by Andray Domise
A few years ago, a friend and I founded a program called TXDL to teach youth of diverse backgrounds how to make video games. As part of our pilot program, we asked students to send us character reference sheets, visual and written summaries of the characters the students wanted to create.
While combing through the student e-mails, one of the submissions caught me off-guard. The character, Samuel, should be typical as far as action game heroes go. Tall, muscular, arched eyebrows, clever grin. But this character description was far from typical. Sporting an afro and thick sideburns, armed with a sword strapped to his back, Samuel was far from a trope or a sidekick.
According to his creator, Samuel was to be:
- African American, a martial arts expert, and a weapons specialist
- The leader of a resistance movement seeking to liberate the world from the evil organization’s clutches
- Strong-willed, fierce, and courageous. Willing to risk some things to achieve victory in battles
- Compassionate towards his people
It might not seem like much, but for a gamer like myself, raised to expect either no Black characters or bizarre caricatures of blackness in the games I play, it was a lot. When I talked to the creator about his character, and what he hoped to accomplish with his adventure game, his answer was “I want to play the hero and feel like this is someone I could actually be. Not a thug, or an athlete or something.” Hearing his answer gave me one of the proudest moments I’d had in years. As someone who grew up unused to seeing people like me represented in video games, I’d finally helped a budding gamer become self-actualized in the medium.
I was a minority gamer growing up. By “minority,” I don’t just mean a gamer of colour, although I was (and am) that too. What I mean is, I was in the minority of console owners. Just about every kid in my elementary school with a video game console was an NES gamer, but I owned a Sega Master System. Which meant there was exactly two other kids in my entire school to trade cartridges with. And this was okay by us; in a way, we were our own little fan club and trading hub. We’d read Electronic Gaming Monthly religiously, making note of release dates so we could coordinate our game purchases. If one of them put Phantasy Star on his birthday wish list, I scribbled Ys on mine. If one of us asked Santa for Wonder Boy, someone else was guaranteed to find Zillion under the Christmas tree.
It was a pretty good system we had going. In the dozens of games we played and traded while I owned that ugly red and black Sega box, I felt connected to a small and exclusive group. In the fourth grade, I smuggled the plastic cartridge cases for my Master System games along with my school books when I went to school. During lunch time in the cafeteria, I’d leave the cases out next to my lunch tray. Sure enough, other Master System owners would show up to ask if I’d beaten the games, and if I’d maybe like to trade games with them for a week. My love for Sega and its brand helped me build a social circle.
But it wasn’t until I owned a Sega Genesis, just before middle school, that I truly understood what representation meant. Up to that point, I’d never played a single Sega game that featured a Black character who wasn’t a celebrity or an athlete. By that time, the absence of Black people not only in games, but in nerd culture and mass media at large, was background noise. Always present, but only an irritant if one stopped and paid attention. In 1991, the Genesis game Streets of Rage arrived, and one of the three playable lead characters was Adam, a Black former boxer and police officer helping to rid his city of a ruthless crime syndicate. It was the first time I’d ever picked up a controller and played as an imaginary Black protagonist.
Up to that point, the paltry amount of Black representation in gaming was stereotypical and derivative to the point where creators should have been embarrassed. In every fighting game franchise up to that point, just about every Black character was a boxer. In every other genre, Black characters were either savages or gang members. There was no role for us, outside of the narrow categories that western media, steeped as it was in white supremacy, had allowed us to occupy. Playing Axel for the first time felt like a minor breakthrough. Even though his backstory, of course, had to mention his past as a boxer, for the first time in my life I could see myself in a game’s protagonist.
Unfortunately, the gaming industry still had a long way to go.
In 2007, Capcom released the first trailer for Resident Evil 5 (RE5), the hotly anticipated latest entry in the survival horror series. The trailer was immediately lambasted .1. for its use of racial tropes, and mired the game in controversy over the two years leading up to its release. In that trailer, the camera follows burly white protagonist Chris Redfield as he kicks, punches, and shoots his way through wave after wave of Africans infected with a zombie virus. The backlash to the imagery of the trailer – nondescript poverty-stricken African country, western colonizers plundering the land and people, a white saviour venturing into the darkest heart of Africa to inflict violence – was met with a secondary backlash from gamers who believed those disturbed by it were the real racists.
