Introduction: A Brief Lesson on History
You might have heard of the Clark “Doll Test,” an experiment developed in the 1940s that was conducted on black children, requiring them to select the “good” doll and the “bad” doll. Ostensibly, the children selected the white doll when asked questions affirming positivity, and the black doll when asked questions affirming negativity. The results of this experiment were brought before the Supreme Court in 1954 during the landmark Brown v. Board case at the insistence of Thurgood Marshall, and was pivotal in overturning Plessy v. Ferguson.
In 2010, Margaret Beale Spencer recreated the doll test for modern children. The results were essentially unchanged from those found in 1947; in fact, (black) children showed bias towards dolls with lighter skin, suggesting that the emphasis on skin color remains problematic even if the outward expression of the ideal has shifted. On a positive note, companies like Mattel and American Girl are finally responding to the fact that offering diverse products to their audiences favorably affects the bottom line. Ideally, their acquiescence to diversity would have more to do with helping children negotiate healthy relationship with their ethnic/racial identity and self-image while forming a versatile worldview, but I am not naive to believe that for-profit entities would ever be that benevolent.
At any rate, I am a gamer and do not play with dolls (action figures only). Still, I wonder what it would look like if I were to analyze video games and playable brown characters in ways similar to the way in which conclusions were drawn about the doll test. Inspired by Chaka Cumberbatch and her launching of #29DaysofBlackCosplay (formerly 28 days but gotta account for that leap year day, yo!), the following Black History Month allegory is brought to you courtesy of Blerdvision.
In the Beginning, There Was Balrog, and He was Bad. Others, Not So Much….
The first black character that I can remember seeing or playing in a video game is Mike Bison, now known as Balrog, in Street Fighter II Championship Edition on the Sega Genesis. Ironically, I was a huge Mike Tyson fan as a kid, and not only did I somehow miss out on playing Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out on the NES, an error that would not be corrected until the 10th grade, I also failed to immediately recognize that Capcom designed Balrog to be a caricature of my favorite boxer; I had to read about this in an issue of EGM. I blame Capcom’s change in artwork rather than my inattentiveness, because my primary exposure to the game was on the Genesis version, dubbed Championship Edition, where his VS screen image had been changed to match the Turbo edition on SNES.
At any rate, I did not find Balrog inspiring, and would not warm up to him until his Street Fighter Alpha 3 adeptation. He is the first in a series of bosses leading up to a showdown with to real final boss, M. Bison, leaving me to conclude that he is the least of the Shadowloo. My suspicions were further confirmed through Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie in a scene when Balrog fights E. Honda while sporting a derpface. I can think of a word that rhymes with “goon,” but it would be more appropriate to save it word to describe Dee Jay much later.
Everything about Adam Hunter in Streets of Rage is precisely what should always be happening in video games to the point that if more characters like him existed, I may not feel compelled to discuss my trek of finding a character in video games “like me.” In SoR, there is little that distinguishes Adan from Axel besides his slightly stronger strikes—essentially, they are like Billy and Jimmy in Double Dragon (plus Blaze). The fact that there is little character development for Adam beyond what is also available for the other two characters supports the likelihood that the developers also did not overthink him. In Kantian fashion, Adam simply exists because he does.
I probably would not casually play SoR for the sake of nostalgia, but likely would skip right over to SoR2 or 3 because they are simply better games. Despite this, I feel that Sega stagnates in its character design. Adam is reduced to a victim captured by the Syndicate, so his brother, Eddie “Skate” Hunter and Max “Thunder” Hatchett join Axel and Blaze for the rescue.
Having invested uncountable hours playing these characters, I love all of them, which is why it hurts me so much to write about them like this. As a kid, I wanted to be Skate because he was the closest I could get to being one of the 3 Ninjas. The backwards hat, tank top, gold chain, rollerblades, and knee-high jean shorts exuded gangster cool, and as a black kid living during the Golden Age of Hip Hop, to not strive for coolness would be identity suicide.
