Video Games: Let's See Some Black People I'm Not Embarrassed By

I've never played as a black video game character who's made me feel like he was cool. Worse yet, I've never played a black video game character who made me feel like I was cool. Instead, I've groaned and rolled my eyes at a parade of experiences that continue to tell me video games just don't get black people.

The faces that look like mine that I've encountered in video games have been, at best, too inconsequential to be memorable and offensively tone-deaf at worst. What about Barrett from Final Fantasy VII or Sazh from Final Fantasy XIII, you might ask? Or Cole Train from the Gears of War games? Wait, there's Sheva from Resident Evil 5, right? No, no and no. Too many elements of caricature in each, I'd say, and they're all sidekicks. Their stories aren't the focus of the adventure players go on.

But, hey, it's a given that video games tend to present exaggerated characters. Marcus Fenix isn't like any white guy I've ever met, after all. But he doesn't have to be. For every Marcus Fenix-type grunt hero, you can also get a witty Nathan Drake, a charming Ezio or a regretful John Marston. Enough white characters exist in video games for a variability of approach. That's simply not true of black characters.

In creating Half-Life 2's Alyx Vance, Valve gave players a woman who was feisty and fragile at the same time. Alyx ranks amongst the best black game characters of all time, but she's another sidekick. C.J. from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas comes closest to this pie-in-the-sky ideal I'm dreaming of. C.J. managed to hold a core contradiction inside of himself — an intense love of family balanced against the violence of thug life — that added depth to his characterization. And while he was the lead of the game he starred in, he was still a gang member. Rockstar found interesting things to do with him but C.J. still comes into being by virtue of another overused stereotype.

Does this stuff matter in video games? Yes. The thing to remember is that beneath all the comforting platitudes about a character's colour not mattering lies a sticky web of stereotypes and cheap myths that can still insult and anger people playing a game. Even if I wanted to like Sam B from Dead Island, for example, I'm still running up against the fact that he's a hot-tempered thug rapper.

Stop leaning on this stereotype. Stop creating loud black soldiers who only know how to yell. Stop putting spear-carrying primitives in games.

What I want, basically, is Black Cool. It's a kind of cool that improvises around all the random stereotypes and facile understandings of black people that have accrued over centuries and subverts them. Black Cool says "I know what you might think about me, but I'm going to flip it." Dave Chappelle's comedy is Black Cool. Donald Glover is Black Cool. Aisha Tyler is Black Cool. Marvel Comics's Black Panther character is Black Cool. Their creativity is the energy I want video games to tap into.

There's a book about it. In the anthology Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, author Rebecca Walker assembles a crop of personal essays that talk about how Black Cool manifested in their lives. One of those writers is Mat Johnson, a professor in the University of Houston's creative writing program. Johnson's like me, a lifelong comics-reading, game-loving geek who continues to bump into jarring, awful portrayals of black people in video games.

"I played Dead Island when it came out last year and there's a point when you get the Natives Camp area. I was like, ‘Oh, OK, we're going to have an African-style primitive out here,'" he told me. "The bizarre thing is that the stereotypes you encounter in the games don't even match up timewise with our current culture. That's what's so odd about it. The mainstream culture at large has moved beyond the trope of the black primitive. You can't get away with that kind of thing in a movie."

Johnson's written prose along with graphic novels and when he compares video games' racial awareness to comic and he says "comics had a much more concerted effort to change images of minorities in the work. And part of that was a market-driven concern." There's a difference of scale, too, he continues. "If comics can access another 5,000 or 10,000 in their possible audience, it has a huge impact. Whereas video games have become a mass market phenomenon that have an even bigger scope than movies. So they're not as worried about minority concerns as comics are."

The importance of seeing a face that looks like yours when stepping into a fictional universe can't be overstated. I'm a big Superman fan, but it was DC Comics' Black Lightning that piqued my interest when I was growing up. Every black superhero face I saw growing up was another signpost that said "Hey, you're welcome here. You can be larger-than-life, too." The absence of such characters doesn't make fictional constructs hostile; it makes them indifferent, which can be far worse.

