March 23, 2017

50 Years Later: We Can Game As Goblins and Orcs But Still Not Black People

papo & yo black protagonist

Here in America Martin Luther King Jr. day is drawing to a close. It’s a national holiday that some people get off work for and others get off school for (my school district went back and forth on this for years: sometimes we had it off, other times we didn’t), but I’ve always found it rather empty. Like so many holidays (I’m looking at you, Valentine’s Day…) it’s a day during which we are obligated to talk about and do certain things and the following day forget all about it. It never really felt like we were honoring Dr. King—every year we had the exact same lesson taught. We would gather round, listen to his rousing speech for the umpteenth year in a row, and talk about why he was important. But after that day, that one day out of 365, racism ceased to be of any importance. After all, it’s common knowledge that people aren’t racist anymore, right?

martin luther king jr


Usually Mondays are reserved for innovative Kickstarter games, but today I felt that there was something more important to discuss. As a woman I’m often bothered and upset by the portrayal and inclusion of women in games. But compared to many minorities, I have it pretty good. While we may be portrayed in generally sexist and disgusting ways, at least we are included. And while there may not be that many instances of female protagonists, they do exist, even in mainstream titles.

But what about black people?

Our country likes to claim that racism has been all but eradicated. After all, you don’t see (officially) segregated schools anymore now do you? But it’s a lie to claim racism isn’t still prevalent in America. Even living in “the north” I still see racism all the time. From my father who “isn’t a racist”, to the city I live in that’s mostly white, to the way our justice system is skewed—it’s pretty damn apparent that people are racist.

But more than anything, the one aspect of our culture that proves racism (at least on a “casual” level) is still around is our media. Aside from the token black guy or girl (who often is a thug or depicted as unintelligent), there simply aren’t that many people of color. The only show I can think of that does a brilliant job with this is Fox’ “Sleepy Hollow” which has more people of color than whites (go ahead and let that irony sink in, by the way).

What about games? How many black protagonists are there? Go ahead, Google it. I did and that was when I realized I had to write about it. Because you know what I found? Not a whole lot*. This thread popped up and, while I haven’t played most of the games that people mentioned, what I took away is that A) Black characters are more likely in a game where you can choose from multiple protagonists and B) People of color are usually depicted in very stereotypical ways that strip them of any true characterization.

papo & yo black protagonist
Papo & Yo


So then I turned to indie games. Surely my beloved indie devs understand the need for representation?  I mean, they’re indie for a reason, right? But just browsing through the Steam store I wasn’t able to find any. I’m sure that there are some out there, but if they are not easily obtainable and gamers don’t know about them, then they aren’t terribly helpful are they? (I would argue though that they still deserve praise for having been made in the first place. Papo & Yo is a brilliant example.)

Now, this is frustrating to me for many reasons. I’m sure if approached the first things devs and publishers will say is “It’s too risky” or “Gamers don’t want that—it wouldn’t sell”. You know, the usual garbage that they spew out about women too. But, as previously mentioned, it’s far more difficult to find people of color represented in positive ways than it is to find women. And given how scarce we are…yeah. Perspective.

tomb raider lara croft


But what really grinds my gears is this concept that gamers can’t play a black protagonist because they aren’t able to identify. You’re able to identify with a fucking goblin but you can’t identify with a human being who was born with a skin color that differs from yours? Are you fucking kidding me?

Now go ahead. Tell me that racism has been all but eradicated. Tell me to my face and to the faces of the thousands of gamers of color that the reason they aren’t represented in their hobby is not because of latent racism. Do so and I will call you out on it in a heartbeat, because whether you happen to be racist or you feel racism is no longer an issue, you’re wrong and this is why.

People like to say that media has no bearing on the sort of person we become—that it doesn’t shape us. I say bullshit. If the only time we see people of color it is to make fun of or belittle them, then that’s what we’ll do. If the rest of the time we never see them at all they become othered and insignificant. While I don’t think devs are actively racist, I do think that it is there, lurking in the back of their minds and that’s why they create the media they do. I’m also not saying they do it to be mean or cruel (though to ignore it once pointed out is a whole different matter). But that doesn’t make it any less wrong and that doesn’t absolve them of their guilt.

