A friend of mine, Sheri Graner-Ray, has a well known signature on all her emails: “What if the player is female?” Today, I received a call from an industry colleague of mine who had a similar question:

“What if the player is black?”

You might wonder, “Why didn’t he call a black game developer?” Two reasons: a) He didn’t know anyone well enough to call them, and b) Something I’ll call “politically correct fear.” It’s a concern at the base of every person who is not the demographic they are curious about.

“If I say to someone, ‘Can I ask you about how you perceive blacks in games?'” my friend continued, “will he think I am a racist? And is it okay to say ‘black,’ or should I say ‘African American’?”

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If you know me through picture alone, you might wonder why on earth my colleague would ask these questions of me in the first place. However, the issue is of immense personal importance to me and something I have studied quite a bit. See, I have three brown kids of varying shades, so the question is not only a professional one but a personal one as well. When they play videogames, I wonder, what do they see? I have witnessed my own son trying, and failing, to find a character that looks like him. Everyone with his father’s Caribbean accent is a bad guy. And he can only make Daddy in a game if Daddy wants an afro, dreads or corn rows.

As both a parent and a game developer, that sort of stuff stays with you. For my son, ultimately, we ended up with something that kind of looks like a dark guy with white guy hair – in other words, nothing like him at all. My husband’s avatar looks like he did in the 1970’s, I suppose. We did the best we could. We settled.

I answered my friend’s second question with a “no.” Asking someone about their cultural experience doesn’t make you racist any more than asking me how I perceive women in games makes you sexist. It makes you curious, and it might make you more educated, too. On the other hand, automatically associating one’s color (black, brown or whatever) with a specific culture (African-American or Caribbean) isn’t always a failsafe proposition. On the island of Barbados where my husband comes from, he’s black, true enough, but he’s really “high brown,” Black Irish or a “redman.” The dividing line isn’t as clear as some would like it to be.

It was, in part, the time I spent living and working in Barbados that gave me my first taste of how the world must look through the eyes of a black person in both the game industry and as a player: Everyone was a different color than me. I was often the only white person in the room, in the store, as far as the eye could see. Everyone on TV, in the papers, in the government, everywhere was black. For the first time in my life, I was exceptionally conscious of the color of my skin. I doubt any of the locals cared. There were a few comments suggesting I consider a mate of my own color (“Geh she wa she own kine!”), but other than that, nothing.

Though this shift in culture affected how I saw almost all media, somehow that vision didn’t extend itself to games. It wasn’t until some months later when I was testing a build of a game on that tiny island that it arrived on my radar: “Brenda, why aren’t there any black characters in games?” It was one of the silliest questions I’d ever been asked, right up until I drew a blank.

I blanked for a long time.

I vaguely remembered some character on the cover of an RPG making news because he was black. I remembered the tiny-waisted, giant-afroed, impossibly-breasted woman in Gauntlet: Dark Legacy. In my own game, you could be anything you wanted to be, even a blue fairy, but black? Not yet. (That changed that very day.)

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Was it because I was racist? Was it because the people on my team were racist? No. It was because the characters in the games were an accidental reflection of the world in which the developers lived and worked. There were no black people in the game for the same reason there were no white people in the paper that day in Barbados. I paused to wonder, “Where are all the great and powerful black wizards?”

When game diversity evolved, and it sort of did, it did so rather tragically with the invention of the “brown slider.” Using the brown slider, you could turn any white character into a person that was enigmatically brown. The diversity problem had been solved. Light brown = Asian, medium brown = Latino, dark brown = black. Everyone went for it except people who actually were a shade of brown. Not surprisingly, they didn’t feel a kinship with these new darkly tinted white characters. Next came the enigmatically brown characters with indistinct facial features that probably are not white but don’t belong to any other race either. It met with about as much success.

“I feel like I am different from the game characters when a game allows you to create your own characters but doesn’t have the right skin tone or voice that fits you,” says Kevin Powell, an undergrad studying game design at the Savannah College of Art and Design. “I usually try to identify with the characters in the game, because I know that all these characters weren’t created to be just like me.” In other words, Kevin takes what he can get. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If a game is supposed to be about abdicating authorship and allowing people to become one with the game world, it would be excellent if the Kevin Powells of the world could share in that experience, too.

“I just do not understand how I can make a unique black character when the only hairstyle I can choose from is an afro or corn rows,” he continues. “I mean, sure they have a crew cut, but it just doesn’t look natural when applied to the one shade of brown that remotely matches my skin tone. Over the years, it has gotten better, but I still just don’t feel like I can make a black character as diverse as I would be able to make a white character.”

Asante Bradford has experienced it, too. He’s the Digital Entertainment Liaison for the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office. It’s his job to bring game development to the state of Georgia. He’s having a lot more luck with that than he is creating himself in a game world. “Developers need to do a better job of creating avatars that represent African Americans with more attributes than a big afro. I don’t have an afro! I used to have one, but now I have no hair! When will they make African-American bald Avatars?” It seems like a ridiculously simple question, but for many black characters in games, it’s afros, corn-rows or nothing at all.

