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

    I think the biggest problem with the article is simply that the author, however "Black Cool", wants to stop poor stereotyping of black people. Obviously this is a good idea to see everyone as equal, but it's important to recognise that the developers are writing what they know, which is their own "culture". As a caucasian (screw it I'm going to write black/white) person I have no idea on the "trials" that a black person faces each day. I think, in all honesty, if a white person made a video game with a black main character (ignoring all others) would likely receive backlash no matter how it was handled. If it is handled as "everyone is equal" there will be outcry amongst those who believe the game is belittling the racism issue and if the main character faces racism in the game there would be outcry that the devs are racist. There would be differing levels of outcry for each level on that "scale" but there would outcry nonetheless. There is outcry on every game, but due to the sensitivity of the topic it would be much more highly publicised and could, ultimately, end the devs. This is, of course, an extreme example but I think the point stands that games and gaming culture is a very vocal environment and if a dev does anything that a user doesn't like, there will be outcry. I understand that request of the author, to stop purporting the "gangsta" stereotype, and L4D is outlined as a good start, but it doesn't seem to have had any impact.
    As to the level of the issue, I don't notice it as much (hell I wouldn't even remember what colour any NPC is unless someone points it out, because I ultimately don't care pink, blue, black, white, green, anything is fine as long as you're a decent person or have something memorable about you) because it doesn't matter to me, I can see the point with "traditional" media (comics/TV/movies) that you would see a character you can connect with and feel that is more inviting, but in all honesty, I think the author (and the rest of the world) need to get over racism, or perceived racism. Would Mario be different if he was Black? Would Louis be different if he was White? Would Marcus Fenix be different if he was Grey? Not really, there might be a change in the voice actor, but the game would be much the same.
    I also take issue with the "The bizarre thing is that the stereotypes you encounter in the games don’t even match up timewise with our current culture" part. Most games that I play are set in either timeless periods (Batman) or a period different from our own like Assassin's Creed or Halo so this comment actually builds against the point of this article, the periods these games are set in are NOT our own and so the social culture is not going to be the same. If we go back to 1812 we would likely see black people as slaves working as white people dictate, so if I play a game set in 1812 I don't expect to see a black president, I expect to see a black slave and a white master, is this racist? No, it's accurate.
    That being said, I'm all for equality and it would be good to see more ethnicities as main characters in games where you can't customise, it might be a step forward for equality, it might not, only time would tell

    As a prospective producer myself, my feelings on the whole black-sploitation and stereotype characters is this:

    Stereotypes are there because they are a way in which people can bring order to an un-ordered world. People like the idea of being able to either belong to a group themselves or group others so they can better understand them.

    Unfortunately stereotypes, whether positive or negative, foster an unfair representation of a group simply because they do not allow for individual expression.

    Stereotypes in any medium can convey a very specific character role, such as the "black street thug" stereotype or the "ditzy blond" stereotype - if that is the primary role you want the character to portray, then that's your choice as a developer, and as a gamer you can either accept it for what it is or you can rally against it.

    The biggest issue with gaming is that characters, of ANY type, very rarely have anything beyond a superficial stereotype facade; purely working with face value attitudes and beliefs. DEPTH is what is required, for ALL CHARACTERS, to make an experience both more memorable and more believable.

    You can have your black characters if you want them as a designer but if you give them an interesting backstory and characters quirks and flaws and inconsistencies in judgement - in other words, making them HUMAN, then the stereotype won't hold.

    NO ONE likes to be stereotyped. We are all individuals who want to be recognized for the many faceted, multi-layered beings that we are; full of personal experience, sadness and triumph.

    To make a believable black character - you just need to make a believable HUMAN character.

    There is no compromise for this. There never has been, there never will be.

    Designers, Writers, Producers. Developers: Wake up, and get it done.

    - Argus

    What does it even matter what the prospective skin colour of a character is?

    I think Commander Shepard is a good example of this - Shepard can be any multitude of races, but the game makes compromises for none of them. Shepard is simply Shepard, regardless of what his selective race may entail.

