174: What if the Player is Black?

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What if the Player is Black?

Have you ever felt game worlds might be just a little ... whitewashed? Brenda Brathwaite asks the question that all game developers should be asking themselves.

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wasn't the main character of gta: san andreas spending most his time trying to get away from the ghetto and live the good life? And didnt he actively complain about all the violent shenigans he got into throughout the story? And wasn't the Grove street familys anti-drugs? Having said that, the rest of them were the worst of the black sterotypes and i can't think of any other black characters that were remotely positive.

I found this article to be a very articulate and understandable discussion of race and minority status. Kudos, you are probably a very good role model for your children.

And all the other underrepresented ethnicities and social groups too, please!

Messing around with the character creator in Soul Calibur IV for the first time, I created a very cool fighter. Drag the physique down to minimum, remove the hooker kit in favour of real clothes and steal the fighting style from one of the boys - the results aren't bad at all. Add a stylish hat and play with the clothing colours a bit. Add a pair of round spectacles and you start to get a real sense of character. Then mess with the face and voice...

...which is where the problems start. I have a choice of eight faces for the warrior I've just made. The young lady can look like any of seven pretty, slim, young white girls. Or I can go for the other option: a slightly ugly looking white girl (still with perfect skin and symmetric features - she's just sporting a mild scowl).

So I picked one who actually looked old enough that her parents wouldn't have to give her a lift to the battle. Then tried messing with the colour slider. Sure enough, anything darker than a gentle suntan looked really quite weird.

So here's the thing: Black characters aren't just for black players. And particularly now so many character faces are scanned in, there's really no excuse for developers not to add a bit of diversity.

What if the player is male?

These stereotypes apply to most people. Video games tend to be very sexist towards men, almost misandrist in some respects.

Men in games are often depicted as violent, mindless criminal, oppressive thugs. It seems to be acceptable to have men as targets in games but not women.

Unreal 2. Protagonist is black. Never is an issue, he's just another badass space marine. Why can't that be the way forward?

First of all, why turn from black to African-American... That generalization made the point too remote for me for half of the text... let me explain :

If a character is from the French West Indies, can you call him African-American ?
I don't think so... why so afraid of saying black, when it's a general observation ?
I know it's different shades of brown (especially when races are mixed), but still...

Now I'm white, I have heard black people from former colonies argue about who has the most white blood in their veins (PROTIP : there are several "hierarchical" types of mixing, and they are considered sometimes with great pride). I like stereotypes as I make fun of them... I understand the concern, but I'd just like to point out that confusing blacks and African-American is as awkward to me as having blacks act as powerhouse sidekicks.

Anyway... GTA San Andreas features a black character who can dress his hair how he wants if my memory's good, well ok he heats fried chikinz to regain health and says nigga, fool and bitch all the time, and mine looks like Mr.T, but let's overlook that...
It goes even further when playing both Saints Row, right ? Well, ok your boss in the first one is a kinda clone of Samuel "MOTHERFUCKING" L. Jackson, but still as well...
At least he's bald (Renwick too in The Club, and he's a cop, but since The Club characters have no personality, I'll overlook it).

How about Coltrane from Getting Up ? He's apparently a mulatto, and not really dressed like a black panther/gansta stereotype.

Now I guess black characters in video games are such stereotypes partly because a lot of "ghetto" buy these games, video games wallow in subcultures and are tainted by them... So that they make surefire sales to their "target demographic".
Def Jam, 50 Cent and "Gangsta games" all appeal to the wifebeater-baggies-and-bandana-clad "nizzles" with speakers blaring obnouxious, loud, lewd, prosaic hip-hop.
I'm sure Soulja Boi is very proud of dressing up his character as himself in Def Jam Icon or in Vendetta, and he wouldn't like to dress like a "normal character", maybe like Samuel L. Jackson at best...

About Soulcalibur 4 and Japanese games in general, they portray themselves as white-skinned, not "yellowish", with caucasian features (wide eyes, angular noses) and as such black characters are even scarcer, as far as I can tell... I suppose it's because white characters are more "physically neutral" or something, or maybe the fact that the main demographic for a long time were rich white people, I have no idea... Also maybe because lots of Asians dream of having said caucasian features...

