here I am, a few years back, firing up Baldur's Gate for
the first time. This is gonna be great! A huge multi-disc CRPG with
a decent storyline and tons of gorgeous artwork, the reviews tell
me. I can't wait. First things first, though; gotta create my avatar.
Forget the suggested, pre-built person they give me -- this is my
big chance for self-expression. I'm looking through the portraits
available trying to decide what kind of a person I'm going to be.
Nice selection. Hey, there's a black woman! I can play a black woman!
They're scarce as hen's teeth in computer games. She's got her head
tilted back and her eyes half-closed in the snootiest expression
imaginable, and she's holding out her hand for it to be kissed -
what an attitude! I warm to this lady immediately. I'm gonna be
her and we're going to be a Heroine together.
I play along through the game for a while, gathering my posse and
talking to bartenders and killing things and selling slightly dented
armor down at Ye Olde Dented Armor Shoppe, the way you do, and after
a while I decide to check out the gnoll fortress. After seriously
whomping on a whole lot of gnolls, I come across this female mage
being kept prisoner down in a pit. So I get her out of the pit and
she joins the party. She's called Dynaheir (weird name… a descendant
of Alfred Nobel, presumably). Her stats are pretty good, but she's
an Invoker, limited in the kinds of magic she can perform. She'll
do until somebody better comes along.
there's something odd about this woman. Unlike everybody else in
the game, the clothing in Dynaheir's portrait doesn't match the
clothing that her character is wearing in the main window. In fact,
her character's clothing really matches my portrait. What's going
quick look at a Baldur's Gate fan site gives me the answer.
I've accidentally stolen Dynaheir's head. I unknowingly used her
portrait for my own character, so the game has substituted a different
one for Dynaheir, one that doesn't match her character. The Heroine
of this story wasn't really supposed to be a black woman. There's
only room for one black woman in this game, and she's a second-rate
mage being kept prisoner in a pit.
this isn't meant to be a criticism of Baldur's Gate. It's
a wonderful game, one of the best I've ever played. But my experience
does point up a longstanding problem: there aren't enough minority
characters in games, and the ones we do have are confined to too
narrow a spectrum of roles. Back in 1999, the New York Times
ran an article called "Blood, Gore, Sex, and Now Race: Are
Game Makers Creating Convincing New Characters Or 'High-Tech Blackface'?"
It was a worthy question then, and one that doesn't seem to have
received an answer in the intervening four years.
first black character that I can remember in any video game was
Julius "Dr. J" Erving, in one of Electronic Arts' first
titles, Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One-on-One, a basketball
game. The machines it shipped on had such limited graphics capabilities
that it was essential for the athletes to be different colors so
players could tell them apart. (If I remember correctly, Larry Bird
was white -- bright white -- and Dr. J was actually orange. The
background was black.) So began a long tradition of black characters
in games… as athletes. Tiger Woods has been a huge seller,
too, but that doesn't have much to do with black people in the larger
and more games are starting to feature rappers and hip-hop music,
and some games are beginning to incorporate black urban slang as
well, for its "cool value." There's a debate among black
game developers about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.
Some people think it means that games are finally starting to recognize
the energy and vibrancy of hip-hop and rap music. Others see it
as the publishers co-opting that music simply to put more money
in their own pockets -- primarily white pockets -- trading on the
popularity of hip-hop to sell games. A few people are concerned
that it could actually be a form of stereotyping.
don't have a personal stake in that debate, but I do know that publishers
follow the money. If it's financially profitable to include (or
exploit, if you prefer) hip-hop and rap, they will do so, and if
it ceases to be financially profitable, they will stop. My concern
isn't about whether the publishers are right or wrong in incorporating
this hip-hop and rap music and youth culture. My concern is that,
if that's the only way in which we depict black characters, then
it definitely is a form of stereotyping. If all our black characters
are cool young men spouting urban street slang, then we're ignoring
the rest of the black population, and creating an artificial impression
that that's what all black people are like. People don't stop being
black when they hit 25. They don't stop being black if they live
in the country or talk like Sydney Poitier.
I don't feel that this (as some would argue) is caused by a culture
of racism in the commercial game industry. If there is racism in
commercial gaming, it seems to me that it derives from ignorance
and inattention rather than malice. Of course, there will always
be a few examples of actual malice, in nasty homemade titles like
Ethnic Cleansing, but they're certainly not part of the commercial
mainstream. No retail store is going to stock overtly racist games;
no publisher is going to advertise them.
racism that derives from ignorance and inattention is still racism.