"Another difference with games is that, as a medium, they're about invoking our fears so that we can overcome them," Johnson speculates. "I think that's what happens in both Resident Evil 5 and also Dead Island. They're not just invoking fear of zombies, they are invoking fear of blackness, and offering the gamer an opportunity to challenge their racial fears as well as their other fears. What you're seeing here is a subconscious action. And the reason it becomes clear because it's not in one game, it's in several different games."

"There have been exceptions in games like Left 4 Dead," Johnson observes, "where you have an actual black nerd character in the game." "I honestly think the move away from this going to be generational, when it's so easy to produce a 3D video game that it's the equivalent of shooting a movie today with a digital camera. But, until then, when I see a game that clearly walks right into a racial dead-end, I know I'm seeing a room of developers talking out a story with not one black person, not one Latino person of power in that room. So I think the single biggest thing that many of these companies could do to make sure that they are being representative of the larger culture's ethos, would be to hire in a diverse way."

"It's not a question of [developers and publishers] pushing culture forward," Johnson said. "It's a question of them catching up to mainstream culture. Part of it, I think again, is market success. They haven't had to worry about that at this point, because they're still going to sell a ton of games if the basic gameplay is good. But being better about black characters and characters of other races would make the overall quality better, too."

In other mediums and creative pursuits, there've been the black people who pivoted the conversations, expanded the possibilities and deepened the portrayals about what black people are. In jazz, it was Charlie Parker. In literature, it was Ralph Ellison. In comics, I'd argue that it was Christopher Priest, followed by Dwayne McDuffie. For me, the work of the deceased McDuffie managed to create characters that communicated an easily approachable vein of black cool.

Video games need this kind of paradigm-shifting figure. Not an exec, mind you — sorry, Reggie — but a creative face who steers the ethos of a game. For example, you know what kind of game a Warren Spector or a Jenova Chen is going to deliver. With Spector, it's a game that'll spawn consequences from player action. With Chen, you'll get experiences that try to expand the emotional palette of the video game medium. I want someone to carry that flag for blackness, to tap into it as a well of ideas.

Blackness can be a sort of performance, a lifetime role informed by the ideas of how people see you and how you want to be seen. One thing I've heard over the years is some variation of the colorblind testimonial: "I don't see a black guy when I look at you. I just see you." Well, if you're not seeing a black guy, then you're not seeing all of me. And if you're seeing just a black guy, you're not seeing all of me in that instance either.

I'm not naïve: no one's going to buy a video game because it's less wince-worthy on matters of race or diversity. But, maybe if Black Cool found its way into video games, I wouldn't have to hear the word "nigger" during online multiplayer sessions so much. Or maybe I wouldn't have to listen to characters that sound like 18th-Century minstrels in cyberpunk games.

While I'm sick of video games stumbling around the same ol' stereotypes and being afraid of black lead characters — "they won't sell!," cries the panicked logic — I'm not going to love Starhawk or Prototype 2 more because they have black lead characters. But if Emmett Graves and Joseph Heller tap into some kind of deeper, more surprising portrayal than Standard Gruff Black Guy #29 and feel more human as a result, I'd feel better about the creative possibilities of video games.

Any mode of creativity that wants to be called mature needs to grapple with the sociopolitical issues of its time and place, especially if it wants to hold onto future generations. If it doesn't, then said medium just remains stuck in its own adolescence. When it comes to the examining the realities of how race can be lived in the world, movies, books and TV all do it. I'm not saying video games won't or can't, but damn if it's not a long time coming. Getting black characters who don't make me grit my teeth would be a great sign that video games are growing up.


Comments

    Blackness can be a performance. Dear god Wtf??!! Equating blackness with black cool is not subscribing to stereotypes?

    I would like to see them make a black character as cool as Evan. He is one dapper gentleman.

      Dudley from Street Fighter 3? That man is dapper as a cup of english breakfast :)

        I'm still annoyed that they changed his voice for SSF4.

        He was the perfect contrast to Balrog and now he's just ... weird.

    If you think black characters are stereotyped a lot in games, try being Indian.

