Between the recently released Final Fantasy XVI and the upcoming Immortals of Avenum, fantasy players are eating this year. But what about the players who can’t put themselves in the shoes of the main protagonist?
Black people have long awaited the grand video game epic that encapsulates the spirit of adventure without harking back to their depressing past. Yet, as time goes by, it would seem that more developers are designing Black characters based on hardship. Characters like CJ from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Barret Wallace from Final Fantasy VII have nuances that represent Black culture but still ultimately cater to white audiences. These protagonists often must rise to the occasion and chase opportunities that elude their grasp. In reality, though, Black people are more than those common archetypes and have the autonomy to create their own path.
The lack of diversity in video games is disappointing, but is there a silver lining to this predicament? Let’s take a closer look.
According to NPR, only 5% of game developers identify as Black. That figure is appallingly low, especially considering the industry itself has been trying to increase its awareness around diversity for years.
With so few Black developers, there’s an increased risk of negligence when it comes to understanding Black players and depicting authentic characters that properly represent them. Black culture can be construed differently by someone who has not lived those experiences, which only further perpetuates stereotypes about Black people.
While Black developers can certainly make their mark in the gaming scene, their accomplishments are often overshadowed by unconscious bias and doubt. As any Black person in America can attest to, they’re often seen as one-trick ponies, which can undermine their expertise and cause them to question their abilities and future success.
In 2022, Jamal Michel published a piece for the Washington Post on why there is little to no momentum behind the push for diversity in the industry. The article states, “Ignoring issues around representation in one part of the gaming ecosystem, be it developers or consumers, can reverberate to the other. And if a game ends up becoming a hit […] that damage is amplified tenfold.”
Where, then, does that momentum start? Gaming companies have to give Black people a chance when they are young and curious about the industry. Huge strides could be made if only these developers were to have mentors who can show them the way.
Slay the Dragon
More often than not, when games do have a Black protagonist, they’re in genres that are either historical in nature or based heavily on science fiction. Examples include protagonists Colt Vahn and Julianna Blake from Deathloop and Adawale in Assassin’s Creed Freedom Cry.
By contrast, fantasy remains a genre filled with potential. The gaming industry would explode if Black people had their own take on The Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy, especially one that shows that these characters do not have to come from a depressing background. Black communities are diverse, hailing from around the world. Their people, cultures, and traditions can give developers a multitude of inspirations to choose from.
Companies would also avoid the issue of appearing politically incorrect or insensitive, as these worlds and experiences would come directly from the minds of the developers—assuming Black developers have a helping hand. The Streets of Rage series is a good example of how to craft a fictional world that provides important commentary on real social tension in our world.
Hook, Line, and Sinker
If there’s a silver lining to all of this, it’s that certain games seem to be moving in the right direction.
This month’s Summer Games Fest (aka “not E3”) was filled with new announcements. Several games in particular caught my eye, namely Alan Wake 2 and South of Midnight. Both games introduced Black leads; not only that, they featured them front-and-center without calling attention to typical tropes. South of Midnight is especially impressive, as it uses an unconventional art style and could prove a unique gem.
If developers want to make generational leaps regarding representation in their games, they have to bring these characters to the forefront. Custom avatar characters aren’t going to cut it anymore, as they insinuate that Black people cannot have a story of their own—something that is furthest from the truth. Here’s hoping these new games succeed and start a wave of Black leads that can cement their own mark in gaming.