Race in Video Games: Why it Matters... And Why Things Won't Change Anytime Soon

Why race doesn't matter in games... but it should.

A while ago I stumbled upon a Kotaku article talking about race and the portrayal of black video game characters. Being a black male myself, I took a quick look at the comments section below to see what others thought about this topic.

Most of the responses ranged from "It doesn't matter" to "Why should it matter" to "This is race baiting."

This got me thinking about my opinion on the matter.


First off - why does this matter at all?

Here's an example not based on race, but on location: The first time I saw Watchdogs I knew it was based in Chicago. Since I'm from Chicago, I instantly felt a connection to the game whereas normally I would just have looked at it as yet another open-world game with a big city.

Knowing it was set in my hometown formed a sort of connection that pulled me into something that I was familiar with. I was able to look at the buildings and the train and say to myself "Hey, I've been over there before!" And I wasn't alone; friends I showed footage to instantly recognized Chicago and became interested in the game.

Having game characters that reflect you in a positive and meaningful way can give you the same type of connection. Unfortunately, when I play a recent FPS, I'm usually a bald square-jawed white super soldier killing terrorists (COD) or killing zombies. Nothing's wrong with that mind you, I just don't feel any type of connection to what I am interacting with.

It all feels hollow.

There just aren't many lead black protagonist in video games.

Madden 25 or NBA2K13 are the only games in which I control a group of black characters.

To be honest I can't think of a game with an African-American lead character that I have ever played. The only game that comes to mind is Prototype 2, which I didn't play. I know there is Assassin's Creed: Liberations, but I don't own a Vita. Madden 25 or NBA2K13 are the only games in which I control a group of black characters.

That's not to say there aren't supporting characters. You have Cole from Gears of War, Eli from Half Life, Louis from Left 4 Dead and even Coach and Rochelle from the sequel. But in terms of main characters, the variety is lacking.

And the few black characters we do have seem extremely shallow.

When I see my race represented in video games we are typically:
  1. Thugs whose only motives are to smoke drugs and get money (think GTA 4's Jacob).
  2. Extremely violent characters who hold gatling guns and shoot everything in sight.
  3. A Rapper/artist whose sole purpose in the game is to get famous and sign a recording contract.

I understand that certain game developers do not have the knowledge to be able to understand black culture beyond certain tropes and stereotypes. I also understand that most of this is not because they blatantly don't want blacks to lead in their games--it's just because they have more experience or are comfortable with other races. I also understand marketing, and I know in order to tailor to your target audience you must adjust what you are selling to make it look like who you are selling it to.

These things we cannot deny. Yet when we look at American demographics, minorities now represent a huge part of the population according to census data.  One wonders when will our entertainment will start reflecting the diversity this country has.

Frankly, it's hard for you to care if it doesn't affect you.

Most of the people in the comments section on Kotaku's website, I'm assuming, are young white men. It's not really surprising to me to hear that most of them don't understand the need for diversity in all forms of our entertainment. If when you buy the new Call of Duty, Watchdogs or Assassin's Creed and everyone already looks like you, why would you care?

I think we as gamers need to take a lesson from the movie industry on how we can start embracing diverse types of people in our media and put them in leading roles.

I'm not proposing affirmative action for video games.

I don't want game developers to throw black characters in games just to meet their "diversity quota." That's how the little Jacobs, Sam B's and the like get created. What I would like to see is a genuine character-driven video game that really builds up the story on a black (or any other race/sexual preference) character. I would like to see them pushed to the forefront instead of sidelined and side kicked.

When you think of a game like Bioshock Infinite, with all its themes of race and religion at play, I wonder how much better that game might have been if Elizabeth was black, or Booker Dewitt was Native American or Hispanic.

Sadly, this won't change for the foreseeable future.

Until we get more software developers and art directors of a diverse background, we won't see more diverse characters in our video games. And since blacks make up less than %1 of the workers in the technology field, we're still a ways off from that.  We also have to deal with the stigma that if you put something out that does not fit with what society is used to, they will push back.

But games are just games... Right?

We must be bold... not settle for simple-minded gangsters or scantily clad woman.

There is no real reason game developers should change their ways. I mean when you have games like Call of Duty selling through the roof every year why should you? If no one is asking for it, why should you? And if the market you are targeting are not minorities then why make the change at all? Games are just forms of art right? Why should art be dictated by what a few individuals want personally? Why see color at all? The game is about the game at the end of the day and not about skin tone. These are all valid points that  I have heard made by my peers.

But my response would be if we wish to push our medium forward, we must also put forth fresh perspectives and new ideas. We should not be scared that a black face or a red face or a woman's face will scare off potential gamers. We must be bold and not settle for simple-minded gangsters or scantily clad woman soldiers on the battlefield. We must be INclusive and not EXclusive to all forms of people in our medium.

And most of all, I think we can all do better than this.

Published Sep. 9th 2013
  • John_4549
    Morpheus is a black lead role (of course in a movie) and likeable guy.

    I think the reason there're not many african american black developers is probably because whities tend to be wealthier. More wealth means better schooling and more access to computer technolgoy and so on. So it's a question of access and building up poorer neighorhoods so they can do well in the 21st century.

    I just looked up the stats and on average white families have 6 times more wealth than black or hispanic families. In terms of income alone, white families have twice the income compared to black or hispanic families.