      I can't recall the last Indian videogame character, but I can sure as hell pick out a borderline-racist black guy. I think Binary Domain just recently took the prize there with "Big Bo"

      That was SWEEEETT!!~~~

    Here in Australia I have never met a black games developer. I also don't think I've ever seen one in all the lectures, interviews or any of the other various game development videos that I've watched.

    I'm sure they exist, I've just never met one. Based solely on my experience I would have to conclude that they're in the extreme monority. Probably even moreso than women.

    Without that input into the game design process you're not likely to find a strong, truly believable black character showing up in games. When it comes to crafting an heroic icon people are usually going to base it on attributes that are either from them or that they wish they possessed (unless they're explicitly targetting a particular audience or trying to make a particular point).

    It's not that we're particularly exclusive or elitist, we just need your voice to become part of the game making process.

      "Elitist" was the wrong word to use there. I really meant that we're not supremacist.

      never met a black game developer.. man, I've barely ever met a black person (or could count them on 1 hand).

      Not surprised. Count how many Africa-Australians there are, they're an almost negligible minority population here. Compare this to the US where they have a larger presence. Hell, count the number of black Silicon Valley Employees. Look at the roster for Afterhours Gaming, with employees from Google, Microsoft, ARM, Facebook, Dropbox etc... it's evenly split between white/asian and I recall seeing one black person.

        dude there are lots of African-australians just go to melbourne, canberra or brisbane

        What about all the successful Aboriginal game devs?

    Sorry, but what about Louis from Left for Dead?
    He's an uptight accountant. He wears a goddamn tie during the zombie apocalypse. Yet he also talks smack to a biker dude when he feels like it.

    How is he not subverting stereotypes?

      You can adjust skin colour in most MMOs right?

        My WoW main is black. And a wizard with good education.

      My problem with the article is that he doesn't want to subvert stereotypes, he wants the stereotype that he prefers to have better representation.
      Louis is a good example of an unconventional black man, but it appears that in the author's mind black people need to be cool or they don't count.

    Also, I find the very idea of this article kind of offensive. Especially the "Blackness can be a performance" thing.

      Then go learn how to deal with it, nobody cares.

        Why is that an acceptable response to his concern, but if we were to say it to the author of this post, it would be considered racist and the white man crushing the ideas of minorities that oppose him?

        There's no such thing as Black Cool, there's just cool or not cool. And even that is a grey area dependent on audience. My concern is people who long so greatly to project themselves fully onto the character they play, it's childish and strange.

        Yes, on some level every story you love is about yourself, and characters are just playing the role of somebody else (often in the minds of the viewer, themselves), but if that person has to meet every exact aspect of your physical appearance and behavioral traits then your imagination is in a severe need of a workout.

        And frankly, if you can't find a point of relation with a white character on screen because your skin colour is different to his, maybe the issue lies with YOUR perception of other races, not the media's.

        This is that women in games argument all over again, and my response to them would be exactly the same.

        Make the art you want to see, write the book you want to read, and create the game you want to play. Everything else will just fall short.

    Louis from L4D jumps to mind as a different major protagonist but you're right.
    It's a heavily leaning in the direction of stereotypes.

      Yes but Louis is always setting off car alarms and causing a "riot". bit to stereotypical if you ask me.

    He's asking a lot. Nathan Drake is a stereotype as well: the Indiana Jones intrepid hero. You're not likely to find him in an average office.

    I guess "the average white guy" has Alan Wake, but then Alan could've been black and the story would have been no different. So maybe I'm just not sure what Evan is going on about. Maybe it's because I'm Australian and don't have the experience an American does about this issue. Then again, I was born Irish and we get stereotyped a lot.

    The only game company I can think of that is going to do what he's asking is probably Rockstar. Interesting that they're the ones he cites as coming closest.

      Nathan Drake is an adventure character trope, it's not a stereotype because while white characters have a whole plethora of roles to play in games, whether it be the brave hero, coward, cold villain, supporting role, strongman, nerd, etc. The black characters always get shafted as the jive-talking tough guy.

