On Roland: a contradiction

 I am a narrative-driven gamer. What I mean by that is I am in the game first and foremost for the narrative experience. The world, the characters that inhabit it, and the story that those two things weave together are often more important to me than the actual gameplay. It sounds odd, but it's just how I happen to enjoy the games I play.

It should count as no surprise then that Borderlands - the sleeper hit of 2009 from Gearbox Software - ranks highly amongst my favourite games this generation. 

For the uninitiated, Borderlands is a fantastic game full of personality and wit, and the sort of awe inspiring nerd-dom that'd make even a Trekkie blush. It is, to not put too fine a point on it, a geeked out adventure across a backwater shit-hole of a planet.

With an introduction like that, it is safe to assume that I loved the game. And I did. I still do, in fact. Having recently downloaded and played "Claptrap's New Robot Revolution" to completion, this game is still amazing, witty, and full of fun, satisfying Roleplaying Shooter goodness.

There is a problem, however.

From the beginning, when Gearbox first announced the classes and characters you would play as and meet in Borderlands, I was drawn to one specific character in particular. While Brick, Lilith, and Mordecai had their own personalities and quirks, I couldn't help but be drawn to the Soldier character, Roland.

Intergalactic Bad Ass 
Maybe it was his thousand yard stare, his serious demeanour, or his lack of enthusiasm for the murder and mayhem that was being perpetrated. To me, Roland looked like a guy who had stepped onto Pandora and instantly regretted his decision. He struck me as the kind of man who did not appreciate the Mad Max inspired insanity, nor did he care for the endless stream of psychopathic pugilists and carnivorous wildlife. To put it bluntly, in a sea of clowns and utterly insane characterisations, Roland struck me as the only "serious" character in the game.

So why is it then, that I see a problem? Well, the problem stems from the fact that Roland the Soldier's aesthetic design says one thing, and his personality contradicts it entirely.

From the scraps of information on the four characters in Borderlands, what can be discerned about Roland is that he was a mercenary soldier who worked for the Crimson Lance. On a wanted poster in "Secret Armoury of General Knoxx", he is cited as wanted for murdering a superior officer and desertion. From there the imagination can run wild on the possibilities.

Considering the kind of PMC that Crimson Lance is, it is not outrageous to presume that Roland was not an evil bastard on or off the battlefield. The little backstory we have on him seems to suggest that he was at odds with the officer in question, and in a heated battle killed him. From there, he was forced to flee not only the Crimson Lance, but presumably anywhere they (and Atlas) had a strong foothold in the galaxy. That would bring him to Pandora.

Now, unless Gearbox decides to come out and say I'm full of crap and my imaginary backstory for Roland is stupid, I'm going to assume that this is correct, and that my initial impression of Roland the Soldier was not far from the characterisation depicted in his design.

So then, what is the problem?

The problem is his personality. The tone of his dialogue, what he says, it all seems wrong. Shouting things like "Critical beyotch!" in a joyous coo, to me, contradicts the serious, rough around the edges demeanour his design illustrates. Furthermore, it also seems to dig up something I see as a niggling problem within the Games Industry.

Roland is black. He is a black man. His visual design indicates that he is also a hardened veteran of the Crimson Lance. Why is it then, that he is portrayed in dialogue as a ghetto child using long out of date (within the fiction's universe) slang and a playful, murderous streak to him? There's a disconnect there that I don't quite understand, and it will make this next section pretty uncomfortable to type.
Needs more gun. 
 I am not going to come out and say Gearbox Software's depiction of Roland the soldier is racist. It's not. What it is, however, is a stereotype. It's a stereotype of a black man with a gun shouting slang and acting like a fool. This wouldn't be so bad if his design harkened to that kind of personality, but it doesn't. There is nothing in Roland's design that even hints to this kind of nature.

So the question is, in my mind, why? Why is his dialogue so stereotypical of a black man in videogames? Why is it that Roland's design says "hardened soldier" and yet his personality screams "WHAT IT DO DAWG?" I'd like to think that this was a miscalculation on Gearbox's part, but the truth, I feel, is a lot more disheartening.

I think, at the truth of this matter, is that Borderlands was made by a bunch of mid-30's white guys. That in and of itself is not a bad thing. Not at all. What is bad, however, is that this group of people took their only minority character within the game and turned him into a stereotype. What does that say about Gearbox, let alone Borderlands? The only black character in the game talks like he's a thug from Compton. Again, this kind of characterisation wouldn't be terrible if Roland's entire design wasn't a complete contradiction to his personality.

And that, I feel, is at the heart of my problem with Borderlands. As a game it is a lot of fun, and its narrative (what little of it there is) is a entertaining romp that is also very intriguing to think about. Taken from a design perspective, however, Roland the Soldier's characterisation is a glaring issue in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable title. 

It's also an issue within the Games Industry at large.

