January 20, 2020 7:49 AM   Subscribe

The state of blackness in games [Eurogamer] “Seeing a black person in a game is still a strange experience more often than not. For the longest time, black characters seemed to fall precisely into two categories, scary and...funky: Your average scary black character is at first glance like so many other men in games. He's buff, and he has a gun. What you need to take into account however, is how this stereotype has affected black men in real life: many people still readily draw the conclusion that a black man who looks a certain way is likely to have a history that includes a council house upbringing and a brush or two with the law. [...] The funky black guy either sports an afro, says "yo" a lot, wears sunglasses indoors, or all three. He's also usually loud, and claims to be a "free spirit" or anything else that makes people think of Chris Rock or Dennis Rodman. He's often a quest-giver, or someone who appears in the background for laughs, such as in Persona 4 or Ni no Kuni 2. There's often at least one character of this type in every fighting game, including Tekken and Dead or Alive.” [Previously.]

• Should Your Avatar's Skin Match Yours? [NPR: Code Switch]
“Just in character creation systems, developers can make sure there are there options for a broad range of characters. They can create a full range of skin tones, options for monolids that aren't slant-eyes, black hairstyles that go beyond cornrows and cartoon afros. They can guard against creating a fantasy race that's taking on stereotypes from a real-life race. (Looking at you, Khajiit.) It's not inherently exploitative to play as a character of a different race, but it requires players to be aware of the context they and their characters exist in — and that it's not going to truly help them understand what it means to live in a different body. So gamers: If you want to fight racism and injustice in video games, you can't do it just from inside the game. Look at how the content moderation systems work, and who is accountable to that. Look at the labor issues in games and think critically about what you're willing to support. And then, look at your real-life community and who you welcome in. It's less about what you do in the game, and more about what the game allows you to do.”
• Games Developed By Black Developers You Should Look Out For [IGN]
“Over the last decade, the video game industry has seen a rise in prominent indie games on platforms like Steam and Xbox Live Arcade. It signaled to developers everywhere that ideas could be created by nearly anyone wanting to make them. Black developers have taken advantage of this as well, home-brewing games that feature their own takes on various genres. African Americans may only make up only 2.5 percent of all video game developers, but that doesn’t mean they’re not putting time and effort towards building their own development studios. In celebration of [the upcoming] Black History Month, we look at games created by Black developers that are out now (or soon) that you definitely want to keep on your radar.”
• Current African American Portrayals in Video Games [Blerd]
“With the release of the Finn (Star Wars) skin in the Fortnite item shop and the announcement of the new Xbox Series X, I reflected again on African American portrayals in video games. While I am still upset that Finn did not become the star Jedi in the newest trilogy, overall the Star Wars franchise has done a decent job of representation of black people with some notable characters being Lando Calrissian, Mace Windu, Finn, Saw Gerrera, and Cere Junda (Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order) One of the reasons I started Blerd was because of the lack of representation in many of the games that I played growing up. We have come extremely far from that point, and it is not uncommon to see black characters in video games now in a non stereotypical manner. Black video game characters have started to be as diverse in their storylines and personalities as the culture that they represent. With the rapid growth of gaming, it is important to positively display black characters, as games are often an area that reinforce social and cultural identities. Here are some current popular black characters in gaming.”
• Shout Out to Black Women in ‘Apex Legends’ [Geek]
“One way Apex Legends separates itself from the competition is by having players control specific characters, not generic avatars, with not only unique tools but big personalities and unique designs. Strategically picking the right characters for your squad is key, but like in a fighting game you may also just be drawn to a character’s general cartoon vibe as well and that’s totally cool. Overwatch does this and has gotten a lot of good will with its diverse roster of characters so that even more players have a chance to play as characters that represent their own vibe. But as varied as Overwatch’s roster is, including characters from all over the world as well as talking gorillas and hamsters, it has one major blind spot that’s been particularly annoying the longer it keeps adding new characters without addressing this issue. Overwatch has Black guys, women of color, and queer characters… but no Black women. It’s become almost a meme in the fandom, and not the good horny meme. There’s a robot built by a Black woman but that’s not enough, man.”
posted by Fizz (21 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
He's often a quest-giver

