lack of black characters in games

#GamesSoWhite: Why are we not discussing this?

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This weekend we have the Oscars, which have become a source of controversy, when it was noted that not one black actor received a nomination. Jada Pinket-Smith released a video highlighting her disappointment and declaring that she wouldn’t be attending or watching the awards show. And #OscarsSoWhite was born and stars began to boycott. This has spawned #BritsSoWhite, which was created in response to the lack of black British, artists  represented at UK pop music awards, the Brit Awards. The snub comes despite huge chart success enjoyed by various grime artists, as well as recognition in the US. So, with all this focus on the ‘so white’ hashtags aimed at the film and music industry, isn’t it time we had #GamesSoWhite?

The question of ethnic diversity has been a hot topic in the UK, recently. Idris Elba recently made a speech to parliament, calling for more roles for black people on British TV. Other black, British stars have highlighted the fact that most of their acting work comes from the US because there are few black parts and even fewer black writers, directors and producers in the UK.

All this talk of ‘so white’ got me thinking about games and how entrenched the white default is and how it’s almost never mentioned. In contrast, the call for more women in games has never been stronger. This is progress, which is being pushed forward by things like women in games awards.

It’s disappointing to see that the focus on the sexism and gender disparity hasn’t fuelled a discussion about the lack of racial diversity in games.  You can pretty much count the number of games with black protagonists on your fingers – that’s how few there are. And on closer examination, those protagonists usually fall into stereotypical categories.

If we do get a black main character in a game, the men are usually thugs, criminals, pimps or rappers or all of the above. CJ from Grand

Black game characters
CJ is a well written character, but reinforces black stereotypes of guns and gang violence

Theft Auto: San Andreas is one of the best loved GTA characters, giving people a strong narrative that kept them glued to their console. However well written CJ is, he still falls into the ‘Boyz n the Hood’ gangland category – a well-worn path for black characters.

Games continually reinforce the role of black men as violent hoods with the likes of the 50 Cent games. There’s also the black man built like a brick outhouse, brandishing a gun and shouting urban slang for comic relief. Or the one with an afro and an unfailing love of disco and funk, even if it’s a cyberpunk dystopian future.

Where are the black Nathan Drakes or Joels from The Last of Us? The best example of the kind of black heroes we need, is Lee Everett from The Walking Dead, by Telltale Games. And guess what? The game developer that focuses on storytelling gets it right, when it comes to diversity.

#gamesowhite
Lee is a rare thing – a black, male character that’s strong, restrained and caring

Lee is strong, resourceful, smart and caring. The fact that he’s black is neither here nor there, in narrative terms, he’s just a great character. However, the fact that he’s black is important in cultural terms, because it plays with the assumption that all our heroes are the stubbly white guy.

Black women get slightly better representation, especially if they fall into the ambiguously brown category. Nilin from Remember Me is a classic example of the ethnically ambiguous female game character. In fact, my friend didn’t even notice she was black and just ‘thought it was a tan’. So, maybe not that successful then.

native american game characters
The most interesting thing about Delsin Rowe isn’t his cultural heritage.

Native American and Latino people also fail to get representation in games, outside the exotic side-kick or criminal. Assassin’s Creed III made some strides with Connor. Ubisoft worked closely with the Mohawk community, using their language and not falling on the mystical native trope. Delsin Rowe from Infamous: Second Son was another great Native American character. He was complex and likeable and central to a good story that didn’t rely solely on his ethnicity or stereotypes, which proves it can be done and doesn’t need to be financial suicide.

Whilst East Asians are the most represented ethnicity, after Caucasians, South Asian (Indian) people almost never feature. In fact, I can’t think of a single Indian game character, unless we’re counting the odd god or temple statue come to life.

But why is this important? Why can’t game developers just make the games they want and populate them with white guys because they are, largely, white guys and their audience is, generally, white guys? Well, it’s because I’m not white or male and I like to be represented.  And because the world isn’t just white and male. Because there are more stories and experiences and perspectives to be told.

Obviously, I’m not saying that the games industry is inherently racist and that’s why we don’t have more non-white characters. From all the people I’ve met, in the industry, that’s clearly not the case. However, the industry is overwhelmingly white and male, from the developers to the execs and the specialist press. And that’s part of the problem.

A quick glance at the gallery for last year’s MCV Awards, the biggest industry awards in the UK, reveals a sea of white faces. Okay, it’s an unscientific analysis, but a reasonable gauge. We have a lack of diversity in our industry, on so many levels, whether it’s gender, sexuality, race or people with disabilities. And until that changes, we have to rely on the current custodians of our gaming culture to inject diversity into the characters and stories they tell.

The white, middle-class male is the guardian of the games industry and they have the power to beat Hollywood to creating the first black Bond or Bourne. We can show Hollywood how it’s done. All it takes is a moment to consider – ‘hey does this character have to be white or male or straight or non-disabled?’

I don’t blame developers for their choices, it’s so easy to perpetuate the white, male default. I write fiction and I’ve had to face up to the fact that I do it. White is my default because that’s what I’m fed in films, books, TV, games and to a lesser extent, comics (where there is historically, more diversity). That’s a terrible confession to have to make.

I’ve recognised my default as an issue and on my most recent writing project, asked myself ‘what happens if I make this guy a woman? And what if she’s mixed race?’. It threw up some interesting new story dynamics, but most things didn’t really change. However, it means that I’m now writing a script with a part for a black woman, if it ever gets produced. By asking two small questions, I created opportunities and game developers can do the same.

When developers start putting more women and minorities in games, players from a broader swathe of society think that games are for them. They consider a career in games and the industry becomes more diverse. It’s like an infinite diversity loop – that’s what we’re aiming for. Okay, so white gamers won’t get to see themselves reflected in the hero all of the time, but that’s okay, you’ll cope. Trust me, I know.

As gamers and critics, we can also play a part by supporting developers.  Tauriq Moosa’s great piece on Rust and the lack of black faces in Witcher 3 certainly raised the debate and prompted the prerequisite backlash. I don’t think it’s always productive to call out specific games because you get the knee-jerk reactions and the point is lost. However, we do need to celebrate when games get it right, which they sometimes do and we also need to to have the discussion #GamesSoWhite.

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