By: Brittney Maddox
I am the black girl gamer. I was raised in video games. I collect paraphernalia. I have distinct memories of my siblings playing as our favorite characters. We played as Sonic, Spyro, and Crash Bandicoot. Video games as a medium are so vast and you can go anywhere and be anything, yet it felt like something was missing. I couldn’t see myself in any of the games I played growing up. While I admittedly no longer play video games that often due to time restrictions, I cannot bypass a number of titles that have gained prominence over the last 10 years that have so few characters that look like me. In my essay, we will explore the ways which Blackness can exist in some of the virtual realms.
The first video game arrived in October 1958. William Higinbotham, a physicist, created the first videogame in the Brookhaven lab what many today would consider the predecessor to Pong. Since then we have seen several franchises, various consoles, and a gathering of video game fans worldwide. Even if you are not familiar with video games you aware of the varying flagship characters. A flagship is a term used in branding to designate certain logos/emblems as a marker of their brand such as PAC-MAN for Namco, Mariofor Nintendo, and Pikachu for The Pokémon Company. Even as a young girl while I enjoyed my franchises dearly, with Samus and Lara Croft being the few female characters I gravitated to.
Though I admired them, it was apparent they didn’t look like me. They were strong, intelligent, and courageous. They were passionate about what they believed in, and fearless in the face of adversity. This is not to say my childhood was completely devoid of Black female characters. I saw them on shows like Rugrats, Magic School Bus, and Hey Arnold! But their representation was scarce. I remember Tanya from Mortal Kombat, Elena from Street Fighter and many more but they were never title characters, and solely existed in the virtual world as non-player characters. There was, of course, The Sims -but it wasn’t the same as having a character that had a major storyline and development.
However, I believe that is changing. Since this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo we saw some visibly Black characters emerge. The long-awaited sequel to Beyond Good & Evil features a dark-skinned Black woman with an afro. When you’re a consumer of video games who exists in a marginalized identity, every ounce of representation is vital. Representation matters because whether or not we care to acknowledge it, media informs people about race and gender. We know historically that white creative directors control the media, and this is no different from the video game industry. A vast majority of video game protagonists have been white males. As a Black gamer, you are stuck between having poor representation or no representation at all.
The roles given to Black characters are secondary roles. A good example is a non-white sidekick aiding the white protagonist. An example of this is the female character Sheva Alomar, a character in Capcom’s Resident Evil 4. Sheva Alomar is assistant to Resident Evil hero Chris Redfield. Though she is a valuable character, developers give players an option of dressing her up in tribal gear which is reminiscent of the Jezebel stereotype.
While that’s one way Black characters are portrayed, another is the brute. This trope specifically targets Black male characters. An example of this is CJ from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. CJ, the protagonist of the game, is a gang banger who returns to his home in San Andreas to be with his family. The game is set in the early 1990s during the height of gangster rap music. Players play in the fictitious hood of Los Santos, where they are confronted by rival gangs, police violence, and drugs. While this is not to say that Black men in real life do not experience the aforementioned, Grand Theft Auto is a series that ties incentives with committing gratuitous amounts of violence. Many Black male characters in other franchises often are coded as brutes exuding exemplary amount of strength paired with overbearing physiques.
(See: Brett from Final Fantasy who is muscular and has a gun as an arm. It’s problematic because Black men are often seen as inherently violent.)
The third and final trope I will be examining is the exotic token. An overwhelming amount of Black video game characters are seen in fighting game. It should be noted that while video games more often than not focused on cartoony violence, their depictions of humanoid characters should be questioned as they often serve what creators assume we think about various types of people. Whether you’ve picked up a controller to play Tekken, Street Fighter, or Virtua Fighter you will notice a grotesque pattern. Black characters are shown to be “sexier” or “cooler” than their white counterparts. Sometimes Black characters in video games will be given customizable items to give them more “swag”. There are some variations, like the savage, but sometimes costumes are reminiscent to Blaxploitation characters from the 70s .
(See: any of the Black characters in the Tekken franchise after the 5th installment.)
Create-a-character games. I remember having several versions of The Sims as a child. In the world of The Sims with the manicured lawns, dream homes, and gibberish language, you could make characters Black but they never had viable options for kinky textured hair or fuller features. The Sims, like manygames, has features where players are presented with a menu to customise their avatar at the beginning of the game. Games like Fable and Oblivion have a feature where characters can pick a race in the medieval world. Like The Sims, the options of phenotypes for non-white characters are limiting. In Fable, characters’ appearances matter a great deal as people can find you attractive or threatening. Unfortunately it relies on racist tropes which I do not wish to continue on as it’s upsetting. This begs me to ask; when will we get to the point where white, slim bodies are not the complete norm? I do believe that is changing as technological advances are being made.
I do believe that videogames are changing, but it feels very much a white boy club both on the scene in our digital worlds.* While it should be noted that at times Black characters can serve as comic relief in videos games (such as Sazh from the Final Fantasy series), it’s a double-edged sword because characters that are dark skinned but not necessarily Black, are connected to evil (think Ansem in Kingdom Hearts series). Or characters are visibly Black but their ethnicity/racial identity is ambiguous
However, players should be excited to know that things are getting better, as we are getting more games where Black characters are having lead roles (Bayek and Aveline for the Assassin’s Creed franchise). Black characters’ features are taken into consideration and are the least bit offensive. The Walking Dead video game duo, Lee and Clementine, are carefully convincing as Lee is a middle aged Black man and a Clementine is a mixed race Black girl. I am also hopeful for more worlds featuring Black characters that are not just landscapes. While video games as a medium are popular, some of the narratives constructed should be expanded upon. Characters that deviate from stereotypical portrayals are Admiral Anderson (Mass Effect), Alyx Vance (Half Life), and Rochelle (Left 4 Dead).
While I grow tired of the white male protagonist being the overwhelming majority these past few years, I remain hopeful for what the industry has yet to usher in, in terms of diversity.
Editor: Juwairiyah Khan
Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a neuroscience nerd turned Creative Consultant and Executive Director of Off Colour!
You’ve probably seen her on TikTok or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels. From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.