/ Sidney Fussell / 7 am Wed, Dec 23 2015
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  • Black women are already superheroes

    Black women are already superheroes

    What can game developers do to better represent black women in games?

    “They need to get some fucking empathy,” says Tanya dePass, a campaigner for better representation inside game worlds and among those who create them. She curates websites, hosts podcasts, maintains the #INeedDiverseGames tag on Twitter, works as a diversity consultant and speaks at conventions and panels.

    Work is steady, but change is slow. For critics and activists, the pushback on inclusion is constant, from other gamers and the industry itself. DePass finds it baffling: “why don’t you all like money?” she asks.

    One of many black women disrupting an insular culture, DePass critiques games and offers an alternatives to often-toxic online communities. Hashtag activism this is not. As DePass notes, “change needs to happen from the ground up.”

    Lauren Warren is a contributor to Black Girl Nerds, an online community “devoted to promoting nerdiness and Black women and people of color.” In addition to panel appearances, cosplay showcases, TV spots and endorsement by Shonda Rhimes and others, BlackGirlNerds launched two new series profiling women and people of color.

    “I hope that the Women in Gaming and Diversity in Gaming series reach people who are interested in pursuing careers in the games industry, but may be hesitant because they don’t “see” themselves fitting into the existing corporate culture," Warren writes. "It’s no secret that our presence is lacking behind the scenes on the game development side, on streaming sites and at major industry events and publications. The larger the community, the more visibility we have and the bigger our impact will be in the future.”

    Warren says that substantive progress towards inclusion requires changing corporate culture, but also its perception by prospective employees. It’s cyclical: the more resistant toward change the industry becomes, the less that women and people of color will want to invest their time and energies into a potentially unwelcoming space. This breeds further insularity. The cycle continues—unless it’s disrupted.

    Samantha Blackmon is one of the creators of Not Your Mama’s Gamer, a feminist gaming community made up of podcasts, livestreams, critical essays and their latest project, Invisibility Blues, a video series exploring race in gaming.

    Blackmon told me that issues have gotten better over time, but many mistakes are still being made.

    Infamous_2_Nix“When I look at playable women of color in games now I have more hope, but I still cringe at the characters that fall back on old racist stereotypes and add things like “tribal” costumes and “urban” language patterns," Blackmon wrote, "or some clueless writer’s take on what those language patterns are."

    Color has meaning. And without people of color involved in the designing process, games are routinely unaware of these meanings. For Black women, this problem arises in a very specific way. DePass used the phrase ‘fantasy-black’ to describe the “not too black” design trope in games. As DePass notes, women in gaming designed to read as “Black” frequently have blue or green eyes, straightened or silver hair, or lightened or red-tinted skin. Preferencing black women who read as biracial or display some otherwise exoticized trait has troubling overlaps with colorism, discrimination based on skin color. Colorism is a serious societal issue, evinced both by the disparity in punishment for black girls with darker or lighter skin and the huge industry of harmful skin-bleaching creams.


    So while all women in games are subject to staid metrics of desirability, black women have their blackness negotiated in a way that assumes blackness itself is undesirable. (Conversely, black men in games are almost uniformly depicted as having very dark skin—their color is ostensibly measured according to metrics of threat and physicality.)

    “I know the lack of options is often the result of a lack of diversity amongst the development teams and there is no one present to advocate for creating and pushing these choices," writes Warren. "Real change would need to start there and then consumers will ultimately reap the benefits of having more realistic images to choose from in their gaming experience.”

    But instead of a robust and dynamic experience, players are instead faced with repetitive, one-dimensional and largely overlapping portrayals of Black women. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the overreliance on the “strong Black woman” trope. This derisive meme limits portrayal of black women in pop culture to, as author Tamara Winfrey-Harris writes, “indefatigable mamas who don’t need help [and] castrating harpies.”

    Black women in games are the no-nonsense arbiters of sass, toughness and attitude, but their emotional complexities are elided in order to present them as “strong.” This portrayal, as contrasted with portrayals of white femininity in gaming, is expounded upon in Winfrey-Harris’ exploration of the strong black woman:

    "Society remains uneasy with female strength of any stripe and still prefers and champions delicate damsels—an outdated sentiment that limits all women. But because the damsel’s face is still viewed as unequivocally white and female, it is a particular problem for black women. As long as vulnerability and softness are the basis for acceptable femininity (and acceptable femininity is a requirement for a woman’s life to have value), women who are perpetually framed because of their race as supernaturally indestructible will not be viewed with regard."

