Dear Video Game Character Creators: You Still Need Work

Jeffrey Rousseau
Sep 11 · 13 min read

With all the strides that other forms of entertainment are making year after year, I can’t help but look at the opportunities being missed in video games. In particular, video games with character creators. To be frank, they can do better…a lot better. As of 2019, it’s quite clear there’s a still a lot to be learned and considered.

Black Desert, Monster Hunter World, NBA 2K 2020, Guild Wars 2, Sunset Overdrive and etc. What do these games have in common? Well, they’re generally known to have robust character creators.

However they all also share the same common issues you can see across similar titles. Those issues being: limited skin tone ranges, improper lighting of Black & Brown skin, and a lack of hair options. You can fire up the most recent of releases and you’ll see these shortcomings like clockwork.

Well…these aren’t problems if you’re someone whom is white and sports Eurocentric beauty standards— straight hair, light skin, etc. Games tend to mostly adhere to these concepts of beauty. Now, if you’re someone with skin that’s a beautiful shade of Black or Brown and or have amazing hair that’s not straight, making yourself in games has been/is often a practice in frustration — Often times we don’t feel seen as a result

The questions we’ll explore are: why are games behind like this and are there solutions to said problems?

Skin Tone Ranges (or there lack of)

It’s no coincidence that this article comes a literal year after a viral tweet of mine in regards to this very subject. Truth is, skin tone ranges you’ll often see are lackluster. They are so regularly limited in fact, it seems most games (see Pokémon Masters and Greedfall) are fine with sticking to 3–5 shades.

Now, others do have more choices however most don’t seem to bother. So, why not have a larger range for people to choose from? Is it a lack of caring? Or does it not register on the developer to do lists?

The message this sends can be interpreted as: oh well, having some choices for skin color is good enough. Now, why are color tones so limited in games? Immediately, I would say perhaps part of the answer lies within whom is making the games. It’s well reported/known that the games industry at large isn’t very diverse.

2018 statistical break down of race in the games industry:

White developers make up 61%, Eastern/South East Asian 18%, Hispanic or Latinx 5%. Pacific Islanders 3%, Arabian or West Asian made up 2% , Aboriginal or Indigenous peoples 2% , and finally Black/African American or African make up 1%.

It would be safe to assume most developer teams probably are the same, racially speaking. When work is created with little to no people of color present, we don’t get properly represented. As such, it’s also been proven over and over, when everyone in the room looks the same, unconscious bias can (does) set in.

Non-white character features are restrictive as a consequence. Again, I don’t want it to seem like: hey it’s all of the developer teams’ fault. This would be too easy because there’s a multitude of nuances to consider.

Credit: Gameplay Only

I fully admit, I’m making very general assumptions here. I don’t know what budgets development teams have to work with. So, the allocation of resources, what time can be spent on features, and so forth is probably out of the hands of the team.

Still, to get back to the point at hand. Why isn’t it standard that we have a deep selection of Black and Brown shades? The kind of range you naturally see in a diverse city or space occupying many people of color. Maybe there’s a layer of difficulty in translating these skin tone ranges I’m not aware of?

Sure, we could Google skin tone ranges or skin color. Yes, that would help but that would be a shallow solution, we can do better. We are in an age where there’s consultants and experts for literally everything.

An aside: Most of these games are sold for the fact you can look like yourself/anyone/anything. Yet, the box art, promotional art, commercials, etc almost always features a character with white/pale skin front and center. It’s interesting when they’re selling diverse choices yet mostly decide to go that route, hmm.

So game creators could work with people of color culture experts and or beauticians. People whom have intrinsic experience and knowledge of our skin. As well as of course; employee artists, art directors, and etc whom specialize in art that focuses on us. Much like other industries that intimacy creates a proper natural representation of skin color. These untapped resources would allow the creation of complex templates, which would benefit not just people of color but nearly all players. Hypothetically speaking, this would do away with the archaic color slider often used in games.

I’ll use my own tweet as an example here. So in regards to that unconscious bias, perhaps (definitely) having more folks in development would help in this area. Would it take a Black/Brown developer to say: “perhaps we could use Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line as a basis for our skin tones choices”? Well not necessarily, yet considering where we are, it would be a strong possibility.

Credit: DeNA — Pokémon Masters

The Art of Lighting of Black & Brown Skin Properly

Moving on to the next matter that needs addressing for these games (well games in general): the lighting of melanated skin. This is more technical yet immediately recognizable and understood by people of color.

To use a recent example, I was playing the newly released for the PlayStation 4 MMORPG, Black Desert. This is a game lauded for having an impressive character creator. I decided to try to make a character based off a friend of mine, to test that out. He is handsome dark-skinned fellow with some facial hair. The following is what happened as I attempted to create him.