Therein lies the insidious problem that so many youth face daily yet lack the language to describe, and the maturity to comprehend it: the performativity of blackness. External forces influence self-actualization, and one is compelled to choose, for it is inadequate to simply be, black—”blackness”is not only codified into something readily identifiable and stratified in ways that clearly signify othering (ie: Attention players! One of these is not like the other!), else identity politics becomes something of indefinite loop resulting in “character redundancies” such as Adam and Axel co-existing as essentially interchangeable in SoR. White characters in video games such as Axel can function as effective tabula rasas and enjoy their intrinsic genericism, blending in with practically any archetype in video games, from the gruff Marcus Fenix in Gears of War to default Shepard in Mass Effect. But when a POC appears, they are always already marked as a type of special event, and their accoutrements define them as such. Let me say this more clearly: every character that appears in a video game is designed intentionally placed; Skate’s depiction and Adam’s sidelining are no more natural than Sega’s decision to reduce Blaze’s wardrobe for sex appeal.
This is why as innocuous as Skate appears to be, it is his appearance itself that simultaneously illustrates and demands the expectation of a certain kind of blackness. None of this means that a character such as Skate is suddenly dangerous or less fun to play. I doubt that Sega’s intentions were malicious in his design; they were simply following the outline of an archtype from external sources much like Capcom, but they utilized less execrable stereotypes. Still, once one begins to recognize the ways in which blackness can be typified, it cannot be helped but to look upon even likable characters with a more critical eye.
Of course, the worst of the flawed characters is further exacerbated. Dee Jay’s coonery in Super SF is preposterous, but unsurprising. Rather than strive for better design after Balrog, Capcom double-downed on its aesthetic. The new challenger’s gummy and toothy grin rarely fades, consistent with his carefree attitude. Who thought this was a good idea? Probably the same artist who animated derpy Balrog. Perhaps they are related to the writers at Saban Entertainment, who wrote the breakdancing Zack into existence after converting the Super Sentai series into the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers because Dee Jay loves dancing too. Can’t get enough of those perpetually happy and dancin’ and singin’ negroes!
…or prisoners. Ok, Morgan Freeman was excellent in The Shawshank Redemption and Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence were underrated in Life, but there is something insidious about making me like a brotha who delights in crime and the prison life. I admittedly enjoyed playing as Birdie in Street Fighter Alpha as a unique replacement for Zangief (until SFA3) despite the eccentricities of his mohawk and heart tattoo. When I read in the 90’s that Birdie was a returning character from the original Street Fighter, I accepted the news as the gospel truth, but Google reveals the story of a redesign. I can only guess that Capcom noticed that the original SFA cast lacked any brown people, so they gave a skin change to a character that is not nearly as as iconic as a Chun-Li or Ken.
I do not think it is a stretch to say that Barret Wallace is perhaps the most infamous black video game character of all time. Not only is he the first black character featured in the Final Fantasy franchise, but also perhaps any RPG whatsoever. Practically any article on the topic of black characters in video games includes him. Considering that FFVII is arguably the most popular RPG of all time, then it is not a leap to say he was also the first black character that most gamers were ever exposed to, and even white gamers noticed attributes about him that are inconsistent with every other FF character ever, namely, his slang. In a different medium such as literature, its usage of in Their Eyes are Watching God is lauded rather than criticized. The difference is that the intent behind Zora Neale Hurston’s deployment of dialect is not for the purpose of stigmatization, but preservation of culture in a specific region (in her case, Florida and the Deep South) . Contrastly, Barrett’s grammar in FFVII is simply a marker of otherness.
As it is obligatory to discuss Barrett, so is it also necessary to say something about Carl Johnson (CJ) from GTA: San Andreas. After all, he is gaming’s very first black protagonist. Unfortunately, GTA:SA was the first game that I ever played that forced me, even as an agnostic college student, to wonder if it was too inappropriate for me to play! I absolutely cringed at the liberal sprinkling of the F-bombs and N-words. Yes, unlike Squaresoft with FFVII, Rockstar was genuine in its (hyper-satirical) reproduction of SoCal, and the previously-mentioned Golden Age of Hip-Hop through nostalgic lenses, yet I still cannot accept the thuggery of CJ as heroics. In fact, it is because his checkered past in the Grove Street Families gang that marks him as a target for the villain of the game, the crooked cop Officer Tenpenny, to do dirty work (Should I care that Tenpenny is black? I am ambivalent. I love Samuel L. Jackson’s VA though).
