Video Games' Blackness Problem

Video games have a blackness problem. This has been a known thing for a while, and we do talk about it from time to time. But I'd like to keep talking about it.

When they appear at all, black video game characters are often reduced to outdated, embarrassing stereotypes. It's commonly accepted that part of the reason for that is that there simply aren't enough black people making video games. Surely if that changed, video games' depictions of black characters would improve, right? What else might it take?

I decided to email with several prominent black critics and game developers to start a conversation. What is the source of video gaming's blackness problem? What is to be done? I enlisted games researcher and critic Austin Walker, Treachery in Beatdown City developer Shawn Alexander Allen, Joylancer developer TJ Thomas and SoulForm developer and Brooklyn Gamery co-founder Catt Small to talk about what we all thought. Our conversation, which took place over email, follows.

***

Evan Narcisse (Me):

Actual black people don't seem to have had very much to do with creating my favourite black people in video games. Or many other people in games, for that matter. That bothers me.

In other art forms, it's possible to trace a long history of black people crafting their own stories in the face of a system that tried to suppress them. Sometimes those stories were straightforward chronicles of existences lived under oppression, like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Other times, writing a book, making music, movies or TV was a means to calling out the structural injustices of living in America. Those things aren't mutually exclusive but it's tended to be easier for one sort of endeavour to find institutional backing and support. The thing about Assassin's Creed: Freedom Cry, for example, is that it's got the distance of history to make it more comfortably consumable. You can safely cluck your tongue and sigh about how rough black people had it in the ol' slavery days. You don't have to acknowledge how the systemic legacy of the laws that prevented black people from voting still lives on today with election fraud.

I've written before about the desire to see more black faces and different kinds of black stories in video games. That desire's changed a bit in the last few years for me. I keep thinking about how AAA games get made and the invariable, invisible compromises that happened along the way. When I think about black characters and visions of black life in video games that resonated with me -- whether it's Adewale or Aveline from the Assassin's Creed games -- I have to reckon with the idea that they was very likely no black person making decisions about those characters.

Because I've written about this stuff before, I've had some weird experiences over the years where developers would email me about their games. It's been either "hey, it's ok if we have a funky black person in our game, right?" or "Evan! Look at this black person in our game! Tell the world!" That alone hasn't been enough for me to get excited to enough to follow up with the people involved. I also tend to resist the easy narrative that people seem to want to invoke, which seems to be that a simple aggregation of more black faces gets my stamp of approval. I'm just one guy who's lucky enough to voice his feelings publicly. I'm not a spokesperson but when I do write pieces like this, this or this, people tell me that I'm speaking part of their experience too.

For a while last year, I felt guilty about not playing Watch Dogs. It was set in Chicago, a city that's racially polarised in the most tragically fascinating ways. I didn't expect a high-risk, big-budget franchise starter to try for anything daring with regard to how it rendered black lives. (Remember Liberation and Freedom Cry debuted on the sidelines -- on the Vita and as DLC, respectively -- and not on the biggest possible stages.) But, friends who played Watch Dogs told me how retrograde the projects-dwelling Black Viceroy thugs were, like bogeymen kludged together from decades of the worst stereotypes. So much for progress, I thought. And the guilt went away. Because why should I feel like I have to have something to say about a game like Watch Dogs when it doesn't have something to say about black people?

Video Games' Blackness Problem

That element of Watch Dogs was just another thing that made me feel like an outsider in video games, despite the fact that I think and write about them every day. What I've really been craving have been games that make me feel the opposite way, something that leverages any of the myraid modes of modern blackness. One of my favourite books -- The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty -- does that really well, moving through suburbs, rap videos, academia in a hilarious satire that still nails some home truths about how black people are portrayed in the media. Black lives exist everywhere in every strata of society, in all sorts of strata, ways and methodologies. Corporate video games still have yet to even scratch the surface of that. You've written about Watch Dogs, Austin. Do you think the black characters in the game could've been more than what they were if more black people were involved in its development? Or is the big corporate machinery that makes and moves a game like that too big to avoid pitfalls like that?

Austin Walker, game critic:

Evan,

Maaaaaaan, I think Watch Dogs could've had better black characters even if there weren't more black people working on it.

Lots of noise was made of how Watch Dogs' map of Chicago doesn't really line up with the real city. Well, the question for me is, what maps were the developers working from? Well, if their depiction of the inner city (and thus their only depiction of blackness) can be a clue, then their maps might have been the sensationalist TV tabloid stories of the early 90s.

In those depictions, Chicago's Cabrini-Green projects (clear inspiration for the Rossi-Freemont Towers in Watch Dogs) were a lawless battlefield where young black men sold crack and shot at cops and harassed neighbours. But these alarmist stories never actually linger on the neighbours, do they? They show the white chalk outlines on the street on the day after a murder, but not the block party held there just last week. We get photos of brothers in cuffs, but never holding open doors or helping folks with their groceries. Listen, Cabrini-Green, by all accounts, had lots of problems. But it was also a place where people lived their lives.

Video Games' Blackness Problem

(Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

There's a solid New York Times story on the destruction of the final Cabrini-Green tower, focusing on the conflicted feelings the community. About halfway through, there's this bit from a girl reminiscing about her time living there: "There were block parties. There were Old School Mondays, where everyone would come back; people who had been gone for 25 years would get together. I remember my first Christmas there. And this little area called the Blacktop, where I learned to ride a bike." Watch Dogs has no room for little black girls to learn to ride bikes. As Kirk Hamilton pointed out in his review last year, black people in Watch Dogs "exist simply to kill or be killed, or occasionally to engage in sexual assault while on camera."

This is what I mean when I say that Watch Dogs could've been better even without more black folks on the dev team. When non-black people want to learn about the experience of blackness, they often seem to turn to source texts that, themselves, could've used more black folks involved in the creation. Texts that focus on the tragedy instead of presenting a holistic view of life. Part of this is, as you suggested, the "big corporate machinery" behind a game like Watch Dogs. It might have been way easier to arrange a viewing party for a mediocre old documentaries than it would have been to justify an expensive trip to interview the folks who actually lived Chicago.

