What Happened to All the Black Games?
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Where are our games? This echoes in my head. Where are all the black games? Where are all the games about black people doing black things? The games about the churches we grew up, the music we listened to, the things we are, want to be, will be?
Writing this piece, I realize I grew up with most of these games. My brother always gotten the last say in what games we got, even though I always complained. He was always the most unapologetically black of the two of us, changing how he speaked to seem even blacker at one point. My brother used to buy nearly every game with a black person in it. He loved to be able to see his people in games, because that was who he was. When games started getting bigger, having bigger stories, with more detailed characters, he stopped playing games.
When Kanye West announced he was making a game, he said people laughed at him. And after he announced it, they did. It’s Kanye West, we love to hate Kanye West. People in games are already pretty vitriolic towards different, “artsy” games; so here we’ve got the ideological peanut butter and chocolate: Kanye West’s Artsy Video Game. But the viciously Black side of me feels differently. It’s a distinctly Black looking game by a distinctly Black creator about a distinctly Black idea with a distinctly Black aesthetic — Who makes games that look like the stain glass windows in those big, Black baptist churches? That show Black people with Black hair, sprouting wings and flying around carefree? — And we have a bunch of people talking shit about it, laughing at it. Go deeper into those youtube comments (as I unfortunately did) and you get to that horrible racism. Not just the overt “nigger” either. This confusion about what the game’s blackness is and why it is. Who makes a game about their dead mom? This game is beautiful, but why does it look like this? Why is Kanye making this? It’s weird, it’s strange, it’s alien, It’s Black. And why is Kanye making the only one?
What do I mean by Black? Let’s assume that media views the Black experience in 4 ways: the societal, the performative, the spiritual, and the personal. The societal is how the Black experience relates to society. The performative is the push black people feel to perform their experiences in order to relate to society. The spiritual is the aesthetic of gospel in black communities. There is overlap between the spiritual and performative, both contained in the circle of societal. The personal is the one that media is the least concerned with. The personal is made of the smaller specific experiences that may not appeal to all black people. It’s also the one that dissolves when introduced in anyway to the performative, since performative implies giving away one’s experiences to appeal to the societal, which accepts only the universal experiences from black people. A Black experience is one refuses that status quo and involves the personal with either of the other 3 facets in an individualistic way. That is to say the characters and aesthetic are allowed to be human and diverge from stereotype, despite performing for an audience. Black media is considered black not because of it’s inherent blackness, but because of it’s presumed universal appeal to black audiences.
There have been Black games before. The PS2 era had a ton of them, coinciding with a mass commercialization of black culture and hip hop. Your Def Jams and NFL/NBA Streets weren’t bad games, but they weren’t great black representation either. These were still games about black superhumans that were considered normal people. There was nothing that made you able to do a front flip dunk, or scale buildings in a few jumps, besides being black. There’s a problem when the normalized view of black people is that of super humans, when our stories are not only muddled, but exclusively given the role of tall tales. Video games have always been about power fantasy, but in order to appeal to black people, black video games indulge both stereotypes and Black culture. Def Jam is a game about underground fighting circuits, but with a hip hop (a common way to make things more edgy or alternative in the early aughts) swing. Under the assumption that the development teams for these games were mainly white dudes who listened to hip hop because their mom didn’t like “that kind of music”, there are three kinds of black men (because they were always men): rappers, sports stars and super humans. Inevitably it was a combination of the superhuman and the other two.
Nearly every game marketed towards black people during this time was about black bodies being beaten, broken and bruised, all while backed with hip hop. Games like Blitz the League and Def Jam wanted you to hear the crack, know that these people felt pain and could be hurt, but black people can take the hit. These weren’t humanized characters either, just cutouts and stereotypes, with no depth, no detail. As games were starting to develop a sense of humanity, black people got left out.
These days, commercial Black games are dead. As video games came into their own as a medium, they copied the stylings -and demographics- of Hollywood movies. The bald, white male protagonist was introduced, a presumed default for all of games: white boys. As games “matured”, they also adopted the post 9/11 mindset of foreign brown people as the enemy, and with the election of Obama (and his presumed Muslim ties), both foreign and domestic brown people became enemies. Even the games or studios that explored browness before this period changed course, or were ultimately shuttered, whether to do with how the recession affected minorities or a resurgence in islamophobia and anti blackness in America. Assassin’s Creed ran from it’s muslim protagonist, moving to a white Italian. EA Big was shuttered in 2008. Grand Theft Auto went back to a white protagonist, following San Andreas and Vice City Stories’ black ones. From 2007–2012, not a single game had a unique black protagonist in a game that wasn’t licensed or a joke. In 2012, Lee Everett was created for a licensed The Walking Dead game, where people’s responses to his actions are slightly affected by him being a black character surrounded by southern whites. However, none of these games explore that culturalism with nuance.
In games spaces, these games aren’t allowed to proliferate. Decolonized narratives made by black people are almost impossible to find given the technological divide along racial/financial lines. Nepotism in the games industry fueled by social issues, racial microaggressions, and poor understanding of workplace diversity also prevents Black people from both accessing resources and creating their own personal games.. Democratization of dev tools helps with closing this gap, but the importance of marketing cannot be overstated. Relying on twitter for exposure means relying on the political leanings of large community figures, many of which are risk averse and unlikely to promote games that are heavily political. Racial progress is also slow in industry events. Despite making strides in attendance for marginalized groups, all too often panels and talks have an audience that overwhelmingly is marginalized and understands these issues.
Introducing diversity is not just painting white characters in different colors. It’s necessary to portray these characters with the cultures they come from, developed around their own personal character. All too often games fall into the trap of characters sticking with their faith or racial stereotype rather than bending themselves around. In real life, people don’t stick to their mores regardless of what they face. They break and bend the rules to save themselves or to get ahead, because the person always comes first.
It’s important to state that these issues aren’t just related to blackness. Brown people all over the world have stories and cultures that deserve to be explored by their own people with more than 1 dimension. Queer spaces, games spaces and the intersection of the two need to include the experiences of brown people, the lives of brown people.