It would seem to me, having played close to 250 titles this console generation, that most video game writers do not know how to write minority characters. The very few exceptions stem from Rockstar Games and their portrayal of minorities in the GTA games (and now Red Dead Redemption). While there are stereotypes and caricatures in those titles, there are also serious characters as well. So why is it, then, that so many video game writers have a hard time writing minority characters? Why is it that video game writers have to turn every minority character in their game into a caricature, if they are to be given a personality at all? It doesn't make sense to me, and as a would-be writer myself, I find the lack of character in these caricatures sad and disheartening.

So I suppose I leave it to you, the Reader. Do you agree with my analysis of Roland, or not? Do you think there is a problem with video game writers and minority characters? If yes, if no, leave a comment below, and tell me what you think of this whole ordeal.    
20 Comments
21 Comments
Posted by Oldirtybearon

 I am a narrative-driven gamer. What I mean by that is I am in the game first and foremost for the narrative experience. The world, the characters that inhabit it, and the story that those two things weave together are often more important to me than the actual gameplay. It sounds odd, but it's just how I happen to enjoy the games I play.

It should count as no surprise then that Borderlands - the sleeper hit of 2009 from Gearbox Software - ranks highly amongst my favourite games this generation. 

For the uninitiated, Borderlands is a fantastic game full of personality and wit, and the sort of awe inspiring nerd-dom that'd make even a Trekkie blush. It is, to not put too fine a point on it, a geeked out adventure across a backwater shit-hole of a planet.

With an introduction like that, it is safe to assume that I loved the game. And I did. I still do, in fact. Having recently downloaded and played "Claptrap's New Robot Revolution" to completion, this game is still amazing, witty, and full of fun, satisfying Roleplaying Shooter goodness.

There is a problem, however.

From the beginning, when Gearbox first announced the classes and characters you would play as and meet in Borderlands, I was drawn to one specific character in particular. While Brick, Lilith, and Mordecai had their own personalities and quirks, I couldn't help but be drawn to the Soldier character, Roland.

Intergalactic Bad Ass 
Maybe it was his thousand yard stare, his serious demeanour, or his lack of enthusiasm for the murder and mayhem that was being perpetrated. To me, Roland looked like a guy who had stepped onto Pandora and instantly regretted his decision. He struck me as the kind of man who did not appreciate the Mad Max inspired insanity, nor did he care for the endless stream of psychopathic pugilists and carnivorous wildlife. To put it bluntly, in a sea of clowns and utterly insane characterisations, Roland struck me as the only "serious" character in the game.

So why is it then, that I see a problem? Well, the problem stems from the fact that Roland the Soldier's aesthetic design says one thing, and his personality contradicts it entirely.

From the scraps of information on the four characters in Borderlands, what can be discerned about Roland is that he was a mercenary soldier who worked for the Crimson Lance. On a wanted poster in "Secret Armoury of General Knoxx", he is cited as wanted for murdering a superior officer and desertion. From there the imagination can run wild on the possibilities.

Considering the kind of PMC that Crimson Lance is, it is not outrageous to presume that Roland was not an evil bastard on or off the battlefield. The little backstory we have on him seems to suggest that he was at odds with the officer in question, and in a heated battle killed him. From there, he was forced to flee not only the Crimson Lance, but presumably anywhere they (and Atlas) had a strong foothold in the galaxy. That would bring him to Pandora.

Now, unless Gearbox decides to come out and say I'm full of crap and my imaginary backstory for Roland is stupid, I'm going to assume that this is correct, and that my initial impression of Roland the Soldier was not far from the characterisation depicted in his design.

So then, what is the problem?

The problem is his personality. The tone of his dialogue, what he says, it all seems wrong. Shouting things like "Critical beyotch!" in a joyous coo, to me, contradicts the serious, rough around the edges demeanour his design illustrates. Furthermore, it also seems to dig up something I see as a niggling problem within the Games Industry.

Roland is black. He is a black man. His visual design indicates that he is also a hardened veteran of the Crimson Lance. Why is it then, that he is portrayed in dialogue as a ghetto child using long out of date (within the fiction's universe) slang and a playful, murderous streak to him? There's a disconnect there that I don't quite understand, and it will make this next section pretty uncomfortable to type.
Needs more gun. 
 I am not going to come out and say Gearbox Software's depiction of Roland the soldier is racist. It's not. What it is, however, is a stereotype. It's a stereotype of a black man with a gun shouting slang and acting like a fool. This wouldn't be so bad if his design harkened to that kind of personality, but it doesn't. There is nothing in Roland's design that even hints to this kind of nature.

So the question is, in my mind, why? Why is his dialogue so stereotypical of a black man in videogames? Why is it that Roland's design says "hardened soldier" and yet his personality screams "WHAT IT DO DAWG?" I'd like to think that this was a miscalculation on Gearbox's part, but the truth, I feel, is a lot more disheartening.