        You're spot on, and I really don't know why American's can't seem to see this. It's like when any culture brings up this issue, people get this arrogant indignation, and the sudden inability to not understand the issue, or get hyper literal about everything the person says so as to make the initial comment/question seem insignificant or in fact racist in it's own right.
        If the majority of games presented white characters that weren't cool, first off, the games wouldn't sell, but also, you'd hear just as much griping from mainstream gamers. The fact that you can easily find a multitude of games with cool white characters makes it a non-issue for most.
        Also, there are exceptions to every rule. People think because they can name one or two titles that came out 5 years ago they've disproved the original issue. Not so, in fact that's desperation logic. You see this in similar film discussions all the time.
        "I'd like to see more P.o.c. sci fi heroes."
        "What about Lando Calrissian? Besides race don't matter."
        Oh well, why would one expect gamer culture to be any different than the general mainstream thought anyway?

    Aaron Griffin in Gears of War 3 made me cry. Gold plated bling, a pimp cane, and every second word was "mutha fucka". The black people in ME3 were well written, but i guess not "black cool"....

      To be fair, he was voiced by a rapper. And he was in a leadership position, looking after people.

    I understand how you would like to see a main character who resembles you ... or an ideal version of you. I guess this sort of revolution happened gradually in Hollywood starting with Sydney Poitier and perhaps culminating with Halle Berry's tearful Oscar win.

    But where is the move or support for other ethnicities in leading roles games? When are Chinese people anything other than profiteering triads or restaurant workers in games? Eastern Europeans are criminals or illegal immigrants, anyone Arabic is either a terrorist or an oil tycoon.

    I think Black people are fairly well represented in games in comparison. And anyway, some black people are gansters and loud-mouthed soldiers. Just like some Eastern Europeans are Criminals.

    All games developers do is try to make a game that agrees with their target audiences perceptions. Rockstar breaks the mould sometimes by making a Jewish guy a biker-gang leader for example. Johnny Klebowitz.

    AC3 will have a half-Mohawk protaganist milling thousands of english dudes. Whoop.

      sorry far bad typing

      Chinese people are heroes in Chinese games. Japanese people are the heroes in Japanese games. Europeans are the heroes of games made in the various European countries.

      There's no massive secret agenda, there's just people making stories that conform to their own personal world view. Unfortunately the diversity of the western audience far exceeds the diversity of western game developers and you end up seeing the same (often stereotypical) world view again and again.

        +1

        yeah, that makes sense in countries that have strong homogeneous cultures, but for American's to try and pull that off really smacks of something completely different. We are not, and have never been one homogeneous culture, and we pride ourselves on our diversity, but you really can't get that from the films and games we produce.

    I'd say 95% of all RPG's and Mmo's have the options there for a magnitude of different skin colours.

    As said previously, this article comes across as more offensive than the issue it's trying to raise.

    The funny part about all this is that in my experience, White, Asian, Middle Eastern and Islander youth embody more aspects about the Black American 'thug life' stereotype than anyone. Stereotypical Black culture seems to appeal to outsiders more than actual Blacks. Not to say there arent plenty of Black 'gangstaz' out there, but I guarantee they are heavily outnumbered by the swarm of people imitating them.

      You mean African-American, right?

      tsk,tsk

        No need to be so PC. 'Black' isn't a racially-charged term, and it's perfectly fine for us to use it, just like 'white' for caucasian.

        I thought the term "african-american" wasn't "used" anymore and "black" was the preferred identifier. I mean I would prefer to be called white than "European-Australian". Shrug. I dunno!

    Spawn is black, I know he hasn't been in any games in a while but I'm just saiyan.

      Al Simmons was black. I believe the current Spawn (haven't been reading in quite a while so I don't know his name) is white.

        Just to show how much of a Spawn fan I'm not, up until you clarified that I was thinking of course he's black (the spawn "suit" or outfit or whatever) just like Venom is black, but it's not the same

    Who's Donald Glover? Danny Glover?

      He's a really funny TV writer/comedian. His standup is great.

        Oh right. So does he have more black cool than Danny Glover? Danny Glover took down a Predator with his bare hands.

          Yeah, but Donald Glover wasn't in Leathal Weapon 4.

      Oh my friend. Donald Glover is amazing. He is Troy off Community. He is also a stand up comedian and a rapper who goes by the name of Childish Gambino.

