This article, originally posted on May 11, 2020, has been republished to amplify black voices in GameSpot's support of Black Lives Matter. Donate to the effort to fight systemic racism here.
In 2013, I was a high schooler with way too much free time on my hands. It was the last few weeks of school and a bunch of my friends and I would routinely skip class to play video games in the back of the library. It was a forbidden gamer paradise. Animal Crossing: New Leaf just dropped and we were all desperate to play it. There was a game where you could go to a town with your friends, become a home makeover demi-god, talk to animal neighbours, and be the mayor? Why wasn't every video game built exactly like that?
Self-expression is the core element of ACNL; it's a feature embedded into every aspect of the game. You choose the colour and style of your clothes and the location and architecture of your dream house, and since there are no pressing time constraints like other social simulators, you even choose what you do all day, every day. It's a game about freedom. I was so incredibly excited when I picked it up, but that feeling dwindled fast. There were no options to have black skin colour or any black hairstyles. A game all about freedom and customization refused to let me be me. It was beyond alienating; out of all the things that could have been excluded, why those things?
I headed straight online to figure out if I had just missed out on an option, but I hadn't. That's just how it was. The wackest part was that the options for darker skin tones were in the game, but you couldn't access them from the start. The only way you could make your skin darker was through a convoluted temporary tanning mechanic that had to be used on an in-game day between July 16 to September 15, during a morning that had a clear sky. Many forum posts with titles like "Can I be black in this game???" or "So... Can your character have dark skin?" popped up as others wondered at the lack of skin tone and hair options. It spurred people to write out their thoughts on race in games, and players were even tweeting directly at Nintendo to express their frustration.
The audience was quite vocal, but Nintendo never responded to anyone's comments, acknowledged the issue, or made a public statement about it. Six months after launch, an item called a "Mii Mask" was added to the game that gave the player the ability to look like their customized Mii characters. But when they were first added to New Leaf, the masks didn’t even properly adjust Animal Crossing characters' skin tone. You’d literally just be wearing an uncanny black Mii face on your character's face, leaving the rest of your body pale. New Leaf was eventually patched to match skin tone, but the whole idea of the masks was at odds with the rest of New Leaf. Masks stuck out like a sore thumb among the Animal Crossing world’s cute aesthetic. They felt like a band-aid for a situation Nintendo didn’t properly deal with, a weak attempt to pacify an entire crowd that was fed up with fighting to be seen in a medium that doesn't respect them.
I don't know who needs to hear this, but black people play video games. Period. Black people are killing it in the gaming cosplay scene, non-binary black legends like SonicFox continue to rinse people in the competitive fighting world, and groups like Black Girl Gamers have formed to help showcase black women in gaming. Racial representation in games isn’t a topic that gets studied frequently, but there is a 2015 study from Pew Research Center that takes a look at the people behind the controller. One key thing the study found is that 83% of black teens play games, while 71% of white teens play games. It’s evident that we are out here, yet somehow, none of this is truly reflective in games' racial representation.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons finally gives the players their blackness for the first time in a main Animal Crossing game. There is a wide range of skin tones and hair types selectable from the start. It's really rare for me to see my hairstyle in games, but when I created my villager, he had the same cut and the little dude almost pulled it off as well as me. My villager can be me now, and I love that, but it took so damn long. It's hard for me to even praise Nintendo for including it now when I, and so many others, needed it years ago. The bar for representation feels so dishearteningly low that companies are praised for including content that should have been there from there start; that we celebrate having our hair in a game as a "win," or having a black character that isn't a stereotype as something innovative. The industry should’ve been listening years ago.
Some black characters from older titles are iconic, but that doesn’t mean we should lower our standards
Representation has been a problem since the beginning of games. Black people have been continuously excluded or only included as a second thought (that doesn't even feel that thought-out) or as a punchline, as with Barret from Final Fantasy VII’s awkward attempt at an '80s Mr. T impression. The early inclusion of black people in games was incredibly cringey, and it's only in recent years that the industry has started to move away from the all-too-common stories about middle-aged white men (who are usually dads) and that things have started to improve. A 2018 Eurogamer article by Malindy Hetfield breaks down the embarrassing ways early black characters were handled and puts them into two camps of tropes: the scary thug and the funky guy.
It's remarkable how many black video game characters fall into those categories--even some of my favourites, like Carl Johnson from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the carefree cab driver B.D. Joe from Crazy Taxi, are there. It’s a messy situation because those characters were spawned out of stereotypes, but I’ve also held onto them since childhood because they were fun and looked like me. In Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks, a book unpacking the history of black people in American film, author Donald Bogle introduces an idea that all black actors have been forced into stereotyped roles. But those performances are still black heritage, and something to hold onto. Even though a lot of the roles were wack, we can’t completely dismiss them. “The essence of black film history is not found in the stereotyped role but in what talented actors have done with the stereotype,” he wrote.
I think that rings true for games too--some black characters from older titles are iconic, but that doesn’t mean we should lower our standards.
The first step for a better industry is listening to black people; the second step is supporting black people. More focus needs to be put on creators like TJ Hughes, a young black man creating a super-neat food simulator, and supporting events and organizations like Game Devs of Color Expo, spaces that are meant to uplift black and other marginalized designers, developers, and writers.
Supporting black people in games will make sure the standards for blackness in games is higher. It’s as simple as that. Instead of a bunch of non-black people in a game’s writers' room theorizing the proper way a character would use African American Vernacular English, or non-black artists wondering if black people also have entirely black palms and feet, there should just be black people working in that room. Tossing in a poorly crafted black character to fill an invisible diversity meter isn’t going to cut it anymore--nobody wants any of that. Black people exist, black people play, and that should be represented in the media they enjoy and help create. The field of games has to improve as a whole so we can get more meaningful advances than simply being seen, and paying attention to black creatives (all year round) is the only way we can jumpstart that process.
The only reason those durags, hairstyles, and skin tones are there is because black people spoke up.
The world right now is messy and uncertain, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a pretty good distraction. It lets me feel at ease as me. I’ve been picking weeds so my place doesn’t look like a mess when my friends fly in, and I can’t stop taking pictures of my character doing literally any silly thing. As I see my villager run around the island with his slick fade and his twists bobbing away, I’m left with hope. The only reason those durags, hairstyles, and skin tones are there is because black people spoke up. This addition took far too long, but it’s proof that change is happening, albeit slowly, across the industry.
I’m still tired, though. Talking about representation in games is draining, and it often feels futile. The people that don’t want to listen will simply not listen, and a bunch of people with unflattering, vaguely racist profile pictures will continue to yell at me on the internet. I dream of a time where games get to a place where I don’t have to write something like this, where developers respect and listen to their black audiences when issues arise, where black people aren’t an afterthought. Hopefully we get there soon.
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