This Is How We Get More Black People In Video Games

It's Black History Month in North America and the UK — that time of year when people look at exceptional achievements and moments having to do with African Americans and black culture. What does that have to do with video games? Sadly, not a whole lot. There's such a paucity of black characters and creators in video games that it's difficult to discuss the same sort of exceptional achievements and moments. Because there aren't very many.

I decided to start up one such conversation anyway, pulling in David Brothers of The 4th Letter. I only know Brothers online but have always enjoyed his writing about comics and video games, especially when he touches on race. What follows is a back-and-forth between he and I, where we talk about how to possibly increase the ranks of African-Americans in video games, on the screen and behind the scenes.

***

David,

I wanted to talk to you because I've been thinking about Black History Month. Actually, I've been thinking about how to think about Black History Month, and race and diversity as it concerns video games. You've done a lot of great writing about racial realities as they've been rendered in comics and lived by its creators throughout history. Reading through that work over the years, I think we agree on why talking about this stuff matters. Games — like movies and books and music — reflect what their creators see in the world, where they find their escape and what they think is worth talking about. Whenever I write about race and games, I inevitably get the, "Why does it matter? Why can't we move past this stuff?" And the answer is that racism still exists and the attitudes and stereotypes that sprang out of practices and institutions like Jim Crow still live on in society. Acting like it doesn't exist doesn't defuse it.

The truth about the video game industry is that, relatively speaking, there aren't a lot of black people. The vast majority of forward-facing game-makers are white or Japanese guys, as are most of the main characters. That isn't a bad thing, and I certainly don't think it's any kind of conspiracy making it so. But it's hella boring to look at. Moreover, this state of affairs makes the games medium feel strangely walled off, like it's surrounded by a force field that repels the real world.

That's why I wrote my piece about black characters in video games last year. I feel like better portrayals of race could help the medium on its way to feeling more well-rounded and more grounded. I would hope that more women making video games means you don't get a tasteless bikini torso as a promo item. And I would hope that more black people making video games means you don't get NPCs like Letitia from Deus Ex: Human Revolution. None of these assertions are givens, but at the very least, it helps to lower the chances that we do.

Sincerity Versus Satire

Conversations need to be had. But they're not happening because the talking will be awkward, heated or uncomfortable. So, stupid me, I've been thinking about ways to start these dialogues. It seems to me that there's a continuum of ways to talk about race, gender, class and other hot-button subjects. On one end, you have a sort of emphatic sincerity and on the other, you've got the sharp blade of satire.

This state of affairs makes the games medium feel strangely walled off, like it's surrounded by a force field that repels the real world.

The sincerity paradigm has manifested in things like Imitation of Life, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner or Menace II Society. Works in this tradition try to authentically highlight aspects of real life to create an enlightening melodrama. There's an assumption of good faith that's key to the success of this kind of work. Satirical creations throw good faith out the window. Things like The White Boy Shuffle, Bamboozled or Chappelle's Show throw darts at the polite silence of mainstream culture's inequalities. You may laugh, sure, but it's always nervous chuckles that come with engaging with work like this. To some degree, the audience is a target of the joke, too.

What about games? One game that gets the sincerity angle right is Assassin's Creed III: Liberation. It doubles as an earnest look at a moment in history and a game that draws on real-world racial dynamics to shape its mechanics. So there's something on the sincerity end of the spectrum. But I think the issues swirling around sincerity are stifling increased diversity in game creators and characters. People don't want to be taken the wrong way, especially if they want to make games that somehow touch on race.

That's why satire — and its ability to lower defence with laughter — seems like a much more attractive option. What I really want is a video game equivalent to Blazing Saddles. Mel Brooks' classic Western comedy homes in on the anxieties of its time — a post-segregation moment when black and white people are still warily integrating in various social spheres — to fuel its jokes. There are tropes in black arts traditions that game designers can use, too. Cleavon Little's sheriff in Blazing Saddles has a bit of the trickster in him; he reorders society by going against the grain. The whole movie runs up and tongue-kisses every stereotype it can find. It's entirely possible that people watching can use them to reinforce really nasty world views but that's clearly not the film's aim.

