Lincoln Clay. Marcus Holloway. Lee Everett. Barrett Wallace. These names will be familiar to a lot of gamers out there; but to others, not so much. What do they all have in common? They rank among the sparse number of playable African-American primary characters in video games.
As we all (should) know, February is Black History Month. It’s a time to recognize & celebrate the rich history & achievements of people of color in the United States and abroad, and for the most part, popular culture has been doing pretty well with that (e.g. many strong PoC comic book, movie, & TV characters). However, we here at PCU still see a void in PoC representation in one aspect of pop culture: Video games. Over the years, there seems to have been a decided lack of solid positive PoC protagonists in gaming, and I’d like to figure out why.
Many of the current PoC characters that we see in video games are also portrayed as either sidekicks, or as thinly veiled stereotypes. We can see this in characters such as Lee Everett, the main character in Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, Season 1. In our introduction to Lee, we see him handcuffed in the back of a police car. We also see the “criminal persona” in the recent Mafia 3, as we witness Lincoln Clay, an African-American Vietnam War veteran who starts his own crime syndicate, as an effort to take revenge on the Marcano Crime Family for killing his adopted family, The Black Mob.
We also get characters like Augustus “Cole Train” Cole from Gears of War. While he’s a fun character, Cole doesn’t really have much depth to him beyond being a bit of comic relief. His boisterous personality sometimes feel like just a way to inject levity into a section of the game, and his presence doesn’t really feel like it adds much more to the story.
It’s not all stereotypes with PoC characters, however. There are a few good ones of note:
The story of half-Haitian, half-French protagonist Aveline de Grandpré was told in Assassins Creed: Liberation. She was born to a wealthy French merchant, and grew up relatively privileged. After joining the Assassin Order, she became a hero to her people by freeing them from the oppression of slave owners. The problem with this story, is that Liberation was only released on the PS Vita before its poorly-received port over to the PS3 & Xbox360 in 2014. Therefore it did not get as much visibility as it probably should have.
When we first meet Nilin in 2013’s Remember Me, she has been imprisoned in the Bastille for being a member of an organization known as the Errorists. The Errorists are a rebel faction who fight against a near-complete surveillance state run by the Memorize Corporation, as almost the entire country’s populace is being monitored through memories that they are able to upload to the internet. Throughout the game, Nilin shows us that she is a strong, intelligent character, willing to fight for freedom, and do what it takes to ensure that no one group has too much power. The depth of her character really comes into play when she’s forced to face down someone for whom she cares deeply. The one issue I take with this representation, is that it still starts off with Nilin being viewed as a criminal, so Remember Me still includes that little bit of stereotype there.
Finally, let’s look at James Heller. I can hear the laments now: ‘But Doug! Prototype 2 sucked!’ Yeah, I know. As a game, it was forgettable. However, if you just look at James Heller as a character, he’s pretty cool. Heller is a former United States soldier, who becomes infected with the Blacklight virus by a power-mad Alex Mercer (the protagonist from the first game). Using his newfound powers, Heller embarks on a mission to rescue his daughter and uncover the truth about Mercer & the virus. When all is said & done, James Heller is a patriot & a good dad.
So why are there so few positive PoC characters in gaming? Well, the general theory, as noted in a Newsweek article from October of 2016, seems to be that most of the game developers out there are white males. Well, that seems to be the problem here. It’s tough to create a character’s backstory, when one doesn’t really have a good frame of reference on which to base it, right? Getting more diversity into the creators who make these games that we enjoy so much would be the key to getting more minority representation in the characters. This means encouraging our PoC youth to take more interest in art, computer sciences, and yes…even math. Imagine how much untapped talent there is out there in the minds of our young people. The key, at this point, is to cultivate that talent and bring it out. Were it up to me, I would also encourage more developers to specifically keep an eye out for emerging talent in the PoC community. Let’s face it: getting more varied perspectives on the creative side of things will undoubtedly lead to richer gaming experiences for all of us.
Ours is a society that, despite the occasional hiccup, celebrates diversity. We in the gaming community are as diverse as any other group, and we deserve to be represented in the characters that we are given. So what do we do? We raise our collective voices, and request that developers more accurately reflect who we are. We can also help create the change, by following career paths that increase the diversity within those gaming companies. By getting more involved, we can have more Aveline de Grandprés, and fewer Lincoln Clays.