We’re at a point in time, amid the protests against the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of police, where the voices of Black people are starting to be taken seriously for once. As a result, we’ve seen Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo take to social media, and Fortnite and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare hold events and display in-game messages in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. To me, at least on the surface, their activism for Black lives was as short-lived as it was inconsistent, and it’s unfortunate I have to question whether or not their activism was genuine or performative.
I’m grateful they spoke up, but speaking up is only the bare minimum. For those #BlackLivesMatter posts to hold water, not only should the gaming industry consider voting, meeting with racial justice groups in their communities or online, and protesting for change, but there are big changes it needs to make within itself too.
Tokenism’s Gotta Go
Tokenism plagues every form of storytelling, even in video games. Routinely, there has been the lone Black character who’s just…there, or are yet another Magical Negro or some other stereotypical caricature, or maybe a pretty decent side characters who dies after helping the protagonist get from Point B to Point C (or after fulfilling said protagonist’s sexual needs). When these tropes play out, I ask these questions: Are the writers and concept artists anti-Black? Have they ever been exposed to any form of Black culture? And were any Black people, especially Black women, involved in the creation of this story?
If I have to ask any of those questions, there’s a good chance Black creatives weren’t included, seeing as how the development team has no clue how to develop nuanced Black characters who don’t become deadweight. This can’t effectively change if Black creators who can help craft those characters and the journeys they go on are never never in the room. Or if, when they are, their input is overruled.
There has been a shift with the inclusion of Black characters in multiplayer games like Fortnite, Apex Legends, and 2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare—games whose rosters of playable characters are incredibly diverse. But on the single-player side, it’s rare to see Black characters in protagonist roles.
Sony Interactive Entertainment
Thankfully, two upcoming PlayStation 5 titles, Insomniac’s Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Arkane’s DEATHLOOP (which has multiplayer features) both star Black lead characters. Black people are also involved in the development of these games: namely, James Ham, senior animator at Insomniac, and Dinga Bakaba, game designer and director at Arkane. The inclusion of Black characters as leads in games can’t stop here, though. This needs to be a consistent thing, particularly from Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo’s first-party studios. It’s always discouraging when people put together Avengers-style posters of their iconic characters and only a fraction of them are Black.
Seriously, Hire Black Creators
In games that allow players to create their own characters, it has been kind of possible to create “myself.” Generally speaking, the customization options provided are limited or poorly designed, but for Black people with darker skin and/or 4C-textured hair, it’s always much harder. In The Sims 4, the hair and skin options for Black folks are abysmal. Black creators in the Sims community have to make their own custom content so they can create Black Sims who actually reflect them. The team at Maxis has attempted to fix this issue years after the game’s original release in 2014, but perhaps if they hired some of the Black creators in the Sims community this issue wouldn’t continue to exist.
A survey taken by nearly a thousand game developers shows only one percent identify as Black, African-American, or African. We need way more Black people creating games, particularly those focused on customization or a game focused on a Black character, is necessary. Without any, it’s easy to create poor customization options for Black characters, or a copy-paste of another poorly-written Black character. This goes back to including Black writers and artists. We aren’t a monolith. We have different beliefs, tastes, cultures, body types, skin tones, hairstyles and textures, sexualities and ways we identify, and life experiences overall, so that should be reflected in what’s being created for the sake of authenticity and writing great Black characters.
Sony Computer Entertainment
No More “Representation” Without Real-Life Black People
“Representation” isn’t representation if you have a Black character voiced by someone who isn’t Black. Period. If you’re aware of the controversy regarding Laura Bailey’s portrayal of Nadine Ross in Uncharted 4 and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, you’ll know many Black gamers weren’t and still aren’t happy about that. Though I enjoyed the character and both games, it hurt to learn afterwards that a White woman voiced and performed the motion capture for a Black woman. No matter how it’s spun or what the intentions were, it’s blackface in high-tech form. This makes it hard to give kudos to any game studio for their efforts in diversity if the person portraying their Black character doesn’t reflect them in any way, especially when plenty of Black people are available for acting work.
“But… Black voice actors have voiced White characters before,” you might say, which is true. After recently replaying the original Mass Effect and knowing Ashley Williams is voiced by Kimberly Brooks, that’s fresh in my mind. However, a Black actor performing the voice for a White character will never be equal to the reverse because we cannot voice characters who look like us if these characters don’t exist in the first place. So, let’s improve the culture around this issue. Create more Black characters. Cast more Black voice actors. It’s that simple.
Abolish the Racist Mindset That Our Stories “Can’t Sell”
Marvel’s billion-dollar film Black Panther proves this is a lie. The cast was nearly all Black, with Black leads, with Black people behind the camera and on the creative team. (Not to mention the fact that it won Oscars.) Imagine if the gaming industry took notes from this movie—all the possibilities for Black stories to be told in games. While stories created by Black people about the real-life Black experience are vital, we have an infinite amount of fiction and fantasy we want to tell and see. For example, give me a “God of War” based on any African mythology outside of Egypt, or a “Splinter Cell” starring a Black woman who isn’t racially ambiguous.
Like racism, colorism is a system used to oppress and exclude people with darker skin in favor of those who are lighter or biracial, and it’s as prevalent in all communities of color as it is in every single industry around the world. Colorism must be dismantled if we want to make progress for the inclusion of Black people, especially dark-skinned Black women. This is a reason why the phrase “Black Girl Magic” is embraced: to let Black girls and women know they’re beautiful, powerful, and valued as they live in a world where they’re constantly disrespected and told otherwise from all angles.
We saw some Black Girl Magic in new games revealed over the summer. I’m hyped for Square Enix’s Project Athia for PlayStation 5, starring a Black woman as the main protagonist. Microsoft also revealed The Gunk, As Dusk Falls, and State of Decay 3 for Xbox consoles and PC, each putting Black women characters in the spotlight.
Let Black People Call the Shots
The presence of Black directors and studio presidents is another critical step in ensuring these changes occur. I enjoy when Microsoft brings out Sarah Bond—who leads their gaming business development team—at E3 and their events because I realize we can get there. I don’t expect every prominent figure at gaming studios and companies to be Black, but to bring the change we need for Black gamers, there has to be more than one or two of us at the top making decisions at some point.
One Last Thing…
This isn’t an attack against non-Black developers, or the gaming industry. I’m only offering critique as a fan, because I love gaming and I want the industry to do better so they can be better in terms of diversity and inclusion, particularly for Black folks in this case. I can’t comprehend how this industry could advocate for Black lives if it’s still not interested in our talents or stories, or changing its usual MO.
I’m aware none of these changes will happen overnight, but I want to be proven wrong that they won’t happen at all. To quote Rihanna, we need to tell our friends to pull up for Black lives. Not just say something, do something. Since the gaming industry wants to be our friend now, I have to ask: Will it finally pull up for us and make some solid changes, or will it return to silence and let things remain the same?
Featured Image: Sony Computer Entertainment
Find more from Tyree Brown on Twitter at @twbrown_writes.