IRONY : the only place where the white man still reigns supreme is in the virtual worlds of video games. Let all the white-trash losers still dream they rule over something... On second thoughts, let God sort them out...

rosstadi> Apparently because Americanspeople (I guess ?) see everything as a political and ethnical issue, and everything must be community approved (that's why there are sitcoms for blacks, latinos, whites, etc)...
I'm being very harsh here, but to me it has no matter at all if my in-game nemesis is Jewish, Black, Aryan or Mexican, he's my enemy, I defeat him, and I don't care either about who I play, as long as the story's good, it shouldn't matter, unless you want to turn games into cultural manifestos for tolerance and understanding which will ruin any fun (I doubt Assassin's Creed's pre-intro disclaimer helped anything except make me feel like they were afraid of getting massively sued for libel or whatever)...
Seems like taboos and revendications prevail whatsoever...

I was thinking of the "Cole Train" too while reading the article, but the advertisement with Marcus on it reminded me that everyone in that game is a brutal jackass. Cole's most distinctive feature, apart from his skin tone and accent, is that he was a professional athlete, while everyone else must have started on their steroid injections in boot camp. So the black character is the sportsman. Is that a compliment or an stereotyped insult?

Also, I don't think Dom "acts" Hispanic or Kim "acts" Asian. Why do we now have Tai Kaliso, the zen-and-the-art-of-shooting-up-sh*t samurai? The new writers are taking a big step backwards with that one.

EDIT I don't mean to bag on the game itself. I'm still going to get it because it's the best co-op I can get online with my brothers. I just think the "story" and characterizations are weak at best.

Plus, two women: Dom's imperiled "Locust ate my baby!" wife and Anya, the waifly comm tech. That's all. I suppose in the grim future they must be busy squirting out kids so there's fresh meat for the Locust's grinder.

I do agree, we mostly just need "better" depictions of black characters in games. Hell, we need a black lead character for once that isn't a nasty stereotype like CJ from GTA:SA.

A good way to put it is where is our black Solid Snake?

There are plenty of interesting white characters out there, hell, there are plenty of good asian characters out there. There have even been 2 decent hispanic characters protrayed recently (Dom and the guy from Just Cause).

I suppose the best Black character would be that guy from Mercenaries, and I don't even remember his name.

Article:
I paused to wonder, "Where are all the great and powerful black wizards?"

Garth in Fable 2 is a great and powerful black "wizard". Though, I think he does have corn rows, so he isn't perfect.

Alyx and Eli Vance (her dad) from HL2 are good characters, though I cannot tell if they are "good black characters". At least Alyx was voiced by a black Woman. Dunno about Eli.

The Half-Life series has Eli Vance, an accomplished scientist and his daughter, Alyx Vance. Alyx is also one of the few well-rounded female characters out there. Granted, they aren't main characters, but generally the player is glad to have them around. Usually, it's Alyx that's doing the rescuing, not the player.

I think Fallout 3 has a good exception to this. In the main town of Megaton, the sheriff is Lucas Simms, a do-gooder black man. Though since he always wears that cowboy hat, I don't know what his hair is. There is also Walter, a much older guy with white hair, but in a regular style, nothing weird. He keeps the whole town's water supply running.

Almost as an opposition to that, is the bar owner Moriarty who is an Irish white guy and total arrogant jerk. The other bar in town is run by brothers, both white, one of whom is a drug addict!

Having not played the entire game yet, I can't say much to what else lies in the main quest, but that first town and the encounters therein really stuck in my mind.

Oh, and there is also a woman who runs the general store, and has a big quest line trying to make a guide to help everyone - she's not a trumped up tart for eye candy.

Someone ought to make a game based on Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books, where all of the main characters, including the wizards, are not white. It was pretty terrible that when the Sci-Fi channel made a mini-series about Earthsea they changed all the characters to being white. Awful.

I'm going to point the finger at the moneymen for the lack of diverse characters in gaming. I don't think they're racist or anything, but their thinking is "Will this game reach a big enough audience if the main character is black?" Ultimately, producers and financiers are very conservative-thinking. They don't want to rock the boat, so they go with what is safe... white characters. They don't think enough white people would play a game starring a black man, just how they didn't think enough white people would watch an Earthsea mini-series starring a cast of non-whites.

I think they underestimate people, though. Make a good game and no one is going to care about the race of the main character.

arrr_matey:
Someone ought to make a game based on Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books, where all of the main characters, including the wizards, are not white. It was pretty terrible that when the Sci-Fi channel made a mini-series about Earthsea they changed all the characters to being white. Awful.