And, yeah, Blazing Saddles is absurd slapstick. But so is the root of most prejudices, right?

Poking Fun At Tropes And The Ridiculousness of Stereotypes

I want a game that pokes fun at the fact that 99.9 per cent of game protagonists look like cousins. I want a game that clowns the thinking that noble savages are still a good plot point in 2012. I want a game that doesn't feel the need to turn its black characters into thuggish stereotypes just because it's an easy shorthand for being a bad-ass.

Here's where I throw it to you, David. How often are you thinking of how race shows up in video games? What encourages or discourages you? Is there a creative work from other media that you feel like games can pull some tricks from?

***

Oh man, Evan,

If I said that I'm constantly aware of race in video games, I'd be understating things. It's one of those things that you can't stop noticing once you start noticing it, you know? I was a kid when someone pointed out how many black boxers there were in video games at the time (TJ Combo, Balrog, Dudley, Heavy D!, Boman Delgado). That led to me trying to figure out how many other black characters there were in games (Lucky Glauber, Dee Jay, Barret, the DARPA chief from Metal Gear Solid), how many black women there were (Elena, Storm), and how many of the non-boxer characters were something other than poorly-researched stereotypes or embarrassing (basically the DARPA chief, Elena, and Storm). Black boxers are the FedEx arrow for how race is approached in video games.

Black boxers are the FedEx arrow for how race is approached in video games.

Final Fantasy VII was one of the first non-sports games I played with a playable black character, and I remember being bugged that he was written the way he was. Where'd he even pick that dialogue up, considering that he's living in a fantasy land? Anyway, it's been a fair few years since then, and I can't say as I've seen a lot of improvement. The pickings are so slim that I was straight-up floored when Sleeping Dogs not only featured a wide variety of Asian actors in its cast, but actually included something similar to the culturally sensitive conversations I've had with my Chinese-American and Chinese friends.

Always The Bridesmaid, Never The Bride

There are more black characters in games now than there were then, which is cool. But at the same time, the types of characters that we see still leave a lot to be desired. Shinobu from No More Heroes is very cool, and I thought Emmett Graves from Starhawk was solid. But black characters are still basically limited to playing the sidekick (Sheva Alomar, Cole Train) or being some type of weird joke (Sazh, Drebin, though I love him regardless). I've seen a few games that have really good character customisation options, up until you get to the point where you want to go brown, rather than pale, and then you're out of luck.

It sucks. It's a bummer. We're in a better place than we were when I was a kid and thirsty for brown faces on my TV, but it's like Malcolm X said: "You don't stick a knife in a man's back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you're making progress." Being the sidekick and comic relief (and sex object, let's not forget) is never going to be enough. I don't want the video game hero demographic to perfectly match the cultural make-up of the United States, because that's silly. But I feel like throwing me a couple bones a few times a year isn't that tall an order, you know?

"You don't stick a knife in a man's back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you're making progress."

But as down as I am on that side of things, you know what was the most encouraging thing I saw last year? Minority's Papa & Yo, which I believe you told me about. That was the one game that affected me more than any other last year, often to the point that I had to put it down and stop playing. Part of it is that the central metaphor is powerful and one that I'm particularly susceptible to, but it was really the total package. Playing as a young brown boy trying to come to grips with his father, discovering the world, and escaping from life absolutely murdered me. There's a moment in the demo, the part when Quico is walking inside a pipe and you see the shadow and hear the footsteps of Monster, that was the most chilling thing I'd seen in a game since the first Silent Hill.

It works so well because it isn't about being black, or how sad it is to be black... It's just about being a little boy.

It works so well because it isn't about being black, or how sad it is to be black, which is usually the first thing people go to when trying to incorporate cultural diversity into their work. It's just about being a little boy. It's about living, right? And it's treated in the game and in the PR material as being perfectly normal. It's not a sermon. It's just a new and incredibly executed experience, like Red Dead Redemption or Devil May Cry or Uncharted.