But, the result, in games like Watch Dogs, is that blackness is presented as pathological. The black spaces are violent, ruined, and dangerously mysterious. The black characters, at best, overcome that violence through exceptional intelligence or talent, or, at worst, give into their darkest urges. Sometimes there's a degree of sympathy in this sort of depiction: "Wow, look at how bad they have it." But what we really need -- in games as well as in other media -- is something more complex than this image of devastated black lives. And yeah, part of the solution there could be more melanin in game development.

It's interesting that you mention the history of black folks creating our own art in oppressive contexts -- sometimes specifically in opposition to forces that wanted to keep us from creating it, or who wanted to own what it was that we created. We weren't allowed to learn to write because it would offer us dangerous weapons like private communication, careful record keeping, and long-form thought. Our music accompanied and eased our work, or it broke free from the brutal rhythms of the factory. Our films reflect the complexity of our heritage. I don't know about you, but I heard these sorts of stories as a kid a lot.

But there isn't a version of this story for games yet. The closest we have is the story of being good at playing certain games: the cousin who got to be a defensive tackle on an NCAA team. The uncle who played ball overseas. The brother (or sister! Or non-binary black person!) who could kill a cypher (because let's not forget that the unwritten rules of freestyle rap have as much in common with improvised games as with music). Maybe the closest thing we have are stories where players transcend and "change the game forever" by shifting the conventions. But we don't even have these stories for digital games, yet, even though lots of black folks play them. I'm not saying I'd settle for someone black to be on the winning team at The International 5, but it'd be something.

Mostly though, I'm ready for games to offer a more complex vision of blackness. In another recent letter series (and I know, it's a faux pas to link to one letter series from another), I wrote about the broad range of material that appears in the "blaxploitation" catalogue. This is what I want for blackness in games: Recognition that the struggle exists, but that it exists in the lives of complicated people, not caricatures. Maybe with Liberation and Freedom Cry, we've seen the extent to which the Ubisoft Formula can serve that desire.

So, on that note, here are MY questions: what might a complex and (dare I say) compelling vision of blackness look like in a genre other than open-world-stab-'em-up? Alternatively: have you played anything lately where the variety of blackness felt represented?

I'm guessing no, but listen, a dude can dream.

Shawn Alexander Allen, developer:

Hey Evan and Austin,

These are great questions, and they reflect my lifelong journey of self-discovery of my own blackness and the ever-present questioning of what does blackness even mean.

I used to work at an EB Games with 2 other black employees and we had a large black customer base. A bunch of us went to see the movie Barbershop together, which was interesting because there were a lot of parallels between my store and the film in terms of the community and the comfort everyone felt with each other. Barbershop is a movie that questions what blackness is at every turn, even so far as to ask if a bubble coat wearing, hip hop blaring white man can cut black hair better than an uppity cappuccino drinking black barber.

To start to tackle this subject in games I can't help but recall season 4 of Boardwalk Empire. I'm not sure if you're familiar with it, but Boardwalk Empire is a show primarily about Prohibition-era Atlantic City and the booze-running done by numerous criminals including main character Nucky Thompson. Series mainstay and self-made black community leader Chalky White, played by Michael K. Williams, worked closely with Thompson before Prohibition to help the black community as much as possible and over time became one of Nucky's most trusted employees.

Video Games' Blackness Problem

In season 4, Chalky was now being challenged by one of his lower-class henchman by the name of Dunn Purnsley, who was being egged on by a vastly more educated black revolutionary named Dr. Valentin Narcisse, a character mirroring W.E.B. Dubois. The season, while still focusing on the problems of prominent white characters, took a divergent path to involve multiple black men and women of different classes and -- while ultimately problematic in how it abbreviated and streamlined important black characters in our history -- it was still refreshing to see on a show that was ultimately about rich white men fighting over who would get more rich or die trying.

This is not something new to HBO, with a show like Deadwood that featured a couple of black folks who were still notable cast members and, of course, The Wire which has an amazing array of characters on both the good and bad sides working to find their way in life however they can within the systems that they are surrounded, and often trapped, by.

I bring all of this up because while HBO is probably the best representative of "mature" media that takes cues from cinema to deliver worthwhile experiences at a premium to the average consumer. At the same time, we also had Breaking Bad which was essentially 'what if a white guy from New Mexico became a drug dealer because he had bills to pay,' a.k.a. shit that happens in the hood all the goddamn time. Games seem happy to continue the idea of white anti-heroes surrounded by supporters with the one black guy here or there, instead of going the HBO route and creating places where black lives can have their own agency.

I'm very disappointed in Watch Dogs, to the point where I will never pick it up. After reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' argument for reparations and having visited Chicago in December and hanging out with some of the hip-hop community out there, I just see Watch Dogs thematically as something of a failure from the very concept.

Video Games' Blackness Problem

It could have easily been a game starring a black guy who left South Side but had some gang violence that dragged him back in, and as much as it is pernicious to constantly drape that trope around the necks of black men, it could have immediately been about something more meaningful. It could bring more attention to things that are going on in our current events; I talked with one dude whose brother was killed in August. That murder messed him up, as he had also just become a father. These are very real things, and could have actually started a conversation. Honestly, from a cultural point of view, Watch Dogs feels like shallow fodder that has since been forgotten.

Rewind to the early to mid-2000s and we have a few more black characters, many in leading roles, who were nuanced, and may have dealt with another black person who wasn't just like them, or from their hood and were given more of a spotlight.

In 2004, we had a fluke of Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and The Suffering being released almost back to back. Both games featured biracial black main characters, Riddick and Torque, who were prisoners. Even still, we as players were given many clues up front that each guy also had redeemable qualities. In the case of The Suffering you ultimately can determine if Torque is innocent or not by being a good person in the game, and showing restraint with the use of the overpowered monster form.

Now, in the middle of the 2nd decade of the new century we're struggling to even get that far.

It's true that we have a game like Mass Effect which has Keith David as Colonel Anderson, and our crew member Jacob in Mass Effect 2, but Anderson is a tool to guide Shepard and hardly exists outside of being the mouthpiece for recommending the player to be more than he can ever. Conversely, Jacob never interacts with Anderson in any meaningful way and he himself has the harmful trope of daddy issues which is what his whole loyalty mission is all about.

Interestingly enough, we have two games released fairly recently that feature some of the strongest black characters in games. They have more interesting parent issues but it's not just dudes again: one stars a woman and the other a little girl. Nillin stars in Remember Me and Clementine is heavily featured in The Walking Dead, Season 1 and goes on to star in Season 2. In Remember Me, Nillin confronts her black mum, the head of the evil corporation she has has to destroy, and in Walking Dead Clementine meets Lee and learns her parents were killed and eventually has to set out on her own after her new adoptive guardian passes as well.