A subtype of "Magical Negro"?
posted by thelonius at 8:04 AM on January 20, 2020 [5 favorites]

Expected to see Grace Walker from Wolfenstein II mentioned.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 8:34 AM on January 20, 2020

Some of those articles are a bit older, but yes, Grace Walker should definitely be on peoples' radar. She's badass and I'm glad she exists as a character. Billie Lurk from the Dishonored series is also kickass. There's a kind of sidequel? to Dishonored 2 called Dishonored: Death of the Outsider. I've not played it but it looks like a ton of fun. And very much in the same kind of immersive sim game genre.
posted by Fizz at 8:42 AM on January 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

I've been playing My Time At Portia a lot recently. Really enjoying the game, but it's really weird how they seemed to double down on similar-looking white characters before considering just making a more diverse batch of folks. This game doesn't take place on Earth or Europe, there are POC, so I don't see why they'd make so many characters who are just a haircut swapped versions of the same person. In a game like this it's important for characters to be distinct and easily identifiable, does no good to have so many characters have the exact same silhouettes and features. For that matter, they're fine copy-pasting a generic white boy template and giving him a pedo mustache to make Tody and a few others, why did they never do the same copy-pasting for the one black woman character in the game? It's their world, they can do whatever they want with it, the game doesn't really touch on social politics or anything, so I just don't know why they'd decide their fantasy world should be a white-majority.
posted by GoblinHoney at 8:47 AM on January 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

so I just don't know why they'd decide their fantasy world should be a white-majority.

Oh, I can answer that.

1. Systemic racism
2. Bigotry
3. They assume the default is WHITE and so everything else is secondary and a value that is both cultural and financial is placed on diversity.
posted by Fizz at 8:50 AM on January 20, 2020 [19 favorites]

And that value is LESS.
posted by Fizz at 8:51 AM on January 20, 2020 [6 favorites]

Expected to see Grace Walker from Wolfenstein II mentioned.

The author does state in the article that the type of character they gravitate towards are more "normal," rather than embodying the Strong Black Woman stereotype. Grace is arguably that in many ways, though she's written with more nuance than most.

Debra Wilson also appears in Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order as Cere, playing a more haunted version of Grace Walker. Anger is still a part of her personality, but the story focuses a lot more on that anger being tied up in trauma and what Cere does to deal with it. Whereas in Wolfenstein Grace feels more like a catalyst, the motivating factor for rekindling the resistance in America.

Anyways, both roles are tremendous, and those characters are absolutely critical to their games.
posted by chrominance at 8:51 AM on January 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

I wish there was more analysis in the article of Japanese vs. Western games, because it seems to me that historically there were more black characters in Japanese games, but that they came down to the “scary vs. funky” dichotomy from the pullquote. Whereas Western games just... didn’t have black characters. Which speaks to the different types of systemic racism in Japan vs. the United States (for instance.)
posted by Automocar at 9:24 AM on January 20, 2020 [16 favorites]

Agreed, Automocar. The way black people are depicted in Japanese video games is very similar to how they're depicted in anime, and very different from the typical absence of black people in US video games.
posted by Nec_variat_lux_fracta_colorem at 9:47 AM on January 20, 2020 [5 favorites]

I think there's definitely a conversation to be had about the differences between how black people are depicted in video games versus anime, but that there are still problems with the characterization in both of them. And so much of it comes down to how visible minorities are depicted in media in Japan and the stereotypes and assumptions they make about black/brown people.
posted by Fizz at 10:17 AM on January 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

American devs - blackness is a skin tone slider and some outdated hair style choices.
Japanese devs - Barrett or Sazh. Pick one.
Eastern European devs - black people have never and will never live here. No please don't show me any data or images that refute this.
posted by thecjm at 10:18 AM on January 20, 2020 [17 favorites]

"...There's often at least one character of this type in every fighting game, including Tekken and Dead or Alive."

I know less than nothing about video games but I am aware that Awesomely Luvvie and a lot of her fans liked Tekken's Leroy Smith (um, yeah) character: Tekken’s Leroy Smith Character is Mr. Steal-Your-Grandma
posted by fuse theorem at 11:02 AM on January 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

Billie Lurk is the main protagonist and a strong black lesbian woman, and Dishonoured II: Death of the Outsider is a watershed for this kind of intersectionality. She is voiced in the game by Rosario Dawson, whom you may have heard of.

