Every year when Martin Luther King Jr. Day comes around, I can’t help but consider the state affairs for black culture throughout our various mediums, whether film or comic books or literature. However, this year I became focused on the world of video gaming; where do black video game characters stand in today’s world? Sadly, they do not fare that well. For the most part, blacks are woefully underrepresented in RPGs and adventure games. A recent study suggested that roughly 6.5% of characters in games outside of the sport genre are black. And for many, this 6.5% is comprised of insensitive caricatures, distorted mirror images of the truly worst society has to offer. However, there are black characters that have furthered video gaming and left an indelible impression on the medium. Here are ten characters that have influenced the video game community.

In SCIII, Zasalamel is introduced as an antagonist, but it isn’t until SCIV that gamers are given a glimpse into his true intentions. The perpetually reincarnated scythe-wielder has had a glimpse of the future, and he desires nothing other than to see it come to fruition. However, unlike most futuristic fantasias, Zasalamel’s isn’t one where he has accrued the power of a god or the rule of the world, but one where he sees all people living in a better state of existence and means. In fact, completing his arcade mode reveals that Zasalamel has chosen to live forever, guiding mankind down the right path. Instead of succumbing to the standard immortality side effects that result in a lack of scruples, Zasalamel has never lost pure intentions. In some sense, this makes him a real black superhero. And instead of living in the domain of comic book pages, Zasalamel was introduced in the pixilated worlds of video games. Such a noble spirit is an excellent place to begin this list.

Halo became the most popular game series among the casual gamer demographic during the early 2000s, and that meant that the diffusion of knowledge about the characters in the aforementioned franchise spread like wildfire. Sgt. Johnson, while not affecting a particularly original persona, was one of the few not completely stereotypical black characters at the time. Johnson’s face, found on millions of consoles, not only found popularity amongst millions of gamers but found so much that he was brought back again in two Halo sequels. This may not seem like a considerable landmark for Black video game characters as a whole, but consider this: stereotypes are a huge hurdle for any minority whether it be race, sex, religion, etc. To introduce a black character that isn’t spouting “urban language” or committing criminal acts was something that rarely happened in video games. Mostly, this was due to a lack of interest in non-sports video games from the black community. Is it any surprise that Halo was one of the games that saw the beginning of a drastic increase in the percentage of black gamers?

Very few psychological thrillers contain black characters. So the introduction of Garcian Smith, part of a grouping of seven highly trained assassins, was a surprise to everyone when the sleeper hit Killer7 reached shelves. Garcian is given a deep, interesting storyline that develops as the game moves along. Without spilling the beans on this excellent and suspenseful tale, the evolution of Garcian demonstrates competent storytelling and excellent logical character progression. This is something rarely granted to black characters involved in video games. Often times, a simple tenuous background like Jak’s (of Mortal Kombat fame) is all a character will get. Only protagonists and their close comrades seem to garner a deep tale of significance. However, the track record of protagonists is one of white dominance. This “whiteout” is frustrating when you see a character like Garcian come out of nowhere and be truly entertaining. The character himself isn’t really necessitated to be black by the confines of the story, and usually when race is not a factor, games choose to allow players to customize their appearance. This in effect allows a player to be any race or gender. That’s what makes Killer7 so interesting. It did have an easy-out method to include black gamers. It chose to be forward thinking, excluding options and creating a true leading protagonist that was black. However, Garcian’s tale not only broke the mold, it did so successfully, hopefully leading to future black protagonists.

Barret began his RPG tale as a loose cannon (pun intended). But as the story progressed, we learned that Barret was more than just a hot-headed loudmouth. Instead, he evolved into a passionate and caring man. Barret had flaws of course; even though his dream of bringing down the tyrannical SHINRA was nothing less than noble, he didn’t recognize that he put his friends and acquaintances in harm’s way. But his heart was always in the right place. While often called a terrorist leader, Barret’s group known as AVALANCHE was more of an anti-terrorist group. Its existence stemmed from a desire to protect Midgar from an organization that ruled with fear. Even Rufus Shinra, a leader of the SHINRA company, freely admitted that he controlled Midgar through the power that fear purchased. But Barret knew that fear would never hold a grip over his family. Even though she wasn’t his daughter by birth, Barret’s adoption of Marlene was not anything if it wasn’t a real genuine bond of love. This familial relationship gave Barret the motivation to accept a mission that by all accounts would lead to his own death. Selfless to the end of the game, Barret is an excellent demonstration of the integration of a positive black character into a roleplaying game.

With all of the outcry railing against the “racism” of killing African zombies, what RE5 did was not create a hate-game but rather create a realistic game set in a real place on Earth. Simply put, if a zombie outbreak were to occur, the vast majority of those infected would be black. Similarly, if a zombie outbreak were to occur in China, those zombies would likely be Asian undead. What the detractors failed to realize is that RE5 was a game that provided subtle critique on the way White Power dealt with Black Africa. As the protagonists fight for their life against the unwilling victims that have succumbed to the horrific plague spreading like wildfire, they are exposed to more than just flesh-eating corpses. Instead they run into villages rife with squalor. Most of the 1st world chose to ignore the economic and social problems that plague Africa daily, and what RE5 really offered was an environment that gave players brief experiences in these truly appalling and sickening conditions. These black zombies breathed a little new life into a dying cause often glossed over by unfeeling politicians.

