“...E3 displayed refreshing palette of kinky, coily, textured hair.”
July 11, 2017 5:18 PM   Subscribe

At E3 2017, Black Characters' Hair Looks Better Than Ever [Kotaku] “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, like 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. [...] There are a lot of cool looking games featuring—or even starring—black women that were shown at E3 this year. From Wolfenstein II’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 all color on one hand. It’s frankly amazing, and I’m really excited to play these games. Especially Wolfenstein II. 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 Natural: The Trouble Portraying Blackness in Video Games [Kotaku]
“Usually, I have to settle. Resign myself to picking the black color option out of a customization palette wheel and selecting a cut that hews relatively close to the scalp. The caesar cuts of myriad video games—like George Clooney used to wear in his early days on E.R.— have become a glum safe haven for my natural aspirations. “Ok, fine,” I tell myself, “I guess I can choke this down. I always wanted to look like a Klingon from the original Star Trek episodes.” (No, not really. I haven’t wanted that look. No one ever has.) A black friend told me, “I’ve done this exact thing so many times. It’s especially a moment in online games, when I’m on a Skype call with my friends waiting for me to join them. I just sorta break down and go, ugh, fine, the caesar is close enough.” Even when I lie to myself and say that the color and density are close to acceptable, I can still see the stringy, thread-like locks fringing around the hairline. Nope. Not black hair. At least, it’s not my black hair.”

• Black Skin Is Still A Radical Concept in Video Games [Waypoint]
“What unites the developers mentioned in this article is the time and effort they have committed to ensuring that the characters in their games are not treated as afterthoughts; as NPC number 28, as that default and thoughtless shade of brown or black that game technology thus far has put forward as the status quo. There may not be a space yet for rich, vividly detailed black skin in games, but the efforts of Allen, Moore, Small, and their many contemporaries in the industry, set a strong example for others to follow. With ever-improving technology, it's seductive to believe that lighting darker characters will naturally improve alongside light ones. But even in the world of film, where technology has largely plateaued, inconsistencies remain. Real change also requires intention. Films like Moonlight reveal the impressive amount of ground that can be covered when the people leading the project have a plan for lighting their black actors from the jump.”
• The Profound Quandary of Blackness in the Video Game ‘Detroit: Become Human’ [The Root]
“Why do black people get annoyed when someone says he or she “doesn’t see color”? It’s because inherent in that claim is the idea that someone has deemed that black people subscribe sufficiently to his or her cultural standards to be seen as nondescript—equal. In “Detroit: Become Human,” the protagonist is not tasked with proving that a group seen as subhuman is really just as human as its oppressors. Androids aren’t human. They are different—unrelatable, to some extent, to those not born one. Pinch yourself if this is sounding familiar. A “woke” black protagonist is tasked with proving that life wholly other, inherently unrelatable and as profoundly inhuman as the white nationalists in my Twitter feed perceive black people to be is separate but every bit as equal in its value—regardless of how inhuman anyone perceives it to be.”
• Black character creator options in video games still have a long way to go [Mic]
“Both FIFA and Mass Effect are published by Electronic Arts, one of the biggest gaming studios around. But there's another game in EA's lineup that relies even more heavily on designing your avatar. The Sims is the company's crown jewel of character customization, but EA told me that it's fully aware it needs to produce more authentic-looking people. "Fans point out African-American hair is a weakness for us," Lyndsay Pearson, executive producer of The Sims, said in a phone call. "We don't have many options that I like yet, honestly." Pearson added the game's graphics pose a challenge when it comes to deciding which hairstyles make it into the game. "We've gotten better at [hair] like dreadlocks and cornrows," she said. "Those are simpler because of geometry, but they're not the whole spectrum." The next challenge is making these styles actually look natural. "We don't want it to feel like a paper doll," she said. "Like you took the nose off of one character and stuck it on another. It's very important that our technology behind the scenes is meshing all of those pieces together in a way that actually represents real facial anatomy."”
• What Happened to All the Black Games? [Medium]
“These days, commercial Black games are dead. As video games came into their own as a medium, they copied the stylings -and demographics- of Hollywood movies. The bald, white male protagonist was introduced, a presumed default for all of games: white boys. As games “matured”, they also adopted the post 9/11 mindset of foreign brown people as the enemy, and with the election of Obama (and his presumed Muslim ties), both foreign and domestic brown people became enemies. Even the games or studios that explored browness before this period changed course, or were ultimately shuttered, whether to do with how the recession affected minorities or a resurgence in islamophobia and anti blackness in America. Assassin’s Creed ran from it’s muslim protagonist, moving to a white Italian. EA Big was shuttered in 2008. Grand Theft Auto went back to a white protagonist, following San Andreas and Vice City Stories’ black ones. From 2007–2012, not a single game had a unique black protagonist in a game that wasn’t licensed or a joke. ”
• Gaming while black: Casual racism to cautious optimism [Endgadget]
“The stories Allen could tell probably wouldn't surprise Dr. Kishonna Gray. Dr. Gray is an Assistant Professor at Eastern Kentucky University's School of Justice Studies, and the founder and director of EKU's Critical Gaming Lab, a hub for researching the immersive online environments within console gaming. She studies gaming and harassment from the player's point of view. "Most gamers of color have isolated themselves into private parties, private chats, or just don't engage verbally at all," Dr. Gray said. "And that's sad because they can't take full advantage of the gaming experience that they paid for. So what's happening is a virtual ghettoization of minority gamers. [...] Because a person's identity is automatically revealed when a person speaks, they are targeted. I call it linguistic profiling. As soon as someone hears how you sound, they engage in this practice. They hear how you sound and react based on that. So a lot of black gamers are called derogatory terms because of how they sound. They don't have to do anything but sound black."”
posted by Fizz (23 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
 
