Games tend to have trouble depicting black hair, but this year’s E3 displayed refreshing palette of kinky, coily, textured hair. Here’s a breakdown.
In his essay for anthology State of Play, Evan Narcisse says that, for video games, “when it comes to head hair — specifically locks that look like what grows from my scalp — I’m generally out of luck. … It’s the visual texture that’s the trickiest part, I’d imagine. From afar, hair like mine looks like a solid, unified dome. But, it’s actually a particulate mass, made of hyper-tight curls that pretty much resist gravity by growing up and out.” As a black gamer, I’ve also noticed these problems, particularly for black women. A lot of black characters have permed, straight hair, or textures that aren’t quite right when I compare it to my hair or the hair of women I know. When it’s close to right, it’s sometimes played for comedic effect. As Narcisse writes, “Afros were controversial once, too, but wound up taking a left turn on the path to mainstreaming. They’re now understood in a comedic way, a style so outlandish that only the truly ludicrous would wear it. It’s telling that the equivalent for straight hair — locks that go down past the shoulders, say — isn’t a signifier of imminent hijinks.”
While this year’s E3 was definitely full of afros, I noticed a difference. The hair looked right. It looked good, even, and it wasn’t played for a joke. Characters with afros, such as this unnamed woman in the trailer for A Way Out, weren’t shucking and jiving. Her hair texture implies that “particulate mass of hyper-tight curls” that Narcisse describes.
And the more cartoon-y looks, such as this character from the cinematic trailer for Beyond Good and Evil 2, has each curl lovingly rendered. She might be hanging out with talking animals, but she looks like Beyoncé, not a gag character.
There are a lot of cool-looking games featuring — or even starring — black women that were shown at E3 this year. From Wolfenstein 2‘s hard-edged revolutionary, to Far Cry 5‘s Grace Armstrong, to the Dishonored DLC’s Billie Lurk, this was the first E3 in recent memory where I couldn’t just count all the women of colour on one hand. It’s frankly amazing, and I’m really excited to play these games. Especially Wolfenstein 2. I love everything about this unnamed character who is part of the American resistance against the Nazis, and I want to meet this socialist revolutionary cell, thanks.
The hair, for the most, part looks great. Not only does their hair have the physicality of black hair, which tends to grow out and not down, it appears to have the coarse, kinky texture of it. For the above character from Wolfenstein 2 you can even see where exactly she's picked out her fro, and the imperfections in that circle. That's fucking tight. I want to give a special look at Uncharted: Lost Legacy's Nadine Ross, who basically has the same hair texture as me:
Her hair looks great and is situationally appropriate. The idea of getting my curls caught in a branch while stealing mystical artefacts is awful. I will say, if she has that much length after tying her hair back her hair has probably grown around 30cm since we last saw her. I've been growing my hair out for three years and can't manage a ponytail that long! Black hair gets denser instead of longer, for the most part.
While almost all the black women featured have curly hair, a notable exception is Dishonored's Billie Lurk:
Now, this is all muddled because the world of Dishonored is not our world, and race does not seem to exist in this world in the same way it does ours. Maybe everyone just has straight hair in that universe, or maybe Billie got her hands on some kind of magical whale oil perm. But she also looks like me, and other black women I know. She has dark skin, and a broad, flat nose with large nostrils, but her hair doesn't come out of her head in the same way it comes out of heads of black women. I've had a perm before -- if I was a magical assassin, I probably wouldn't want to spend hours on my hair every day. It's a nitpick, but I can't stop thinking about her burning her head with a flat iron before meeting up with Daud to kill the Outsider.
Grace Armstrong from Far Cry 5 also has a perm, but I give it a pass because it looks like she has a perm, albeit one she hasn't had a chance to touch up. It makes sense -- she's doing a siege on a religious cult, her hair's gonna get frizzy.
I also can't tell if the women in the trailer for Detroit, which features many characters of colour, have straight hair or not. The black men unilaterally have kinky hair, but when it comes to the women, the trailer conveniently frames them in extreme close ups:
And cuts away to wide shots:
I think that one woman has short, straight hair, and the other has a close crop. But it's hard to say. They're androids, though, so I'm more inclined to handwave this one. Artificially created humanoids can have whatever hair their creators deem them to.
As per usual with David Cage, this game stars a faithfully-modelled Hollywood actor. In this case it's Jesse Williams, an extremely beautiful light-skinned black man:
I'm not particularly fond of Cage and the E3 trailer looked boring, but hey, Jesse Williams looks fine as hell.
In general, black men fare better when it comes to hair texture in games. Hell, just take a look at sports games.
Describing his hair in his essay for State of Play, Narcisse wrote, "My hair doesn't really qualify as an Afro or even a baby Afro. It's kind of a dark taper fade, with the sides grown out a bit. It's exactly the kind of haircut that millions of black men all over the world have been wearing for centuries. Millennia, even. And yet it remains exactly the kind of detail that the science-fiction wizardry of modern-day game-making hasn't figured out how to replicate." Except in sports games. Because men in the NFL and NBA have that exact haircut.
In the trailers for NBA Live 18 and the Madden 18: Longshot, there's also a huge diversity of hairstyles for black men, because not every black man adheres to that default haircut. They look cool, current and stylish -- especially in NBA Live 18.
It isn't hard to see why black men's hair has been easier to model, especially in games about sports. Haircuts like this don't require physics, like long curly hair does, nor are they overly complicated. And if Lebron James didn't have hair like Lebron James actually has, Cavs fans would fucking riot.
Sports games have always excelled at representing black people in the way that we actually are. It is heartening to see a lot of other development studios catch up to the likes of Madden and NBA Live, as weird as that sounds. For the first time, I wish my hair looked as good as some of these characters.