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The Need for Diversity in Video Game Protagonists

/ Jan 25th, 2013 No Comments

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children
Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children

Not to mention how horrifying that fishnet shirt is and that gruff sensual look.

When bringing up solutions that can help fix whatever perceived problems either the gaming public or gaming media seems to have with the current climate of video games, it generally speaks to changing whether there is an emphasis on gameplay, graphics, music or story. Usually with any of these, it is some intangible feeling or opinion that the person has about how video game designers and programmers should accomplish this. They want shorter games or longer games. It is about having games that do a million different things with gameplay or simply focus on one gameplay element making that one thing sing. Or it is about more original properties but with some familiarity to something they loved when they were kids. When it comes to stories in video games, it is often looking at plots without speaking on the characters that act out these stories. While there should be more original properties and games with better gameplay and stories with more thought and originality, there is something dire that does need to be addressed within video games more immediately than all of these valid concerns. That is the idea of representation because currently, video games are a sausage party full of primarily white dudes. It is a bit off-putting especially considering the consumers of video games are a wildly varied and diverse group. Essentially, it’s as Buggin’ Out said in Do the Right Thing, “We want some Black people up on the Wall of Fame”, but let’s also add other People of Color to the Wall of Fame as well.

This is not to say that there have never been any Black characters in video games. They have and tend to have better visibility in games than other POC (which is a far larger issue). However, most of the time, Black characters in video games are written poorly or worse, stereotypically. The stereotypical roles that Black characters fall into seem to be what the video game industry is comfortable with when writing Black characters. It would be nice to place the blame squarely on either Western or Japanese developers as the main offenders of poor writing and stereotyping. Yet both Western and Japanese developers tend to have a problem when writing Black characters, both with some terribly offensive examples. Why is there a cognitive dissonance among developers when writing three-dimensional white characters and in the same game writing horribly clichéd Black characters? Is it that they feel that Black characters are too foreign and so radically different that they have to resort to cheap cultural signifies and codified popular slag/jargon to make them seem Blacker? Maybe it is not as insidious as that and just an example of poor writing because there have been several games with well-written, complex and fully fleshed out Black characters that don’t disregard cultural backgrounds, but also don’t make them the only function of the character’s personality. There is a tenuous history of Black characters in video games with some amazing characters and others that are hugely disappointing.

While there are some stellar examples of Black characters in video gaming, it is probably better to single out the terrible Black characters first. When mentioning Black video game characters, it is impossible not to start with the most stereotypical, which both come from Japanese developers in the form of Barrett from Final Fantasy VII and Zack from the Dead or Alive series. To understand better why these characters do not work very well, it is necessary to add another Square-Enix character, Sazh from Final Fantasy XIII. The problem with these three characters is not only do they never quite feel like real people (more so in the case of Zack), but it seems that the developers have only seen popular forms of media with Black people to draw inspiration from rather than interacting with actual Black people. This makes more sense when looking at Barrett as simply a stand-in for Mr. T from the A-Team. With Zack drawing inspiration from Dennis Rodman (but without understanding what made his peacock-ish hair and gender bending rebellious and radical). Whereas Sazh seems to be Square’s apology for Barrett yet rather than create a real character, they seemed to take an amalgam of various Denzel Washington performances, threw them in a blender and spat out Sazh with his Chocobo concealing afro. Sazh–unlike Barret’s gruff manner and constant swearing, or Zack’s shuck and jive–actually does have some real moments where he seems to have depth; but so much about his position within the group and in the world of Final Fantasy 13 makes it short lived. Of course, these are not the only problematic Black characters. There is Cole Train from the Gears of War series that manages to be a bigger caricature among a game series full of caricatures.

More recently, in Platinum Games’ Anarchy Reigns, there is the troubling character Blacker Baron. The fact that the only playable Black character is a pimp dressed in ridiculous pimp tapestry who looks like someone combined Barrett, Cole Train and Zack to form an outlandish cartoon is distressing. Baron speaks with plenty of slang and often his potency as a lover is called into question, which speaks to the tradition of emasculating Black men in various forms of media. With Blacker Baron, though, it is an odd case because at one point he points out his role as a token Black character. So it is curious to know how much Platinum Games might be commenting on the problem of Black characters in video games. Is it satire or simply another terrible character? The problem with all of these characters is that they are merely small parts of larger groups of characters where they are generally the only Black character. Thus, they end up being only token characters, instead of a commanding presence or three-dimensional character, these characters are filling a quota.

