I don’t have many vivid memories from my childhood. I don’t even have very many pictures from my youth. I recall it as a difficult time for me, as my family was larger than my mother’s income could sustain, at times. With a twin sister and a special needs brother, she spent most of her waking hours working to make ends meet. Not so many glorious Christmases or super-remarkable birthdays. I’m not complaining – it was what it was, and we made it work.
As I got a little older, around the pinnacle ages where children become self-aware question machines, I found that my early tendencies for introversion had grown exponentially over in a small amount of time. I didn’t spend much time socializing, equal parts familial responsibility and apprehension/apathy the culprit, so I spent a lot of time reading and educating myself. A curiosity that would allow me to meet my first Nintendo Entertainment System and fall instantly in love with this device that allowed me to leave my home, my head, and all of the shackles they imply, without ever physically doing either. A familiar story for any nerd born in the mid to late 80’s and on.
But as I sit here, well into my 20th year of consuming the fruits of the gaming industry, I can’t help but do so cynically. I loved every moment spent with my favorite games, and even though games have always found a way to speak to me more than any other gaming medium, there was always something missing. Hell, it’s still missing.
Where are the characters that look like me? Where are the black dragon slayers or princess rescuers? It’s not as if these activities are something we aren’t interested in, i’m obviously playing the game. It may seem a trite concern to the “colorblind progressives” among us. After all, we’ve come to a point now that we generally accept that black people and white people are pretty much the same, and are capable of equally brilliant or heinous acts. But if it’s a truly color blind world, then focus groups and “culture studies” wouldn’t keep telling big publishers that they prefer their protagonists as buzzcut, white, and late 20’s as possible. Having him be anything else suggests that a higher level of belief-suspension is required to fit into this more “exotic” role. As a corporate entity, it’s hard to fault publishers (or developers getting bankrolled by them) for their consistent adherence to these numbers. A corporation’s ultimate job is to make money, and when a sampling of people say they are comfortable spending money on this sort of character, it’s a figure that’s hard to ignore.
But maybe theses samplings aren’t asking the right people. To cross genres a moment, the television landscape was changed dramatically in 2006 when Tyler Perry’s House of Payne debuted on TBS. The pair or premier episodes broke long standing cable sitcom ratings records, and as it could have been due to the tremendous hype its writer and producer were creating thanks to his very successful feature films, it probably had a lot to do with the fact that the TV show’s all black cast was filled with characters that look like their fan base, and we as a culture gravitate heavily to these things. We always have.
The Jeffersons, Family Matters, The Cosby Show, etc. All shows that were mainstream success stories because of the cultural connection between its cast and its consumers. That isn’t to say people of other races didn’t or wouldn’t watch these shows; many of my non-black friends love these programs and identify them as key parts of their childhoods. But pending the invention of the time machine, I would take the Pepsi challenge on the fact that those numbers would change for the worse if you recasted all of those shows as predominantly white. The black community wouldn’t support it as robustly, and thusly they would just be relegated as mediocre afterthoughts, like make sitcoms often are.
The same can be said in movies. Blaxploitation films dominated the B-list in the 70’s, because it brought people to the movies that previously weren’t going. How? Because they were black written, produced, and cast. The heroes were cops or soldiers who were doing the same things that Charlton Heston or Clint Eastwood were doing, but they looked like the middle class, urban people who were seeing a surge in quality of life and an interest in these sorts of entertainments. They started spending money hand over fist to see these movies, making men like Richard Roundtree and Jim Kelly superstars, giving movie houses the sort of cash cow they needed to get out of their slump.
And this is to say nothing of their quality. I have varying opinions as to just how good any of these sources of entertainment really are, but lasting appeal is a secondary concern when it comes to making money in the entertainment business. I think it might be a wise idea for a developer to confidently center their stories around characters of any other decent, because at the very least it may attract a member of the community that would not have been otherwise. Sony exclusives sell well among small audiences, but lukewarmly in comparison to other franchises in the industry. Could they benefit the most from an experiment like this? I don’t see why not. I don’t see a black Cole McGrath being a less effective Sony flagpole character, but I definitely see a group of young black people gravitating to thunder-wielding badass who looks just like them.