    Your argument about black main characters being in a side-kick paradigm is also an exercise in senseless semiotics - you can argue that any character ever made is subservient to some form of order or authority in some fashion, extrapolating this by pushing CJ from San Andreas into the role of "gang member" is a stretch that few will readily believe.

    This is a storm in a teacup, something I have come to expect from Kotaku whenever racial-oriented articles are involved. When will we get some writers that can ascribe some meaningful depth and insight into an issue that is actually pertinent to anyone beyond the authors themselves?

    Sounds to me like the author was born with a bloody large chip on their shoulder.

    I have faith in Joseph Heller in P2 being a great protagonist, based on what we've seen so far

    Well I think this article is all nothing more than reverse racism and in fact the games industry is one of the most enlightened areas of cultural expression. And I am not just saying this as a fat white guy with very little social experience and a massive helping of disdain for those stupid enough to be born with a different skin colour.

    Oh what's that?

    My points have all been made already?

    DON'T COLOUR ME BLACK, COLOUR ME SURPRISED BROHOMBRE

    WHAHHHH WHY DOES IT MATTER WHAT SKIN COLOUR YOUR CHARACTER HAS THIS ISN'T AN ISSUE??...STORM IN A TEACUP!!!....POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GONE MAD!1!...BUT THIS GAME HAS A BLACK PROTAGONIST THEREFORE THERE IS ENOUGH DIVERSITY IN GAMES AND ALL YOU PEOPLE NEED TO STOP WHINGING!11!.

    All we need now is a "This isn't gaming news I only come here to read about games this site is a waste of time I hate you all" comment.

      Actually, I made one mistake, we also haven't had the guy who goes: "Well if you want to see more racially diverse characters set up your own studio and employ your own staff and develop your own games!!!"

      Just being thorough.

        Actually, those guys are on page one of the comments. Go take a look :(

          Yeah, that's what I was referring to.
          There needs to be an article where they go through all the typical comments on any post about racial or gender issues. 'Cause that shit is comedy gold.
          Ahh the plaintive bleating voices of the privileged, how predictable yet amusing the song of your people is...

    Why are we making distinctions on how a character should act based on his or her skin colour? Can't a white or black dude just act normally without any stereotypes tacked in?

      From reading the comments here, I think it is because black people get 'uppity'.

    EVERYONE, THE PERFECT BLACK GUY IS THE BLACK BARON FROM MAD WORLD, IN NO WAY WAS HE STEREOTYPED AT ALL

    Clearly hasn't played 50 cent blood in the sand. There's black cool non-stereotype for ya ;P

    I have never seen this as an issue. You have a native american hero in the upcoming AC3, one of the biggest games of the year, as there was in Prey. The main character in the AC2 saga was an Italian (as is Mario, who is beloved by all), while in the original AC it was a middle eastern man. Main characters of major games have plumb the depths of all types and stereotypes. And as you stated, one of the biggest games in the previous generation had the main character as a black guy. Heck, Rockstar went one better in their next GTA and had us playing a Yugoslav. And one of the biggest game series around has many people believe we're playing a black guy (Halo). If you open your eyes you'll find all types cover all games, regardlessof whether they are the main character or on the sidelines. Im not stating that white guys aren't under-represented in videogames, but that this isn't the big deal that it is being deemed to be. A good developer won't let race be a defining character in their videogame. And a good developer will also cater to all types. I know for instance that I play a black Commander Shepherd, and Im a very white guy.

      Wow, so you're a white guy telling the author (a black guy) that it's a non-issue? You amuse me. Thank god we have have people like you and some of the other white commenters what POCs should and shouldn't be concerned about, what would we ever do without you??!

    Drop the hurr Ima gangster I rape and steal and f the police hurr crap and societies image of your race will change. Speak out against the current 'culture' and how its derogatory to your entire damn race, you only have yourselves, not whites, to blame for that.

      I hope your wife runs away with a black man.