“All in all, I feel that videogames have come a long way,” Kevin says. “Videogames will keep evolving and everyone will have more features in their games to choose from so they can create characters that look and talk exactly like them. So, I’ll just try and wait it out for now, but maybe later when there is a more diverse population in game design then we’ll see these changes.”

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Are we really here in 2008 and black people are “waiting it out?” Seriously?

“There are black characters in videogames,” a fellow developer who happens to be African American tells me. “They’re just the classic, negative stereotypes and nothing more.” He puts it to me this way, using my culture for emphasis: “Imagine if all Irish-American people were portrayed as drunken, fighting fools throwing up into their pot of gold. That’s pretty much what we’re dealing with here.”

It’s not just the characters you make, he says. It’s also the characters in the game.

Aaron Lenard, a graduate student studying animation, is more blunt. “Off the top of my head, I honestly cannot think of a black or African-American character that has positive attributes or is a positive protagonist in a videogame. Overall, I believe they are treated either as a second or third sidekick, the comical clown of the group, or have attributes that seem sometimes racist.”

As examples, Aaron cites characters from the action-adventure and fighting genres. The black characters are either non-existent or consistent in their overall attributes. Consider:

  • Balrog (Street Fighter) – a Mike Tyson-ish boxer
  • Zack (Dead or Alive) – a playboy/millionaire kickboxer
  • T.J. Combo (Killer Instinct) – an urban kickboxer
  • Jax (Mortal Kombat) – a Special Forces soldier
  • Bruce Irvin (Tekken) – a Muay Thai fighter

While some of these characters evolve over the games’ various iterations, their past is interesting to study. “Most black characters in fighting games have a fighting style of either boxing or kick boxing, and their back stories deal with entering these tournaments for either money, power, women or all the above,” Aaron tells me. “Since fighting games are obviously violent, some attributes of these characters are ridiculous. In some later Mortal Kombat games, Jax has metal arms that can shoot missiles, and in current iterations, he randomly pulls out a machine gun and shoots his opponent. The same thing happens with T.J. Combo. One of his fatalities or finishing moves in the Killer Instinct series is pulling out a pistol and shooting his opponent.”

Seth Smith, also a student of game design, expresses his thoughts on black characters in games in terms of “hang ups,” a decidedly uncomplimentary place to start a discussion. “Black videogame characters are typically portrayed with personalities and styles that embody hip hop, reggae or other aspects of black culture. Most of the time black characters have stereotypical hairstyles or street wear such as afros, dreads, cornrows, baggy jeans, bandanas, chains, wife beaters, jerseys and sneakers.” Think of Afro Thunder from Ready 2 Rumble, Eddy Gordo from Tekken, Dee Jay from Street Fighter or Elena from Street Fighter III 3rd Strike: Fight for the Future.

“Personally, I believe black people are generalized in order to appeal to the black demographic,” Seth says. He acknowledges that it is a double-edged sword. “Most black people I have seen tend to gravitate to the token black characters in a videogame. However, it also makes those black characters seem artificial and one dimensional by parading them around as the ‘I’m the black person in this game’ characters.”

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Aaron moves in for the finishing move: “It’s ridiculous sometimes, and it makes me feel like the developers create these characters as if they were the last option on their list of tasks to complete.”

That’s assuming they make it onto the list in the first place. Seth and his friends spent the better part of an evening trying to come up with a list of black characters in games, and came up with fewer than a dozen. In a medium that’s several decades old, that’s the best we can do?

It’s not just the appearance of black characters in games, though. The game players and future developers took issue with their personalities, too.

“Black characters are generally portrayed as strong willed, ignorant or obnoxious powerhouses who tend to throw their weight around without any regard or concern for anyone but themselves,” Seth says. “I feel the angry black man and strong black woman stereotypes are used as the basis of these characters. This usually causes the characters to feel unoriginal, uninspired and out of place, because the angry 1960s-era mentality typically does not reflect the mindset of today’s black youth.”

In his opinion, most black characters tend to be prone to violence and opposed to any course of action that requires patience or critical thinking skills. He names names, too: Barret from Final Fantasy 7, Augustus “Cole Train” Cole from Gears of War, TJ Combo from Killer Instinct and the Grove Street Gangstas from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

One parent, also a game developer, told me he feels uncomfortable letting his kids play these games not because of the violence, but because of how they portray black men.

And so I return to my friend’s original questions, but without many original answers. After all, I am not the demographic I write about. Instead, I’d like to pose some questions of my own. Could Angela Bassett find herself in a videogame world? Is Kevin Powell still waiting it out for a skin tone and a hair style that makes him feel welcome in a game? Could deeper research into a culture lead games beyond those stereotypes? What about more black game developers?

Seriously, what if the player is black?

Brenda Brathwaite is a freelance game designer, professor and Chair of the Interactive Design and Game Development department at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She has been in the game industry since 1981 and has shipped 22 commercial titles.

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