Black characters in video games must be more than stereotypes of the inhuman
America’s “vision” of the Black male body is one of threat, menace, and labor. Unfortunately, that's exactly how they end up represented in games.
In the TIME Magazine article "All the Ways Darren Wilson Described Being Afraid of Michael Brown," the former Ferguson police officer describes the August 2014 confrontation that left the teenager dead: “When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding on Hulk Hogan.”
Wilson's description of an almost-inhuman rage in in the 18 year-old Brown made headlines across the country:
“...he looked up at me and had the most intense and aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”
Critic Austin Walker put it best: "When Darren Wilson says he saw Mike Brown as ‘a demon’ the problem isn’t with his eyes, it’s with what America told him demons look like." In other words, Wilson saw Brown's anger not as a valid emotion from a person targeted and harassed by a police officer, but as supernaturally threatening.
America’s “vision” of the Black male body is one of threat, menace and labor. And unfortunately, media representation follows suit: Black men in fiction are imposing, hulking, brutish figures. While many games add Black male characters for the sake of “diversity,” the representation of Black men in games is embarrassingly uniform.
There's Jax from Mortal Kombat, Barrett from Final Fantasy VII, and Cole from Gears of War: All robust, muscular Black men, all above 6'4" with military or athletic experience and loud, brash personalities. Jax and Barrett’s open shirts emphasize their built chests, while their cybernetic enhancements, covering their arms and biceps, further emphasize how dangerous their arms are. Batman: Arkham Knight's Albert King and Street Fighter's Balrog are much the same, just without the armored fists. They wear boxing equipment instead, much to the same effect—highlighting their physical strength.
Jax, Barrett and Balrog all first appeared in the early to mid 90’s: Balrog in ’91, Jax in ’93 and Barrett in ’97. While the contemporary racial anxieties about gangsta rap, gang violence and the War on Drugs no doubt influenced their design, it’s striking how they’re indistinguishable from characters like Cole (2008) or Albert (2015), who debuted decades later. Has our perception of Black masculinity changed at all in the last 20 years?
Consider the design evolution of Tomb Raider's Lara Croft’s design evolution since her debut in 1996. She is continually revisited, and her 2013 redesign—a plausible muscular figure and sensible clothes had replaced the iconic cone-shaped breasts and hot shorts— was celebrated as representative of a shift in the industry’s views on women and women gamers. But the staid design of Black men over more than 20 years illustrates the cementing of tired, racist anxieties.
Lara’s redesign is often credited as a refutation of the “male gaze.” To refute the “gaze” means to articulate how the subject of the gaze is shaped by the misperceptions and prejudices of the spectator. Will the games industry respond to critique of the “white gaze” and evolve designs of people of color, particularly Black men? To see the white gaze in action, compare Wilson’s description of Brown to the first time Heart of Darkness author Joseph Conrad writes about his first time seeing a Black man in 1899:
“A certain enormous buck n----r encountered in Haiti fixed my conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal to the end of my days. Of the n----r I used to dream for years afterwards.”
Conrad and Wilson’s descriptions are united by the notion of inhumanity—Wilson saw a “demon” while Conrad saw a “human animal.” From the white gaze, Black physical strength signified something inhuman: animalistic or supernatural. And so when the image of Black men in games uniformly emphasizes their bodies as muscular and dangerous, we have a problem: In the virtual absence of diversity within and among Black male characters, these physical attributes become definitional to Blackness itself. Part of this is genre—action, adventure and fighting games generally demand combat-ready men. However, white male characters aren’t held under a gaze that views their physical prowess as inhumanity.
Greater diversity among the Black men portrayed in games—diversity of their bodies, their minds, their motives and personalities—is entirely possible, because it already exists. Larger scholarship on Black representation incorporates the concept of the diaspora, or "peoples living outside their traditional homeland," Literature on the African diaspora transcends the routinely linear concept of “diversity” because it globalizes the nuances of Blackness to include African Americans, Afro Latinos, Black Europeans, African and Afro-Caribbean natives. Interestingly, the few Black men who don’t use their muscles to fight—the warlocks, wizards, mages and mystics in games—are often modeled after African and Afro-Caribbean native peoples.
Fantasy RPGs can offer excellent insight into the politics of race and the concept of the diaspora. For example, in Bethesda's 2006 classic Oblivion, the player meets a rare Redguard mage.The Redguards are a race of Black warriors living in the deserts of Hammerfell.
"I'm Trayvond the Redguard, Mages Guild Evoker. Surprised? Yes, you don't see many Redguards in the Mages Guild. We don't much like spellcasters in Hammerfell. Wizards steal souls and tamper with minds. If you use magic, you're weak or wicked. My family didn't approve of my vocation, so I had to come to Cyrodiil for my education.”
Although a white-reading character has very similar dialogue in Skyrim, this sentiment from a Black character speaks to a diasporic cultural divide and thus a plurality of viewpoints from Black characters. This is in stark contrast to the uniformity in design and personality from Black characters for the past 20 years.
“Black magic”—magically inclined, Black-reading characters—have become the primary way for designers to explore less repetitive designs for Black men. Soul Calibur's Zasalamel is an African man who wields a scythe and uses magic as part of his moveset. Insteaed of emphasizing his muscles, his white robes and lunar iconograpy imply a religious figure. He’s later revealed to be an ancient African mystic doomed to endless reincarnation for tampering with powerful magics. Although he initially seeks his own death, he later accepts his fate and becomes a benevolent protector for all mankind. This doesn’t make him “better” than his genre counterparts Jax or Balrog, but shows the many narratives posibilities ignored by routine might-makes-right representations of Black men.
Of course, mystical characters outside the American diaspora don't always get to escape the white gaze. Diablo 3's Witch Doctor is a dark skinned man or woman in tribal garb, summoning zombie dogs and wielding shrunken head fetishes in battle. The Witch Doctor is a caricature of the Afro-Caribbean religion of Voodoo, where reverence for spirits and the ancestors becomes an exoticized ‘oogabooga’ mishmash that decontextualizes a complex religion and uses only the most easily recognized symbols and iconography. The Witch Doctor’s very similar, in terms of aesthetic design and how blatantly it borrows from stereotypes, Street Fighter II’s Dhalsim, an "indian Yogi" character sporting face paint and a necklace of skulls, who debuted to very similar criticism in 1992. Black magic can be an interesting way of exploring the diaspora, but it is no panacea.
Thinking about white gaze and the diaspora when designing Black characters would provoke crucial questions. If a designer is asked to create a "Black" character, they must ask: what does the developer mean by 'Black'? Are they African American? Afro-Carribean? An African native? How can I convey one vs. the other? Are they supernatural in some sense? Are their powers somehow rooted in their ethnicity? Do they have to be? What does my design say about how I view Black peoples? What message am I sending players about people of color in my game’s world?”
Character designs carry both implied and inferred assumption about Blackness. It's crucial that we go beyond just "diversity" to demand genuine engagement and accountability from designers. We must ask them to stop taking for granted the complicated meanings of race and their characters' colors.
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