I wanted my first article for this site to be one that has been on my chest for a very long time. An opinion that, for as long as I have been a part of this gaming community, has not seen represented as often as I believe it should be. Mostly, I believe, because of a lack of black voices and creators in the gaming industry. So I would like to contrast this with the type of representation of black characters we have seen in modern video games.
Video games, unlike its contemporaries, has the distinct ability to be an active form of entertainment. This means that people get to take part in the narrative or make choices with how the story and characters behave in the medium. This gives video games the ability to elicit strong feeling of empathy simply due to the act of gameplay. Gameplay also allows for the players to be a part of power fantasies and, in the world of video games, one that is devoid of the rules and regulations as well as the history of the real world. One would think this would be the best place for a black man to experience a power fantasy. Sadly, that is not as common as one would presume.
Black Men’s Representation In Video Games
There have been very few instances of black representation I have personally come across and felt attached to, or felt partially represented by as a young black man from Southern Africa. The best example I have is Marcus Holloway from Ubisoft’s 2016 open-world action-game Watch Dogs 2.
Marcus is a young African American man who has a passion for social justice, mainly because of the years he had been unfairly profiled by the unlawful use of the surveillance system ctOS. The game puts you in control of Marcus as a character throughout the whole game and you, as a player, have the option to tackle problems in numerous ways. That includes use of lethal weapons and none lethal hacking. Marcus’ character and the way he is written is well thought out; he isn’t the token black character of the DedSec crew. He has his own motivations, and the fact that he is black plays a huge role into the story, as well. The player is given the option and the ability to live out their own power fantasy in this sandbox open-world game as a young black man in modern America.
I applaud the writing of the game not neglecting the realities of what it is like to be a black man in the tech space. In one mission that takes the two black members of DedSec to the Noodle headquarters (The parody of Google in Silicon Valley), Marcus laments the fact that they are the only black people on the whole site, making him feel uncomfortable and unsafe. Its this attention to detail that makes me relate to this character and narrative so much.
I asked some of the men in my community as well as some black gaming journalists I know to give me examples of black characters they felt were were good representations or handled well, and the answers were few and far between. Some examples include: Lee Everett from The Walking Dead Season 1, Bayek of Siwa from Assassin’s Creed Origins, CJ from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Lincoln Clay from Mafia 3. The underlying theme with all of these characters is that they were not one-dimensional or stereotypes, as we often see with most black male video game leads and side characters.
A recurring theme we all noticed with black male characters in video games was that they are usually big, buff and loud dudes with one-liners. Its also impossible not to miss the fact that the number of characters we have to choose from is so minimal. Hopefully by having more black voices in game development, this can change.
Black Women’s Representation In Video Games
The call for more black voices in the gaming industry is one that is two-fold for the women in this space. Not only does the industry need more black people, but also women, as well. The lack of female voices in the industry was recently highlighted by the incidents of Gamergate in 2014. Since then, not much has changed, to be honest, but there have been some improvements. We get to see more women on stage at trade shows like E3, we get to see more women video game journalists and most importantly, a substantially improved amount of leading female characters in video games. However, not many of those women are black, and as was highlighted by the majority of the women who spoke to me, of the ones who are black, they are usually light skinned or of mixed race.
Colourism is a topic that isn’t brought up as much as it should for something that’s so ubiquitous worldwide for women of colour. Colourism is a form of prejudice or discrimination based on the shade of one’s skin by people belonging to the same race. It disproportionately negatively affects many darker skinned black women in all aspects of life, including the entertainment sector, (video games).
Of the scarce number of female protagonists women have to choose from, less than a handful are black and even fewer of those are darker-skinned women. In my interview with Stephanie Ijoma, founder of NNESAGA, the UK’s Leading Diverse Platform for Gaming, Comics & Anime, she had this to say on the topic:
“The problem is, we are not a priority to the gaming industry. The few times that we are, what tends to happen is that they give us a token choice of choosing the colour of our skin as opposed to making us the protagonists. Furthermore, half of the time, it’s not even the right colour of the skin. As they have basic and limited skin shades to do so. The solution is to hire more black people in the gaming industry and give them more power so that they can tell our stories and represent us well.”
Video games usually go with mixed or lighter-skinned women as the leads. In some cases, like the critically acclaimed Uncharted: Lost Legacy, Nadine Ross, who is from South Africa, is the unplayable supporting character, while Chloe Frazer of South Asian descent is the playable one of the duo. Other notable examples include Clementine from The Walking Dead Series, Alyx Vance from Half Life and Jade from Beyond Good and Evil.
The numbers become even more bleak when you start to look for black characters who are LGBTQ+. The most notable being Ellie’s love interest Riley Abel in the The Last of Us‘s expansion, Left Behind. Clearly there is more work needed if NPC’s (None playable characters) and a handful of characters here and there are your most prominent avatars of representation in a medium that boasts to be larger than the music and film industry combined. Obviously, just like in the film industry and music industry, there is a lot more representation in the indie space. Nevertheless, those games still need to be amplified in order to get an audience in the first place. The AAA subset of gaming has neglected a substantial portion of their audience for reasons only they would be able to explain.
Representation matters because media reflects what we see and expect in real life. If there are no black people in video games, that is essentially erasure and it has damaging repercussions for the day-to-day lives of the people who consume this media. As mentioned earlier, video games have the unique capacity to elicit active empathy from the player. Anyone who has played Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons or HellBlade: Senua’s Sacrifice can attest to the fact that games can teach and comment on difficult and diverse stories.
I’m often reminded of what Author Seanan McGuire had to say on the topic of representation in her essay, “The Bodies Of The Girls Who Made Me: Fanfic And The Modern World.”
(Projection is an important step in learning how to make believe. If you can’t BE the main character, you can let them be your avatar, carrying your essence into the story. Here’s the thing, though: it takes time to learn to “ride” avatars that you can’t recognize. When all the avatars you have offered to you look like someone else, you can wind up shut outside the story, or fumbling to find those points of commonality that will let you step inside.)
Enter The Default, that strong-jawed, clear-eyed, straight, white, cisgendered, able-bodied, vaguely Christian (but not too Christian) male. Everyone who grows up on a diet of Western media learns, on some level, to accept The Default as their avatar, because we historically haven’t had much choice. Want to be the hero, instead of the love interest, the scrappy sidekick, or the villain? Embrace The Default. Learn to have empathy with The Default. He’s what you get.
It would be remiss to not mention that some improvements are being made in this space with the very popular Apex Legends having 3 playable black women and Imani from Paladins (with the correct hair type I might add). And yet, there is still a long way to go before this becomes the norm.
Black people shouldn’t have to cling onto fantastical characters coded as black, like Marina from Splatoon 2, as an example of great representation simply because we have crumbs to pick from. Where is our Nathan Drake; where is our Kratos; where is our Lara Croft?
Considering the recent events happening in and around the world through the Black Lives Matter movement, I would like to highlight our article on how the movement matters to the video game community. In it, you can find resources that can help explain what is going on and how we can all come together as gamers in a moment that we are entitled to. Black Lives Matter!