When I traded correspondence with writer David Brothers last week, I made the argument that video games needs its equivalent to Blazing Saddles. This time, I'm saying that it could use its own version of Milestone Media, the groundbreaking comics company started by a crew of black professionals.
In the previous piece, we spent much of our letters talking about increasing the diversity of playable characters and offered up examples of other media that show how video games could do that. This time, our attention turns to the people making games and the way possibilities could change when a black game designer attains the renown of a Cliff Bleszinski or a Shigeru Miyamoto.
I think those expectations that you name and the prospect of being a lightning rod is what scares people off. And I can't begrudge anyone the stakes or feelings that would make them want to back away from that. But Kill Screen co-founder Jamin Warren eloquently describes what the motivations should be in this great piece:
When the time comes for a child to ask "Who am I?," games, like all great art forms, should have an answer. The worry is that the response, more often than not, is nothing at all.
That "nothing at all"… that's jumping into the void with nothing to catch your fall. The point is, if game-makers take this risk—and I balk at even calling it that—of putting more black/Asian/diverse/whatever characters in their work, you might move your audience and attention needle in meaningful ways. As far as stuff that's gotten me excited, I gasped when I played through the moment in Assassin's Creed III: Liberation when Aveline snatches an overseer's whip. And I got choked up at that character's separation from her mother, knowing full well that it paralleled something that happened a lot during slavery. I've beaten the drum for Assassin's Creed III: Liberation a lot, mostly because it feels like a lot of thought went and intent into the character construction.
There's a smattering of other examples. Valve's Left 4 Dead did a great job with its two games. I always got a kick out of Louis' saying "Do I look like one of them?" when another Survivor shoots him in L4D1. Never was able to confirm it but it felt like a "one of these things looks different from the other" joke. And then having two black characters in L4D2 just felt exponentially better. What, a brother AND a sister?! Be still, my beating heart.
In Telltale's Walking Dead game last year, those moments in the first few episodes where Lee went back to his hometown really, really resonated with me. Having him look back at a bucolic family life from a present where it's been shattered was incredibly effective. Was race baked into that? Not necessarily. And—here's my own predilections filling out the story—a black family starting a business in the South is a symbol of either overcoming institutional barriers or of those barriers not really being a factor at all. Either way, the fact that the Everetts' pharmacy lies in ruins is a really powerful symbol of loss.
That's the thing: when you're a black person engaging with a video game and stuff like this pops up, there's the every possibility that you're going to view it differently.
Making Our Own Milestones
One predictable response is to be called "sensitive" when you look at media this way. I saw a lot of that on Twitter after the Onion's awful tweet about Quvenzhane Wallis, the nine-year-old actress nominated for an Oscar for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild. I really liked this conversation that Joel Anderson from PostBourgie had about it on Twitter:
As with most times when I think of this issue, it seems like Milestone Comics holds the best possible answer. Twenty years ago, a bunch of black creators banded together to make a universe where multiple iterations of the black experience (and the stories of other minority groups) could live side by side. You can have good guys, bad guys, moral ambiguity... The whole gamut of human nature could live inside those stories. It proved that a robust population of diverse fictional personas is the antidote to tokenism. More characters equals more depth and breadth. But, I think of the derision and venom that would be aimed at a bunch of black developers who might try something in the same vein and I shudder. That's leaving aside the financial and distribution challenges they might face. But a recent experience showed me why it can be worth it to "do for self."
Two Fridays ago, I went to see Big Words, a movie written and directed by Neil Drumming, who's a friend of mine. It's about the members of a rap group that never hit it big and how they've moved on from that moment in their lives. Some of them burn with the hunger of what could have been and others are lightyears away from getting busy on the mic. Neil said that he wanted to make a movie about three self-absorbed black guys, much like the characters you see in a Judd Apatow movie. After years as a cultural critic, he just up and did the damn thing himself. He had to scrape money together, get shooting permits and pitch his way into the actors' hearts. All of that amounts to a ton of sweat and angst. And he still has to get distribution, because without that, practically no one sees the movie. But the big takeaway is that Big Words exists. When Neil and I had talked about the project before he shot it, he said that a lifetime of disillusionment underscored the point that you can't count on the whims of others to get representations of yourself on-screen.
"Television and movies had to evolve to show the many facets of humanity and games really need to start."
I hate that numbers matter so meaningfully here in a dialogue about representation. But they do. You don't get to quality without reaching some sort of critical mass first. There's not a big enough population for me NOT to worry about what Game Y is going to fuck up with Character X. Lists just make me feel like all we get is an infuriating incremental progress of centimeters. What's more frustrating for me personally is that any time black representation is discussed, the same litany of names get repeated. Alyx Vance, Sazh, Barrett, Cole Train and the same characters pop up over and over. Yes, they exist. Yes, some of them are great exemplars of character construction (or not). But I'm sick of talking about these characters. I want new characters, new sensibilities, new daring. And I look on the horizon and don't have a lot of hope.