The Studio Ghibli remake had the same flaw.

arrr_matey:
I think they underestimate people, though. Make a good game and no one is going to care about the race of the main character.

Indeed. One of the distinguishing features of a good character is that he/she/it is not one-dimensional. TV and movies partially got over their "token black" syndrome. Hopefully games will be next.

A very good and well thought out article. While reading it, I too had to think hard about positive black characters I've seen in the last 20 years of gaming. The list is embarrassingly short. But yes, Eli and Alyx Vance are excellent examples (even though they're NPC's). But think about it, some of our favorite games and series have had all white casts: Resident Evil, Call Of Duty, Medal Of Honor (how about a WWII game about the Tuskegee Airmen or the 92nd Infantry in Italy?), Metal Gear Solid (Drebin does NOT count), Castlevania (that one may spark some argument, but come on, how many characters have they introduced in this series?).... The list is longer than you might think. Definitely needs more discussion...great article!

Many of the games mentioned are also Japanese by the way and thus rely heavily on stereotypes, they do this with all characters.

I've had this discussion on the VFDC boards as well because of Vanessa (check the changes between her VF4 and VF5 incarnation, she goes from black chick with muscles to tanned girl who exercises regularly with boob job). It really is a sad reality of this industry.

You've got me thinking of others who haven't been mentioned yet:

Vanessa Lewis, Virtua Fighter,
Now if only they hadn't copied Storm and given her white hair... But yeah, she fights because she wants to destroy the evil organisation that organises the tournaments and to protect Sarah Bryant for some reason. She's one of the few of the entire VF cast who isn't in it for either evil (kill other characters) or completely self-centered reasons (money, fame, excitement, self-worth, quest for enlightment), practically the closest thing to a hero in there together with Jacky and perhaps Kage. She suffers from amnesia and her origins are unknown, she was picked up and trained by a brazilian mercenary, which casts severe doubts on her actual ethnicity. Her original VF4 incarnation is unmistakable though.

Seth - King of Fighters
Zero - King of Fighters
Boxer dude - King of Fighters, his name escapes me, total typecast
Dudley - Street fighter 3, english gentleman boxer type, "let's fight like gentlemen" but he's also black
Potemkin - Guilty Gear
Venom - Guilty Gear undecided, probably hispanic, either way he's an openly gay assassin with semi-dark skin, which is a bit of a deviation from the norm
Birdie - SFAlpha/Zero (ahem)

The capoeira club:
Lisa Mariposa - Dead or Alive
Eddie Gordo, Christie Monteiro - Tekken
Elena - Street Fighter 3

Seems I can only come up with fighting games...

Eli was voiced by Robert Guillaume, most famous for his portrayal of Benson DuBois in the TV show "Benson". So yes, Eli was voiced by a black man...

Vortigar:

Vanessa Lewis, Virtua Fighter,
Now if only they hadn't copied Storm and given her white hair... But yeah, she fights because she wants to destroy the evil organisation that organises the tournaments and to protect Sarah Bryant for some reason. She's one of the few of the entire VF cast who isn't in it for either evil (kill other characters) or completely self-centered reasons (money, fame, excitement, self-worth, quest for enlightment), practically the closest thing to a hero in there together with Jacky and perhaps Kage. She suffers from amnesia and her origins are unknown, she was picked up and trained by a brazilian mercenary, which casts severe doubts on her actual ethnicity. Her original VF4 incarnation is unmistakable though.

Seth - King of Fighters
Zero - King of Fighters
Boxer dude - King of Fighters, his name escapes me, total typecast
Dudley - Street fighter 3, english gentleman boxer type, "let's fight like gentlemen" but he's also black
Potemkin - Guilty Gear
Venom - Guilty Gear undecided, probably hispanic, either way he's an openly gay assassin with semi-dark skin, which is a bit of a deviation from the norm
Birdie - SFAlpha/Zero (ahem)

The capoeira club:
Lisa Mariposa - Dead or Alive
Eddie Gordo, Christie Monteiro - Tekken
Elena - Street Fighter 3

Seems I can only come up with fighting games...

Vanessa, like Christie, always made me think of a girl with mixed ancestry more than a "pure" black girl.
I thought Mariposa was Mexican, and as such, not black (hispanics, even when mixed with amerindian ancestry are closely related to whites (arabs too) in terms of ethnic ancestry).