        She probably did, s'why he's mad. ;)

      Cancer, cancer everywhere.

    Given that this entire article seems to be premised on the - typically Americo-centric - idea that Black = African-American, I think it's worth pointing out that African-American's make up about 12% of the American total population (against white's 72%), which is at best 4% of the total black population of the planet, or about 0.5% of the total world population (white is around 20%).

    This article's argument is about as valid as asking for more "Australian Cool" (or going by comparable population size, "Polish Cool") representation in gaming. Except these "Cools" have at least some understanding of their relevance and marketability in a global gaming perspective (or global anything perspective, I guess). And the likelihood of getting any appearances other than stereotypical sidekick roles.

      Isn't it how maths = pseudo racism! Well going by your awesome argument, there should be an exactly 5:1 ratio of black/white leading characters (assuming your very broad categorisation of white).

      Oh wait.

      Ok, let's go to your next awesome argument! Let's see, race = nationality? Check. Irrelevant comparison of not seeing one of the basic racial types presented as opposed to one of the many cultural types presented? Check.

      We got another one here.

      It's so white in here, you crackers need to go outside and get some grape juice down you or something.

    Know what roles you rarely see black characters play? Not just in games, but in movies too.

    If you said lead character, you're close, but the correct answer is the VILLAIN.

    apparently, the big bad is always white. always.

    I disagree with the HL2 reference.

    Gordon freeman isn't really a character. He doesn't speak, and aside from pictures you never actually see him in game from a 3rd person POV. He is you! Alyx really is the main character in HL2. And lets not forget the end of ep2, nothing bad happened directly to you, but you feel for her and her 'situation'. I find it hard to call her a sidekick.

    v.v
    as a black man in the video game industry ( Director of CM ) it warms my heart to hear someone express opinions that I not only agree with but openly support.

    "Black Cool" is a great term to use for harnessing unique abilities.
    And as great as all the points were, things wont change anytime soon.
    Its a process and I personally am trying to make a difference for blacks in the gaming world.
    There are no main characters that are black...well at least in AAA franchises. I dont think it's going to happen unless its developed from the ground up by our own kind.

    I dont expect anyone to be able to make a game ft. blacks when they aren't black themselves.
    being ignorant of a races culture doesnt make you a racist in my book. there are plenty of races I know nothing about therefore I cant be expected to have a good opinion of what they want in a game.

    What Im saying is this, the writers in the industry ( the non-black ones ) don't think about having a black lead character. Nothings wrong with that, because in the big scheme of things you've got to apply to the target audience, and the rest of the world is satisfied (at the moment) with leading white/asian characters in a good 85% of their games.

    It will just be a matter of time before a developer produces games for the "black gamer"
    unfortunately having dark skin gets you labeled as "African or African-American" even if thats not where you hail from. A dark skinned person born in Japan is Japanese in my book, not calling his ancestors or whatever into the picture. but hey.....alot of people "call'em like I see'em"

    Ok....thats quite a long comment, but i had to put my thoughts on here....at least a little bit.
    hopefully in the future I'll be helping develop the games that blacks worldwide call out for

    Sincerely,
    J

    PS. Great Article ^_^

      Well said, I am making moves to pave that road for a near future. I'm a independent animator who's determined to show that we are diverse in character and very much so capable of AAA work. We are all Americans but we have a long way to go to close the gaps in competences! Hope we cross paths in that future.

    DAMMMM... Why do we insist on force whites to represent up when we won't step up and do it our self!!! No one will represent you the way you will lets take some initiative people!

    Personally I think this is the strongest positive of games like Mass Effect. I played as a black guy, and Asian guy and a woman, and the character remained "cool" regardless. I have the feeling that this would not have been the case if the designers had opted to "spotlight" (and that's what it amounts to) any one race or gender. Instead they wrote a character (true they probably thought of him as white while writing), but by leaving it up to the gamer to decide the appearance, the instinct to try and make it Black/Native/Asian whatever never came into the picture and we get a true universal hero.

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