Video Games' Blackness Problem

These games represent something fairly unique, but also unfortunately shared a big problem. While the parent types are voiced by black actors, Orlessa Altass as Scylla Cartier-Wells (mother to Nillin) and Dave Fennoy as Lee Everett (adoptive father to Clementine) respectively, both Nillin and Clementine are voiced by white actors quite literally removing their blackness. I have caught a lot of backlash mentioning this, but my argument always is, would you put brown makeup on a white actor to cast them as a black character in this day and age? The answer is obviously no.

As the previous would be considered blackface, casting black characters with white voice actors is what I coined "digital black face". It removes everything from the character, and only perpetuates that games are so white, that they can't even find actors to play the occasional black character. Saturday Night Live caught hell for this, why not games?

All of these issues that games have today seem to continue to be wrapped in a 'one step forward, two steps back' mentality so that we're never actually moving forward. While a show like Empire will come out on Fox and do better week after week, we're still making games that don't even try to star multiple black characters.

I want to leave this open for more feedback, as this brings up a big question for me. While I am focusing on having a black main character in my game Treachery in Beatdown City who eschews the normal stereotypes of black male characters, I could never fault another black creator for not necessarily wanting to do the same because, after all, we want to be able to make whatever we want as creators.

Despite the dearth of representation that the games industry has, my limited times of feeling a connection with a protagonist and as a part of the culture as a whole, I didn't start making games to really make a difference, and I'm sure not many game developers of colour do either.

As many game designers are wont to do, I began thinking of my old favourite games and genres that were ignored and said "I'll do that but with a twist!" Treachery in Beatdown City started off with a focus on creating unique combo mechanics, and not so much on who I am, how I fit in with the industry or if I wanted to do something to feature more black and brown folks, because well, why should it?

When I started, though, something made me decide that I was going to make our character Bruce be the exact opposite of what a black character would normally be regarded as in a game; I wrote him as a rich stock broker who is also an otaku and worldwide traveller. Part of this came from the fact that I had a lot of time to flesh out my characters: I spent years doing so before one line of code was laid down in Game Maker, or C# as it is today. I think I was also just tired of seeing the same ignorant, brutish black characters in games who can't use computers, curse up a storm and are otherwise one-dimensional.

As I keep working on Treachery in Beatdown City, and I keep talking about it and race in games in general, it has become more and more apparent that so many designers and artists, particularly black people, want to see more black characters in games. They want to create them, they want to be them. At the same time just seeing a dude like me up front talking about this has convinced other people to come out of their shell and become more active in the community.

It essentially boils down for me asking the question, how do we encourage more black characters in games? More stories that feature black characters? Especially when we make up, what, less than 2% of the developer population? If established studios with the funds to take risks are pushing black content to DLC, blackface skinning (John Stewart Green Lantern DLC skin in Injustice), or just not even willing to take the same risks to create a new character who is black to lead a franchise, especially when money is one of the biggest factors in making games, how are we going to encourage anyone else to take those steps?

TJ Thomas, developer:

Y'all,

Growing up, I didn't really understand the importance of representation. Even until I actually became an adult, I still didn't really understand. But as I grew older and began deconstructing my own racial ideologies (and by extension my own blackness), I began to realise that I didn't partake in much Black media, or media with Black protagonists... but the few that I did left a total mark on me growing up, and I didn't even recognise it until recently. I'm sure that most Black creatives are with me when I say that Static is probably one of the most important superheroes to ever be published by DC. Here's a Black teen just trying to live his life normally, but not only does he have to deal with being a superhero with a secret identity, he also has to deal with the realness of being a Black teen in modern America. He and his family are affected by real-world problems affecting Black people even today, and all of these facets influence who he is. That unique experience that he has compared to most other superheroes is what makes him stand out so much, and it's something that just wouldn't work if Static were white.

Video Games' Blackness Problem

I don't really care that much about superheroes enough to explore the medium, but Static is someone that i'd make an exception for, simply because I'm just so invested in the character and the writing. It's not just because it's good writing, it's because it's something that I can relate to on a personal level. I can see "me" in Black characters, much like white people see "themselves" in white characters.

The way I look at games is pretty heavily bent more towards play and action over story, although I do wonder if it's because of this. With so little representation, I don't really see myself as these white characters. I just see myself as exploring the story of a white character. Which is fine, really, but it personally makes it harder for me to get genuinely invested in the characters. and when I can't get invested in the characters and the story, I get invested in the mechanics instead, and that's usually where I find the sweet center. But as great as that is, I'd like to have more snacks once in a while that are like that sweet center, but it's the whole candy, y'feel?

However... I find it's gonna be really difficult to encourage more people to make black protagonists. Like you said, Shawn, you can't force a person to make their characters black. Everyone has their own motivations for creating a character, right? Rather, I challenge creators to ask themselves why. When you're working on a character design, do you always imagine them as white, or having white skin? If so, why? What's your reasoning for that? Without every creator deconstructing how they view their own ideologies towards race, nobody is going to care enough to deviate from "the norm." If people don't see what the problem is in making predominantly white characters in their art -- especially if you're going to get involved in games where we have Real, Hard Stats that say that Black and Latino people tend to play (console) games on average, if not more than white people -- then why would they ever explore outside of that spectrum outside of stereotypes and tokenized characters?

Catt Small, developer:

Everyone's mentioned things that I relate to so much.

As TJ said, it's quite difficult to encourage people to make Black characters, especially if they have internalized the concept of whiteness as the norm. I'm excited about several recent games featuring complex Black people, including The Walking Dead, Broken Age, and Sunset. I hope these games inspire people to rely less on tropes and treat Black people as humans with a variety of emotions and experiences.

One way we'll see more good Black characters in games is by making the industry more accessible. As Shawn said, the number of Black game developers is depressingly small. I don't think there's a dearth of Black people who want to make games, but rather a dearth of Black people who have the encouragement, time, and money to invest in making games. Many Black people are risk-averse due to factors including a higher likelihood of poverty and therefore encourage their children to go into fields such as science, law, and teaching. How do we enable Black people to make games and succeed financially, and how do we change the perception of the medium itself so parents don't discourage their children from going into game development?