I'm hoping that BioShock Infinite—which is set in a floating isolationist bastion of white hegemony—will go at racism in a really strong way. But, even if it does, the player's agency will be executed through two white characters. That's unless Elizabeth is passing for white, which has been a personal theory of mine since the game was announced back in 2010.
But that's one game. Just one that finds anything to say about one of the most fascinating aspects of human behavior. There may be more that I'm forgetting about but, man, I don't think I am.
The Developer's Dilemma
The thing we're not able to speak to is the actual development side of the games medium. For the reasons we've talked about, it's hard to get game-makers to talk candidly about if and when race crops up during development. However, back when I was a freelancer two years ago, I did some reporting for GamePro on an article about diversity in the games industry. The article got killed (I never found out why) but it was useful because, while I was reporting, I had developers tell me the following:
Diversity, in my opinion, will always net gains, in that it makes content creators more aware of when they are being exclusionary. I don't believe this is intentional, but people have a tendency to not look outside of their own demographic. When you are the one creating content, you will seek to add yourself, if only to feel like you are being represented as well.
Gamers need to understand the many shades of life that are out there. Not all African Americans are big, jive-talkin' strong guys with gatling cannons, the same way not all Asians are honorable silent types who know kung-fu. Television and movies had to evolve to show the many facets of humanity and games really need to start.
I think you have to always be aware of the imagery you provoke within your product. I don't think most people saw what many Black people saw when they viewed those Resident Evil  clips. I didn't get upset, but I wasn't thrilled with the scenes. I can understand where the setting was, and how the situation was set up. I don't think the designers thought that through from a racial standpoint. I am not saying you SHOULDN'T do it. I think our medium is an artform and you should be allowed to tell your story. Just don't be shocked when people call you out.
And since then, I've heard similar stories about developers lobbying to get main characters and sidekicks—SIDEKICKS, mind you—created as black people. And people with decision-making power not getting the point of said lobbying. Not necessarily saying "hell no". But just not understanding the significance of such an act.
I'm conscious of race whenever I'm writing, just as I'm conscious of class, religion, human psychology, politics-everything that makes up the human experience. I don't think I can do a good job if I'm not paying attention to what's meaningful to people, and in American culture, there isn't anything that informs human interaction more than the idea of race.
That point about human interaction is too important. Being confidently able to present different walks of life, different faces, places and viewpoints are part of how video games are going to move forward. And if the catalyst for that progress doesn't come from within the current ranks of developers, I can only hope that, somehow, it comes from without.
True story: That stretch of The Walking Dead game you're talking about actually took place in my old stomping grounds. I feel like they countrified it up some and made Macon more of a Mayberry than it's been since I was a kid, but getting to play a game set in a place that's near and dear to my heart was a lot of fun. There's a thrill in there, right? You sit up. You pay more attention. You start looking closer, seeking out things that only a local would recognize or neat shout-outs to things you know.
I live in Oakland now (it's Atlanta Hawks 'til the death of me, but the Golden State Warriors are still cool), and I still get the same thrill when I watch a movie set in the area. Dirty Harry and Book of Eli both end up or take place in the Bay, and it's a treat to get a chance to be like "I know that corner!" or "Ahh, I've been there!"
Everyone does that, right? Makes those connections? I feel like we instinctively seek out representation in the media that we consume, usually without even thinking too deeply about it. It's not a race thing, though race is definitely a part of the equation. It's an us thing, a human thing. We like to see things that remind us of us, things that we know, or things that we wish we could do. I connected in a major way to Malcolm X, Richard Pryor, and Muhammad Ali as a kid, and for different, but related, reasons for each one. I never thought, "Oh, I need some black heroes. Who's on deck?" I just gravitated toward them.
A lot of the opposition on the fan side comes down to this weird Manichean machine we're trapped in. We're all about the either/or in America, no matter how asinine the argument. Republicans vs Democrats, right vs left... black vs white. Which makes people think that everything is a zero-sum game. Either you get yours or she gets hers, so you better gets yours and hang onto it for dear life, yeah?
It's stupid. No reasonable person who is talking about diversity in games wants to take anything away from anyone else. You can even make Grand Wizard Theft Auto if you wanted. Who cares? We just want more. We want to add to the experience, not take away from it. We want a wider variety of stories, casts, and developers, not to kick out all the straight white dudes and colonize their Halos and Call of Dutys. It's not us vs them. It's (take a breath, you knew this was coming) just us (pow!). We're all in this together. We grew up playing the same video games, and frankly, we probably grew up playing with and against each other, too. Increasing diversity benefits everyone. Anyone who says otherwise hasn't thought it through yet.