I want to make it clear that I do not despise Capcom, for the company makes an honest attempt at atonement. The result is that the character design in SF3 ranges from outstanding to downright exploitative. Elena is a character who disrupts my critical lens because I want like her. I love the nod her stage gives the best animated movie of all time, The Lion King, through the silhouette of the baobab tree outlined by the background sunset. Her stage music remains a frequently played track on my VGM playlists. But she’s practically buck naked, and I am afraid that her…assets…also play a major role in any defense I have of her character. Like all characters in SF3, Elena is meticulously designed, right down to the flaw of her existence in the game as an exotic sexploitation. There is little defense for that many frames of animation devoted to her demonstrating how much she moves…even when she isn’t. I do not feel it necessary to discuss her in USFIV because nothing has changed.
Sean is a high-potential concept with epic fail results. He is literally a male, brown-skinned Sakura but for Ken rather than Ryu, right down to the fact that he wanted to become the protege of the red gi. Unfortunately, fans recognized him as Sakura without the short skirt and panty-flashes. Worse, his basic specials are bootleg versions of the Shotokan masters’. Thus, Sean is Dan but without the comic effect. Capcom could have made Ken put Sean over, but instead, Sean is written as not even wildly talented yet undisciplined like Ken, but just as clumsy as Dan, losing to lesser opponents in SF3. What if Capcom had instead written Sean to be like Nightwing to Batman, or even a Damian Wayne? We might be looking at Sean + rival like we do Jin Kazama and Hwoarang to Kazuya and Heihachi in Tekken.
Instead, the designers demonstrate their lack of direction and acumen with the (Afro)Brazilian by sticking a basketball in his hand when a futbol would be more acceptable. One of his pre-fight animations is him practicing his J. Really? Elena also suffers from mismatched cultural signifiers; her fighting style of capoeira is Brazilian-bred, yet she is a Native Kenyan. Wut?
On a positive note, the gaming industry needs more Dudleys to dilute the presence of Balrogs. It is not shocking to think about Afro-Caribbeans like Dee Jay, but Afro-British? They exist? Yes! The African Diaspora is real, yall! Furthermore, Dudley is one of the few characters in the gaming industry who is brown, but his brownness is not “marked” like Skate’s backwards hat and gold chains, Elina’s naked Africanness, and Sean’s fondness for basketball. He’s the quintessential objective for anyone striving for equality in racial representation…well, except for those who might take issue with the respectability politics of his portrayal as a “proper Englishman.” I prefer to view Dudley like Adam: they merely just-so-happen to be black.
Like I established with Adam, the character who just-so-happens-to-be-black appears ideal, yet the tricky part seems to be the process of ascribing the attributes which make the character memorable besides just being brown. Far too often, the gaming industry fumbles on this stretch of design. Let’s walk through a few.
Jax (Mortal Kombat), TJ Combo (Killer Instinct), and Jonathan Blade (Eternal Champions), are all “strong black males,” a stereotype that might be seen as benign without considering the long history of assumptions concerning black male virility, athleticism, and general masculinity. Two of these men go so far as to integrate cybernetics with their biology to enhance their strength when mere flesh fails.
Grace (Fighting VIpers), Darci Stern, (Urban Chaos), and Samantha (Hunter: The Reckoning) are actually great throwbacks to Skate, Lauren Hill, and Michonne (The Walking Dead) but they are both trapped in dead franchises. Besides, Michonne has her own game now.
Lee Everett (TWD) appeared poised to steal the crown of “best (mainstream) black protagonist” from CJ, but he has a false-start due to the pre-game exposition establishing that he is being transported to prison for murder. His story is then automatically a redemptive one in a way that contrasts inversely with Joel from The Last of Us, complete with surrogate fatherhood.
Zack from Dead or Alive is as weird as Dennis Rodman.
Sheva Alomar was cool until it was revealed that Capcom included all of these costumes.
While on the topic of tribal outfits, I have to admit that the design of the witch doctors in Diablo III is extraordinary, but of course, they are still stereotyped. The female WD in particular struggles in the same way as Elena does in SF3—good luck finding SFW images of her that is not official Blizzard artwork.
What happens with Samir Duran in StarCraft is a spoiler, but with his…metamorphoses, the franchise was left without any POCs, so folks like Chris Metzen give us a ninja space rastafarian. K.
Speaking of ninja, someone at Namco must have been fond of Wesley Snipe’s portrayal of Blade (which, IMO, really kicked off the Marvel movie craze, and X-Men was the follow-up), so they just place a doppelganger in Tekken 5 and call him Raven. Meanwhile, Cyrax is a robot, Shinobu is a sidekick and Midway could not decide what ethnicity to assign Jade.