The spread of free and low-cost tools is helping to introduce more Black people to game development, but visibility and transparency in the industry is also helping. For example, Shawn's been speaking at conferences. I've spoken about game development at several colleges in Black and Latino communities. During each presentation, I not only discuss how to make games and tools they can use, but also events they can attend to become a part of the community. I also collaborated with Black Girls Code through Code Liberation to organise a game jam at which 57 girls learned to make games. More initiatives like this will hopefully enable Black people to tell their own stories through games.

Like TJ, I heavily gravitated toward Black characters in other forms of media while growing up. Patti Mayonnaise, the brown-skinned love interest from a 90's cartoon called Doug, showed me it was ok to cross racial lines and that I could be attractive to people of all kinds. My parents let me watch Gullah Gullah Island, a live-action show, as much as I wanted because it featured a Black cast and taught me about the Gullah culture of my father's family.

As a teen, Static Shock and Green Lantern from the Justice League got me into watching superhero shows. Peach Girl, a popular manga, helped me understand colorism and respectability politics. The Boondocks comics helped me understand how varied blackness could be -- you can be politically active, marry a white person, be a lawyer, wear an afro, wear locked hair, be bookish, be loud, be any number of things, but regardless of how you look or act you are still Black.

Video Games' Blackness Problem

Coming back to blackness in games, Borderlands' Tiny Tina most recently struck a chord with me because of her upbeat personality, her (quite possibly unintentional) mixed-looking features, and the fact that she was raised by Roland, a well-respected Black male character. Tiny Tina really freaked some people out because of how she spoke versus how she looked, but I liked the notion that blackness comes in different shades and capacities.

Many people seem to think of blackness as a static thing. When designing Black characters, game makers should consume actual black culture -- literature, documentaries, and movies created from our perspectives. Our identity is complex and deserves more than the generic portrayals commonly shown in the media. Shawn mentioned Barbershop, which was a hit at my majority Black and Latino school in Harlem. Shows like Empire and Blackish sometimes contain stereotypes, but also do a good job at showing the complexity of blackness by including themes such as colorism, sexism, and the struggle to rise in the world yet retain authenticity.

Just like Shawn, one goal of Prism Shell, a game I'm working on, is to quietly subvert Black stereotypes by featuring a confident, smart Black woman with punk rocker hair. On the intro screen, she looks straight at the player, forcing them to engage with her humanity. I'm also making a game that features a college-age Black woman navigating the worlds of race, gender, art, and tech. I hope to be contributing to a movement in games that portrays Black people as more than just city workers, murderers, and gang-bangers -- we are not trash to be disposed of nor comedic relief, but rather a people with centuries of history and culture that survived despite many attempts to destroy them.

I think people need to be open to a variety of blackness. Black people don't speak or act in a single way, yet game makers still rely on tropes to make characters seem authentic. I'm sure others in this discussion have also been accused of "acting White" or called myriad things that allude to being less Black. As Cheryl Contee said in Baratunde Thurston's book, How to Be Black, "I've wished that other people could see me for the complex being that I am, not see past my race but see that and all of the things that I have done, to embrace all of me." Blackness is diverse and multi-faceted.

Kehinde Wiley also discusses diversity of blackness in Who's Afraid of Post-blackness?: "Sometimes Blackness is threatened by a desire to go outside of a collective sense of deprivation and to engage education and opportunity. It feels good to all be down with one another. This notion of being authentically Black is comforting." Despite that feeling of comfort, we need to create characters who break the mould and go beyond expectations. Stories beyond slavery, poverty, and gangsterism are still part of the spectrum of blackness. This is a point that the entirety of America needs to discuss, not just Black people.

Race is still quite a touchy subject -- -- gender diversity seems to be easier to discuss and less polarising -- -- however, if we don't discuss it, we'll keep seeing the same tired tropes. I want games to be more and for developers to aim higher, regardless of their race. Each trope-defying character we create will have a palpable effect on the industry.

***

Evan here, back to wrap things up. The discussion isn't meant to solve all the frustrations that the participants and other people feel about the state of representation of blackness in video games. Hopefully, it shows why it's an important thing to talk about and illustrates possible ways to tackle the lack of blackness on screen and in development circles. Getting more black people in video games doesn't feel like the kind of thing that's going to happen via some sort of transformative messiah figure. It's going to take a lot of smaller steps and leaps of faith to become a reality and continuing to have conversations about it will be a vital part of that. Time permitting, I'm going to be following up with Austin, Shawn, TJ and Catt to talk more about what it feels like to play, write about and make video games while black.

Illustration: Sam Woolley


Comments

    TLDR: muh racism, muh sexism, mu whatever-ism

    What sells is what sells is what sells

      people other than straight white guys buy games too

        Maybe they should make them too, creative control is an amazing thing.

        I think you meant; Straight, white males who are atheistic, maybe agnostic, have moderate to high incomes, aren't obese, don't suffer from mental or physical illnesses and disabilities and pursue what are considered socially accepted "male" pursuits.

        The thing that always irks me about reduing the problem to "Straight, white males" is that it ignores a large number of other forms of discrimination.

          yeah good point. my response wasn't as nuanced as it should have been

          Last edited 23/02/15 2:01 pm

          This is a great point, as it's not about no women or no black characters; I wouldn't even necessarily say that it's an issue of discrimination - it's that the majority of characters in games are generic as fuck, which translates to the description you gave.

          While you're right, I find it morbidly fascinating that this line of thinking is also probably what's causing the LGBTQIA acronym to expand to the point that by 2020 it'll be thirty letters long, not all of which are capitalized due to having to put lower case letters after some of them to denote points of difference where a letter's already been used before, only it'll have to be done for both instances of the letter so that one isn't considered the more important one.
          (Edit: I originally said 16 letters long, but if we have to go the upper-lower route due to duplicate letters, the acronym's already six long, we'll get there WELL before 2020.)

          Last edited 25/02/15 5:53 pm

    As a white person, I cannot imagine how frustrating it must be to see your own race not included in popular media more often. It must be very hard for children too, to not see themselves represented as heroes or main characters.

    There is a sense of this as a female, but that's a drop in the bucket compared to the under-representation of different races.