This isn’t to say that simply palette swapping a character black is an effective parity across the board. Plenty of characters, in every fiction, count their race as pillars of their personalities, and necessary parts of the story being told. Booker DeWitt, for example, couldn’t have been black. As a veteran of “Bleeding Kansas” sent to covertly take Elizabeth away from her captors, there would be no way a black man could have been inconspicuous in a place so racially divided as Columbia. The conflict DeWitt served in was based around slavery, so a black DeWitt being a soldier would have been a wild stretch, let alone being a private eye afterwards. This is a sensical concession.
But comic books get what video games haven’t gotten around to understanding when it comes to this. When the best part of a character is the things he can do, then there’s no reason he can’t be black. Enter the Green Lantern, Spider-Man, Captain America, and other characters whose popularity is based on their powers and their symbols. One can say that if these characters are really just their symbols or ability suits, than it shouldn’t matter that they’re white. Easily said when most of your favorite heroes look like you, and easily refuted when you watch the vehement outcry when you change character’s races (i.e. Johnny Storm).
Now, RPG’s have given players the opportunity to do these sorts of augmentations themselves. Open world games the likes of Fallout 3 or Skyrim allow you to make your protagonist look however you want to make them look. Of course, these characters can’t speak, and aren’t the same sort of well rounded characters that great narrative games have, but its something right. Also, you spend most of these games in first person, so what you look like is relegated to an afterthought. Less linear, more narratively developed games like Mass Effect give you a lot of options as far as diversity goes, be it race, sexuality, or what have you. Yes, I could make a black Shepherd, but the truth of the matter is there is a default look for the male and female Shepherd, and they aren’t black. Having the option to custom make him so is a nice cop out, but in that case, why not just make him black to begin with? Could be an afterthought, or could be that when he’s in commercials, he’ll look like that buzzed cut white guy we were talking about earlier. In all fairness though, male Shepherd not being black is a better fate than female Shepherd apparently not being hot enough.
Did you know that, of the hundreds of genre bending, ground-breaking games released in 2013, only one them featured a black protagonist? Grand Theft Auto 5’s Franklin shared lead roles with two other characters, but was equally as playable and story progressing as his peers. He was two bit gangster, that boosted cars and lived for the moment like any black youth from the hood, but more on that later. 2012 was probably better, right? It was: a grand total of three that year, Lee Everett (Telltale’s The Walking Dead), Aveline de Grandpre (Assassin’s Creed: Liberation), and Emmett Graves (Starhawk). In two of the biggest years in gaming, not only can I count the number of black protagonists on one hand, I don’t even have to use every finger! If we went a year making hundreds of games and letting only three of them have swords in them, the gaming community would probably be in uproar. This is a concerning number, not just for me, or the black community, but for everyone.
As a collective, we aren’t being challenged anymore. Our perceptions of what a person, no matter the shape, size, gender, color, or creed isn’t being consistently refreshed and reorganized. As individuals, we may know that heroism is the matter of the fabric of a person’s spirit, not their physical form, but as a social group, we are having our saviors be represented in a static, isolating way. Real life American heroes are diverse and colorful, why can’t our fictional ones be? Especially in an industry in which we Americans consume more than almost any other form of entertainment.
How do we fix it? Studios have been trying to please everyone by giving us characters who are masked, without real identity. They can be anyone, right? Army of Two: Devil’s Cartel just removed the identity of their mercenary duo completely, so that they can be simple, nebulously-tanned gun guys that are supposed to represent “you.” Or make games where it just doesn’t matter who you are, but what you’re doing, like Payday 2. But thats seems a little bit like hiding from the problem instead of really addressing it, doesn’t it?
Maybe we need more black game directors, people to push the movement by taking it into their own hands like blaxploitation directors did in the 70’s. They will surely make games with black leads, no matter the implication. But it shouldn’t be a hostile takeover, and black creators shouldn’t be the only people who think black protagonists are worth a shot.
I call a challenge then to any person writing a script for a game, or designing models for playable characters, or keeping the art direction in line. Take a good hard look at your protagonist. If he’s a nameless, faceless, voiceless, identity-lacking shell, why not just make him black? If your hard-boiled US Marine captain doesn’t need to have an Irish Catholic heritage in order for his story to be told completely and correctly, why not just make him black? It seems trivial, but the small consideration will mean a lot to someone.