"It's not us vs them"
The developer side of things, as you mention, is complicated. It's a Catch-22. There aren't a lot of black developers, so people—black, white, and everything else—assume that black people aren't into it. Which in turn leads companies to refrain from performing the outreach to schools and communities who would be all about it, if they knew they had a chance.
Biggie's line about the only way out of the hood being a wicked jump shot or selling crack rock isn't just a hot line in a hot song. It's a... a time capsule, right? 'cause when you look at what visibly successful blacks were doing when I was a kid, it was basically sports, entertainment, and dope dealing. Denzel Washington was around, but he wasn't DENZEL yet. Will Smith was still the Fresh Prince. That wasn't the full breadth of black culture, but it reflects a certain mindset that isn't uncommon.
As a kid, I didn't know that black people were doing punk music before punk was even fully formed. Nobody told me about the band Death, and they were left in obscurity until like 2006 or something ridiculous like that. So, I just assumed that punk music was a white thing, so I put it in a box. If I knew different, I would've tried it out. What was it, 1997 when Tupac said that the world ain't ready for a black president? It was true then. It isn't now. All it took was one person stepping into those shoes and providing an example to kill that noise real quick.
Not to knock or disrespect the valiant efforts (and stubborn staying power, like all devs who have to deal with crunch) of the black devs that do exist, but if you had a black rock star game dev on the level of Cliffy B or Jade Raymond? Someone the press routinely calls attention to, someone that companies trust to lead their titles? That would change the conversation. Some kid could google up Jacqueline Robinson, the first black lady to write and direct a AAA game, and be like "Oh, dang. I like video games. I'm pretty good at programming. That could be me."
Increasing diversity provides options for everyone. It provides role models and it lets you feel that electric shock of recognizing something that's you in a work of art.
All it took was one person stepping into those shoes and providing an example to kill that noise real quick.
That's what makes "You're just being sensitive" and basically every other opposition to increasing diversity in games (and elsewhere) such a poisonous sentiment to me. Every time I see someone say that, I hear them saying, "I've got mine. You don't get to get yours." And I mean, I can look up to people who aren't black. Most of my favorite authors are not black guys, actually, and I can't understate how much I enjoy Robert Frost and Katsuhiro Otomo's work. But there's nothing like that moment when you hear that a black dude is running the Justice League cartoon, or has the #1 bestseller, or wrote a movie that racked up all the awards. There's a communal pride there, and the knowledge that a door you didn't even know existed is open and ready for you to walk through it.
I write about comic books and video games for a living. I was big into both as a kid, just like everyone else, but I didn't even know this was an option. I could go back to 1993 and tell my ten year old self what I do for a living and he'd tell me "You a lie" and keep on playing Star Fox. But my cousins have asked me about my job and they're getting ready to graduate high school. Strangers have told me that it's cool to see my name on sites, which is flattering but scary. My granddad still wants me to get a real job, but he still gets it. I'm nobody, but I'm an example to somebody. Now, imagine someone with millions of dollars at their back and a killer concept for a game. Imagine how worthwhile supporting her would be, how much it would pay off in terms of both profits and culture.
In the end, it's going to come down to money, just like everything else. This industry wants hits, and more than that, it wants massive profits off those hits, so progress will happen in fits and starts until we reach the tipping point. Starhawk, The Walking Dead, and Assassins Creed III: Liberation are good starts, and make me feel real good about the last year or so of video games, but it's going to take more than that. Someone out there is going to take the risk and come up with a bonafide hit title either starring a black person or somehow produced by a significant number of black people, and it's going to be treated like someone breaking the color barrier in the press and amongst fans. It's going to blow up big, and then everyone else is going to jump on the bandwagon. It'll be rough at first, as we navigate through melanin-covered shovelware in search of the new hotness, but it'll normalize eventually. A plucky black hero will feel as natural as Nate Drake, and a gruff black lady is going to feel as natural as FemShep. (My Shep is a black guy, by the way. I couldn't resist.).
I hope it'll be sooner rather than later, but as long as the industry maintains its focus on blockbusters over everything, it'll be a long time coming. Which means that what video games needs is not just Blazing Saddles, but Tyler Perry. The only thing Tyler Perry did was look at what Hollywood wasn't doing and then pander to black grandmas just as hard as Hollywood panders to hormonal teenage white dudes. He gets laughed at, but he sleeps on a mattress stuffed with thousand dollar bills.
One day someone'll realize that there's an opportunity here, just like they did with hip-hop, hood movies, blaxploitation, and more besides, and then it's gonna be on and popping.
A change is going to come, but nobody ever changed anything by shutting up and taking what they're given. Until then, we're going to keep having this conversation and praying we spark a thought in the brain of the person who's going to finally pull it off.
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