      As an Asian, it's not so bad... Overall, I don't really care. People are starting to make a mountain out of a molehill. The only time I care is when I can't create myself in an online avatar. eg GTA Online

        My wife's Asian, and I created a GTA Online avatar that looked almost exactly like her. It amused me no end to go around being violent and committing crimes as my wife. That was very wrong of me, I know.

          I gave up trying to make a decent looking Asian male avatar in GTA Online.

          I tried to make myself a sort of Men In Black type but with kinda Asianness (black hair, dark eyes). The resultant avatar looks a bit like Michael Jackson (Bad-era) with a Fedora hat and a normal face but gets accused of being Heisenberg.

            If it helps, I found it ridiculous hard to make a decent-looking ANYONE avatar in GTA:O. :P

        True, but can you imagine all the self-righteous morons who would be up in arms if you could put Asian eyes on a black dude? I don't care but I guarantee many others would.

      Trust me, as a non-white person, it doesn't bother us too much. Protagonists of fiction stories (in whichever media) are blank characters that one uses as avatars for one's own persona. Since avatars are supposed to be artificial constructs that change with every story, you don't feel bothered by the characteristics of the one you are observing at the moment.

      The discussion about racial diversity is important because the fact that stories protagonists are not as diverse as they could be hints to some underlying issues. However, they are not in and out of themselves a problem.

      In fact, if white people are the ones creating a story, I'd very much prefer that their characters are white, rather than presuming they know enough about other races to make a story with them. In fact, that's precisely the reason why most protagonists are white: The entertainment industry is full of white people (which is obviously a result of accumulated racism in the previous centuries). However, as we become more progressive and the old flagbearers grow old and die or become irrelevant, we're seeing more people from all backgrounds entering the industry and producing more genuine stories about people from all types.

        I like to come up with ideas for games and would like them to come to fruition, but there's one thing I'd never do. Create a character based on a culture I know nothing about. I don't want to offend and I don't know anything, so why would I include it? Unless I can get someone who knows extensively about the culture, I wouldn't be game enough to do it.

        You raise good points about the "blank slate avatar" concept in games. I wonder if game developers naturally gravitate towards white male characters because they're the "default" i.e. it's more likely that a black woman or asian can become immersed in a white male character than vice versa?

          I personally believe that any good person can become immersed in any good narrative. When either the spectator or the narrative is bad is when problems arise.

          For example, a petty, self-entitled person will complain about having to experience a story where the protagonist is a person very different to him/herself. I don't believe such attitude is endemic to the middle class and above straight white male, though. They just have had the most representation and as such, the more chances to become self-entitled.

          Similarly, a terrible story with stereotypical, mocking or just misinformed representations of minorities is bound to offend or cause discomfort to any decent person.

          No, they're default because the people making the games think that white males are the default.

            Evidence please. You're probably right but please don't assume it's just because white people are all arrogant racists.

              Evidence? Umm

              http://www.twinfinite.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/video-game-protagonists-kids-love-brown-haired-30-something-white-males.jpg

              I'm not saying it's intended, nor that the people involved are racists. It's pretty much the definition of unconcious privilege- the characters are white males because the designers are, largely. Which is kinda one of the points in the article, and hardly exclusive to video games.

                Thanks for evidence that most VG protaganists are white males. But everyone knows that already. I want evidence for your assertion that it's just because we're all racists.

                  And if you'll read everything I've posted in this thread, you'll notice I've specifically not called people racists. I'm pointing out that thinking of white male as a "default" is likely because it matches the profile of the creators, and I disagree with your comment that it's more likely that someone from a different race or gender can become immersed in a white male character than vice versa - I think that happens only because of a lack of variety in (large studio) protagonists. There's nothing about a white male protagonist that makes them more or less relatable as a character.

                  I thought this was relatively non-controversial.

        None of these things are ever a problem when taken in a vacuum. This particular game is a story about a white guy who is a hero and his friend (side-kick) just happens to be a ridiculously attractive woman/90s TV show black guy/ Asian mathematician who knows kung-fu.

        But we don't live in a vacuum and we don't consume culture in a vacuum. Taken as a whole, there really are multiple problems in all major media when it comes to telling stories about people who aren't white, heterosexual, able bodied, conventionally attractive, etc. We either get white-washing, or if characters from any other type of minority are represented, they are represented in stereotypical ways or otherwise played for laughs.

        It seems to be improving. I hope it is. If not even for the sake of cultural inclusivity, I hope it improves simply for the fact that it lets everyone experience new stories that they otherwise have little access to.

      As a white dude I put no thought into whether my on-screen avatar represents me - I just accept the character for who they are and that I am guiding them through their story. I guess that's the privilege of it basically representing me like 90% of the time. In games where I create my own character's story (such as in Mass Effect, Fable, and to a letter extent Saint's Row) I tend to have a mix of genders and races. I had a white male in Mass Effect, but I also had a black woman. I played an Asian woman in Saint's Row. Heck, my Destiny Avatars are a female Awoken (Awoken have purple skin, for those not familiar with the game, but have human ancestors) a male robot, and a black female human.

      I'm not trying to earn points by crowing about my own personal diversity, because while on reflection I may seem to crave, it seems I only get given the option when it has no bearing on the storyine whatsoever.

      So it struck me, fairly recently, that what gaming is missing is cultural diversity in stories. It doesn't really matter if the player avatar is black or white or male or female or trans or straight or gay. What we're missing are games that explore the depth and breadth of the human experience. Is it safe to assume that, because most game protagonists are white people, that we're mostly playing "white" stories? Because my favourite game of 2012 was Sleeping Dogs, set in Hong Kong with a Chinese protagonist and despite the setting I didn't get the feeling that I was playing a "Chinese" story. Maybe it's because Hong Kong is still heavily influenced by it's past as a British colony? Maybe because Wei Shen has spent most of his life in America? How would I even distinguish a Chinese story from a "white" story anyway?

      The really trick part for me is trying to figure out how we create all of these stories about all these different people in such a way that it doesn't seem like forced pandering. I see no reason not to explore these underrepresented areas but I personally have no idea where to find that balance between race and gender being unimportant, and having it affect the story. Ideally it shouldn't be important, but in reality it is.

        It's interesting, the concept of Hong Kong's 'feel' thanks to being a former British colony.