Excellent post.

I sometimes try to make dark-skinned characters in video games with customisation, because I like to step outside my comfort zone. Emphasis on try because the results usually look a heck of a lot like, well, Soul Man. And that's not really what I'm talking about when I say I like to step out of my comfort zone.
posted by tobascodagama at 6:11 PM on July 11 [1 favorite]


Sweet post. The Billie Lurk Dishonored 2 standalone should fit in nicely with Arkane's new character as systemic gameplay sandbox overhaul quite nicely, along with Emily/Corvo & Daud, and has me more strangely hyped than a lot of other full titles.
posted by chainlinkspiral at 6:16 PM on July 11


I think for me its just a gut instinct because for so long I didn't see "myself" in the video games that I grew up playing. By default all of the heroes were white guys with guns.

So I'm a big fan of all of the customization options that we get in modern role playing games like Skyrim, Saints Row IV, Fallout 4, The Sims 4 (What's the deal with all of these 4th generation games being really good at customization!) Final Fantasy XIV, Black Desert, Dark Souls, etc.

We (visible minorities) have a way to choose a skin tone that is representative of our own self. And it matters so much to be able to have that on screen representation and to have it feel normalized and not weird or other-ed.
posted by Fizz at 6:19 PM on July 11 [14 favorites]


But as these posts up above mention, there's a lot of work to be done, room for improvement. There are still a lot of games that by default assume whiteness as a standard. And/or just remove the option to choose to be something other than that default: gender, sexuality, race, etc.
posted by Fizz at 6:22 PM on July 11 [1 favorite]


I needed something uplifting so I dropped into Mefi. This nailed it. Great post, Fizz.

(oh wait Fizz posted this…that's great as always…)
posted by Mike Mongo at 8:42 PM on July 11 [3 favorites]


Interesting collection of links. The Medium article is nicely written, though it missed a few - GTA V has one black protagonist (and is still number 1 on Steam charts four years after release) Mafia 3 has a black protag and is very solid, if maybe a bit repetitive in its gameplay.

Watch_Dogs 2 has a really well done black main character, some well-written discussions between black characters about cultural code-shifting and is just generally effortlessly woke (as well as being a superb game).