A Wider Range Of Characters Means A Broader Audience

That right there is what I want to see more of: new experiences with new faces that are treated the same as the old faces. I want to see a game of DmC's calibre and quality with a black protagonist and multicultural cast. I want video games to look at Fast Five for inspiration. That movie made something like a jillion dollars and there are exactly two white dudes in the cast. Conventional wisdom says that appealing to the broadest possible audience means a white hero, a non-white sidekick, and a white or latina lady for a love interest is the key to success, but guess what? It's 2013. People are ready for more.

It's 2013. People are ready for more.

I want to see some bravery, basically. A willingness to step outside of the lines and turn mainstream games into something the mainstream, all of the mainstream, is into. Maybe it'll take a new twist on the Rooney Rule, where developers have to at least take a look at how their game would look and feel with a non-white protagonist. But my hope is that someone out there looks up and realises how much more money they could make by broadening their target audience.

What works for you in games right now, in terms of race? Have any characters in games made you sit back and clap your hands because they were so dead-on and familiar? Have you hit any of those moments that make you breathe in real fast and half-laugh in shock, like The Boondocks does to me at least once an episode, lately? Do you even like those moments?

Being the first one to take the leap, especially with nothing else on the horizon, makes you into a lightning rod.

Here's something else to think about: You mention Blazing Saddles being a good goal for games. I agree, and would actually include Friday, the near-perfect 1995 film starring Ice Cube and Chris Tucker, in that category. But Blazing Saddles had Cleavon Little in front of the camera, Richard Pryor on the script, and a booming black presence in Hollywood to balance it out. Friday had black culture exploding into the mainstream, rap beginning the process of absorbing every other genre, and a string of realistic black condition-type movies like Rosewood, New Jack City, Boyz n the Hood, and Menace II Society to play off of. If you weren't into Blazing Saddles or Friday, if they offended you or just weren't your bag, you could easily find an alternative.

Video games, right now, has what, Starhawk, which is so sci-fi as to be abstracted from the wide-ranging black experience, and... Resident Evil 5? Being the first one to take the leap, especially with nothing else on the horizon, makes you into a lightning rod. People will expect your game to reflect their values and ideas of what it means to be black, or how black people should behave, especially if a game features a white writer, producer, director, and development team. What do you think about that?


I'll have an answer for David next week. Until then, please offer up your own answers to the issues and ideas raised here.

David Brothers can be found sitting by the dock of the bay, writing about comics for ComicsAlliance, everything for 4thletter! and nothing @hermanos.


Comments

    HAHA!! Love the Blazing Saddles photo you used.

      I literally opened this article to reply, simply because Blazing Saddles is amazing haha.

    What'd he say?
    The Sherriff is near!

    1. The reason there are more white people as main characters and in general is, you guessed it, the majority of customers aren't black. In America, 13% of the population is African-American, so it stands to reason that to target the largest audience, you would create characters more relatable (on a superficial level) to the largest possible potential market.

    2. Creating gaming satire poking fun at racism in this day and age would be commercial suicide. Movies like Blazing Saddles were made in a much less PC-crazy time. The problem is that many - especially the media - are simply too thick to distinguish between helpful satire and racism - so any mention or portrayal of racism is seen as racist.

    Take the BBC's recent removal of a section of an episode of Fawlty Towers ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbXAbZ28_0k ) . Some bureaucratic committee has heard the racist words - and as a result decided to rewrite the culture and history of television - without realising that the fact that the character saying the words is demonstrating how idiotic it is to use those terms. Now, you have a character uttering mildly racist terms throughout the series without being narratively picked up for doing so.

      Excellent idea! Let's never change anything. The fact that you could do a line-up of all the video game protagonists of this generation and have trouble picking them apart (having them all chin down and eye up doesn't help) is the perfect reason why game companies need to take a risk.

        Yep, you nailed my point exactly.