I think, at the truth of this matter, is that Borderlands was made by a bunch of mid-30's white guys. That in and of itself is not a bad thing. Not at all. What is bad, however, is that this group of people took their only minority character within the game and turned him into a stereotype. What does that say about Gearbox, let alone Borderlands? The only black character in the game talks like he's a thug from Compton. Again, this kind of characterisation wouldn't be terrible if Roland's entire design wasn't a complete contradiction to his personality.

And that, I feel, is at the heart of my problem with Borderlands. As a game it is a lot of fun, and its narrative (what little of it there is) is a entertaining romp that is also very intriguing to think about. Taken from a design perspective, however, Roland the Soldier's characterisation is a glaring issue in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable title. 

It's also an issue within the Games Industry at large.

It would seem to me, having played close to 250 titles this console generation, that most video game writers do not know how to write minority characters. The very few exceptions stem from Rockstar Games and their portrayal of minorities in the GTA games (and now Red Dead Redemption). While there are stereotypes and caricatures in those titles, there are also serious characters as well. So why is it, then, that so many video game writers have a hard time writing minority characters? Why is it that video game writers have to turn every minority character in their game into a caricature, if they are to be given a personality at all? It doesn't make sense to me, and as a would-be writer myself, I find the lack of character in these caricatures sad and disheartening.

So I suppose I leave it to you, the Reader. Do you agree with my analysis of Roland, or not? Do you think there is a problem with video game writers and minority characters? If yes, if no, leave a comment below, and tell me what you think of this whole ordeal.    
Edited by Afroman269

You put way too much thought in this guy. I like what Roland says because I don't take the game seriously and neither does he. I shoot fools and get loot. The end.

Posted by BraveToaster

There's more than one black character in Borderlands. One of the bosses is black, so that makes two. 
 
I do understand where you're coming from. Roland comes off as a serious dude (quiet and cold like Rambo) when he's on the bus.  

Posted by dudeglove

You're overthinking this waaaaaaaaaaay too much.

Posted by Tennmuerti

Borderlands has narrative?
 
 Fuck.

Posted by Dork_Metamorphosis
@KingWilly said: 
Needs more gun. 
" I am not going to come out and say Gearbox Software's depiction of Roland the soldier is racist. It's not. What it is, however, is a stereotype. It's a stereotype of a black man with a gun shouting slang and acting like a fool. This wouldn't be so bad if his design harkened to that kind of personality, but it doesn't. There is nothing in Roland's design that even hints to this kind of nature. "
 
How should a black man with a gun shouting slang and acting like a fool look?
Posted by Geno

Haven't you noticed that all characters in Borderlands are over-the-top?

Posted by natetodamax

Never once did I consider the stories and personalities of any of the characters while playing Borderlands. Narrative is not the game's strength, nor should it be.

Edited by Raymayne

You're a fucking moron. Not only for writing this ridiculous shite. Not only for trying to critically analyse the narrative of a game which barely has a story to string it together. Not only for starting new paragraphs FAR too often. But also, for assuming that everything you imagine and perceive is automatically correct. I never once really gave the personalities of the characters a second thought, but were I to seriously think about it then I would say you are completely wrong in both your initial judgement of Roland, and the ridiculous back-story you conjured up for him. When I first saw him on the bus, I thought of him as a tough, grizzled, hardcore, Rambo-style soldier that had clearly seen some messed up shit and didn't want to interact with any of the other characters or show any sort of emotion, he looked like a dude who only trusted himself, who never let anyone see his weaknesses, and who only wanted to get out there and shoot as much stuff as possible. I...God I don't know why I'm even bothering trying to construct a reasonable counter-argument, this is pointless, you're a douche, that is all.

Posted by MethodMan008

Brick makes white people look like retarded freaks. 
 
/s

Edited by owl_of_minerva
@Raymayne said:

" You're a fucking moron. Not only for writing this ridiculous shite. Not only for trying to critically analyse the narrative of a game which barely has a story to string it together. Not only for starting new paragraphs FAR too often. But also, for assuming that everything you imagine and perceive is automatically correct. 
When I first saw him on the bus, I thought of him as a tough, grizzled, hardcore, Rambo-style soldier that had clearly seen some messed up shit and didn't want to interact with any of the other characters or show any sort of emotion, he looked like a dude who only trusted himself, who never let anyone see his weaknesses, and who only wanted to get out there and shoot as much stuff as possible, you're a douche, that is all. "

I think calling someone a douche based on their reading of a video game is rather more douchey than pointing out the thoughtless incorporation of a racist stereotype. OP actually makes a good argument: (a) Roland's dialogue is fucking annoying and inconsistent with the character as presented visually and through cutscenes and (b) although the game is over-the-top, why must it resort to "excitable black man" caricature? It is not necessary and actually detracts from playing as Roland. 
If you dialed down the hostility and learned to read you'd see that your interpetation of Roland is virtually the same except for the voiceover which is the problematic part of his characterisation.
Posted by TaliciaDragonsong

Too much thought really.
 