Birdie was already obnoxious in the original SF, but I think he was whiter.

Potemkin is more "tanned", in "cooked by toiling under the sun" than really ethnic, isn't he ?

Heady D (your boxer dude) and Lucky Glauber (basketball player) from KoF are slightly stereotyped too.

Original Zero is tan, not black, he is clearly a heavily tanned caucasian.

Elena is Kenyan, and what I like is thatshe is a "giraffe-woman" (that's how it's called in French). Not that it's exactly beautiful to me, but it's less common in terms of stereotypes, and makes for a rather uncommon depiction of blacks in games (she's a Kenyan princess, that makes for another narrow view of things, but it passes well methinks).

You forgot Sean from SFIII, who's clearly black, while Brazilian as well.

Urien is not black, he is a dark-skinned caucasian (maybe of mixed arabian blood ? Kabyles in Algeria have natural blue eyes and natural blond hair).

You know we still have tokenism in TV commercials and shows. Hard to believe in this day and age but it's true. Aside from Black representation in video games what about a decent Asian lead or how about a Latin American lead woman who is fully clothed. I wonder how popular Prince of Persia would be if people knew that Persia is now Iran.

I don't quite understand why some people think that the Cole Train from Gears is somehow racist and wrong. I can't think of a black videogame character that is more accepted and loved by the gaming community at large than Cole, how can that be a bad thing? By the by, "most black characters tend to be prone to violence and opposed to any course of action that requires patience or critical thinking skills"? Name me one character in Gears of War who isn't quick to violence.

Fable 2 has a black will user, hmm... So far so good. Oh wait, nope, he has cornrows. Damn, automatic disqualification.

Also, I don't recall the Italian uproar over The Darkness which forced you to play as a lumbering, ex-mafia hitman and complete dolt who relates more than one life experience to pasta and meatballs.

The point is that if you are looking for something to offend you, you will probably be able to find it. Developers should just make cool characters, and whether or not they are black, white or asian should be incidental.

At least in western europe, i think the flaw affects all media... it is a pity that even in wide spread WoW you can only play über-tanned white heroines and heroes... maybe we have to wait for a stabilization in africa etc. to get games where we feel underrepresented...

What? Try, Michael LeRoi, a former English literature student made into the Shadow Man. 1999!! See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadow_Man_(video_game)
It has a sequel too. Based on the comics. This game has Caribbean connections also- so you kid just might find his dad look-alike here.

Here's a question: WHAT IF THE PLAYER IS NOT AMERICAN?

I doubt this idea ever occurs to people of the USA as as they seem phobic or completely incapable of imagining a world with any other kind of protagonists in it. Movies, hah! How many movies are made in my country or next store in NZ that HAVE to have fake American accents in it so Americans won't freak out watching them or even go?

Americans obsess over "race" like no other country I know of- one doco I watched postulated it was because of the conflict between the new constitution and the reality of continued slavery. How about the human race? The refugees in my neighbourhood from war-torn African nations are far darker in skin tone (and satin-like) than any African-Americans I've seen. And they will pick differences between someone from Nigeria and Burundi. I have never had any grief from these people btw. You might get over the the notion that the human race is classified into only Caucasian, Asian or Negro (and American). Created by separation and a need to balance vitamin D production against sunburn, there are far more types in the world and we all came from the same place.

Guild Wars : Nightfall. It's even set in a fantasy Africa.

While the article raises a valid point, it misses the larger message: that video games aggressively employ stereotypes instead of creating real characters, no matter where they come from. I don't think every game needs a black character. (Or a white character, for that matter.)

Looking at the proportional representation is only good for a quick surface check. Cole from Gears of War is a good example: he's one-dimensional, but compared to his white comrades, he's Denzel Washington, so it's hard to come down for Epic on this. By contrast, Fahrenheit has an intricate story involving a bunch of normal white people and basketball-loving Superfly Johnson... 'nuff said.

I would also like to note that Rock Band's character creator allows for convincing black people as well as stereotypes.

MorkFromOrk:
You know we still have tokenism in TV commercials and shows. Hard to believe in this day and age but it's true. Aside from Black representation in video games what about a decent Asian lead or how about a Latin American lead woman who is fully clothed. I wonder how popular Prince of Persia would be if people knew that Persia is now Iran.

An English man who didn't speak Cockney would be quite pleasant as well, innit.

BTW, is that Commander Link Hog-throb?

