Being a Black man who feels as if his favorite art-form hasn't really done a great job when it comes to remaining racially inclusive within the framework of its stories and protagonists, I'm watching the incoming Watch_Dogs 2 and Mafia III carefully to see how well they stand up as narratives that revolve around the marginalized.
Will these tales of Black men, who teeter on the line between criminal and vigilante, actually attempt to go some way to subvert the negative stereotypes that follow us around like seagulls to trawlers, or are they simply throwing a dark shade of brown on a protagonist to make them appear more hip and edgy? A metaphor for the anti-hero who exists within two worlds at once.
These are the things that drew me to a recent post published by Polygon. Titled "Mafia 3 and the rise of a black anti-hero," the piece attempts to hinge itself on the juicy hook of the coming of a Black protagonist. But will this open world shooter turn out to be the thoroughly nuanced, well researched exploration of race that its historical backdrop invites?
The Rise of Clickbait
I believed that Mafia 3 and its attempt at creating a Black anti-hero to rally behind was an interesting proposition when its E3 trailer first came to my attention. I believed we were to expect a piece of work that is actually centered on a Black man's fight through a time of severe dissonance.
But after reading the statements made by Haden Blackman, Mafia III's lead developer, regarding the racial elements of the game, I have to say I'm fairly worried.
The Civil Rights era is one of great importance, because it was the time when we came together whilst being watched by the world, found our footing and puffed out our chests in the face of extreme prejudice. Where this game should play like an anthropological essay into why this hatred exists and how it effects the heart, soul and sinew of a person, to me it seems that ideal may have slipped past the devs.
Take this quote as an example:
"For me, the power of the medium is that we can put you into the shoes of this person and allow you to live out that experience."
This is problematic for a multitude of reasons, the main one being Blackness isn't like a pair of shoes you can just pop on for a few minutes and discard because they've got holes in them. I understand what he means about the medium. Video games do give you the chance to slip under the digital skin of different people, different races (sometimes), species and genders, but the way he says it sounds almost as if he's selling the "black experience." "Hey you! Yeah, you. Wanna know how it feels to be The Other without losing any of your privilege? Follow me, kid!"
What Blackman seemingly fails to grasp is that portraying Blackness as something criminalized and shady is the opposite of what I am wishing for. I can't speak for everyone. But I find this kind of representation problematic because if we can really just slide into anyone's shoes, then why can't we slide into the shoes of... I dunno a Black police chief or a Black lawyer or a Black superhero. Why so often the criminal?
You could say nearly all games contain negative representations of the human condition, but as a Black person faced with a significant lack of positive representation in games, it starts to grate a tad.
Enough with the CJs, the Sam Bs, and more Alyx Vances, Clementines and Charles Milton Porters (Subject Stigma)! Please?
Diversity By Numbers Or Content?
The word, or better the idea, of diversity was casually tossed around by Blackman in this article. Both Blackman and the game's lead writer, Bill Harms, are white men.
Blackman claimed to have a number of PoC's working on and around the game's narrative, but, when questioned, they refused to reveal an exact number.
These men, who are creating a game about an orphaned, Black Vietnam vet that returns to change the face of his home town, sought to find authenticity within the story by discussing the game's emotional resonance with PoC staff, actors and writers. For all we know, the lack of transparency means they could have just spoken to one person:
"We hired writers of different ethnicities and different backgrounds. We don’t have anybody on the team who lived in the South in 1968, but they have relatives who did, who gave us more insight into that. We tried to be sensitive and make sure we were doing our research.
We talked about it on the set when we were shooting with the cast, obviously many of whom are African-American. We’d talk through things with the cast and see what their thoughts were. We talked with people on the team who have African-American relatives who grew up in the 1960s, to see if that felt authentic."
If you want to tell a story about a Black character, research; read, listen, read, think, read and read again. Or, simply, write a person, not a stereotype. Whilst it is a nice gesture to seek the experiences of people who lived and fought in 1968, it’s not their job to explain to you the nuances of racism so you can pinpoint the exact cuss word to use to make it sound more authentic to a white audience.
What should be happening here is a writer, steeped in knowledge of the Civil Rights movement, whether Black or white, should actively seek the experiences of the people that lived and breathed at this time, and then wind their souls into the narrative. To me, it doesn't really sound like this was the case.
Language Of Authenticity
Another flag raised during the duration of the post was the use of authentic language:
Characters use the language of the time, including the worst racial slurs and insults, words that are rarely used in video games.
"We’re trying to be authentic to the time period. A bunch of gangsters are at war with one another. There are racial slurs that are used in order for their language to sound authentic."
But don't despair, reader, for poor ol' Lincoln won't be the only person facing racial prejudice in the game.
"It’s not always directed at Lincoln, or referring to Lincoln’s ethnicity. We have Italians. We have Irish. We have other groups in there. There’s harsh language you’ll hear related to that. We’re not trying to do it to be salacious or sensationalist. We’re trying to do it to make sure these characters sound authentic."
Hooray for inclusivity! At least there's diversity on that part!
I'm concerned that the devs have taken a very important topic, slightly fictionalized it somewhat and then threw in some bad words to make it seem like a comment on the times when all it could turn out to be is another 3rd person shoot-em-all-indiscriminately-up.
A Post-Racial Industry
According to the article, "the days when games were almost entirely about white men and were assumed by marketers to be consumed by white men are coming to a close." I didn't get that memo. In an industry where hundreds and millions of games are released and sold a year, there are two games approaching with Black protagonists that look as if they will continue to perpetuate stereotypes of rugged Blackness.
Don't get me wrong. When I say things like games aren't representative of a significant number of people that play them, I mean I want games that are steeped in realism, not stereotypes. Like, I won’t expect to see a brother or sister springing off walls and dashing ninja stars in Tenchu. But I should expect to see PoC warriors in a game like, for example, For Honor. Cause you can't tell me there weren't effective PoC warriors other than Samurai in the reams of history.
Though diversity is commonly judged by the number of PoCs a company has employed, we cannot for a second overlook the phenomenon as a state of mind. You could have zero PoCs working at your company, yet still create a piece of art that resonates with players due to its moral grounding, its subverting of stereotypes and its usage of characters bathed in reality.
All in all, I'll reserve my judgement until Mafia III releases, but I really do hope the narrative is well researched and cogitated upon, because it would be nice if this was a story that runs with realness that everyone can relate to.