Credit: Pearl Abyss Corp. — Black Desert

Allow me to explain the travesty that you see above. You can’t really see his face because the use of lighting is made to really (only/mainly) showcase white/paler skin. The answer would be to use a skintone that’s lighter to see his face. That however isn’t a solution, that’s a failure to darker skin people. This illumination makes Brown and Black skin difficult to see, appear muddy, and worst of all highly unmoisturized — an utter crime. So why is this so common place in games?

An aside: Ever wonder when we have Black characters in games they’re rarely dark skinned like say Lupita Nyong’o or Idris Elba? Black characters mostly range from lighter skin to mostly a deep Brown. See Mortal Kombat 11 and Man of Medan. Before, I assumed it was just colorism, which is prevalent in all entertainment industries. Truth is, it could be that game creators don’t know how to properly light dark skin well.

Considering the complexities of game development, I’m unaware of the difficulties associated with character lighting within any given area. What I can speak upon is how my melanated skin works with light. My skin reflects the light that is present and glows when exposed to flashes of light for example. So the matter of bad lighting is kinda personal.

This problem isn’t just unique to games — like most matters that involve people of color. Film and TV share the same criticisms of not being able to properly shoot/show darker skin people. Recently thought, they’ve had great examples of bucking that trend. We’ve seen this via the awarding winning film Moonlight and HBO’s critically acclaimed show Insecure. Given the creative proximity TV has with gaming, it would be interesting to examine how they solved their issues.

In her 2017 interview with Mic, Ava Berkofsky, Insecure’s director of photography, went into detail of how she’s able to shoot darker skin actors and actresses so well.

Berkofsky :“Rather than pound someone’s face with light, [I] have the light reflect off them,” she said. “I always use a white or [canvas-like] muslin, so instead of adding more light, the skin can reflect it.”

Her shooting style was inspired by the works of notable filmmaker Ava DuVernay. It bears mentioning, that DuVernay, a Black filmmaker, understood this creative blind spot. So using reflective light, make up help, and the right angles DuVernay was able to present people of color well. As with any art, this method is continually evolving as Berkofsky discussed the normal challenges involved with this technique. Each actor and actress reflects light differently. This makes sense as people don’t have the same skin tone. So she has to find the right lighting for them — So we are able to see them radiate and glow.

Berkofsky went on to shed some light — ha not sorry — as to why shooting in the medium hasn’t be kind to us for so long.

“When I was in film school, no one ever talked about lighting nonwhite people,” Berkofsky said in a phone interview with Mic. “There are all these general rules about lighting people of color, like throw green light or amber light at them. It’s weird.”

Formal academia for shooting people of color is lacking. So that creates an unforeseen blinder. Considering the demographic data we have, we can assume the same happens with gaming learning institutions.

So if were aware of the methodologies that helps light non-white skin colors, why aren’t they being used? I believe again, they gaming could use the help of experts in the field. Artists, photographers, and etc whom made it their careers to shoot the multitude of Black and Brown shades in their majesty. — These resources are numerous and abundant.

The proper illumination to shoot folks with melanin came about due to our changing times. This was sparked once we started having more Black and Brown creatives at the helms of entertainment. They went on to overcome well-established practices and while inspiring the work of others. — Hmm I wonder what other forms of entertainment would do well with the same infusion.

Credit: Marvelous — Daemon X Machina

Hair choices, choices, choices…

The last area for improvement is without a doubt hairstyles in games. To use an analogy; finding diverse hair options in games is like looking for rain in a desert. They’ve skewed from nonexistent to inconsistent for as long as hair choices have been an option — unless it’s a sports game.

Games having hairstyles for minorities feels like the last bastion of being able to see ourselves in them. Why are these options not available regularly and feel so rare? Well, that’s both complicated and not.

Now, given the low presence of us in the creation process, certain aesthetics are mostly prioritized over others. As such, designing Black and Brown hairstyles is “new and unexplored” territory. So for creators, it’s easier to stick to what they know. It’s more difficult to pour time and resources into the depth of our phenotype — that’s been present forever.

What’s interesting is that games are very much a global entertainment. These particular titles are mostly sold and marketed to multiple regions. Developers and publishers are aware of their target consumers. This includes folks blessed by melanin. So the omission of our features is confusing.

Credit: Blaistar

Intentional or no this conveys that our naturally curly, kinky, and so much more hair isn’t beautiful. I mean whom would want the ability to create a dark skin heroine with box braids? — This would be amazing by the way —

The truth is, Eurocentric beauty isn’t the only standard of beauty that exists. Afrocentric hairstyles and others have been well established pillars of beauty for as far back oral/written history can show. Hair that is regularly celebrated, coveted, and revered.