I don't think "created" characters count, because they are just that, created by the player. As well custom made characters rarely come across as "characters" and clearly resemble avatars instead.

Someone already mentioned it, but Eli Vance and his daughter are good examples of black protagonists. Eli Vance, for example, is one of my favorite characters from a game. There have been few games in which I found myself shouting at a game for killing a beloved character, Eli being one of them (sorry to spoil Ep2, but it has been out long enough).

Staff Sergeant Griggs from Call of Duty 4 can be stereotyped with the bad-ass, violent, hip-hop driven African American, but he's more than that. He's patriotic, he works well with others, he wants to make sure that his country and the world is safe from a lunatic, and ultimately gives his life to serve that cause.

How about Prophet from Crysis? A strong leader that favors stealth and subtlety over direct assault unlike the aptly-named Psycho. A leader who struggles between discretion and honestly with Raptor Team. Sure, he goes a bit off the rocker towards the end, but that has more to do with what happened to him, not who he was.

Three recent games with strong black males as characters, one with a portrayal of an intelligent, strong-willed black female to boot. The article brings up a good point, but many of the games that the author mentions are poor examples.

Cyclomega:

I thought Mariposa was Mexican, and as such, not black (hispanics, even when mixed with amerindian ancestry are closely related to whites (arabs too) in terms of ethnic ancestry).

It's really hard to determine, given that no-one in Dead or Alive is anywhere near phenotypically normal, but she looks more black/white mixed race than mexican. The only mexican connection is that she's a Luchadora.

Cole from Gears of War is a good example:

Cole is Terry Tate, Office Linebacker with a gun. Literally.

I agree with a lot of what the article is saying here, but there's something to consider here that hasn't really been stated.

Go to your local mall, and walk into your local Foot Locker, or sports-shoe store. Count the people who come in, make mental notes of the ratios of the races of the people that walk in. If it's anything like it is here, these stores are way more Black to [anyone else] in ratio.

Now consider communities, like the people you see in BET music videos and the democraphics who buy and empathize with games like True Crime: New York and 50 Cent: Bullet Proof. Even in San Andreas, there are large groups that can empathize with Grove Street.

People who aspire to be like Julius in Saints Row, whose repertoire for plurals is pretty limited to "playas," "homeys," and "gangstas." Even in my experience in the 'black-hating south,' there are many, many people in that demographic that also play games.

Just look at shows like The Boondocks, which constantly satirize the culture, but it is celebrated and loved, universally, and without hatred for the heavy and blatant satire of their culture and hobbies. Insults that would earn me two black eyes for attempting the same statements.

Although, I'd also like to point out that if you look hard enough for wrong, you'll find it, no matter where you're looking. To provide another example, once again using Saints Row, the most violent, sociopathic killer in the series is a white guy named Johnny.

I agree for the most part, but don't be afraid to call forth some praise to the people that did it "right." Games like The Sims, KoToR, and Saints Row.

Also, consider people who like things like that, and how games like Def Jam, Fiddy Cent's Bul'tproof, and San Andreas, and how they feel at home and completely empathetic with those characters. To suggest people like that don't count is just as racist as suggesting people like yourself don't exist.

Decent read, but a little too biased for me to go on without saying something.

The_root_of_all_evil:
Guild Wars : Nightfall. It's even set in a fantasy Africa.

I was just about to say that.

On a general note, Guild Wars also has a wide range of character customization. It does not stereotype character by the color of the skin (even though the fro is available to use on your character).

Neat article, although I prefer 'black' to what I see as the anally-pc 'African American.' I realize it's more sensitive, but it's contrary to logic in some scenarios. Like if you met a black Briton; he wouldn't be American, would he?

No mention yet for Darci Stern (Urban Chaos)?

I read (somewhere; I'm working from memory) that one of the people who worked on the game thought it failed to sell well because of the premise: playing as a black, female, rookie cop, etc. Maybe the implication is that a white lead is a commercially 'safer' choice when you're trying to innovate in other respects.

Wasn't one of those Vietnam shooters, I can't think of the name, one of the first games to sport a main character who was black and part of the story was centred around the fact that he was black during a time when racism was far more widely accepted. I've never played the game so I don't really know how it is.

Isn't Barret more than a hotheaded muscular black guy? From what I recall he showed a lot of emotion and care for his family as well, even though he wasn't maybe the most politically correct character he was not the least either.

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