Martin Luther King Jr. would not have cared about black protagonists in video games. Or at least he wouldn’t if we take him at his most famous words. We’ll come back to this later. I came across a thread on ResetEra a few days ago regarding gaming’s need for more black protagonists, which linked to an article written at GameSkinny.com. In both the thread and article put forth the idea that representation is integral in highlighting the realities of black Americans.
While I understand this sentiment as its one that is parroted ad nauseam by countless commentators in nearly all facets of Western entertainment, be it management in sports organizations or the amount of black folks in movies. The issue that arises with applying this position to video games is that it ironically, ignores the most important part of any medium – its substance.
The writer of the article notes that CJ (from GTA: San Andreas) and Lincoln Clay (from Mafia 3) deeply affected him because they looked like him. This idea fundamentally contravenes the words of Martin Luther King Jr. famously spoke, which people love to repeat during this time of the year without actually applying to their lives this time, curiously enough.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
I personally always found the idea that I ought to be especially connected to someone because strictly on the basis that they looked like me as pretty strange, as I spent most of my youth, and still spend nearly all of my time admittedly, watching anime and soccer, areas that aren’t exactly teeming with black faces. The same can be said for video games, and yet I was still able to connect with characters. “How is that”, you may inquire. The answer is simple – because race is, in almost all instances, irrelevant to the narrative direction.
If one requires their characters to look like them in order to relate to them then one of two things are happening. Either the storytelling itself is not good enough to evoke a connection between the character and the player (in the case) of the game, or the player is too dense to empathize with the character or story arc in the game. Though this should be clear to most people, unfortunately, it is not, and I know this because of the abundance of idiots out there that say that they cannot enjoy a game like HZD because its protagonist is a female. This is despite the fact that Aloy’s character arc is the pretty unoriginal story where one struggles to gain acknowledgement from their peers whereupon they use this found bond to achieve an impossible goal. Now if Aloy were a black dude would her feelings of inadequacy be more apparent to you? If your answer is yes then respectfully, your opinion is stupid.
In video games, where the vast majority of video game stories take place in fantastical worlds, how in the hell are characters looking like us supposed to make them relatable. The people that live in the world of HZD are so far removed from the culture that we exist in that their race become more of an atmospheric device than a narrative one (unless race is explicitly apart of the story the game is trying to tell). What there people are doing here is a classic case of not keeping the same energy that they had prior.
At this point you may be saying “BUT, BUT THE AUTHOR OF THE ARTICLE BRINGS UP CHARACTERS THAT EXIST IN OUR WORLDS SO WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU EVEN TALKING ABOUT”. To this I would say “well not really”. The world of Grand Theft Auto, should be understood as a parody of ours where some aspects of the world are exaggerated for narrative purposes. But lets say I gave you that. CJ’s blackness makes him no more relatable to me than his social situation does. I’m from a suburban Canadian city, am I supposed to relate to CJ, who is from a fictionalized Compton on the basis of his blackness? Of course not. CJ from Los Santos might as well be Geralt of Rivia, because outside of being black CJ’s existence is just as alien to me as Geralt’s. What I can relate to however is CJ’s struggle to do right by his family and better his own life, a character arc that is almost universally relatable. To say that I ought to relate better to CJ on the basis of race is to assume that black existence is homogeneous.
Its fair to argue that it would be nice to have more black faces in video games but it fundamentally misses the point of story telling. When we play games we become the characters that we control. And we may not look like these characters, but the beauty of gaming is not that a character might look like us, its because we resonate with the experiences that they’re having. Characters do not become great because of what they are, they become great because off who they are. I relate to characters not based on the colour of their skin, but the content of their character, you should too.