      This video is a good judge of him as a nerdy black guy and is pretty pertinent to this story too.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_nd8jC1p9E

    Errrrmm Carl Johnson from GTA: San Andreas? Need I say more?

      Maybe you need to read more ... the article and some of the messages.

      Again the "one game from the past" refrain. So I guess if I want to play a cool black character I have to dust off GTA: San Andreas again. whereas I can play a cool white character every year all through out the year. If you can't name a game that has come out within at least two years (and that's being generous) you should realize that you are really reaching to try and make some point.

    Ddear Evan does the term "blackness' have the same cultural, ideological and economical connatations for both African Americans educated at NYC university (such as yourself) and the Australian Aboriginal? You position 'blackness' as the other - yet constantly reinforce such notions subtextually and explicitly.

    I know what your saying in your article, but having an "black" character in game as the main character just for the sake of it, is really just pushing the token black character cliche in its own right. Also, I think you are looking to far into the subject, as it comes of as if you are heavily comparing your own skin colour too directly to in game characters, and somehow making yourself feel alienated by not having a dark skinned character as a lead. It sort of seems that you feel that a character is somehow "lesser" because he/shes' not black. A push for more realistic and lifelike characters yes - but that goes for all nationalities! Just dont put too much into it and ruin your own gameplay experiences is what Im sayin, I think.

      This is the argument that comes from not having to worry about the issue. If race didn't matter in the mind of game developers (or players for that matter) we could just put all races on a wheel and just spin it whenever a new game came out to decide what the MC is going to be. That is is characterization is all that matters, but fact is it doesn't work that way. When you see black NPC's or characters in games they tend to not be "realistic" but rather stereotypical, and that has begun to ruin my gameplay experience somewhat, because when you do that, you are making a statement about race.
      It is what it is, trying to make it seem like the blogger has some psychological issues doesn't change that what he's talking about does have merit.

    My commander shepard is a black chick.

      While I realise it's the complete opposite to what the article is talking about; Can you imagine a ghetto black femshep?

      It would be amazing.

    I have a black Mii on my Wii, and he's really excellent at golf.

    The coolest black character is the Mage from diablo. Best voice acting, funniest character to play. Your article is moot

    Did you forget Lewis from L4D1 and Coach from L4D2? They were both 'cool black' characters and they were both 'main characters'. They were also not your average 'black stereotype' (especially Lewis). I wish people would stop complaining about this kind of stuff without checking their facts...

      Sorry, this is super douchey but I believe it is spelled Louis, some fact checking required on both parts it seems

        Sorry, I didn't realise i had become a professional journalist. I'll do a better job next time

    Part of the problem is that outside of athletes and entertainers, there aren't too many good sources for inspiration when it comes to creating compelling black characters. With white characters, you have hundreds or thousands of years of literature and history to draw your character types from. For African characters, unless your game is about Zulu warriors or slavery, you realistically only have a period of about 50 years to draw your inspirations from.

    During those 50 years, the most obvious themes for black characters are racial issues, sports, crime, and entertainment. It's no surprise that most black characters in games rely heavily on one or more of those themes as a base for their characterization.

    It also must be hard for a writer to create a non-stereotypical black character, without also being accused of making the character act "white".

      Normally I'd disagree. There's plenty of great black characters out there who aren't Dolemite or Wayne Brady and they're not terribly hard to write. However when it comes to video games there's another layer of problems. You've got to make the character fit rather limited roles in the story and game stories don't really have no more room for a average people of any background.
      You can't have Micheal (Damon Wayans, My Wife and Kids) in a game anymore than you can have Raymond (Ray Romano, Everyone Loves Raymond). Those sorts of average guy characters which (debatably) best represent actual minority characters just don't have much of a place in the majorty of games.

      It could be possible that writers just aren't writing black main characters into stories. IS that racism? No. That's just what is happening. That doesn't mean it wouldn't be great to see a unique and interesting black main character in a game though.

      :L I frankly feel we need more games based on africn mythology, None of that over used vodou junk though, I mean man eating bulls, demonic shape shifting hippos, ogres with eyes on their feet. Theres plenty of it, and its really new fresh material for fantasy games, blacks are just going have to get over the findng spears and bows offensive though.

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