One day in 2005, I saw my brother playing a game he called Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I shouldn’t have been watching this game since I was only eight and there were massive amounts of violence and profanity. But there was something that really resonated with me at that time: my brother was playing as someone that was black. This was surprising since in most games I would play, it was either an animal-like character or a white person that I controlled. The only games that I can remember playing from that time that had black playable characters were Beyond Good and Evil and the WWE games. But I felt like Carl Johnson, the main character in GTA: San Andreas, resonated with me because he looked like me.
Well, sort of looked like me.
Even though CJ portrayed many of the stereotypes our community should steer away from, just him being the playable character affected me deeply. Every other game that comes out usually features a white playable character. Look at some of the most popular series right now, such as Uncharted, The Witcher, or even Call of Duty. I enjoy these games, and some of them are my favorite games of all time. But they usually feature some sort of rough-looking white guy, which can be tiring to play as. This also isn’t good for promoting diversity in gaming.
Be prepared to see this every other game.
This is why I feel games like Mafia 3 and Watch Dogs 2 are necessary. Mafia 3 wasn’t the best game, but playing as Lincoln Clay felt like a fresh experience because we got to play as a black male who didn’t perpetrate any stereotypes. Watch Dogs 2‘s main character, Marcus Holloway, was also a character that wasn’t plagued with black stereotypes. They both fight injustices because of their race in their respective time periods, even though Holloway’s fight with racism is way more relaxed than Clay’s. These two characters show the reality of black people in American culture, and I feel that such representation is much needed in the climate that America is in today.
I remember the time around Mafia 3‘s release. We were only a few weeks away from one of the biggest elections in American’s history. People were freaking out because of the possibility of someone like Trump getting elected in office, which did happen. I remember waking up early in my college dorm the weekend after it came out and running to GameStop to pick up a copy, since I really enjoyed Mafia 2.
One thing I will always remember from the game is the message that plays once you start, telling you that this game strives to be authentic to the time period it takes place in. This gave me a chill because I’m not used to games taking on such a hot topic like racism. It made me realize how needed games like this are, because it felt true and represented injustices I and other people of color face every day. In short, I felt represented.
Lincoln Clay has no stereotypes in his character.
Characters like Augustus Cole from Gears of War, Barrett Wallace from Final Fantasy 7, or even Coach from Left 4 Dead 2 are not needed in gaming. Even though it is undeniable that they do bring character to their games, they are plagued with stereotypes like being a sports star or affiliated with sports, being musicians, cursing excessively, and being extremely loud. Stereotypical black characters in gaming can hinder the experience of the game or just downright insult the player.
The Opportunity Agenda published a scholarly piece called Media Representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys in which they explain the way black characters are stereotyped in media. In one section called “Distorted patterns of portrayal,” they explain that positive associations of black males are limited to “sports, physical achievement in general, virility, and musicality.” The article goes on:
“While the media’s version of America is populated by some black males intended to inspire, they tend to represent a relatively limited range of qualities to the exclusion of a variety of other everyday virtues.”
This isn’t a good thing because it limits our community as only being able to strive in sports and other physical or musical activities. This leads us to be limited in what we do and what we aspire to do, because the representation of us that we see is only doing a certain thing, so we start to believe that we can’t do anything else besides playing basketball or rapping.
We are more than the stereotypes.
In the TED Talk “More Than An Athlete,” New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett talks about how he was only seen as a football player but is truly more than just that. He always wanted to show his creative side by writing and making cartoons, and now he is expressing this creative side. This TED Talk resonated with me and with this topic in a few ways. He explains how you were looked down upon by your peers if you weren’t into things like sports and such. This is true, as I used to hide the fact that I was passionate about gaming when I was younger because I was scared my peers would see me as a “nerd” and bully me. It took me a lot of growing up to learn that I should be proud of what I like.
This TED Talk also shows the fact that not all black people look up to or are represented by sports players or musicians. I can attest to the fact because I remember the first time I played Mass Effect when I was 14, and I looked up to the character David Anderson. He was just this father figure and sort of a mentor to Commander Shepard, and he went against all the stereotypes of a black male in gaming at the time. I feel like he was a great representation of what a black male can be without verging into stereotype territory.
He was also pretty damn cool.
I didn’t get into the Final Fantasy series until just a few years ago, but I will always remember Final Fantasy VII because of how turned off I was from the game due to Barrett Wallace. He was loud, as the speech text would make him seem. He would curse at people like Cloud when he was mad, and he was also big and muscular. This seriously disappointed me, because it is not uncommon to find black stereotypical characters in Japanese media. Understanding what makes these things offensive and not playing into stereotypes of black people is something Japanese developers and anime writers need to learn before feeding into it.
A character we don’t need in the gaming or black communities.
Developers also have a problem with making black people the main antagonist or an “evil character” in games. One of the biggest offenders in this regard is Resident Evil 5. Since this game takes place in Africa, you are expecting to see a lot of black people. The problem is, you are playing as Chris Redfield, a white man, in the game who is killing a multitude of black people throughout. This led to controversy and backlash when the game was first shown to the public. I remember being on the playground in school during the 6th grade talking about this to friends, because I was such a big Resident Evil fan and this came as a huge shock. The same can even be said for Resident Evil 4, which has you killing a bunch of Spanish people as a gruff, white man.
Let’s not forget how they took Sheva, Chris’ black partner in the game, right off the cover for Jill in the current gen port. Good Job Capcom!
More non-stereotypical black representation can also expand the audience of the gaming community. Just look at Overwatch, a game that gathered a following of people who don’t really play video games largely because it has a diverse cast of characters. This doesn’t mean that Overwatch doesn’t promote stereotypes, as Lucio is a musician and soccer player and Doomfist is an evil character.
Look at the diversity!
This is not only a thing that people of color deal with. Women and other racial and sexual groups also don’t get a fair amount of representation as well. For example, women can be put in roles of being the damsel in distress who can’t fight her own battles, like Ashley in Resident Evil 4 or Krystal in Star Fox Adventures. Also, transgender people were misrepresented with the character Hainly Abrams in Mass Effect Andromeda, who was just a thrown-in transgender character who even gives her name before her transition, which trans people find disrespectful and offensive.
Let’s just never talk about this train wreck again
Another thing I have noticed is the lack of black hairstyles and facial features in games that allow you to create characters. This has been a problem I have complained about for years, as games like Fallout 3, Fallout New Vegas, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age all have one hairstyle (usually an afro) that could fit a black person and a dozen other hairstyles that would just look weird on a black person.
We need developers to start adding more black, playable characters in gaming, be they black males or females. We need more characters like Lincoln Clay and Marcus Holloway because there aren’t many, and that is a shame.