The Borderlands universe is insane, one of my fav's, but there's so much to be filled in.
Lilith is portrayed as nothing more then a sex symbol anyway, how's that for stereotype? Sure her voice is like "I'm the most powerful chick ever" but all comments regarding her or her wanted poster are loaded with sexual nods.
 
Sure Roland sounds like a fool, he sounds way too childish compared to the other 3 in my opinion but that's just the way he is.
I played one to 45 or something and his quotes never bugged me too much, I was too busy looting a bazillion guns, murdering psychopaths and admiring Moxxi's dress. 
Borderlands is a very wrong game, which is why I love it.

Posted by Oldirtybearon
@dudeglove: I know I am. I love Borderlands for how over the top and absurd it is. Sometimes it's just fun to analyse things - even things that are not meant to be taken seriously. 
 
@natetodamax: Totally in agreement with you.  
 
@Raymayne: Thanks for the comment. I think if you re-read the post you'll find that we're in agreement on everything about Roland's characterisation. The one caveat being that I think his dialogue and voice work contradicts everything his design conjures in the player's mind. 
 
@TaliciaDragonsong: Oh definitely. Lilith's characterisation is definitely questionable. I also agree that Borderlands is over the top and absurd and that's why I love it. I do love this game, it's just this one particular instance in its overall design that causes some confusion for me.
Edited by beej

I just dont see why fictional attire necessarily contrasts with rolands lines, like in crazy future, on crazy planet which is inhabited with crazy people maybe that's just a way people who talk that way look? Or maybe that kind of slang has become super common in the vernacular so to them it's not talking "street" the problem is that you're carrying over your present day assumptions in dealing with a world where we have no assurances that those assumptions still stand. In many ways you're being stereotypical in assuming that that kind of language is "street" on pandora. Even outside of pandora world you're still being stereotypical in assuming that people who are street have to talk this way, or that people who dress in certain outfits can't be street. You're just as guilty as gearbox if not more so.

Posted by c0l0nelp0c0rn1

Roland is Louis from Left 4 Dead cosplaying.

Posted by MasterOfPenguins_Zell
@KingWilly: Wow, I thought I was the only one who thought this. I understand your sentiment about him seemingly being a serious character, and then hearing his dialogue. It threw me off at first, and in the end made me actually like him less.
Posted by Potter9156

For your future blogs, please get to the point faster. I don't need the entire history of Canada told to me before the actual topic of the blog is discussed. Just a suggestion. Not being a dick.

Edited by MordeaniisChaos
@Dork_Metamorphosis said:
" @KingWilly said: 
Needs more gun. 
" I am not going to come out and say Gearbox Software's depiction of Roland the soldier is racist. It's not. What it is, however, is a stereotype. It's a stereotype of a black man with a gun shouting slang and acting like a fool. This wouldn't be so bad if his design harkened to that kind of personality, but it doesn't. There is nothing in Roland's design that even hints to this kind of nature. "
 How should a black man with a gun shouting slang and acting like a fool look? "

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
    I don't want to be a dick, but your just applying your own wishes on top of a completely non existent character. Don't judge a book on it's cover. His personality IS his character, not what you think he looks like his character is. 
 
 
Also, there is a reason why these stereotypes are so strong after years and years of use. Reinforcement, usually intentional reinforcement by entities aware of their behaviors effects. The industry didn't make those stereotypes, a million testosterone filled young men did. 
 
And why isn't it a problem that every single other character in that game is a bunch of stereotypical lines thrown onto a stereotypical model? The characters are great, well done, and awesome. They fit the tone of the game. If you want a serious character, don't fucking play BORDERLANDS .
Posted by lasborg

Wait... Roland is black?

Posted by christ0phe
@KingWilly said: 
It should count as no surprise then that Borderlands - the sleeper hit of 2009 from Gearbox Software - ranks highly amongst my favourite games this generation.   
 
 
Actually, it comes as a surprise considering the narrative in Borderlands was nonexistant
Posted by Navyseils
@KingWilly said:
"  I am a narrative-driven gamer...

It should count as no surprise then that Borderlands - the sleeper hit of 2009 from Gearbox Software - ranks highly amongst my favourite games this generation. 

 "
This is where you lost me.
 
Following your first statement it comes as a great surprise to me that you continued to play Borderlands at all. It's one of my personal favourite games, and I agree it has an interesting world, and some quirky characters. That game has one very weak story though. Other than "cortana wants me to find treasure" I felt like I barely knew my motivation for doing anything in that game. I love it purely for the gameplay.