Racial representation has been problematic in gaming for a while. While many backgrounds are misrepresented or underrepresented, this is especially the case for African-Americans. Growing up, I consistently saw black males portrayed as villains or ancillary and supportive roles for main characters. Black men were scarcely the main characters, and when they were the primary focus, they were the personification of some bizarre trope or stereotype. Zack from Dead or Alive was essentially a recreation of Dennis Rodman. He was an overly eccentric celebrity who came complete with bright clothing and an alien costume. Barret Wallace was an angry side character who couldn't go a sentence without using 2 or 3 expletives.
As a child, I remember wondering:
“Is this how everyone sees us?”
Source: Franklin, Rockstar's GTA V.
Blackness is a taboo topic. I believe it is a topic that many storytellers choose to avoid in fear of offending or being accused of using it as a provocative catalyst to draw attention to their story. However, for many like myself, it isn't just a topic or tone. It is an acknowledgement of identity. No matter how tumultuous our past and culture is, not having the story told is even more problematic. Two relatively recent games approached the topic in different yet equally crucial roles.
Mafia 3 stars Lincoln Clay, a young black man in the late 60’s in the South. This particular time and location was rife with public and open racism. Developer Hangar 13 chose not to avoid the obvious racial tones of the time. Race is clearly at the forefront of Mafia 3. NPCs will yell racial slurs at the protagonist as he walks by. Police will respond slower in primarily black neighborhoods. While they are intense, these details are crucial to explain the narrative and personality of the game. It did not ignore the past of history of black Americans. In many cases, black individuals are portrayed in games with a “color blind” filter. To specify, these characters exist in a world outside of their blackness. Characters are removed from the day-to-day experiences of being black. While I'm not barraged with racial slurs every day, there are a number of interactions that I experience that are unique to black men. Mafia 3 chose to express that. Mafia 3 communicated to countless gamers that the experience of a black man in America is not identical to the experience of others.
Watch Dogs 2 is a vastly different game. However, it is also very important in explaining the narrative of blackness. The main character is Marcus Holloway. Marcus is a hacker living in a fictional version of San Francisco. Watch Dogs 2 gives a less sinister,yet still prevalent, perspective of what it means to be black in America. During the campaign, there are a handful of interactions that Marcus has with other characters of color that are poignant. During these exchanges, the characters discuss their experiences in the workplace being the only person of color. The conversation evolves to both parties feeling the need to tone down their blackness in order to be accepted by the workplace and society as a whole. The two also talk about how they are treated like mouthpieces for all people of color. Though these conversations seem like minimal dialogue tropes, to many, like myself, this is an acknowledgement of realities that people of color face. Being in the workforce often comes with an abandonment of certain cultural norms and traits. Marcus highlights this in many of his statements.
While these two games are substantially different in tone, both games convey realities that many people live in. It feels good to have these represented, but it also feels powerful that these portrayals of characters are some of the only exposure many will get to people of color and the details of our daily lives.
Source: Doc, Nintendo's Punch Out.
How do you feel about racial identity as a gamer? Let Nerdbot know in the comments!