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.
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.
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.
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?
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, 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.
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?
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.