        My Dad moved to (former British colony) Malaysia and when I went to visit, I was amazed at just how much English still pervades its culture and feel. I went to buy a native-language (Bahasa) phrase-book and everyone looked at me funny, asking why I could possibly want to do that. They couldn't conceive of a single scenario in which that would be helpful.

        The signs, ads, everying is in English, and almost everyone speaks it... apart from a 'left-behind' half-generation, stemming from a few years where nationalism and pride caused English to be taken out of the curriculum (before it turned out that it was hurting students' careers to not understand English).

        It's clearly not a British country, but the legacy is deep. I don't think the same is quite as true of Hong Kong.

        I have a friend who grew up in Hong Kong and while they didn't review the story or watch the gameplay, they did check out some of the scenes and environments and loved it to bits. I actually asked how true it was to the feel. "Very, very accurate. Like, homesick accurate." (Apart from it being so empty and quiet, I guess? I think she may have just been looking at the districts, roads, scenery, temples, buildings, etc.) I really wish I could convince them to watch a let's play or watch me play so they could criticise the story and characters and their themes, too. There was an article a while back from an ex-triad who reckoned the game's violence and themes were bang-on (if not necessarily the Wei Shen character), but he was also selling a book, and you can never trust anything someone says when they're selling a book.

    Seriously? What's this guy on about? I have a wii u and a ps3 (and getting a ps4 soon) and guess what, they're ALL black.

    Controllers are mostly black too. I'm doing my part!

      Congrats on the PS4! I'd go for the white controller though, as it looks awesome!

        Typical bigot!

          The black controller does feel bigger in my hand though...

            You know what they say; once you go black you never go back.

              I dunno there is such thing as to big, the Xbox Duke may seem fun but it just starts to hurt after a few short minutes of play.

          Hahaha. Do you think he's saying white controllers are superior? :P

            Clearly not, but only because black keyboards are master race.

        Thanks man! It gets delivered today or tomorrow. I'm pretty excited!

        I'll have to get a 2nd controller at somepoint but I can't decide between red, blue and white. Surely a white controller would require constant cleaning or it would start to resemble something disgusting pretty quickly right?

      If only the new 3DS came in black :(

        Mines mostly black, though its also somewhat white during the day; green at night:
        https://www.flickr.com/photos/archdoug/16089703689/

          That's the coolest thing I've seen today.

          Flickr links always seem to redirect me to the homepage :/

            If you search for "boo cover plate nintendo 3ds" it should be the only hit

        It depends if it's matt or gloss though. My wii u controllers are both glossy and the fingerprintage is just terrible. I even have a special cloth with my remotes to wipe them with. They get that gross (2 kids, one 6 and one 4 who love them some smash bros. Why are kids fingers always sticky anyway?...)

          Oh yeah, true. I prefer matte all the way, although even then the gloss of the Wii U stuff (and hell, even the original 3DS) didn't really bother me too much. What does bug me though is the gloss of the new 3DS XL. The Pokemon special edition 3DS XLs had this problem too - whatever plastic they use just feels constantly slimy and greasy. Even right now, changing between my Pro controller, 3DS and nXL, there's a distinct difference in the feel of the latter. I hate it.

            I feel you man. Don't know why they do it. You put up with it for the tasty hardware but why couldn't they have used something a little more hard wearing?

              Oh, this one I'm not putting up with. I fully intend on getting rid of my nXL, and reverting back to the old XL. It's about a million times better imo, the only flaw with it is the "sweet spot" isn't as sweet as it was on the original. Would rather just get a CPP XL for it.

    I wouldn't call the lack of cultures in a game "a problem"

    I would call posts like this the problem.

    Unless the developers deliberately make the game without different ethnicities for racist reasons, then its not a problem.

    Lets not make it seem like videogames are racist just because they all dont have different ethnicities in them.

      the question is, why don't they all have different ethnicities in them? walk down almost any street and there aren't ONLY white people there. why shouldn't games reflect this?

      no offence but I don't think you entirely appreciate the problem. many people seem to assume that overt, 'white pointy hat' racism is the only racism that exists. the subtle, more insidious type is people assuming that the only race that requires representation is their own.

      the power of ostracisation is strong, and can be just as painful an experience as overt abuse, especially you're subsequently told that, essentially, 'there was no intended malice so suck it up, it's not that bad.'

        This argument makes sense if the creative director was a gay black woman, but was told she couldn't make the main character a gay black woman because all the white folk won't want to play as anything other than straight white charming bro by her employer. However if the team is of mixed backgrounds and are merely making the game without purposely removing other cultures I can't see how its such a terrible thing.

      I tend to agree. If anything, including something just to include them can sometimes seem like they are just checking a box, which I find more discriminative than including the ethnicity/ sexuality if and when relevant.

      Shoe horning them in just for the sake of having them is often forced to the point where its distracting. Not always, but when it's tacky it's tacky. It's like they are screaming 'look at how progressive we are'. (Which is effectively making the character stand out as abnormal or special, which is ironically discriminative).

      Or it's used as a way to make a cliché, paint by numbers, predictable and simple stereotype of a character or archetype (like, say, Barbara Gordon in Gotham, if I were to be harsh) appear deeper and more complex than they actually are, but that's another issue entirely.

      Last edited 23/02/15 2:10 pm

        Off topic and not meaning to sound provocative, but can you elaborate on the Barbara part? I am not sure I follow.

          Lol, yeah it is a little off topic and a bit of a stretch, but her character is just one that jumped to mind as an example.

          Her characters is a very predictable and paint by numbers 'supporting' character in that she supports Gordon, but has a conflicting concern about him. It's a little generic and cliché' for sure.

          So, as an example (not the best one admittedly, but just for sake of discussion), you could say that instead of making the character deeper or departing from her archetypes generic and predictable 'is Jim crooked or isn't he' thing, they hint that her and Montoya had a thing at one stage.

          This essentially leans on the characters sexuality as one of the only things that differentiate her from her generic character archetype/ add depth to the character, if you follow. It's not the worst case by any means, I just happen to have just started watching Gotham (And I'm pleasantly surprised by how much I'm enjoying it), but it can be distracting (I'm a film student, so niggly stuff about characters stands out to me).

          Edit: in other words, it's not just there because it should be, they draw attention to it in a way that makes you question why it's really there. I hope that was at least interesting lol.

