As a black gamer, I’ve gotten used to playing as a 30-something grizzled, scruffy white guy; unless, of course, the game has a character creator option like Saints Row and Mass Effect, or takes place in a historical setting a la the Assassin’s Creed series. While all people of color are shamefully underrepresented, the bigger crime to me is the predictable stereotyping that goes on, especially when it comes to black characters. A game that features a black character will, without fail, fall into one of these categories.
The Brash Soldier
Be it Sgt. Johnson from the Halo series, Augustus Cole from Gears of War, or any other black soldier, this character is the loud, strong warrior type. This category is where a large number of minority characters fit. While their white counterparts can go through battles and wars with small witticisms and stoic silence, these black characters find it impossible to do the same and are constantly going on about how much ass they’re going to kick. I can understand a rousing speech right before a big battle, but when the loudness and trash-talking are constant, they lose their intended effect and dilute the character to nothing more than a Flava Flav-esque hype man character (and not the cool Public Enemy Flav from the 80s/90s, the depressing, sideshow, Flavor of Love Flav). Mass Effect‘s Admiral Anderson is the only character that I can think of that is in the military and yet doesn’t have to mouth off every 3 seconds. I don’t hate these characters, in fact I relate to them more than the quiet, stoic white commander, but I tire of them quickly.
This category is where the other majority of stereotypical black characters reside. This one I have more of an issue with, specifically Playboy X in GTA IV. In a story about an Eastern European immigrant, with a multitude of characters, with just as many backgrounds and ethnicities, the two black characters are gang members? Bullshit. The double whammy is when those gang members betray and try to kill each other. Does that not defeat the purpose of being in a gang? I find it amazing that the same developer who made the complex and nuanced CJ and Franklin characters also made backstabbing Playboy X and ignorant Lamar. A vast majority of black males aren’t criminals, so it’s baffling to me to see most black characters in entertainment (not just gaming) be portrayed as such. Despite their inclusion in nearly every genre, specific examples, beyond the GTA series, are hard to write about because of the minimal role these characters are relegated to. If you’re gonna design an entire gang of black people, surely they have to be a little more diverse than a simple color palette swap.
The Scary Black Guy
The “scary” part of this is a misnomer; the black character is more intimidating and forceful than scary. While their white counterparts can simply be evil or strong-headed, these characters always have something about them that makes them more primal and animalistic than human. Street Fighter‘s Balrog and Mike Tyson from Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out both have gorilla-like features. The Thug from Hotline Miami doesn’t use weapons, but instead charges you like a wild animal to beat you to death with his hands. Gabriel Tosh from Starcraft II and Emile-A239 from Halo Reach are both respected soldiers but feared because they both have dedicated themselves so fully to their respective causes that they have difficulty interacting with people. A white character with this problem would have been portrayed as a tragic hero, whereas these two characters are shown as mentally unbalanced.
Whenever I write race-related pieces, there’s the inevitable comment of “the reason most game protagonists are white is because it’s representative of the audience which is mainly white males”. Go walk into a tree or something. Do gamers of color not deserve to play a game where the main character is someone they can relate to visually? I can’t say how sick of this excuse I am. African-Americans, and all other minorities for that matter, are just as diverse as their white counterparts, and our histories have not been as thoroughly examined and appreciated. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a developer to at least spend a few days just talking to minorities before making a game. It’s infinitely better than just reaching into the stereotype bag for the same, tired old characters that people are sick of.