I am a lifelong gamer. I am also a woman who is also black. I play games, I write about them and sometimes I try to make them because I love them. But loving games hasn't always been easy. As a matter of fact, it's a largely unrequited expression—video games (or at least the industry) don't seem to love me as much as I love them.
Loving Games While Hoping For More
The modern gaming experience for any person of color (PoC) can be quite the doozy. Though the stories being told are gaining some depth and quality, the video game industry has remained stubborn about entering real conversations about representation—specifically race.
"What are you talking about, Ashley? Everyone knows it's all about the money, it's nothing personal!" That's something I hear fairly often. It's a generally well-intentioned argument but it's also a retort that's better suited in response to the DLC and in-app purchase abuse the average gamer faces on a daily basis. Why's that?
The failure to represent is a constant slight whether it's perceived as deliberate or not. Sometimes people say that it isn't important to identify with a game character or at least that it isn't the most important part of playing a game. But it's easy to say that this isn't important when your tolerance for a perpetual lack of representation has never been pressed.
I'd say that this isn't really anyone's fault except for the industry itself. I would also argue, however, that it might be ours as well if we don't continue to ask for and expect more. I'm not PoC Jesus and I can't speak for everyone but I can tell you where I'm coming from with that.
Once Upon A Time...
I always tell people that I've been gaming since before I was born. While she was pregnant with me, my mother used to kill time (lots of time) playing Dr. Mario on her Super Nintendo. Sometimes she would compete with my dad—a tradition that resurfaced when I was about 10 years old and witnessed them playing together on my Nintendo 64.
I didn't have a console of my own until I was about eight years old and, even then, I wasn't allowed to play it until I was nine. It was a see-through orange Nintendo 64. The games I had were Mario Kart 64, Super Smash Bros, The World Is Not Enough (never Goldeneye, I know) and Cruis'n USA. After a brief James Bond obsession, I began to look toward greater things.
When I was 10, my parents bought me a Gamecube. I had this strange 18-wheeler racing game and then Resident Evil 0. I still don't know what did it or even why, but the #ResidentEvil games are the games that made me fall in love with all video games. They're what made me want to become a storyteller, make games and create things in general—I never looked back.
That didn't keep me from looking forward though. This romantic beginning is what my mind returns to whenever I feel fed up with the state of things, but it never makes me forget that there could always be something better.
"Girls Can't Play" And Other Hard Truths
I eventually reached a point in my life where playing video games became a social event for me. Throughout most of my high school career, I didn't really have a lot of opportunities to get involved in the typical forms of adolescent debauchery, so I found a way to bring the party back home via Xbox Live.
My gamertag used to have part of my name in it until I realized that it was ruining my online gaming life. When other players noticed I was a girl, they either immediately focused their killing efforts on me or requested that I take on a defensive role either to protect me or keep our collective death count from rising because, you know, girls don't know how to shoot.
It got under my skin. So much so that, to this day, I'm still not sure if I'm crap because I'm crap or because I started to believe it after a while. I don't even know if the fact that I've taken my name out reflects a win, a loss or nothing at all. It's an introspective parade of bitterness that I carry with me on my worst days.
Long after I found peace with my gender identity, I had to face my racial identity. With games being a large part of my life, my confrontation with the medium was inevitable. You don't have to dig too deep to notice blackness and its status as an afterthought—black women being voiced by white women (Nadine from Uncharted 4), or the same tired tropes of the "magical and sassy negro" bleeding into even the most progressive games (like Deus Ex: Human Revolution). #PokemonSunMoon was one of the first Pokémon games to let you be a black trainer and that was released just last year.
There are gems in the rough of course. There are games out there now like Mafia III, WatchDogs 2, and even just games that borrow heavily from predominantly black communities like Saints Row. They scratch an itch but they don't sit well with me—they are male dominated and plagued by the same storytelling issues that can be found in the rest of the industry. I'm constantly wondering if I am unjustly insatiable or if am I on the right track...
Part of me believes that the customization element of the Saints Row games was mainly just to prevent alienating white people from the "gangsta" narrative in the same way that open-world RPGs try to satisfy "everyone" by letting you be a girl and choose your skin color. People love Saints Row, but would they love it as much if it wasn't so satirical in nature? If it was just a really gritty urban tale of death and greed? Like if Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was as serious as Grand Theft Auto IV?
The question I normally get at this point in the story is: "If you hated it so much, why'd you keep playing?" Well, because I met some delightfully evil people along the way that gave me hope.
Finding Solace On The Dark Side
Something that you really notice when all of the characters start to feel the same for you is that the villains tend to have the better stories. After all, you spend the entire game getting to know them and the way that they prefer to do things. The more interesting games are the ones where it's the other way around and the credibility of your protagonist and narrator is somewhat purposely depleted—but there aren't a lot of those. As a result, my favorite video game characters tend to be the bad guys.
Their inner battles are bloodier than the ones that they have in the arena. They are broken and imperfect handlers of their emotions. They are often more human than our heroes. Though their complexity manifests itself as evil, the existence of their depth says more to me as Ashley than their fictional atrocities to me as "Player 1."
These guys helped me understand that, while the games that I played weren't exactly what I wanted them to be, there is a very real potential for better writing, better characters and that a more colorful reality is attainable. They weren't enough but they were pictures of things that could be.
When I tell people about all of this, the question has been and continues to be: What is it that you want then?, When will it be enough?
It's Not About Seeing Myself In A Game—It's About Seeing Everyone
Too often others believe that the expectation in arguments like this is that video game characters should mirror every player perfectly, but I think that is a pretty textbook hurt-puppy response to something like this. No one is asking for that and, more importantly, no one wants it. Unsurprisingly, we're all pretty boring. But there is untapped gold hidden in the lives and stories of millions and millions of brilliant people around the world.
I mean, I spend a disproportionate amount of time talking to people trying to dance around questions about whether or not my hair explodes when water touches it or if my family spends all day crying about our slave ancestors. I know we'd all like to believe that it sounds crazy and that it probably never happens, but it's not.
There is boundless resilience, an unwavering belief in something better and an unparalleled faith in humanity that comes with living a life like this. There is an incredible amount of strength in that. Are these not the things that heroes are made of?
It's that same strength that allows me to continue to love and appreciate those around me without prejudice despite the years of hate and passive-aggressive disrespect that I endured growing up in the South. Despite being shown again and again that there are people out there that don't care to demonstrate otherwise. The strength that keeps me expecting and commanding the consideration of others, the ability to walk the streets without being pat down or shot down and to walk without fear despite the death that pushes its way into these barriers.
My desire for more is for all of us—for all the kids that grew up being told that their "ethnic" lunches stunk, interracial high school couples having shoes thrown at them, little ones that had strangers run their fingers through their hair, the girls whose friends called them "Oreoes" and praised them for their eloquence like house pets. In other words—to the everyday heroes that would make Master Chief pee in his pants—I believe that you will see the heroes (and villains) that you deserve in the games that you love.
I didn't always look at the white hands around my gun and see something that begged for change. But now that I've seen different, I know that there can be more and I expect more from the future. I hope you do too.