Marlowe Briggs is also worth a look - it's a robust God of War style 7/10 brawler where you bring the pain to a variety of ne'er-do-wells, and is easily worth the $5. Though I guess it both honours and subverts the 'black guy dies first' trope by having the protagonist die in the opening few minutes.
posted by Sebmojo at 9:34 PM on July 11 [4 favorites]


This is a great post. I just wish I had time to play video games like I used to. Now I'm just spending months to play through X-Com on some browser DOS thing, which has black people but they're definitely not given distinct hair.
posted by klangklangston at 10:08 PM on July 11 [1 favorite]


Thank you so much for putting this together. I am white, but once you start learning about the social, emotional, political, and practical issues surrounding black hair (and a lot of non-white hair textures), it is hard to not be roiling mad about how social narratives around and dominant portrayals of POC can't even get hair right. It is such a very basic, human feature, that I think the total ignorance of it among huge swaths of society (read: white people) serves as one of the fundamental, gut-level examples of how segregated we remain. Seeing it show up more accurately in video games, animation, television shows, commercials, etc sort of serves as a way to gauge permeation of black people into those arenas.

And to go along with what you said Fizz, seeing more protagonists who are explicitly POC, rather than can just be customized that way, is also a big step that needs a lot more work. I have a theory, which someone smarter has probably already theorized, that one of the reasons white people have such trouble empathizing with POC is not just because of physical segregation but cultural and media segregation as well. The dominance of the white dude protagonist means everyone who's not a white dude protagonist grows up reading stories and consuming media through the eyes of a white dude protagonist. If you're not a white dude then, like you said, you get used to assuming "this hero is one of the many facets of white dude". But the white dude never gets the reverse, so any exposure to protagonists outside White Dude Identity feels jarring. Furthermore, the actions of those protagonists get more strongly attached to that Not-White-Dude identity, and it shapes that narrower vision among White Dudes of who Not-White-Dudes can be. And you can expand this to White Women as well (since when protagonists are female they're usually white), and heterosexuals (since protagonists are usually heterosexual), and cis people, and so on and so forth. Obviously there is a lot of shit that goes into the bigotry against less-privileged groups, but this is one of those small ways in which members of privileged groups are conditioned to view the less-privileged as "other", while the less-privileged groups are forced to accommodate to the privileged's way of life.
posted by schroedinger at 12:35 AM on July 12 [10 favorites]


It *is* great, even more so because of the number of dudebro wankers it will annoy.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 1:42 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


klangklangston, if you're emulating the original X-COM with Dosbox, you might want to take a look at OpenXCOM, a reimplementation of the original that solves a lot of longstanding bugs. All you need is data files of UFO Defense/Enemy Unknown and you're good to go!
posted by lumensimus at 1:58 AM on July 12 [4 favorites]


It *is* great, even more so because of the number of dudebro wankers it will annoy.

For games with selectable characteristics won't a lot of dudebros just start taking black hair styles for their characters because they're inappropriate for white guys as a way to screw with everyone? I would expect a lot of troll afros to show up on characters unless they limit certain characteristics to certain physical character types.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:08 AM on July 12


It's not like all humans follow "racial" templates anyway.
posted by Zalzidrax at 8:59 AM on July 12


Sebmojo , I'm really glad you mentioned Watch Dogs 2. My 15 year old just finished the first one after it was free for Xbox live. He wants the next one of course. I think schroedinger is totally correct that we need to be exposed to perspectives other than white dude.

I have an 11 year old as well. They absorb so much from games, I want some of that to be things that help them be better people. I'm leaning towards Far Cry 5 for the same reason.
posted by Talia Devane at 9:57 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


This year's Game Devs of Color had a panel on "Diverse Character Design And Representation In Games" (featuring ande Chen, Amaryah Shaye Armstrong, Tanya DePass, Yussef Cole, and Dina Abou Karam) that went into a lengthy discussion of black hair in games (skip to 33m17s). There was also an interesting series of examples of how (and how not) to light and render scenes with dark skin tones.
posted by autopilot at 10:45 AM on July 12 [6 favorites]