    Most of this if not all is just the result of it being hard to make poor people into middle class people and hard to overcome past prejudice. We're still recovering from segregation due to racism. It's also the result of the underlying drug culture that has invaded the poorer neighorhoods, making it harder for them to make a leap into a better life. It's about being poor, not the color of your skin.

    It's hard to change people, whether they're victims of prejudice or not. And there're a lot of inertial forces that add to this problem by keeping people down.
  • Mech-Phree_1557
    Featured Contributor
    I agree with the lack of resources. Like I stated in my article , blacks make up less then %1 of the technology field. If you look at that stat you might say "well I guess they aren't just interested" but I would tell you no, many young black teenagers and adults are interested in technology. It's just the fact the school systems we are brought up in don't foster that interest into a actual career where you can make money

    Sadly, many of us don't see the benefits of becoming a software engineer or computer programmer or game developer because it is not presented in a way that can make money (when those jobs pay close upwards to $100,000+ a year)

    Another stigma some of us have, which truely is saddening is that if you are into tech you may be labeled as a "geek" or "being white". So this may cause you to shy away from those fields.
  • Synzer
    Guide Editor
    Yeah, a lot of games have character creation now and I usually make my character look the way I want it to. for example, I made my character black in the Mass Effect series and because I played it that way first, it just looks right to me. whenever I see another commander Shepard, including the cannon one, it just doesn't seem right.

    When it comes to story or how I feel though, the race or gender doesn't matter to me. If the story is good, the characters have depth, and there is emotion, I will feel for them regardless.

    It probably might be because there aren't many black people making video games, but still it just kinda depends on the situation. I've written several stories that don't have black main characters or even black characters at all. I do have some, but I just make them how I feel they should be in the story.

    I don't think there really needs to be a huge diversity when it comes to games, but it is nice to see it mixed up for a change. This comes back to my point about character creation and with a wide array of options.

    I do agree that there could be more diversity, but it doesn't matter much to me if there isn't. Also, to make things clear, I am also a black male.
  • Mech-Phree_1557
    Featured Contributor
    When I pick up a game I never look at it as "is this guy black if not then no" . I look at it more on the levels of if the story is good and the character seems logical I can invest in it. I guess what I'd really still like to see though is more diversity because it can allow for a deeper story telling expression.

    In Assassins Creed Liberation, Aveline 's half black and half french I believe. She was able to disguise her self as a game-play mechanic and they were able to use her ethnicity to show off her motivation for wanting to become an assassin, as well as show a interesting story. Although I have not played the game my self I have read and heard about it enough to understand the basics.

    I believe when you use ethnicity and diversity in this way it can help expand on story and provide a fresh outlook to a game. In that sense, providing people with different ethnicity to play is two fold; it helps games have a stronger narrative and it helps gamers of diverse backgrounds relate to them more.
  • Vijemo Media
    That was a really good article. I believe a small fix to allow ANY gamer to connect further with the story would be as simple as a character creation option. I also understand that sometimes the storyline wouldn't allow for it, but think of games like Saints Row. Great customizatiom, and it doesn't affect Storyline or anything.
  • Mech-Phree_1557
    Featured Contributor
    I think that is a interesting feature in terms of character creation. I find sometimes it's hard in some games to even create a character that looks really like something I want to play. Saint's Row is a good example of being able to customize your character....although some of actions of those characters kinda fit certain stereotypes I listed it's a great way to start..
  • Amanda Wallace
    Former Staff Editor
    I know this isn't what you were saying, but if you're looking for a black character that eschews traditional stereotypes, you might consider the lead in the Walking Dead. He's a great character, African-American, strong, and a college professor. He has a questionable past, but it's part of his character, not his race.

    I think a lot of the problem with the lack of diversity in gaming, both from the perspective of race and gender, comes from a lack of diversity in the workplace. I was going to write a list of African American developers, and was unable to because I simply couldn't find any. I hope that changes.
  • Mech-Phree_1557
    Featured Contributor
    I agree , i've read up about that character from walking dead and he seems like a pretty good character. I think mostly this deficiency in diversity in our medium revolves around just the lack of diversity of people who help create games. Until that changes then we sill see the same thing.
  • Ron D.
    Allow me to point as Luis from Ballad of Gay Tony. He does not particularily fit your established ideas of black protagonists.

    Thugs whose only motives are to smoke drugs and get money (think GTA 4's Jacob). -- Luis is actually a really nice guy who happens to get dragged into nonsense by other people, particularily the guy he works for.

    An extremely violent character who holds gatling guns and shoots everything in sight. -- Luis is not violent and certainly does not shoot everything in sight. He isn't a stranger to brandishing a pistol when need be but he isn't a complete maniac. He only resorts to violence when he absolutely has to.

    The rapper/artist whose sole purpose in the game is to get famous and sign a recording contract. -- Luis isn't about being famous, nor is he a rapper. He just wants honest work but is always at the wrong place at the wrong time.

    I'mma leave it at that.
  • RetroGamer96
    Featured Contributor
    to be fair, he was referring to all games in general :)
  • Mech-Phree_1557
    Featured Contributor
    Hey Mech-Phree here, Thanks for the comment Ron!

    In response to your Luis analogy, I was not stating all black characters are in the 3 categories I pointed out in my example. I was stating a good majority of them are shallow/stereotyped and don't have a full story behind them to really explain flush out their character or motivation.

  • Mech-Phree_1557
    Featured Contributor
    Thanks for that, and I was .

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