes, while the pure embodiment of evil, Ganondorf, is often portrayed with black or dark skin.
The same can be said for the Kingdom Hearts character Ansem. Similar to Violent Ken, Ansem has two sides to him. Here's Ansem the Wise.
Hollywood uses dark skin (or fur) to signify evil too.
The same trope of villains being a few shades darker is ubiquitous in movies as well. Just like the animated Street Fighter characters, the effect is prominent in cartoon films. Classics like Lion King and Mulan use skin tone to differentiate the good guys and the bad guys, even when they're from the same region or even related.
Live-action movies aren't any better. M. Night Shyamalan's adaptation of The Last Airbender is a particularly egregious example. In the original animated series, heroes Katara and Sokka have brown skin while the evil Prince Zuko is relatively pale. But in the movie, that gets reversed, with brown-skinned actor Dev Patel cast as the villain and white actors as the heroes.
After the fact, Patel actually said he regretted playing the character. "[I] saw a stranger on the screen that I couldn't relate to," he said during a Hollywood Reporter actor roundtable in 2016.
That statement won't undo the damage caused by these kinds of depictions. There's a clear line between the way dark-skinned people have been represented in popular media over the years and the way our society treats them in real life.
Colorism is why we see light skin as good and dark skin as bad, no matter the race.
The term colorism was coined in Alice Walker's 1983 book In Search of Our Mother's Gardens. Colorism is different from racism and refers to "prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color."
Video games, movies and other media created for children can have a profound effect on what we deem as good and evil. The infamous "doll test," first conducted in the 1940s, demonstrated how colorism affects children.
The study involved showing four dolls that were identical except for their skin color to a series of children and asking them to say which dolls they preferred. The majority of the children, including some of the black children, chose the white dolls over black ones, demonstrating the effects of colorism on young children.
The doll test has also been reproduced more recently with similarly depressing results.
The effects extend to adults as well. In the U.S. criminal justice system, dark-skinned criminals are often given longer sentences. A recent study found that in Georgia between 1995 and 2002, sentences for black people were 378 days longer than white people's, on average. Dark-skinned black people also got 2.7% longer sentences than light-skinned ones.
Colorism can also worm its way into politics. In the 2008 presidential election, Republicans used darker-skinned images of Barack Obama in ad campaigns, according to a study published in 2015. Commercials promoting John McCain also lightened the Republican candidate's skin tone.
Is there a way to create evil characters without racial stereotypes?
Of course there is. The best way to make video game characters like Ryu and Ken look evil isn't to make their skin brown. Street Fighter even offers a better alternative in the villainous M. Bison. Pretty much any picture of the white-skinned character makes it clear that he isn't a good dude.
Good characters can also fall to the dark side without a trip to the tanning booth. Characters like Sasuke from Naruto and Shepard's evil clone in Mass Effect are prime examples. And who could forget Jason and Kimberly's unforgettable scene in the old Power Rangers movie? Adding red eyes and an altered voice demonstrated the change just fine. Imagine if they'd called her Violent Kimberly and made her skin brown.
If you're designing an evil character and absolutely need to change their skin color, at least go with something weird like gray or dark blue. We promise the white characters of Street Fighter are just as violent as the brown ones. After all, it's right there in the game's name.
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