Good share autopilot. Definitely checking out those clips later.
posted by Fizz at 10:55 AM on July 12


Question for those who know: How much of this is "No one has bothered to do this' versus 'doing this right is actually REALLY HARD'? (As someone that doesn't know much about games programming or hair). As in, is this just people not bothering, or is this tied to the difficulty of doing hair that moves in games (I recall places in Second Life banning certain types of hair, as people would walk into the room with them and everyone FPS would plummet, and Nivida apparently put a bunch of money into TressFXs to make hair work. But I don't know enough about the hair involved to know if this is related at all.)
posted by Canageek at 12:11 PM on July 12


I mean, hair physics is a thing now, but there are still a ton of games that don't implement it and just don't animate hair at all.

Not to mention that a lot of styles common for natural African hair types don't actually move that much to begin with.
posted by tobascodagama at 12:38 PM on July 12


Sebmojo , I'm really glad you mentioned Watch Dogs 2. My 15 year old just finished the first one after it was free for Xbox live. He wants the next one of course. I think schroedinger is totally correct that we need to be exposed to perspectives other than white dude.

It's legit amazing, particularly in contrast to the competent but devastatingly bland first one. I'm disappointed it didn't get more credit for doing all the cultural things art is meant to do in 2017.

Though there's a little bit of ludonarrative dissonance between the (well-conveyed) CULTURE JAM THE MAN WHILE PERPETRATING HILARIOUS HIJINKS vibe and the ease with which you can start huge multi front gang/cop/another gang wars with your Samsung.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:36 PM on July 12 [2 favorites]



Question for those who know: How much of this is "No one has bothered to do this' versus 'doing this right is actually REALLY HARD'? (As someone that doesn't know much about games programming or hair). As in, is this just people not bothering, or is this tied to the difficulty of doing hair that moves in games (I recall places in Second Life banning certain types of hair, as people would walk into the room with them and everyone FPS would plummet, and Nivida apparently put a bunch of money into TressFXs to make hair work. But I don't know enough about the hair involved to know if this is related at all.)


Simulating each strand of hair is computationally expensive, and often ends up looking quite dumb (e.g. Lara Croft's TressFX 'do made her look like a shampoo commercial even when she'd just literally climbed out of a pool full of blood and decaying bodies.) In today's world it's eminently achievable, but there's always a tradeoff. I wouldn't think black hair is particularly harder than other kind.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:16 PM on July 12 [3 favorites]


No one has bothered to do this' versus 'doing this right is actually REALLY HARD'?

Its hard. It also has to fit in the computational resources available on the platform you're shipping on. Bald guy, buzz cut, bandana, helmets, there's a reason they were so popular in games.

Hair has complex dynamics, complex shading (anisotropic), complex self occlusion & shadowing, on top of the problem that you can't model/render strands individually (not without awesome anti aliasing & massive CPU/GPU power) so you have to use polygons and textures with alpha so represent locks of hair, and then you get sorting issues and the problem that it doesn't work for some hair types (curly/fuzzy). Also the darker the hair the more important proper anisotropic/backlighting effects become.

It's getting better & better though.
posted by WaterAndPixels at 8:17 PM on July 12 [3 favorites]


I thought it was a striking observation that the hair is much better in sports games. Hey, guess what, if there’s an obvious, easily explained reason to get it right, it turns out they can do it after all.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 2:32 AM on July 13 [2 favorites]


Well, the thing is, sports games don't have the same gpu hit as say, an mmorpg would. In sorts games, auxiliary backgrounds and the physics thereof, and thereby the computational power assigned, is a fixed and known entity. In games where players have control of how things appear in screen, significantly more gpu space has to be assigned.

Hair is significant in its computational needs. Example, animated films. Look how long it took to get good hair in computer animation, and those are closed, completely controlled, ridiculously powerful systems.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 7:22 AM on July 13 [2 favorites]


MMOs almost never have animated hair. Some of the newer Korean ones like BDO do, but the rest don't. And they still don't have a lot of hairstyle options outside the standard straight-haired ones.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:23 AM on July 13 [2 favorites]


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