This lack of representation can uncomfortably reminds us of how society views this part of our identities as undesirable. As we speak, people are still not appreciated for their hair in its natural state. Recently, two US states just made it’s against the law to discriminate based upon hair. This is why you’ll regularly see people fight against these inundated lies through year round festivals, events, and movements. — As a reminder, yes this is global.

Hair is a major form of expression, for everyone not just people of color. As a Black person, I would argue that it’s more important to people of color. Its art, generations of culture, and visual cue-yes I’m here- all in one. So, in the terms of games yes hair is a big deal.

The matter of hair is an odd thing because answers exist and have been pretty impressive. A few years ago Guild Wars 2, a popular PC RPG, delivered a deep selection of hair. Then there’s the constant work of sports titles, such as the NBA 2K series. What’s disappointing is that these efforts seemingly go unnoticed within the industry.

Yes, I maybe assuming a lot and projecting here but why repeat these mistakes? — Mistakes is the word —Stop me if you heard this before, we have the means to have an abundance of styles present in games. Yes, we have professionals whom have years of experience dedicated to designing Black and Brown folks and the multiverse that is their hair.

Credit: Microsoft — Sunset Overdrive

In an effort to set a new standard, we can work with barbers, stylist, enthusiasts, and etc. What would this do? We would have a detailed and intimate understanding of textures. How they work, their, physics and etc. Listen games like Monster Hunter World has Black hairstyles. However, you can see the texture isn’t exactly Black hair. Still, the effort to have these hairstyles in games are appreciated. How far are we from the day we see meticulous physics for Afrocentric hair?

An aside: We’re at a point where we will see Black hair in games. However some are included in games post launch, downloadable content, and or via an expansion. Yes we get to see our hair but it’s mostly after the fact, after fan feedback, and etc. Why isn’t our hair seen there right from the beginning?

Credit: NCSOFT — Guild Wars 2

Push Back?

As I wrote this article, I thought of the push back and criticisms these topics tend to attract. To be clear, I mean the criticisms from other people of color.

So one question is the reactive “does it matter”? Well, keep in mind this entire article isn’t unique. These topics are written about at length regularly. People continue to ask/want the ability to create their likeliness.

Then there’s the almost defeatist question of: why would they bother adhering to us? Yes, there are those of us whom have just accepted that we aren’t a priority. It’s unfortunate but the constant disappointment has developed that kind of thought process.

To counter that question, I have a question of my own. Why did Pokémon give players skin color options in 2016 via Sun & Moon? Well, it would be tone deaf for a globally popular series to ignore a portion of their fanbase/consumers. Meanwhile, other games and franchises have given us the option for years even before that one skin tone choice in 2013’s Pokémon X & Y.

In all seriousness, let’s assume that everything mentioned here stays highly uncommon as it does now. Skin tones stay restricted, Black and Brown skin continues to looks bad in light, and we have straight hairstyles only.

It would get to a point where gaming’s progress would appear laughable compared to other mediums/industries. Especially, as they strive to represent the multitude that is people of color. — If were to be honest, were already there —

Ultimately, I wrote this to speak upon a wild idea: hire more people whom know the range of our skin, how we look in the limelight, and knows or hair. They are out there

Credit: Focus Home Interactive — The Surge 2

Recommendations

Now, with all this writing you’re probably wondering: what games do justice to people of color? I’m glad you asked as I have a few key recommendations for you.

Sims 4, one of the most popular games on PC does a good job. Actually, the base game does little for people of color. Now, through the power of inspiration and tenacity, we have essential mods. One of the most essential mods is melanin pack 1 and 2 created by Xmiramira. She’s created 54 skin tones you can use in the game. She literally brought melanin when it was absent.

The next title worth playing is the MMORPG, Guild Wars 2. This content rich game does right by us via the path of fire expansion. The xxtra choices adds a wide range of Afro texture hair and African features to customize your characters with. One of the best RPG experiences for PC and you’re able to create decent characters to match? Nice

Sunset Overdrive, the wacky post apocalyptic action adventure title has a decent customization. Your characters can be shades of deep Brown and somewhat dark. There’s also a somewhat passable selection of hair. Despite how chaotic things get, you’ll character will look great.

If you had to play just one recommendation, that should be Monster Hunter World. Capcom’s action game raises the bar on character customization. The range of skin color you can choose from is vast. The lighting of skin tones is far from bad. Thanks to the Iceborne expansion, players have more than straight hair. This game does such a good job, it should be the industry standard for character creators.

Credit: Capcom — Monster Hunter World

Well, I’ve talked a lot about this subject. I can’t recall whom wrote this but an excellent test for any game is the following: Can you create a dark skin woman with curly hair? If not, that game isn’t doing a good job.

Jeffrey Rousseau

Written by

I bat for PoCs, marginalized, equality, inclusion & geekdom. I'm warming the bench until coach subs me in. https://linktr.ee/jeffreyrousseau

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade