Black Gaming Month
Happy Black History Month, everyone! Last month, I talked about how a negative experience with racial representation in games set me on the path of game studies. Today, I want to dig a little deeper into what it means to be Black in gaming.
As I write this post, a guest speaker in my class is showing us a picture of his indie studio team and praising its diversity. There are 0 Black people in this photo. I've seen many other photos like this from many other companies; the teams are generally white, often with a healthy number of East Asian people and a handful of women*. While the identities represented in these photos certainly are diverse, self-congratulatory attitudes within the games industry that call these dynamics 'good enough' consistently ignore the glaring absence of Black people in game development. This absence has implications that affect every level of gaming.
*LGBTQ people are also usually in these photos, and were explicitly pointed out by the guest speaker. They are not included in this list because these identities cannot be pinpointed at a glance.
The most visible result is a lack of Black characters in video games. While many multiplayer games have at least one or two Black playable characters and there are usually a few Black NPCs in most games nowadays, Black protagonists remain scarce. Of the 332 games released in 2019 (according to Game Informer's 2019 release schedule) only two games, Crackdown 3 and The Walking Dead: The Final Season had unambiguously Black lead characters. In 2018, the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) published a survey of 963 people in the games industry that found that while 61% of US industry pros are white, less than 1% are Black. Given the similarly abysmal proportions of Black protagonists to games released, I'd say lead characters in games roughly reflect these industry demographics--or rather, industry demographics are a decent predictor of what the typical game protagonist will look like.
Interestingly, as I parsed Game Informer's list, I noticed that a significant number of games had either non-human leads, masked protagonists, or customizable player characters. In recent years there has been a shift in the games industry that recognizes that a middle aged cis straight white man may not always be the most exciting or relatable choice for a lead character, especially in indie development. This has led to a rise in both faceless and endlessly changeable protagonists which allow players to project whatever image they choose onto the hero in these stories.
The question of player choice is one that frequently comes up in game development, and the protagonist is increasingly subject to that discussion. A protagonist who can be nothing you expect and everything you want all at once is appealing to this pillar of game design, but I have another perspective: avoiding the diversity of the human race and allowing endless customization are not catch-all solutions to the gaming industry's diversity problem. While they are more ready-made vehicles for player choice, their inclusion in a game should be as intentional as the most carefully designed puzzle because representing everyone in this way doesn't uplift anyone.
Since the dawn of entertainment media, white male perspectives have been privileged above all others and for decades we have seen white men occupy space in every imaginable corner of our world and countless others beyond. We are culturally incapable of seeing a white man and assuming we know everything about him. The rest of us must contend with narrow, hurtful, inaccurate, dangerous stereotypes to be seen as fully human. When players are met with a protagonist who can be anything they want, they will most readily project their own image, or the image of a more privileged person. The average white gamer will not imagine a Black woman under the space warrior's helmet because he has no reason to think she should be there when every interstellar game he has played prior to this one has featured faces like his. But the Black gamer may automatically picture that white face she's seen a hundred times if she cannot dare to dream herself into space.
This brings me to the gaming community. It isn't news to anyone that this community is profoundly toxic and actively hostile toward non-cis straight white male gamers. I believe this is in large part due to the absence of positive and nuanced depictions of minorities in games; our absence on screen makes our presence in gaming spaces inconceivable. And while things have improved (albeit marginally) for women and LGBTQ characters in games as more creators with those identities have entered the industry, the existence of Black people in games has remained stagnant at less than 1%. Even I have to admit that, as a half-Black person who grew up in a predominantly white area, I was surprised to see so many Black people at my first anime convention in Atlanta. Atlanta. But what a profoundly joyful moment it was, to have believed my whole life that my interests somehow whitewashed me and to be abruptly, wonderfully disproved by stepping into a community of gamers, anime lovers, and cosplay enthusiasts that, for the first time, looked like me.
Ultimately, this is all about visibility. We need Black leads in games principally to encourage Black children to imagine themselves everywhere, to see their possibilities as limitless. But imagination is not enough; we also need these characters to foster safe environments for Black gamers by normalizing Black people in gaming spaces to gamers of all races (particularly white gamers). On top of it all, we need more Black designers and developers working in the industry and telling these stories, their stories, and uplifting other Black people with a passion for games. I'd like to take a moment to uplift some of these voices:
JP Jupiter is a narrative designer and transmedia storyteller. She's worked all over the entertainment industry, in film, television, and comic books, and is now creating stories for interactive media and live immersive experiences!
Jazmine is a project manager and twitch affiliate (check out her channel PrettyBrownandNerdy). She is also promoting Black people in the games industry for Black history Month on her Twitter using the hashtag #29DaysOfBlackGamePros.
Timothy S. Davis is a technical game designer and producer. He has worked in both AAA and indie game development and aims to create emotionally impactful interactive experiences.
Who are some of your favorite Black game characters and why? Are there any upcoming projects by Black game devs that you're excited about? Let me know in the comments!
EDIT: Prior to the publication of this post, Fortnite player Daniel "Dubs" Walsh said the n-word live on another player's stream. Yesterday (Feb. 29th), he was suspended indefinitely and required to undergo sensitivity training by his ESports organization FaZe Clan for his use of hate speech. Irony of this timing aside, this is nothing new for the gaming community, particularly in streaming. This Twitter thread does an excellent job of deconstructing the problem with white gamers/streamers using racial slurs. Rather than reiterate her words here, I want to acknowledge that there are larger societal complications that contribute to this toxic facet of gaming culture. Basically, white gamers aren't the only white people casually saying the n-word. One of the hardest things about being Black in any space is reckoning with the fact that a significant number of white people around you at any given time regularly use the n-word and hold racist beliefs privately. Clearly they know it's wrong because they won't admit to any of this in front of you--even Dubs can be heard going into a spiraling panic immediately after using the slur and realizing that he's live in the video (previous link).
The disingenuous apology tours are insufficient. The people yelling that using slurs isn't a big deal are unhelpful. Having the same conversation every time a white person's racism is exposed is exhausting. But ultimately, it's worth it to keep speaking out. A few years ago, an incident like this likely would have begun and ended with an apology. Personally, I think the suspension and training swiftly delivered by FaZe is a huge step that we probably wouldn't have seen if not for the efforts of Black gamers and allies. In a society where racism is entrenched in every foundation, it can feel hopeless to keep fighting when the problems remain constant and the victories small. A small victory, though, is still a win; I don't want to lose sight of that. At the end of the day, we probably won't solve racism in our lifetime--but we can make our communities safer, more welcoming places for the generations that follow by refusing to stay silent. Even if sensitivity training doesn't curb Dubs's private racism, it at least furthers the message that the gaming community is ready to take concrete steps toward inclusivity. This blog is one of the ways that I'm trying to advance inclusion in gaming, and I encourage all of you to do the same in whatever way feels right for you.