A gray area with Black video game characters takes form in the intersection of hip-hop and video games. The games that feature hip-hop artists are actually great instances of video games featuring majority Black casts. There is the early example of Activision’s Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style for the PlayStation. The game features some voice work from the members of the Clan, in addition to the Wu-Tang Clan’s music. The action game allowed players to choose one of the 9 members of the Wu-Tang Clan and fight various enemies on a quest to save the Clan’s slain martial arts master. As with most PS1 games, it has aged poorly, but it was fun to play through an original story as Ol’ Dirty Bastard (it is a game where players can be ODB!).

After that, there was EA’s Def Jam series of fighting games (Def Jam Vendetta [PS2, GC], Fight for New York [PS2, GC, Xbox] and Icon [PS3, Xbox 360]) that allowed gamers to play as popular Def Jam artists of the time. The games featured such hip-hop luminaries as Ghostface Killah, Keith Murray, DMX, Big Boi, Scarface, Crazy Legs and WC, among many others. The series first two entries were more wrestling based, which makes sense given the long ties that hip-hop has had to the WWE. Then with a switch in developers, the series took a turn for the weirdly exploitative in Icon with styles such as Street Kwan Do and Muay Fly (although it had a style called Black Panther, so). The games were quite good and had fun gameplay. The series remains as snapshots steeped deeply in 00s era of Def Jam. There were instances of things that seemed to typify on cashing on the popularity of hip-hop and urban culture that pervaded the early 2000s with all the bling. However, it can be overlooked due to gamers being able to pit DMX against Capone. Oh and Danny Trejo showed up for some reason, so yeah.

The history of hip-hop and video games is not always full of the quirky and the good. It is hard to mention hip-hop video games without talking briefly about 50 Cent: Bulletproof and 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand. The mere existence of two video games where gamers can play as 50 Cent either hunting down hitmen who shot him (similar to him famously being shot nine times) or him and G-Unit fighting in a Middle Eastern country against terrorists is an astonishing feat. While the games played poorly and are the result of 50 Cent’s megalomania (much like his filmic autobiography), there is something fascinating about them. It is hard to call them good, but there is still something about the 50 Cent duology that is worthwhile.

Looking at the link between hip-hop and video games in regards to Black characters despite the good they do, there is a problem. It always seems like it is only okay for a large presence of Black characters when they are fighting each other or committing brutal violence. This also speaks on the fact that the majority of Black characters are in various fighting games (there is a huge disparity of Black fighting game characters than any other genre). While these games do a great job of prominently featuring Black characters in a substantial role, it is problematic that they end up fighting each other in them.

Half-Life 2

Alyx Vance is an angel sent down to save Freeman.

Thankfully, video games do not only feature problematic or stereotypical Black characters. There have been some truly spectacular Black video game characters. There are the cases of Valve’s Alyx Vance, Ubisoft’s Aveline de Grandpré and Rockstar’s Carl “CJ” Johnson. In Half-Life 2 and its various episodes, Valve introduced gamers to Alyx Vance, who became the partner of the game’s protagonist Gordon Freeman. Alyx Vance is the daughter of Dr. Eli Vance and she ends up helping Freeman out of a tough spot early in the game. Alyx is a smart, industrious, funny and charming character that due to Freeman’s silent protagonist role does heavy character development and dialogue lifting. She is not an escort character who is a hindrance to Freeman’s mission, but rather has her own strengths and useful skills that help Gordon on his mission. In later Half-Life 2 epsiodes, Alyx’s AI becomes improved and she has a more co-operative role with Freeman. Her wit, charm and resourcefulness make her a truly memorable character.

