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Celebrating Black History Month – Diversity in Gaming

Submitted by on Monday, 22 February 20104 Comments

Pick up any video game these days and the likelihood that the main character is a white male is pretty high. With February being Black History Month, we’re taking a look at the depiction and evolution of African Americans in video games.

Where did the origins of African American characters in video games begin? Is their depiction considered stereotypical or even racist? All these questions and more will be discussed.

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the first African American portrayed in a video game, we can probably come quite close. In 1978, Alan Miller developed Basketball for the Atari 800 and the game featured a player who was obviously African American. The game had been released for the Atari 2600 previously but the only colors available were blue and green for the people, which doesn’t exactly help portray any creed or colour accurately.  Some would say that SEGA’s 1976 arcade game Heavyweight Champ is the first game to feature an African American but Basketball is regarded as the first depiction in full color.

The earliest memory I have of an African American being predominately featured in a video game is Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! which was released in 1987 on the NES. World Heavyweight Champion Mike Tyson is the final boxer of the game and any of his punches result in instant knockouts. Later, once Tyson’s contract with Nintendo expired, his name was replaced with the fictional Mr. Dream and the game was retitled although his depiction remains the same.

By now you should be seeing a trend from the above games. They are all sports titles. With famous athletes including Jackie Robinson, Jack Johnson and Julius Erving leading the way in real life, it’s no surprise that they would be the first to deviate from the typical white colored pixel.

Aside from Mike Tyson, none of these early African American characters are exactly memorable. This brings us to our next game, Final Fantasy VII. What is considered one of the greatest games in the series also features one of the most recognizable African Americans in gaming. Unfortunately, the gun-arm wielding Barret Wallace isn’t known for having the best representation.

Nice tattoo. Not sure about the string vest though...

Barret has been heavily compared to Mr. T both in appearance and attitude. His broken and crude language in the game only exemplifies negative racial stereotypes, according to some commentators. On the other hand, Barrett is also portrayed as a loving father to his adopted daughter, Marlene, and strives to protect her at all costs.

Negativity aside, Barrett is the first playable African American in the Final Fantasy series. Will Sazh Katzroy and his Chocobo dwelling afro receive the same warm welcome as Barret or will he redefine African American portrayal in video games? We’ll find out in a few weeks when Final Fantasy XIII is released outside of Japan.

When it comes to racially sparked controversies, no other game has come under more scrutiny than Resident Evil 5. Set in the fictional town of Kijuju, Africa, the game revolves around a parasite outbreak infecting the population, resulting in Chris Redfield and Sheva Alomar being dispatched to handle the situation and get to the bottom of things. In the most simplistic of terms, you play as a white protagonist facing off against enemy waves of infected Africans. But is this racist? Naturally, some are inclined to believe so and at first glance, it’s easy to see why.

Resident Evil 5 caused controversy, but was it justified?

In an interview with CVG, Resident Evil 5 producer Masachika Kawata addressed the issue and couldn’t have said it better.

“We chose Africa because we’re extending the storyline logically. Following the tradition of the Resident Evil franchise, you’ll remember from Code Veronica – the Progenitor virus comes from Africa so we wanted to go back to the root of where the virus originated. For the people who think it’s racist… well, we can’t please everyone. We’re in the entertainment business – we’re not here to state our political opinion or anything like that. It’s unfortunate that some people felt that way. We’ve gone where the story has taken us.”

Well put Mr. Kawata, well put. How would people have reacted if all the zombies were Caucasian as in the previous games? There would have probably been a bigger outrage if everyone were white, especially in the game’s African setting. Resident Evil 4 features Spanish speaking Ganados and Resident Evil 5 features African Manjini. We should be celebrating this diversity rather than criticizing it, especially when it relates to the location and storyline accurately.

It might be quiet now, but just you wait...

It’s also interesting to point out that Chris isn’t the only one doing the zombie neutralizing in the game. His partner and ally, Sheva, is of African descent and represents the West African Branch of the B.S.A.A. Sheva is a strong and independent African who stands side-by-side which Chris; even helping him out of some sticky situations. Besides, once you’re infected with the Progenitor Virus, it doesn’t matter what race you were because you’re already dead.

Whether they are being included or excluded, African American characters are playing a more predominant role in today’s gaming society. Just take a look at Cole from the Gears of War series or Rico from Killzone. Seeing as the video game industry seems to love pushing out clone-alike leading men that all seem to look like Drake/Cole/[insert here], every depiction of an African American lead is going to be inspected with a fine-toothed comb, whether this is for better or worse.

All of us here at Attitude Towers are big supporters of Black History Month and celebrate the diversity found in video games. This doesn’t apply to only African Americans, but Hispanics, Asians, and all other races as well. We look forward to a future with a more diverse cast of characters rather than your generic Caucasian space marine.

Our reality doesn’t revolve around these stereotypical characters so why should our games?