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Blackness in Video Games

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Black Character in video games in grand theft auto

My idol as a kid was Mario, from Super Mario Bros. It didn’t matter that he was an Italian plumber who looked Mexican, who’d been made for American audiences, by the Japanese. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t black. As long as I was in control and the most powerful weapon in the game, it didn’t matter that I was African American, either. For a small dark-skinned boy in 90s Chicago, this one thing gave me control in a city that loved showing me how little authority I had, outside of a TV screen.

But I grew older, I noticed the absence of strong black lead characters in video games, and I…kept it to myself. What could I do, anyway? Just like in movies from the 60s, blacks in games would be second fiddle to whites, such as in the case of Barrett Wilson of the massively successful role-playing game Final Fantasy VII, or just absent altogether, like in most of the Ghostbusters video game ports where they completely forgot Ernie Hudson’s Winston character. Mike Tyson got his own video game (Mike Tyson’s Punch Out), so clearly the industry was saying that playing sports is the best way to get your Moorish face onto a gaming console.

black video game characters, blackness in video games, blacks and video games, black excellence Of course I’m aware of race issues in America, as any black person who’s ever been pulled over unjustly can’t help but notice, but I hate to fathom that part of the problem could lie in gaming—that the lack of black figures, and the treatment of black characters in games, may have a direct correlation to a rise in bigotry and ignorance. Research of gamers shows some interesting results. Some gamers even went so far as to say, based on how African American game characters are portrayed on consoles, that people with my ethnic makeup deserved not only their tragic deaths in fantasies, but also their horrible treatment in life.

I find this to be the counter to how I feel when playing certain first-person shooters (FPS)’s, like Call of Duty, or 3rd person, open-world action-adventure games like GTA: Vice City. There are times when I’m actually happy the protagonist, who is the sheer embodiment of American white male blood-thirsty, raging masculinity, isn’t a person of color. The idea that someone who doesn’t look like me going on sprees of simulated violence affects me less, I believe. It is the classic idea of “what will they think of us?” that has been instilled in generations of young black and brown folks that still echoes inside me a little. When I don’t have to feel guilty murdering a series of pretend people with my non-black avatar, I feel free to do things most innocent Brothers are assumed to have done.

The industry currently receives 3% of its workforce from African Americans, which means, according to gaming convention organizer Avonelle Wing, “the industry has an even bigger problem with race than it does with gender.” With less output of inviting games crafted by people of color for people of color, it limits the scope of what we feel we can achieve.

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And in the world of conventions dedicated to digital sprites and pixels, the fantasy genre of StarCraft and World of Warcraft is overwhelmingly white. Professional African American gamer Tom Cannon says that looking into a crowd of fantasy role-playing games like Warcraft, is “literally like…find the black person.” But a conference of the Fighting Game Community (FGC) organizers, backers, and players most accurately shows off the diversity of the group as a whole. A major reason for this access and variety is that anyone can play anyone at a tournament.

black video game characters, blackness in video games, blacks and video games, black excellence Often, especially within the ranks of massive multiplayer online-role playing games (MMORPGs), teams are created online, they collaborate online, and then they perform online or in real life for cash prizes. Threats are tossed, obscenities and racist and homophobic slurs screamed, and feelings hurt. People tend not to talk that way when they have to challenge their opponents face-to-face. In the arcade environment, now, as in decades past, skill was the only true gauge. If you were winning, you were a superstar, regardless of race, sex, or language.

Pew Research shows that more blacks than whites believe gaming shows a negative portrayal of blacks. The interesting part, however, is that 47% of blacks, and 50% of whites, are unsure whether or not blacks are portrayed unfairly. I can understand the logic in not knowing, although I find myself baffled by, and a little angry at, this concept. How could people not know? Don’t they realize that this would be a major selling point for civil rights? Scores of racist whites could proclaim loudly, while stepping on the heads of the brown men they just shot for staring at their girlfriends, that this isn’t a hate crime because blacks are portrayed fairly in video games. I’m not trying to be funny, but I am stunned at the numbers.

 Image Name What I must mention is that rays of light are poking through the clouds of exclusion: 2016’s Mafia III and 2012’s Tell Tale Game’s The Walking Dead, immediately come to my mind as a win for black characters in gaming. Mafia III, despite its glitch-y mechanics and the fact that lead character Lincoln Clay is a battle-torn former soldier, which brings to mind obvious long-held stereotypes—as well as a couple horrible events from 2016, this game presents with a strong protagonist during the 60s in the deep South. It’s fun killing extreme racists who use epithets like “tar baby” or “shit heel.” And The Walking Dead video game, despite opening with the main character Lee Everett being escorted in the backseat of a squad-car for killing his wife’s lover, paints a beautiful, endearing picture of a leader other non-playable characters rely on during the most devastating of events: the apocalypse.

Progress is being made, and that’s something to be proud of. But more games need to be given this treatment of inclusion, more venues need to open so that people of color can feel like we’re wanted as more than crooks and killers, and the industry needs to try harder with its display of leading, playable avatars in major franchises. Fingers crossed and D-pads pressed, this won’t take another 30 years to realize.