Well-known game critic Jim Sterling, writing for Destructoid.com 2 at the time in response to a blogger post about RE5, said “It does, however, take a really self-centered, perhaps even racist individual, to see it as “the white man killing MY people.” Wesley Yin-Poole at videogamer.com contacted “leading racism expert” Glenn Bowman, at the time a senior Anthropology lecturer at the University of Kent, to ask whether the game was, in fact, racist.
1.John, Tracey (17 August 2009). “Newsweek’s N’Gai Croal on the Resident Evil 5 Trailer: This Imagery Has a History” www.mtv.com/news/2456617/newsweeks-ngai-croal-on-the-resident-evil-5-trailer-this-imagery-has-a-history/
2. Sterling, Jim (1 August 2007). “Resident Evil 5 is SO RACIST: The idiocy begins.” https://www.destructoid.com/resident-evil-5-is-so-racist-the-idiocy-begins-37196.phtml
Bowman answered that the imagery of “black faces and…motifs of African masks and the like,” were not racist; the game had to be set somewhere, and since its setting was in Africa, African imagery was part and parcel. It later turned out that Bowman, whose areas of expertise were in Palestinian and Yugoslavian political anthropology, was not, in fact a “leading racism expert;” he asked to not be identified as such.
Perhaps most surprisingly, motion actors Karen Dyer and T.J. Storm, both of whom identify as Black, explained in an AP interview that there was nothing racist about the “It’s in Africa! It’s been in Africa, it’s been in Spain, it’s been in the midwest (United States),” said Storm, in one segment. “It wasn’t racist then, why should it be racist now? It’s in Africa. Have fun with the game! Play the game!”
What Dyer, Storm, and game critics back then missed (and have plenty of company in gaming industry types who miss the point now), was that, regardless of whether any harm was intended, video game narratives are not exempt from history and political context. While many were caught up in the images of, for example, infected African men dragging a white woman into a house to infect her with the virus, it doesn’t seem that many bothered to examine what it meant to take the zombie trope to Africa.
The zombie legend itself originated from Haitian folklore, in the blood-soaked sugar cane fields of St. Domingue – the name of the French colony prior to the Haitian slave rebellion. The vodun beliefs of West Africa – transported to St. Domingue in the minds and bodies of a kidnapped people – held that the spirits of slaves who died in bondage were returned to Guinée (or Guinea). By being converted into a zombie, the spirit was held captive for eternity. What then to make of the idea that a nondescript and monolithic Africa could be overrun by horrific creatures that people casually call “zombies?”
What began as a dream of release from the horrors of slavery became twisted the 20th century as the zombie trope that undergirds the Resident Evil franchise. Worse, subverted in such a way that West African spirituality was denatured and reflected back to Western audiences as the ultimate degeneration into colonial stereotypes of Africa itself: savagery, disease, and cannibalism.
In the ten years since the release of Resident Evil 5’s trailer, progress in the industry has been rather rocky. Tropes which should have died a long time ago, including the crude and sassy Black woman, and the hypermasculine Black male, still persist. Fictional worlds heavily influenced by Western European folklore dominate the RPG landscape, yet the rich, bizarre, and at times psychedelic folklore of sub-Saharan and eastern Africa have yet to be explored.
On the other hand, there has been much progress. Multiple studies show that young Black people not only spend more time on video games than their peers, but that Black millennials exert an outsized influence on social media. Game companies seem to be tuned into this fact. Over the last few years, Black characters are not only being explored more fully as human beings with diverse interests and personalities, they’re being placed front and centre. Mafia III, for example, set in the Vietnam-era South, follows a Black protagonist on a revenge journey against the mob and the KKK alike. Watch Dogs 2 is led by Marcus Halloway, a Black hacker, and the game’s sense of humour is heavily steeped in the code-switching reality of Black people who exist in tech spaces.
There’s obviously much more work to be done, which is why TXDL exists to help nudge forward the goal of inclusive tech spaces. But reading that character reference sheet, and speaking with the student who produced it, I was struck by the difference in the landscape for Black people in gaming now, versus the environment in which I cut my teeth. At least we now have the platform to demand visibility, and to cause disruption when game companies get it wrong. I look forward to one day picking up a controller and playing as Samuel, as well as mailing the pre-written thank-you note to the student who created him.
I plan on putting it in the mail, the day when people of colour have achieved true representation in the video game industry, and organizations like TXDL will no longer be necessary.
Andray Domise is a Toronto-based writer and the co-founder of TXDL, a tech skills development program for youth.