Pokémon Sword and Shield adopts the tried-and-true formula that began in the 1990s with Pokémon Red and Blue. You explore new worlds as a Pokémon trainer, “catch” more than 1,000 creatures, train them and battle them against other players. It’s a happy, easy game designed primarily for children. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, racism. For some Pokémon fans, the Pokémon world — in which creatures can be purple and amorphous or consist entirely of trash — has gone a step too far. Why? Because the game introduces a dark-skinned character named Nessa.
Nessa, a gym leader, isn’t the first nonwhite character in Pokémon history, and relatively speaking, she plays a minor role in the game. But her presence has served as a catalyst to discuss race in both Pokémon and wider gaming culture itself.
It all began when @Naju0517, a Tokyo-based fan artist, painted Nessa with a skin color far lighter than that of her original character, inspiring a backlash on Twitter among those who believed he was “whitewashing” her.
From there, chaos ensued. Other fan artists decided to make Nessa even whiter, giving her Euro-centric features like brown hair and green eyes — a color scheme that later translated into the code of the “White Nessa” skin mod, or “skin modification.” With it, a player could now alter the appearance of Nessa, while keeping every other part of her personality the same.
Gamers who have commented on the controversy claim that White Nessa is a joke, designed to troll and trigger “liberal” gamers. In fact, most gamers I reached out to suggested that White Nessa was a “non-issue,” and that people expressing concerns about racism — myself included — were looking to “stir the pot” and “cause drama where there is none.”
Anyone who plays video games today, however, will understand the importance of mods, which allow users to personalize their gameplay. For example, some gamers have developed “enemy-free” mods so they can explore worlds without the stress of defeating monster bosses. In some cases, “modding” might even mean altering the structure of a game, turning it more futuristic, or conversely, more retro. In others, modding can provide more entertaining experiences — such as inserting SpongeBob SquarePants into the Simpsons universe. Either way, “modding” has become a standard feature in many role-playing games, including Fortnite, Grand Theft Auto and League of Legends, to name just a few.
What’s more, modding has often been used to enhance representation in games. “Outside of practical mods that improve gameplay experience, [modding] is about creative expression,” says Megan Farokhmanesh, a reporter at the Verge who writes about gaming culture. She adds that it can serve a decidedly social purpose: “Sometimes people will share mods with gender changes, for example, to illuminate how different characters move inside a game.”
Modded games, however, can have more sinister agendas. Last year, Luke Winkie reported on how neo-Nazis were using mods to develop racist “alternative histories” as well as developing worlds in which Hitler had expanded German concentration camps. Meanwhile, in the sci-fi RPG Stellaris, far-right modders were busy excluding people of color and permitting the use of Nazi slogans. Because these mods are hosted on Steam, an open-source, community-driven network, Winkie wrote that game developers were reluctant to prevent them from operating alongside their original versions. (Most administrators on Steam also believe in the self-policing of language and content.)
But whitewashed mods are far from a Steam-only — or even recent — problem. “One of the most prominent examples was in [2004’s] Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” Ana Valens, a reporter at the Daily Dot, tells me, referring to a “white skin” mod of the central character, C.J. “It probably took off because [white] players couldn’t imagine themselves empathizing with a black man in 1990s L.A., dealing with things like police brutality or the crack epidemic caused by the government.”
Though Valens is unclear how widespread racist mods are, she does echo Farokhmanesh’s sentiment that they can serve the greater good, too. “A trans friend of mine downloaded a modded version of Stardew Valley that would allow a [female] character to date girls. But there were a few pronoun typos, so sometimes female-swapped characters would be addressed with ‘he/him’ pronouns, mirroring how misgendering sometimes accidentally happens.” In other words, she continues, “A technical error ended up giving more depth to a scenario than the original version.”
As for White Nessa, Farokhmanesh agree with me that it has racist undertones — no matter how “ironic” people claim it is. “Fair-skin mods — intentional or not, trolling or not — literally erase minorities from a space where, as with many others, they’re already barely represented,” she says, emphasizing that there’s a “difference between adding representation where there is none” and “knowingly removing it when it’s there.”
“There’s no reason to change a character like Nessa into a white girl,” she adds. “Unless you have some issue with the fact that she’s not.”