If you can write a character that isn’t even human and yet we can identify and connect with, then there is no reason you can’t write a black human being and get the same result. Because what you’re telling me when you’re more comfortable creating monsters and aliens than people of color is that black people are so unknowable that you can’t possibly fathom that a player could make a connection with them.

Wow. Way to dehumanize a significant portion of your playerbase. You must be proud.

*Since this post was published I have been informed that there is a black protagonist I missed: Adéwalé from the Assassin’s Creed IV DLC Freedom Cry.

I have not played the most recent AC simply because it hasn’t been in the budget yet! AC has long been one of my favorite franchises, but when you are a fledgling game reviewer sometimes games you want to play have to take the backseat to games you want to cover. When it first came out the few reviews I read were kinda meh so I decided it could wait (why did I listen to them? I don’t know…I’m usually all for ignoring everything most game critics have to say since I rarely agree. Point is I was dumb and believed them this time.) Regardless of how good or bad the gameplay and mechanics may or may not be, what I seem to have missed out on big time is the brilliantly crafted supporting character Adéwalé. Many online have praised him for stealing the show in Black Flag for his realness and his voice of reason.

adewale assassin's creed freedom cry black protagonist video game

Now he has his own DLC Freedom Cry in which this slave turned assassin fights against slavery to help free people like him. You play the game as him just as you played AC III: Liberation as Aveline (the first female protagonist of the series and part black.)

But I have mixed feelings on this. I will admit that after reading and listening to interviews with Adéwalé’s voice actor, Tristan D. Lalla, I really want to buy this game. Whereas before it was a “eh, I’ll get to it when I get to it” I’m now genuinely excited to play this game solely to experience Adéwalé. It sounds as though he is one of the best video game characters of all time, and I really want to see that.

And it’s great that we finally have a game in which we can play as a non-drug dealer/car stealing person of color. Freedom Cry appears to be a deep, emotional experience and it tackles a subject that frankly most game companies would be too afraid to do. So I’m actually going to praise Ubisoft (weird, I know). While I may not agree with a lot of their philosophies on game design, THIS is absolutely something I want to see more of. Adéwalé is a strong character in every sense of the word: he’s physically strong, determined, and not a mindless killing machine like so many “strong” characters seem to be. He would much rather be at peace than killing people, but when faced with an injustice as horrific as slavery what choice does he really have?

So while I think that Adéwalé is a much needed and very welcome addition to the video game world, I still can’t help being disappointed that he wasn’t the star of his own show. Now I know, I know: the main character of the main game has to be a relative of Desmond Miles in order for the animus to work. But if they had wanted to I promise they could have made Adéwalé one of Desmond’s ancestors. Was it common? Probably not. But if you have a character that amazing I don’t feel they should be set aside as a DLC hero. If including him in Desmond’s lineage proved too difficult to work out (which is possible) they could have gone another route and simply created an entirely different game to feature this character and his story. Because let’s face it: DLC just doesn’t get as much time or publicity as a main title. Hell, I had never even heard of this character until just this morning and the DLC has already been out a month.

I love the character of Adéwalé already and I’m eager to play his game. And while I suppose you could argue that Ubisoft went this route to “ease” gamers into playing a black protagonist, I’m still pretty disappointed that his story will never be played as much as Edward’s. I’m pleased that he is the only playable character of Freedom Cry (so you can’t get away with a white option), but I think they did him and his story an injustice by not making a standalone title.

Or a franchise. I love AC because I love how it delves into history, but so often it’s only white European history. What about African, Asian, North and South American, etc, etc? Why are we only focusing on the lives and stories of people from a small percentage of the world?

Adéwalé, while a fantastic step in the right direction, feels like a missed opportunity to me. At the very least I hope there’s some substantial play time for him in Freedom Cry!



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