        Never change anything. Kudos.

          I think the only point I nailed was your criticism of BBC's censorship, which is definitely a valid point. It is up there with removing cigarettes from Looney Tunes cartoons.

          It also wasn't the point I was discussing because honestly it isn't relevant to this discussion. My sarcasm wasn't supposed to be snarky, but obviously you saw it that. I would've liked a decent discussion. Oh well.

      It's an interesting subject that I see people coming at from some weird angles. Like in the exchange above, I didn't know the US demographics, so I have no idea if 13% is accurate or not - it seems a little low - but let's even be generous and say 20% because round numbers are nicer.

      If that's the case, then I really don't see how someone can argue, "But think of all the money you'll make by tapping in to that new audience of 20% of the nation!" That seems very counter-intuitive. If you're tapping into 20% of a market instead of 80% of the market, wouldn't you be making... less money?

      It seems like they're kinda already doing(/strikeout) TRYING that anyway - if the majority is white, and the protagonist is white, and the minority is... well, the minority, then the side-kick represents that portion... That's obviously a ham-fisted way that doesn't ACTUALLY appeal to the minorities. The knife analogy is OK here. 100 titles offering 100 token sidekicks is 0% main characters, so 0% actual appeal. But the alternative is offering 20% of TITLES having African-American main characters, which means that sure, the INDUSTRY gains some equivalence, but that individual title suffers for it.

      So come on, devs, publishers. Who wants to put their hands up and be the one to take that one for the team?

      All of this is predicated on the concept that having a black protagonist in your game will lose you white players. But, uhm... hasn't Telltale's The Walking Dead done really, really, really well? And Lee seems pretty non-white to me. Hell, as a white guy I found myself relating to him very powerfully.

      But wait. If I'm a white guy relating strongly to a black character, why isn't the reverse possible? Why are we having this entire discussion in the first place?

      I don't think it's the colour of the character that matters. I think it's the STRENGTH of the character, how relatable it is that matters. In which case the argument should probably be, "Let's see better characters, who are so good that anyone of any race can relate to them."

        Of course, Lee is also a fairly unfair decision in terms of game characters to relate to, because... well. I was making his choices for him. He might've found different ways to word it, but I was essentially forcing him to agree with me.

        Also, I'm not entirely sure the whole, "I can't relate to this character!" isn't more a perceived problem than a real problem. Because, yes, there are a plethora of white characters, eg: Marcus Fenix, Kratos (does it count if he's voiced by a black guy?), Nathan Drake, Duke Nukem, or 'generic special forces soldier who looks like he picked a face somewhere on a slider which had Justin Timberlake at one end and Sam Worthington at the other end'. Etc, etc. But I can't relate to ANY of those bullet-chewers either.

        It's entirely possible that the reason people feel they can't relate to these characters doesn't have anything to do with race, but because it applies to so many other situations, they're used to reaching for it as a reason.

        Last edited 21/02/13 4:42 pm

    Is this how you come up with your stories Evan? Actively seeking things to be offended about and then find a shoe-in to back it up? It's like ambulance chasing. Patronising people is insulting to their intelligence.

    I'm a white dude and I love Chappelle's Show. Let's be real. His humour is predominantly racist, but sensible people can still appreciate that it is simply humour and still get their kicks out of it without getting up in arms about it. But make no mistake, it's a double standard.

    There's plenty of games with black protagonists. San Andreas was a prime example and the main character CJ felt genuinely charismatic. It's funny how everyone criticises Rockstar for being racist when some of their most engaging characters are ethnic minorities. I think the real reason is that people have a chip on their shoulder regardless of justification.

    You might actually take great disgust at tasteless bikini torsos as promo items, but will you get up in arms about that game that was just released which is all about dismembering people in slow motion? One of those games where every female has a serious rack and leaves the top 10 buttons undone? Oh, that's it's right! It's Japanese so it's just a cultural thing! Only white people are capable of causing offence right? Me personally, I'm not offended.

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