Japanese games often depict black characters with exaggerated negroid
features. Japanese developers may know that their domestic market
doesn't mind, but they probably aren't aware of how this will be
perceived in the United States, where there is a long, unhappy history
of drawing blacks with clownishly exaggerated features for its "humor"
the animé style prevalent in Japanese games traditionally
exaggerates everybody's features, so it's sometimes difficult to
distinguish between a peculiarity of the style and the influence
of an actual racist attitude. But regardless of the underlying intention,
a little more sensitivity couldn't hurt. An American developer probably
wouldn't ship a game to Japan that depicted Asian people with slanted
eyes and buck teeth.
The TV show Law & Order is one that seems to have gotten
this right. Set in Manhattan, it incorporates a complete cross-section
of Manhattan society. African Americans in the show are portrayed
as prostitutes and gangstas, but also as high-priced lawyers, doctors,
shopkeepers, teachers, and of course cops. The African American
characters aren't either tokens or stereotypes; they're people,
doing whatever it is they do. It's an example to learn from.
might be asking yourself, "Who cares? They're only games."
But games are not "only" games any longer; they're an
increasingly powerful and meaningful part of our society. They don't
merely reflect our culture; they help to create it. The answer to
the question "Who cares?" is "A lot of your customers,
actually." The same people who care that there aren't many
books written, or movies or television shows made about black people
(and Asians, and Hispanics, for that matter; or in Britain, Pakistanis
and West Indians). It's not just a question of finding work for
black actors; it's a question of acknowledging the presence of minorities
in society and making them feel included as customers we want to
reach. Just as little girls get tired of reading adventure stories
featuring only male characters, so black people get tired of playing
videogames that feature only white characters. Why alienate potential
buyers when the fix is so easy?
not as if there are no black characters in games - obviously we
can point to Barrett of Final Fantasy 7, Eddy Gordo of Tekken,
Taurus of Interstate '76, and others. They're fairly common
in fighting games. But in most of those cases minority characters
are included simply to add visual variety. The more important question
in my mind is, "Could Duke Nukem have been black? Could Lara
Croft?" Duke Nukem's attitude towards women is such that, had
he been black, 3D Realms would probably have been accused of portraying
black men as sexist. But I think Lara Croft could easily have been
black. Would Tomb Raider have sold as well? Maybe I'm being
naïve here, but I think it might. Men didn't have any trouble
getting over the notion of playing a female character; I'd like
to think that whites wouldn't have any trouble getting over the
notion of playing a black character. If they don't mind in sports
games, why should they mind with action-adventures?
any case, there's a lot more that we, as game designers, could be
doing. For example, we could deliberately play against type, reversing
the tired old stereotypes. Two film examples come to mind, movies
that were groundbreaking for their time: Lethal Weapon and
Se7en. Lethal Weapon was a mismatched-buddy flick
with a twist: instead of pairing a young, hip black cop with an
older, conservative, white cop, it gave us Danny Glover as the 50-year-old
suburban family man, suddenly having to deal with Mel Gibson as
his rash, hotheaded partner. In Se7en, made a few years later,
Morgan Freeman plays a quiet, middle-aged homicide detective who
always dresses impeccably and spends his evenings in the public
library, opposite Brad Pitt as the loose cannon. In both cases,
the combination is interesting and enjoyable. We don't often see
middle-aged black men acting as guides and mentors for young whites.
But we could, and we should.
possible to do this badly; a lot of what made those movies work
was the chemistry between Glover and Gibson, and Freeman and Pitt.
With actors of less stature, the result might have been awkward
or laughable. But the biggest hurdle was making the decision to
do it at all. For us, that decision is long overdue.
want to see Morgan Freeman as a lead character in a game. I want
to see Whoopi Goldberg and S. Epatha Merkerson. I want to see Sydney
freakin' Poitier, I don't care how old he is, I love the man. And
Denzel Washington and Laurence Fishburne and Queen Latifah and Beyoncé
Knowles. And Chris Rock and Halle Berry and 50 Cent. I don't want
only want to see them in urban environments, whether committing
crimes or fighting crimes -- I want to see them everywhere, doing
everything, being all kinds of people. Take all of Joseph Campbell's
archetypal character types: Hero, Mentor, Ally, Trickster, and so
on, and I want to see black characters in every possible role. Not
just as rappers and athletes. It's time the game industry gave minorities
their due as full-fledged members of the cast.