I've been gaming for a while now. If I wanted to put a number to just how long I've spent in various interpretations of virtual worlds, from the 8-bit to the 60FPS generation, it'd be over 20 years. 20+ fantastic years of journeying through Thebes, or evading bullets with Nathan Drake, or banging in goals in various FIFAs and PESs, to name but a few experiences.
But besides these wonderful moments, one great disparity still lingered like a burr on denim. Throughout the time of me sat a few inches away from my CRT TV and hammering away on my console of choosing, every human character I jumped, swam or punched my way through enemies with was white and, way more often than not, male.
Today, the marginalization of people of color still exists within the young medium, a fact that could be attributed to a number of reasons which I'll discuss more of later in this piece.
Right now I'm going to discuss the repercussions of not being represented by your favorite artform.
Recently in an interview with Eurogamer, Cliff Bleszinski, the outspoken creator of the Gears of War franchise, discussed the potential windfall of cash that could await developers open to including a more diverse array of characters of color and gender in their titles.
"I think casts that look like the United Nations are more interesting, as well as being more commercially viable. My whole thing is, you’re not going to stop booby beach volleyball games from happening. You’re not going to change Japan. People have the freedom to make whatever they want.
But some of us are starting to recognise that games have been about white dudes for so long, it’s really good to switch it up a bit. At the end of the day, even if I didn’t like diversity, I’d still want everybody to feel represented in this game and to throw money at the damn thing. So from that small capitalist part of my brain, that’s why it makes sense to me."
What CliffyB says is true, if a game was to release with mechanics that could appease a wide range of gamers, and had a cast that reflected just how racially diverse the modern world is, said game should, in theory, make an absolute killing in revenue. Because more people will feel included within the framework of the game, and therefore rush out and buy it in droves.
Depending on how said PoCs are portrayed of course.
But what about the effect on the self, or the ego, if a radical shift in representation was to occur? What would it mean to be gaming whilst black?
Stereotypes & Cannon Fodder
It would be easy for a detractor to say that throughout its history, games have already had black characters of note; the Deejays (Street Fighter), the C.J.s (GTA: San Andreas), the Cole Trains (Gears of War) and/or the Barrets (Final Fantasy VII), to name a few. Besides athletes portrayed in various sports titles.
But the problem with these characters and characters not too dissimilar is they're not exactly portraying the positive stereotypes that are so sorely missed within the industry. For example:
Deejay is a muscular, grinning, maracas-shaking caricature of a Caribbean man
C.J. is still a gang member despite his moral ambiguity.
And both Cole Train and Barret are deep voiced, muscular grunts.
Growing up with these being the constant images of blackness portrayed was hard to digest. I'm neither a gang member, nor an overtly muscular baritone, so how am I supposed to relate to these characters? How am I supposed to feel cool and good about myself when characters that look like me aren't from ancient organizations of assassins like Ezio Auditore, or as well rounded as The Last of Us' Joel?
It's like video games want to constantly tell me I'm nothing but a device used to elicit fear, brawn, humor or raise exotic fetishes.
Break The Cycle
2015's International Game Developers Association (IGDA) survey, which collected info from over 3000 game devs, found that a staggering 76% identified as either white, Caucasian or European with regards to their race and ethnicity. Whereas only a meager 3% of developers identified as black/African/African American.
There simply aren't enough developers that identify as black or other races of color working behind the scenes of the medium, which, in-turn, is one of the catalysts that drives the disparity. In an interview with Engadget, Treachery in Beatdown City dev and founder of Nuchallenger game studio Shawn Alexander Allen was candid with his views of the disparity of race in games:
"The games industry is hurting badly as a creative medium in terms of diverse voices. We don't see many prominent black or Latino (or really any other minority populace) representation in protagonists, critics, marketing or creators.
I mention prominent because while many other cultural forms like music, movies and writing have a dearth of black voices, they at least have people who are out there making their culture better at all levels and are very visible."
Allen is correct. Whilst there are a lack of black voices in various modes of entertainment, the games industry suffers under the stress of not being able to tell stories about its PoC fans, because there are next to none present in the medium. Which in turn leads to moments like this:
i09's Evan Narcisse hit the nail on the head when he went on to describe Deus Ex: Human Revolution's Letitia the Trash Lady as "the worst part of a very good game." Which is true. Imagine having a great time with a great game and then, all of a sudden, you get racially abused out of nowhere by a black woman fishing hotdogs out of a trash can.
The games industry desperately needs more black writers to tell stories about characters removed from the grizzled, angry white dude with a crew cut and a penchant for ultra-violence trope, so we can stop having black characters that "[embody] a strain of racist stereotype[s] that render black people as less than human, as the worst that society has to offer."
One of the tenets of creative writing is "write what you know." So it's about high time we had more organizations like LOFT & the Hispanic Heritage Foundation (HHF) laying the foundations for PoC creatives to build themselves a future in the gaming industry, and tell our stories. A move that wouldn't be too dissimilar to the brilliant Never Alone.
It would also be great to have more games that resonate with me on a deeper level like Remember Me, Assassin's Creed: Liberation, Broken Age, The Walking Dead (whose lead was still a black man heading to prison), and the wonderfully afrofuturistic Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan by Kiro'o Games. This move would be the more sweeter for all the kids that come after me.
Imagine a world where a game with a positive black protagonist permeates pop culture like a Mario or Sonic? That would be a wonderful day for everyone. I'm beyond sure of it.