Black Stereotypes in Gaming: New Games, Same Characters

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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

As badass as these two are, they don't help much.

As badass as these two are, they don’t help much.

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.

The Thug/Gangster

UGH...Screw you man. And your stupid little rainbow hoodie.

UGH…Screw you man. And your stupid little rainbow hoodie.

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

Tosh's face even scares ME...

Tosh’s face even scares ME…

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.

Just as I was about to post this piece, Nintendo shows this. So the new Mike Tyson is DK…subtle

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.

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About Author

(Managing Editor)

Hi! I'm the Managing Editor here at Twinfinite. I'm more than a little bit crazy but I'm great at hiding it. When I'm not gaming on XBL (Muazimus Prime) or PSN (MuazimusPrime), you can find me reading mountains of comic books or watching an obscene amount of movies. I LOVE the Mass Effect series and can't be your friend if you don't love it too.

  • http://youtube.com/80poundgames 80PoundGames

    The gaming industry is the worst about under representing African Americans. It’s not just the games. The people who make the games and report on the games are vastly white. Go to Polygon, IGN, GameInformer or any other large review outlet. You can’t find an African-American game journalist anywhere. I tweeted with Polygon’s Reviews Editor about this about 3 weeks ago. He simply said it was “too hard” to find good black journalist. To which I say “bullshit, you’re not trying hard enough” Although, at least he spoke with me about it. Others wont touch the issue with a 10 foot pole. They do have a decent mix of women, Hispanics and Asians, so the over sight seems insane.

    I’ve heard this complaint more than once from game journalist about the way black characters are represented in games. The last one I remember is the black character in Binary Domain. They were saying that Japan doesn’t know how to represent black characters. Really? Just Japan? At least they have somewhat of an excuse being a mostly homogenous society.

    I’m as white and mid-western as it gets. I live in a county that is 92% white and the issue bothers me. How it hasn’t received more coverage from the “big city” games media blows my mind.

    • muazimusprime

      “Too hard”? This simultaneously makes me laugh my ass off and cry so hard. That has got to be the dumbest/wrongest thing I’ve heard all week. Case-in-point: The staff of this site. I’m proud to say that we’re one of the most diverse gaming sites out there and we didn’t find it “too hard”.

      • http://www.twinfinite.net Alex

        Agreed. Not that we don’t love our non-minority staff members, but it’s great how diverse we all are here. It is not “too hard” to find a good black journalist at all. Maybe they’re just not looking in any of the right places–aka outside of their asses.

    • CComry

      Stop trying to force your stupid white guilt on everyone else.

      • http://youtube.com/80poundgames 80PoundGames

        Not “forcing” anything on anyone. Nor do I feel any “white guilt” as you so eloquently put it.

        Fact is, the way people perceive media, whether it be games, movies,etc, has a lot to do with their backgrounds and life experiences. If everyone that reports and reviews games all have similar backgrounds and no one else is allowed in that circle, the more unlikely it is that different thoughts and ideas can be shared.

        I would just like to see a more well rounded representation of gamers. Don’t know why anyone would be threatened by that.

        • muazimusprime

          Some people are threatened by any sort of change to gaming even if it’s for the betterment of the industry.

          • CComry

            That gave me a chuckle. Listen, I’m a casual gamer. Sometimes I’m into a specific game, and sometimes my console stays dormant for a month. I read books and interact with people face to face instead of wasting my time arguing with people about the state of the video game industry. There are much bigger issues that this world is facing.

        • CComry

          Where did I say I was threatened? My reply was to you specifically, and this sentence in particular:

          “I live in a county that is 92% white and the issue bothers me.”

          That sentence smacks of white guilt, which has been force down peoples’ throats through political correctness and a biased media.

    • Bernard Marx

      They take the best applicants that are in front of them and willing to work. There is absolutely no monetary incentive for them to look past black writers if they are worth hiring. No one has to “try harder”, private business doesn’t have to go around and try and recruit people just because they may add some forced diversity. The exact same thing goes for women or gay writers also.

  • D S Dunlap

    I don’t play most games. The one I do play a lot, “Uncharted Waters Online” allows one to create a character of almost any of the usual human skin tones (my character, Aardvern, is a black man who is Dutch), and the players themselves bring their own personalities into gameplay to a point.

    Still, the regions of the world (Northern Europe, Western Europe, Southeastern Europe, North Africa/Levant, Turkey, West Africa, East Africa, Red Sea/Arabia, Persia, India, SE Asia, East Asia, Oceania, Caribbean, East Coast of Latin America, West Coast of Latin America, and an unsettled North America (for company colonies *New France, New England, New Netherlands, Virginia, Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana*) do have their cultural “stereotypes” in clothing and goods (no slavery in the game: when they tried to introduce it on their Japan server, the gamers nearly all quit playing).

    Thing is, there are really very FEW Black protagonists who are shown as being any more than one-dimensional in most standard games.

    • muazimusprime

      WHO IN THEIR RIGHT MIND SUGGEST ADDING SLAVERY TO A GAME?!?!

  • Wayne Bryant Variste

    “too hard” to find a black person to play and write about a video game huh?!? kill thyself!!!

    • muazimusprime

      Yea that was pretty stupid on his part. I literally ticked off 6 within 15 seconds of reading that comment.

  • klutch

    The two biggest ethnic groups who play games are Blacks and Latinos. All these game designers have to do is go to Evo, or get on Youtube if they’re as lazy as their writing teams, and see that for themselves.

  • Bernard Marx

    I’m sure there are no scary white villains in games, or no stereotypical mobsters/rednecks/Irish in games….oh wait. People complain about all the white leading characters in games, we need to start a tally and complaing about every single white villain in games. It’s funny because you can tell in certain games where a different race would have been more appropriate for the times but, they default to a white guy since they can’t get in trouble with the PC police.

    • muazimusprime

      So just so I understand: your argument is that there’s too many white villains that instead should be minorities because it would be more appropriate? Can you give an example?

  • Sam Alt Reid

    I have to say, while it was a nice touch that TellTales the walking dead featured not 1, but 2 main characters who were black, i still got a little offended of some stereotypes of the main character Lee, in the way he sometimes talks, and that he starts the game in the back of a police car for being a convicted murderer.

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