That said, I am not sure how much her blackness (or sexuality) actually matters in-game, so while it is definitely fantastic representation, it may not be much more than that. Neither race nor sexuality seem to be the subject of any particular commentary in-game. Billie grew up poor, was orphaned, and was taken in by Daud in a kind of mentor/foster-father relationship.

Arkane Studios is a French developer.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:15 PM on January 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

That said, I am not sure how much her blackness (or sexuality) actually matters in-game, so while it is definitely fantastic representation, it may not be much more than that. Neither race nor sexuality seem to be the subject of any particular commentary in-game.

I mean, I think that's what we hope for the near future, for characters to just exist and for it not to have to be this statement, for it not to be so rare a thing or worth noting. The reason it's worth noting now is because of how infrequent this kind of normalized representation is in gaming spaces, whether it be in game development, characters, or esports.
posted by Fizz at 12:44 PM on January 20, 2020 [4 favorites]

Gears of War included black characters, but they seemed to fall into the sportsball-athlete/sassy tropes used in stories in other media. I was surprised to learn what was done to Diablo III for the China market.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 2:19 PM on January 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

I was surprised to learn what was done to Diablo III for the China market.

Looking at Blizzard's track-record, it's not surprising at all. They've been making these types of decisions in other markets for years. It's a shame too because I really enjoy the Diablo franchise but I'm not sure I can continue to give them money based on how they've behaved the last few years.
posted by Fizz at 2:31 PM on January 20, 2020 [4 favorites]

I'm afraid to look up what the reaction to having Alyx be the player-character in the new Half Life VR game. Or maybe she has no lines just like Freeman?
posted by meowzilla at 3:06 PM on January 20, 2020

Man, this is insidious. I was raised in a steady diet of video games and nerd culture, and even into my twenties I, a black person, hesitate to create black characters in games for these myopic reasons. Immersion, comments from other people (usually about their quote unquote immersion), difficulty making a character that really looks like I envision with limited options, etc. Which is another problem! Natural hairstyles I wear or see in my community every day either don't exist or are locked behind pay walls or Hella delayed in coming out like in Guild Wars 2 or the most recent Sims games. Don't get me started with the division between multiple genders, especially if you want to make an avatar that's gq or genderfluid or nonbinary. Should I make this black lady avatar with straight hair or not at all? (See: original pilot design for Garnet in Steven Universe versus her final design in the series). How do I briefly portray a black character via tact or on paper in a fantasy world where Africa isn't a thing and most of the writing shorthand people have absorbed from fantasy, scifi, literature in general and broader popular culture are based on white or Asian phenotypes? (Lithe, long hair, blonde, pale, etc. Easy. How to make a black elf girl with an afro that people don't just assume looks like Racist Standard with a slight tan?) I could write books on this but they wouldn't be very good
posted by Freeze Peach at 3:20 PM on January 20, 2020 [10 favorites]

Waypoint's coverage of both Watchdogs 2 and Mafia 3 (also) deserves a look.
posted by juv3nal at 9:23 PM on January 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

I don't play many games, but I played the original Neverwinter Nights a lot when it came out (and still go back to it occasionally for fun/nostalgia). It has a lot of flaws, of course, but the NPC Aarin Gend, spymaster and former pirate, seems to me to fulfill none of these stereotypes except being a quest-giver (but not a magical wisdom-figure). I am willing to be corrected on this, of course.

I can't find the name of the voice actor online, but I thought Aarin was very well voiced. (The standard of NPC voice acting in that game is quite high, which was one of the reasons I kept going back to it.)
posted by Pallas Athena at 8:52 AM on January 21, 2020

...and I saw this tweet by Jordan Ifueko and thought "yeah, oh dear... that's Aarin."
Well met, stranger! Welcome to Small But Noble EuroWhite Fantasy Kingdom! We have exactly One Black, and he is always our Captain of the Guard

Did we mention he is Trusted
(Also, just to be clear: I agree with and believe the observations of the article.)
posted by Pallas Athena at 11:08 AM on January 28, 2020

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