    And although it’s great that characters like Rochelle, Vivienne, or Jacqui Briggs are never damseled, this privileged status belies an assumption that black women never need help or need saving. This double bind is best summarized by Sofia Quintero, creator of the Feminist Love Project, who said the meme of being a “strong black woman” is “a way to practice resiliency and protect myself [but also] allows little space for me to be vulnerable, seek support, and otherwise be fully human.” In video games, where we demand our heroes be independent, both physically and emotionally strong and easily able to compartmentalize their private vs. professional lives, it’s very easy for developers to re-create the superwoman parameters of black femininity rather than challenge them.

    So what is gaming’s next step in diversifying its portrayal of black women? Latoya Peterson, Editor at Large of Fusion, recently launched The Girl Gamers Project, a web series interviewing women about gender, womanhood and games.

    Peterson says games need to focus not just on strength but on full personhood for black women.

    “I don't think it's accurate to paint all black women with [the same] brush of hero - we're complex, and the most fun characters to play are complex," Peterson wrote via email. "Being Mary Jane is a hit because Mary Jane Paul isn't perfect. Games haven't allowed me to explore a black woman in depth - the latest Assassin's Creed is on my list but I haven't played it yet. I think the best way to show the real lives of black women is to dive deeply into backstories. I loved playing as Karin from Shadow Hearts - something like that. Or 355 from Y: The Last Man, just playable. I want to see black women characters focus on their full personhood, the way that Drake, and Max Payne, and Niko get to be funny or quirky or dark.”

    Heroes aren’t human. And as Black women continue impacting this industry through criticism and community building, they open more and more spaces and opportunities not just to fulfill a role that counts as “diverse,” but to illustrate the diversity of blackwoman hood. In fact, many have turned to space itself as an inspiration.

    Catt Small’s Prism Shell was influenced by Alien, and Sophia Chester’s Cosmic Callisto Caprica Space Detective was influenced by 50’s b-movies and Mad Men. As gaming continues to evolve, hopefully we’ll see more black women as alien hunters, space detectives, wasteland explorers and—at long last—human beings.

    Illo: Rob Beschizza


    / / / /

    Notable Replies

    1. This was an excellent essay! Thanks for posting! Diversity matters in popular culture and it's something we should actively strive for, not something we sort of shrug our shoulders about. That means getting more diversity in the creation process as well as represented in various kinds of popular culture.

    2. I think this is probably partially true, but that can be solved in two ways - greater engagement on the part of people who make video games now in culture that is written by and for black women (in this case). By this I mean, reading books, watching films, etc (fiction and non-fiction) on the lives of black women and taking what those things have to say seriously. Of course, you can't ever replicate others experiences, but you can come to a greater (if not perfect) understanding by taking what they say seriously. ]

      Then, you can work to diversify the production end of gaming - actively seek out POC and women to help make games. And when they are there, actually listen to them and don't dismiss their unique perspectives on the world, even if they don't fit their experiences.

      Both of these require people to take a humble stance in that they don't know "the one true way" the world works, and they have to admit that the experiences of other people matter just as much as theirs does. Once again, you can never fully understand other experiences, but there are just too many people unwilling to even attempt to understand.

    3. I think it's the whole "stereotype that's positive" thing? Like, a black woman is not a REAL black woman unless she's like Foxy Brown or whatever. An Asian isn't a REAL Asian unless they are good at math. Etc. It still denies them the messiness of being fully human, I think is the point the essay makes.

    4. From what I have seen and read, for some developers and authors it's used as a cop-out to not have to worry about writing about POC characters - and it's often the same excuse used for a lack of female characters.

      I mean, if you look at most devs or authors, they can write realistic characters when they want to - space rangers, medieval soldiers, superheroes, dwarves, elves, whatever - without experience as that particular character. So it's really just laziness or recalcitrance on the part of creators to put the effort into realistic POC characters without relying on stereotypes.

      LIke @Mindysan33 says, it's not difficult to make the effort. The effort just needs to be made.

    5. @Mindysan33 hit most of the big points. The best solution is to hire more POC and female developers because they'll be offering authentic, lived experiences which is the most valuable tool in making diverse characters.

      The other is to understand that western society sees whiteness as the default. In fact, I'd argue that this is now a global concept because of imperialism. Mindy touched upon this when she mentioned that minority characters aren't seen as "real" unless they ascribe to a prescriptive archetype.

      Minorities are viewed through a binary lens. An Asian guy is seen as either representative of his entire race or an outlier. A sexless Asian nerd on TV is seen as representing all Asian men. It's how you expect an Asian man to be portrayed. When an Asian male character who is sexually active and confident comes along, it's viewed as (1) inauthentic, (2) atypical ("a bad Asian"), or (3) pandering. This is all rooted in the assumption that sexually active Asian men or confident Asian men don't exist, or rather, they shouldn't be allowed to exist. Asian workers who display dominance in the workplace are viewed as uppity by their white peers because it doesn't fit the narrative they have in their heads of how Asians are supposed to act.