          Last edited 23/02/15 2:37 pm

            Cool thanks, don't read too much Batgirl and the only time she seems to come up in Eternal is when she is either bitching at Bruce or fawning over Jason.

              Well, I've just started watching Gotham, but from what it seems like so far, Barbara is just Jims wife/ partner, like in the Nolan Movies. IDK if that'll change or how it's handled in the New 52 and I also don't read much Batgirl, so I'm speaking just from what the show has given me so far, disregarding Barbara as a possible batgirl for now haha.

              Last edited 23/02/15 3:09 pm

                Wow crap didn't realise Both children share their mothers name, mind blown. I thought that we were talking about Batgirl this whole time.

                  I realised haha. Barbara/ Batgirl are pretty to confusing for someone like me who doesn't really follow them, so I just separate the 'identities' from comic to comic and movie to show. Some are adopted, one Batgirl/ woman (IDK) is an assassin etc.

                  I probably should have mentioned 'which' Barbara she was before, but I honestly don't know for sure myself.

                  Last edited 23/02/15 3:35 pm

    Riddick is a black character?

    I mean he’s an alien played by an actor who’s a bit black…. I don’t know that we should be classing him as a “black character” achieves anything.
    He’s not exactly a representative of any particular human community, unless you’ve got a mixed-race group of space adventuring loners…..

    I guess attempting to characterise him into a race is what makes this whole discussion so pointless and dumb.
    If you’ve got an existing emotional attachment to an issue you’re going to be able to find it everywhere….. lots of characters of any color in games are stupid stereotypes, the difference is that there’s MORE white people in games.

    If you put more black characters in games then you’ll get more good black characters, you’ll also get more terrible ones.

    Can we please stop with the minority posts on this site. I think people should face a reality, if you don't like products that are being created either make your own or don't purchase them in the first play. This culture of blaming others for not making something for "me" is tiresome.

      yeah, not that I agree with you, but if you believe that then surely the same could be said about these articles. take your own advice - if you don't like them for whatever reason, don't read them. simple. this culture of blaming others for not writing articles for "me" is tiresome.

      Last edited 23/02/15 12:15 pm

        Just reading some of the comments on this article... I see why there is a problem...

          Look I get equality in MOST things I do, but if you aren't a producer of a product you can't bitch when it isn't designed to your personal liking.

          As for the hypocrisy of my post I am aware of it, but I came in here expecting an article about how black people in the developing companies don't tend to have creative control on THEIR products, but the post itself is more to do with the fact that there just aren't any black people in strong roles (which is the status quo on this site, whether it be sexist or racist or sizist). I personally don't care about the "why isn't there strong non white characters in video games?" as much as why are there many skilled people who aren't white doing menial tasks in the developing companies. I guess I don't really mind the product... but do I care about the manufacture process.

            People feel entitled to bitch about anything these days, especially because of the internet giving them a virtual soapbox. I'm not suggesting that complaining about a perceived under-representation or misrepresentation of black characters in games is in any way unworthy, but the fact remains that complaining is now easier and more attention-grabbing than ever.

              See I get it, its the fence and the little doggie behind it; however that doesn't make it any less frustrating for me personally. If I were to make a game about big breasted black woman with a tiny waist running around lactating as an attack against little Asian people who can't drive straight that is my choice to make it and I should be able to do it without the PC police kicking down my door to have a cry... even if it would be incredibly bigoted and creepy to make such a game.

              Ultimately for me its a case of free speech should extend to all forms of self expression and it should allow me to create what ever it is that I want to create so long as I don't cross the absolutely worst of lines in terms of what is considered acceptable (paedophile, violence/rape without context, etc).

            Look I get equality in MOST things I do, but if you aren't a producer of a product you can't bitch when it isn't designed to your personal liking.

            Sorry, are you The King? Do you get to make proclamations? It must be pretty cool when your word is law. I wish I was a king.

            I personally don't care about the "why isn't there strong non white characters in video games?" as much as why are there many skilled people who aren't white doing menial tasks in the developing companies. I guess I don't really mind the product... but do I care about the manufacture process.

            You don't care about something? Perhaps you should provide Kotaku with a list of things you don't like so they know what they aren't allowed to publish, your highness.

              Awww man, I see that insulting some one is your go to when you are late on a conversation and want to feel like you made an impact; but pal you won't find me getting salty here. I merely stated that putting the blame onto others when you yourself could help fix the problem is a bit of a slight towards all the people that legitimately cannot.

              Perhaps you should provide Kotaku with a list of all the things you haven't managed to do today, getting a rise out of me is probably gonna make it onto that list, almighty bridge troll.

              Voicing opinions on an article designed to get us to voice them is bad, will know for next time. PEACE!

                You started by calling for an end to the kind of voice in the article and now are talking about your freedom to voice opinions? I wasn't trolling you, I was making a sarcastic point about your perspective and apparent tendency to proclaim rules and focus on what you are interested in only. Your majesty. ;P

      I understand where you are coming from and partly agree too.

      Lazy attitude to have, however. I then read the piece and thought, this is something I learned today.

        As I said above though, I get the problem if people are being told they can't make the games they want to make because publishers are denying them due to a preference to a "safe" product", but if you are complaining about a faceless mass making games that you don't like on a political stage; well then I got one simple answer for you... SUCK IT UP PRINCESS.

        Last edited 23/02/15 12:36 pm

          You've lost me but that's because of the way the sites formatting posts/replies so please forgive me.

          All I'm hearing is you only start to read things you know you're only going to agree with/understand the desire outcome beforehand anyway and can I ask you for tomorrow's lotto numbers.

            Part of the article felt spot on for me, it really did; but I think complaining about people not making a product for "you" specifically is a little self entitled. I have no problem with playing as any one of any nationality in an game and with any religion or beliefs so long as they aren't the duck dynasty crew.

              Well I am not sure I can fully appreciate what I don't like until after I've paid for the privilege.

              I'm completely within my rights to do so however.

                But you know that generic dude bro marine is generic before the game begins.

                  Just seems like you are getting what you are paying for, I am not saying that its either appropriate or not. I just hate watching people who potentially could make a real change in society instead complain about it.

              I get your point, and I actually agree with that. The misrepresentation issue (whereby minorities are stereotyped, which is often offenseive to some) is something else entirely though, and that, I think, is a valid critisism (or limitation?) of games.

                And that makes complete sense, even though I used a horrible example in another reply...