More recently, another great Black female, Aveline de Grandpré, was featured in Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation. Plenty of traits make Aveline such a fascinating and well-drawn character, many of which are written in the Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation Review. Much of what makes Aveline excellent is that she is a fierce warrior while not sharing the myopic view of her mentor, meaning that she thinks for herself. As an assassin, she shows compassion at times, but uses her strength and status as a free woman to help other slaves to freedom. She bucks traditional female roles, preferring to focus on business rather than marrying a man, a radical stance especially considering the time period. While Aveline is a wonderful protagonist, she does owe some thanks to D’arci Stern from EdiosUrban Chaos.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Officer Tenpenny is as crooked as they come and CJ is about to get caught up.

In 2004, Rockstar released Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the follow-up to the insanely popular Vice City and third entry in the open-world GTA series. San Andreas marks the departure from the east coast for the sunny beaches of the west coast in the California analogue in the GTA universe. Another big departure for the series is that unlike GTA III and Vice City, the game stars a Black protagonist in Carl “CJ” Johnson. Much like other Grand Theft Autos, the game draws heavily on specific pop culture tropes and sources, with San Andreas drawing from hood movies such as Menace II Society, Boyz in the Hood, Friday, among others and west coast gangsta rap (G-Funk). In addition, the game deals with difficult events going on in LA such as the rise of gang culture, police corruption, the LA riots and the explosion of crack.

The game begins with CJ returning from Liberty City because his estranged brother, Sweet informs CJ of their mother’s death. However, on his way home, CJ’s cab is pulled over and police officers arrest him. A crooked cop, Officer Tenpenny (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) steals his money and then threatens to frame him for murder unless he helps them in illicit activities. CJ must help get out from under these crooked police, reconcile his family situation and help his neighborhood from being overrun by rival gangs, and much more.

What made CJ such a great character is that he had such conflicted emotions. He never wanted to come back, and it took the death of his mother to do it (he deals with the depression that her loss brings on and guilt). Once he is back in Grove Street, he ends up feeling such a connection to his old home and friends that he ends up staying and helping out despite wanting to leave. CJ is a strong man who has loyalty to his family and home while being capable of doing some extraordinary acts. Nor is CJ only a thug/gangster merely homicidal bent on violence and destruction as the game shows that gang culture is not simply self-destructive, but has more meaning.

Rockstar made the bold move of starting the game off with CJ being arrested for no discernible reason to give players the experience and simulation of profiling and unfair treatment by law officers. Then to place the player in dangerous territory lacking power and forcing them to escape from rival gang turf only on a bicycle in a reversal of the hero role (often seen in video games). Plus, San Andreas is the only GTA that features the protagonist’s appearance changing as a result of players’ decisions. So, if CJ eats too much fast food he gains weight or if he works out judiciously he becomes brolic. Thus, giving players a more robust role-playing experience and having them live in CJ’s skin in a way. Since it is unlikely that this mechanic will ever return in the GTA series, its presence here can be a lasting testament to allowing players to inhabit a Black character in a meaningful way.

There are more Black video game characters than have been mentioned here, but this is a rough look at the more popular ones and the varying degrees of complexity each inhabits. While some Black characters are hugely stereotypical and offensive (borderline in some cases), there have been a decent amount of good Black video game characters but there needs to be more. Then there are the weird outliers such as Jacob Taylor from Mass Effect 2, who does not have any of the traditional cultural markers that generally typifies Black characters. That is interesting because it speaks to the culture of the Mass Effect world and what cultural signifies exist for Black people in the sci-fi universe. However, Jacob could be a white character and not much would change. Weirder still is the presence of James Vega in Mass Effect 3 who is a Latino character and does show cultural signifiers such as speaking Spanish (more Spanglish) and certainly cultural/slang given to Latino characters. There is plenty of subtext looking at how these two POC characters are represented with/lack certain specific cultural signifiers and what that says about humans in the Mass Effect universe.

As stated at the beginning, the video game industry needs to have games that feature more POC characters because the video game buying public is a hugely diverse group. The diversity of those supporting the industry should have representation in the games they purchase because if everyone can be expected to play as a cavalcade of white guys, why not a Black woman or a Latino man or an Asian woman?

Kalvin Martinez

Kalvin Martinez

Senior Editor at Gaming Illustrated
Kalvin Martinez studied Creative Writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He writes reviews, prose and filthy limericks. Currently, he lives in Tustin, California. He is still wondering what it would be like to work at a real police department. Follow Kalvin on Twitter @freepartysubs
Kalvin Martinez

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