In a marketing blitz becoming all too common, 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ movie will be preceded this November by its soundtrack and, of course, a video game. At some point that month, Sierra will release 50 Cent: Bulletproof, a fictional story of guns and glory starring the rapper and his G-Unit soldiers. The game will also feature Eminem as the detective, and Dr. Dre as a “street-wise veteran.” Meanwhile, Snoop Dogg will star in director John Singleton’s Fear and Respect, a game that purports to realistically depict gang life in South Central.
Both games will join Midnight Club: Dub Edition, EA’s Street series of spin-offs, and the Def Jam games as hip hop themed console offerings. Sports games now uniformly include a number of hip hop tracks as their background music; Madden 2005 features Will.I.Am and Z-Trip, while ESPN NBA 2K5 has more than 20 licensed songs from artists like Del the Funky Homosapien and The Roots. But other than a few celebrity vehicles and soundtrack choices, has hip hop really gotten past the surface of gaming?
The fact is, despite these few examples of influence, games are far whiter than any other American media. Keeping statistics on diversity by age, race and role in television acting, the Screen Actor’s Guild credited little more than 15% of lead TV roles to African-Americans in 1993. That same year, the U.S. Census put the percentage of African-Americans in the population at around 13%. No doubt, there is still plenty of room for improvement in how television portrays people of color, but the gaming industry assigns an even more restrictive role. According to this year’s Metacritic top-rated 100 titles for PS2, only one game (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas) has an African- American lead protagonist. Needless to say, it is not exactly a well-rounded look at African-American culture (or of any culture, really).
It would be convenient to blame this diversity gap on a wider social prejudice, and be done with it. Again, I certainly won’t argue that racism has been eradicated in other forms of entertainment. But perhaps there’s something about the violent nature of video games themselves that makes it easier for them to follow a path more akin to blaxploitation than to Spike Lee. Certainly there’s little equivalent to the family drama or comedy in video games, and only a small amount of middle ground between full-on violence and abstract puzzle solving.
Proceeding down the thousand or so games in the Metacritic ratings, most of them only have African-Americans as members of sports teams, a collection of fighters or secondary (often non-playable) characters. To be fair, most games that allow the player to create a custom avatar (such as the Tony Hawk multitude) do offer a full range of ethnicities. Still, of those with black protagonists (my unscientific count found seven), four are adaptations of movies starring African-Americans (Catwoman, Blade II, Men in Black II and Enter the Matrix). One is an adaptation of a comic book (Shadow Man 2), which also had an African-American main character in its original source. The remaining two games are from the Def Jam series, which does present a somewhat more noteworthy cast including hip hop stars and black actors.
None of these titles are original intellectual property with African- Americans in lead roles, and most of them aren’t good games. In short, the number of black main characters in gaming is virtually zero, and the roles that they’re assigned when they do appear usually fall into the same stereotypical categorizations: athlete, criminal and/or rapper.
Why should we care about this scarcity of non-white leads in video games? Besides a simple sense of social justice, examine the demographics of the market in question. Phoenix Marketing International notes that African-American gamers spend an average of $48 per month on their hobby, $18 more than whites. Furthermore, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, they’re more dedicated: 8- to 18-year-old blacks play for about 20 minutes more each day than their white counterparts. To cap it all off, a 2004 Nielsen study confirmed to the marketing world that African-Americans and Hispanics are a lucrative, underserved market. One would think that there’s money in those kinds of numbers – but apparently not enough to buy the spotlight.
Causes, Symptoms, and Caveats
Don’t worry, I’m not going to scapegoat Rockstar, GTA’s developer. For all its flaws, San Andreas doesn’t deserve the blame that it gets as a bad influence. First, like South Park, Grand Theft Auto is a satire and an equal opportunity offender. It would be a mistake to take its intentions too seriously. Second, the game is an homage to gangsta dramas of the ’90s. In presenting a picture of urban blight and thug life, it’s only being true to the (fictional) source material. The real problem with San Andreas is not how it depicts the lead character, but that it’s practically the only game with a black lead. Combined with how Rockstar depicts that lead, the picture of African-Americans painted by video gaming looks bleak.
In a fascinating September 27th article for the Washington Post, Jose Antonio Vargas sheds light when he profiles players of (what else?) GTA: San Andreas in the affluent suburb of McLean, VA and in South Central L.A. The rich kids believe the game to be the creation of “a diverse group of guys, blacks and whites and Latinos,” but the less wealthy West Coast kids are more accurate when they credit it to “gringos.”
Rockstar North is based in Scotland, a country separated from the American gang experience not only by an ocean, but also by cultural differences and histories. It’s not exactly a hotbed of diversity, either: the CIA Factbook places the country’s black population at 2%. American studios aren’t all that integrated either, and there’s a serious lack of African-American developers. Industry statistics from the International Game Developers Association peg the balance as mostly white (more than 80%), followed by Asian (around 8%), but only about 2% black. It’s entirely possible that gaming’s virtual whiteness is due to a corresponding real-world phenomenon.