      Meanwhile, white characters and white people are seen as individuals. None of them are ever avatars or outliers. When you see an awkward white nerd on TV, no one sees a white nerd. They just see a nerd. When you see a white gangster on TV, no one sees a white gangster. They just see a gangster. There's no inherent racial association with emasculation, criminality, or deviancy when it comes to white characters.

      Now, all that said, how do you make interesting minority and female characters? Easy. You write them, first and foremost, as individuals.

      I did a Q&A a few weeks back with Scott Alexander, the head writer who handled the Shadow Warrior reboot. I hated the original game when I was a kid. To this day, it's still one of the most appallingly racist titles I've ever played. The original Shadow Warrior derived all its humor by turning Asianness into a minstrel show.

      Which is why I was so impressed with how Alexander rebooted the series. Usually when stuff like this gets rebooted, the characters in question get whitewashed (as was the case with The Mandarin in the Iron Man movies), alienated so far from the source material that it might as well be a new character, or completely shelved altogether. The new dev team managed to find that sweet spot of presenting the new Lo Wang as a fully humanized, engaging character without compromising his Asianness.

      How'd they do that? Well, they did away with the short hand racial stereotypes used to describe the character. You get shitty characters and stereotyped characters when you build from the outside in.

      Who was the original Lo Wang? Well, he was Chinese, he was really good at kung fu, he used samurai weapons, and he was arrogant. If you start building a character that way, then you end up with a snowball of even more problematic traits, so the original Lo Wang was also incredibly sexist (preying into western notions of misogynistic Asian men), arrogant, and macho.

      Wild Hog Studios decided to take the opposite approach by building him from the inside first. Okay, so first step, toning down those racially charged yellow peril undertones from a time when the white world thought hordes of Chinese men would rape all the white women and establish a Chinese world order. That absolutely has to go.

      But being an arrogant, macho dude is kind of Lo Wang's appeal, as well as his Asianness. How can you preserve those qualities while keeping him from feeling too over-the-top? Well, you put him down a peg by introducing a companion character who constantly makes jokes at his expense. That way he can't ever get too cool or macho, and it's in those moments where Lo Wang's humanity comes out. You see his inside, not just his outsides.

      The new Lo Wang is a bombastic action hero in the John McClane and Bruce Lee sense, but like those heroes, he also deals with personal struggles. Throughout the game, Hoji is speaking through Lo Wang's head, constantly scrutinizing everything he does. Sometimes he makes Lo Wang feel like an ass, and sometimes he's surprised when he sees Lo Wang in some moments of vulnerability and tenderness. Lo Wang might be a demon slaying badass, but he still embarrasses himself by messing up simple tasks and feels guilty for letting down his friends. We may not all be demon slaying badasses but everyone can relate to those things.

      And to top it all off, Shadow Warrior 2013 turned Asian culture from being the butt of the joke to the central appeal of the game. In 2013 Shadow Warrior, being Chinese is part of why Lo Wang is cool. It's why his weapons are cool. It's why the mythology of the world is cool. It's the same reasoning behind The Boondock Saints -- Conner and Murphy are cool because they're Irish. Their Irishness is never treated as something to demean and laugh at.

      True, but as a geek of color, I gotta say, I'm getting pretty sick of fantastic racism. One of the running jokes among game journalists is that videogames are the only medium where you'll see more orcs, dragons, elves, robots, and aliens than you will women and minorities.

      The trope itself is not inherently bad, but it's just so overdone. Okay, so your game is exploring themes of bigotry and prejudice using make-believe creatures. Yeah, you and 5 other titles this year. Part of this is because the cultural diet of most game designers has been typical geek shit -- sci-fi, fantasy, anime, pop action films. That's why you never see games about sex trafficking or police brutality or domestic abuse, but there's no shortage of games about a post-apocalyptic world or "the depravity of man" or whatever.

      BioShock Infinite came really close. Before release, Ken Levine was bragging about how the game would be exploring all these touchy social themes like Manifest Destiny, systematic racism, religious fanaticism, and American Exceptionalism, all very relevant issues today. Awesome! Then when the game came out, it turns out all that was just advertising fluff. All those themes get completely dumped by the second half of the game when it becomes about infinite universes and different dimensions, so in the end, BioShock Infinite was yet another typical geek game.

      Like, it's insane how we've never seen a game like We Are Chicago until now, but I can name a dozen games featuring Space Jews or the Trans-Elven Slave Trade.


      Write women and POC characters with the same consideration that's given to white male characters. Treat them as individuals, which means you're building them from the inside-out. Often the best way to achieve this is simply hire more women and POC artists.

    Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

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