                If I were to make a game about big breasted black woman with a tiny waist running around lactating as an attack against little Asian people who can't drive straight that is my choice to make it and I should be able to do it without the PC police kicking down my door to have a cry... even if it would be incredibly bigoted and creepy to make such a game.

                It doesn't mean I consider such a premise ok, but I should have enough creative control to make that decision myself rather than some one else making it for me.

                  I'm lost again.

                  Still reeks of a lazy attitude.

                  Have you not ever read something whereby the author seems slighted or un-fulfilled in some way shape or form?

                  'Suck it up, princess' comes across as rude or too much nose picking during reading comprehension in Year 5.

                  Last edited 23/02/15 3:27 pm

                  The "suck it up, princess" remark was in regards to people telling creators what is apparently ok and what is not. There is no reason for why they can't make the characters that these developers want to make.

                  Once again it's hard to read the right way this is going (I can't reply on the latest one?) so I might have to leave it here.

                  Last sentence also reads like there's a typo somewhere in there.

                  These people in the article are already entrenched in the industry so they definitely have a good view of things. To not listen and just be content with what we've got is lazy.

                  I was just saying that if they have creative control and are being told they can't create those characters, well then that is terrible; but if the people making the game don't care then why is this even a thing. The thoughts of a few are important, but they are still not the thoughts of the many.

    Ah the joys of living in a time where you have to be able to quantify exactly how not racist you are. Sure doesn't feel like equality.

    But more to the point. What about specifically how black women are portrayad in video games?

    Getting upset about black thugs in Chicago is like getting upset about RE5 having tribal Africans in remote Africa. Dumb.

    Why don't you get upset about ScHoolboy Q perpetuating the image? Or the myriad other Chiraq rappers glamorising the gangbanger lifestyle and rapping about poppin' each other. They call it Chiraq for a reason.

    Last edited 23/02/15 12:42 pm

      Ahhh the memories of all the angry people complaining about infected Africans... the tears were so delicious.

    So this is where the argument's moving to now. Well, everything about it: why it is, why it isn't where it came from and where it's going, it's really just the same as the last one.

    I don't think there are any black people at my work ( >400 employees). I don't think there are any black people in my town (2,000 pop). I don't think I know any black ppl IRL. I'm not sure what point I'm trying to make? If I made a game it probably wouldn't have any black people in it, or if it did they might be sterotyped/ influenced by what i see on the news/ in other media.

      This reminds me of the small town (a bit bigger at around 8000 people); the only black person I knew in this town was a kid in my brother's year at school who was of african descent, but had been adopted as a baby by a white Australian couple. Words fail me in terms of a better way of putting it, but he was just as 'white' as all the other kids at that school...

      Last edited 23/02/15 3:06 pm

        My friend is black, but loves Nickleback... its probably hard being a secret white kid. :P

    I'm finding it incredibly depressing and more than a little awkward that Evan calls out some of the characters that I would personally have used as great examples of diversity in gaming protagonists, because they were written by straight, white males.
    That assertion opens up a pretty rank kettle of fish.

    Because… OK. So what I'm getting from his complaint is that the problem is that even if female/non-cis/non-white characters get their day in-game (hooray!), it still doesn't speak to non-SWM (straight white male) audiences because they were CREATED by SWMs (boo).

    If that's true, then every piece of evidence I personally have as to not caring about character identities is invalid, because every non-SWM character I thought I was cool with playing, was written by SWMs like me.

    As a result I don't actually know yet what it's like to not be spoken to, even if I thought I was playing and relating to characters like Aveline, Adewale, Lee Everett, Ajay Gale, Wei Shen, etc.

    That's a bit of a problem.
    Why? Well, because if something DOES then come out not made by SWMs that DOES speak to those audiences who haven't felt the 'truth' of their relatable characters yet, then logically that means I should suddenly find myself alienated… the way they feel right now. Right? If that's true… then that kinda puts us in opposition, competition over who we want making our games.

    That line of thinking gets pretty awkward pretty fast.

      Yeah, I felt the same about this, as the characters mentioned in the article are all pretty great, but they're not good enough?

      The way I look at it is, as long as we get diverse and interesting characters to play as in games isn't that what counts? If a generic, crapply written character is dark-skinned and voiced by a dark-skinned person, it's still a shit character.

      if the issue is not enough minorities on the otherside, isn't that an entirely different issue?

    Games marketed at western Audiences which are predominantly white.
    US - 70% white (13% black), UK - 87% white (3% black), Aus -92% white
    (stats are from Wikipedia)

    They're making their product to speak to the majority of their audience the majority of the time. There are products that will have minorities represented and to be fair, its probably in line with some of the percentages above.

    I get it that it sucks to be a minority and not to feel like they are making games for you but unfortunately business is about money not about sunshine and lollipops and everyone feeling loved. Its about money.

    There is also more to a persons identity than the colour of their skin. Personally i would like to see less American-centric games and more Australian protagonists. But hey, i am from a small population that makes up sweet F all of the gaming market so I'm not holding my breath.

      This is exactly what my first thoughts on it where. Aren't they just targeting the largest demographic? Is that considered racism or smart business? If your target audience is predominately white and all the points you've raised about character identity etc are true wouldn't it make the most sense to portray it as a white protagonist from a pure business pov in a heavily story driven cinematic game (order 1886 or uncharted last of us etc). Thats just using simple numbers - there are no ethics\bias or anything like that to portray.

      Just to be clear on that i don't think it's necessarily right or wrong i just don't care tbh. Wouldn't make a difference to me if the protagonist is black/white/asian, gay/straight/trans and being fat/skinny/muscular etc It only has to be a well written character that makes sense for the setting, just sticking minority group X in for the sake of it is worse possible outcome imo.

    on second thought it's not relevant

    Last edited 23/02/15 4:28 pm

    "Digital blackface" made my laugh. Because all those elves and pandas and snowmen should all be voiced by elves and pandas and snowmen because this isn't make believe.

    I thought we were not suppose to care about what race someone was. if a character is well written, black and dynamic, who cares who voices it? Its not like the person doing the voice has any baring or impact on a pre-written, pre-established character, they are literally just sounds. A well-written character isn't going to relay on a voice actor to be the character.

    Thats the job of the writer, the voice actor needs to be a good actor, they could all be robots for all i care so long as they do a good job.

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