So if most developers are white, but the games they produce draw on stereotypically black music and culture, is there an element of minstrelsy here? Consider Pulp Fiction, a movie charged with racial tension and exploration. In the last vignette, director Quentin Tarantino steps in front of the camera to play a white character using extremely sensitive racial language. There’s an element of shock to the performance, but it also suddenly highlights what the audience may have forgotten: The frank dialogue batted about by the African-American actors was written by that same Caucasian director. In a way, Tarantino is playing with the attitudes we have toward race and words, and opening himself to questions of its usage. However, in a video game, the white designer and staff have rarely caused us to question their motivations in the same way, even when their subject matter may cross the same lines or give the impression of “authenticity.”
Does a designer have to be black before he can work with hip hop culture? Should he be? Is it “better” if violent games starring African-Americans in stereotyped roles are made by actual African-Americans? Is the white audience engaging in a little metaphorical blackface of their own with these games?
These are questions without clear answers. Clearly, hip hop influenced games sell, and not just to minorities. Upcoming games from artists like Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent are banking on their star power, but also their crossover appeal.
In her speech at the 2005 Game Developer’s Conference, Brenda Laurel (VP/Design of now-defunct Purple Moon, which produced games targeting girls) called this focus on the basic tropes of crime, violence and warfare “the Spectacle.” In that atmosphere of bread and circuses, it’s easier to create unsophisticated stereotypes than nuanced portraits. Perhaps the Spectacle of mainstream gaming, with its emphasis on creating big-budget, violent set-pieces (and their sequels) without emulating the wider array of situations available to other media, has caused the industry to target only those aspects of hip hop that share a similar viewpoint – guns, gangs and greed.
The first solution to the hip hop gap is obvious: If the gaming industry is overwhelmingly White, we need to diversify it. I asked Mario Armstrong, a founder of the Urban Video Game Academy, about his approach. The UVGA is a program that he runs for kids that might not normally see game development as a career path – in other words, those who aren’t white males. “I don’t have a clue how to break in,” the students tell him. As a tech commentator for NPR and Baltimore’s Chief Technology Advocate, Armstrong sees diversity (within gender, ethnicity or sexual preference) as the key to making great new games that break out of the Spectacle-driven nature of the industry.
The UVGA, which he started with aagamer.com‘s Roderick Woodruff and American Intercontinental University professor Joseph Saulter, works on a threefold path of exposure, education and enhancement to help its students get a leg up. Instead of attempting an “affirmative action” requirement for developers, the Academy tries to stuff the employment pipeline with a wider range of views. When the industry is more diverse, Armstrong says, “whatever they make is going to be a kick-ass game,” and he points to The Sims as a balanced development team that made a great product. But he’s also aware that the solution needs to be more than just supply-side manipulation; money needs to be spent on more than just bigger and better games. “I’m basically tired of repetition, lack of innovation, the stereotypes and the easy process.” he complains.
So the second solution is encouragement for independent game publishing. Conservative estimates of next-gen console development costs reach $6 million per game and may exceed $15 million. Producers don’t take risks with that kind of money – and if the current market is any indication, creating a game with a positive black lead is a serious risk; not part of the status quo. Hip hop itself often faces the accusation that it went from a thriving street-level art and social commentary to a commercialized marketing scheme. It’s ironic that it has joined the games industry, which suffers from much of the same evaluation. The advantage of an independent publishing effort like Greg Costikyan’s Manifesto Games is that it lowers the bar for entry, and encourages those that might not have ever thought that games could be a possibility for expression. In much the same way that turntables, beat-boxing, and remixing gave early hip hop a build-it- yourself aesthetic, a market for quirky and low-budget gaming can empower developers from all backgrounds.
At the 2005 National Book Festival, author Walter Dean Myers spoke on why he writes fiction about African- American youth in realistic situations: When he was growing up, he couldn’t find himself in the books he read. More and more, today’s kids game in addition to reading and television, and they’re looking for images of themselves in the same way. If they can’t find themselves – or if what they can find is distorted by a warped mirror of hip hop and other American cultures – it helps to perpetuate damages we’d like to think no longer exist. The technology of gaming has come a long way from when the amount of cartridge space or RAM limited the sprites, music, and other resources available to a game.
A paucity of positive black protagonists in gaming isn’t just a dilemma for people with nothing better to do but critique the industry’s low diversity. For a growing portion of the audience, it may be a very real part of their self-image and their lives. This lack of acknowledgment is holding shut a door through which many would-be gamers could enter. The industry owes it to itself, and American culture, to make sure it’s wide open.
Thomas Wilburn is a journalist based in Washington, DC. Previously a political and cultural correspondent for the Washington Asia Press, he currently writes about music, games, culture, and their intersection at www.milezero.org.