Too often, black game characters are depicted as unscrupulous or unintelligent. Even the previously mentioned Barret often succumbed to bouts of idiocy characterized by excessive uses of punctuation marks in lieu of obscenities. However, Eli Vance is a cut above. A brilliant physicist in a world gripped in the throes of fear, Vance is a key contributor to the Resistance in Half-Life 2. He consistently provides useful weaponry he has concocted and is adept at repairing other technological marvels with ease. Eli’s actions never waiver from pure motivations and honorable actions. While he is not a standard muscular heroic protagonist that so often grace the covers of our game boxes, he fills the role of scientist with a conscience that normally is filled by a nerdy long-haired white guy. In the first Half-Life, Eli expresses reservations about the role his research is playing at Black Mesa. Later this morality takes a more solid form, as Vance steps into the role of leader of the Resistance against the Combine in the second game.

Jade has the distinction of being the first black female lead protagonist in a video game. More importantly, Jade’s entire characterization exists as a paradigm of human morality. Being a journalist, Jade is naturally connected in our minds to the “Freedom of Press” so often defended by citizens across the many countries of our planet throughout history. In that sense, she taps our subconscious trust. Her very existence is a testament of the power of citizen journalism. Jade seeks one of the purest goals of all video games: truth. Often, video games espouse power as either the ultimate victory or the ultimate menace. In this case, the intangible truth provides our character a motivation outside of the standard material desires that have taken hold of so many Grand Theft Auto-type black characters. It’s imperative to have characters like Jade; not only is she a strong black individual, but she is a strong female; pop culture characters can provide us aspiration and inspiration. By existing as a black female, Jade more easily relates to both of those groups and gives both a relevant hero to look up to.

Frank Tenpenny is a strongly-written villain created not to demonize black gang culture in Los Angeles, but rather to examine greed from another angle: that of a corrupt cop. Gangland residents often are accepted as unwanted byproducts of a broken society. However, the truth of the matter is that the seedy underbellies of major metropolitan areas exist because of opportunity, not necessity. In this case, Los Santos’ own law enforcement is to blame for the state of affairs in terms of crime. Tenpenny is the ringleader of a group comprised of mostly white internal affairs cops that choose to succumb to corruption, turning their precincts into racketeering, drug addled ghettos. What makes Tenpenny so important is that he isn’t just another black man committing crimes in video games. Frank’s modus operandi is that of a mastermind; he’s planned this criminal empire from the start. In fact, he considers himself above the law. Megalomaniacs like Tenpenny usually come in a fairer skin color. What San Andreas provides is a smart, manipulative black villain who has risen above the on-the-streets mentality that so limits many black antagonists in games.

Baseball has Jackie Robinson. Mass transportation has Rosa Parks. But video gaming’s first black character is a nameless individual lost in the dusty tomes of history. Yet, is contribution is undeniable: he was the first video game character to sport a definite skin tone. Prior to the Atari 800, game characters rarely were a realistic skin color (usually purple or red or blue), owing to the limited palette of the console. However, when the Atari 800 emerged, the star of Basketball was revealed in dazzling dark design. Of course, little is known about this original character. Perhaps he was a young man, shooting some hoops after a long day at college. Maybe he was a middle-aged father of two, enjoying some relaxing recreation on a sunny Saturday afternoon. What makes this character so endearing is the fact that he is nameless, that he is an everyman. He is easily relatable for any in black culture, regardless of wealth or education. Instead of pigeonholing a black character into demeaning stereotypes, the inception of black characters in the home video game console was borne out of a simple enjoyable, inoffensive game like basketball.

The future is now. In the 22nd century, racism and xenophobia continue to fester and only the arena has changed. Instead of Earthly battles like Darfur and Kashmir, we found Galaxy-wide conflict of Turians and Quarians and the like. Anderson’s actions, however, demonstrate hope for an equal Earth. Prior to his role as an aide to Commander Shephard, Anderson was the first human to be groomed for a role as Spectre. This prestigious occupation in Galactic law enforcement is extremely difficult to attain; the fact that a black man was offered this role is a testament to a future that has put the pre-established notions of inherent racial stereotypes behind itself in order to attain an equality unparalleled in modern times. Even more impressive is the possibility that in Mass Effect 2, Anderson can be promoted to the role of Ambassador at the very outset of the game. Joining the elite Council that in effect presides over the entirety the Milky Way is quite a leap for not only humanity but especially for a race that is traditionally given a backseat in video games. Anderson is never represented as intellectually-slighted or morally bankrupt. Instead, Anderson is a strong-willed man who recognizes his own limitations and wisely accepts that certain responsibilities must fall to him. More importantly, Anderson is a dynamic character. Over the course of Mass Effect, the player’s interactions with him can determine his personality, his relationship with the ambassador, and even his actions. There are few black characters of quality in games; even fewer are so deep and resonate. Instead of a two-dimensional stereotype, Anderson exists as an intriguing possibility for a bright and shining future.

There are no black Marios. There are no black Sonic the Hedgehogs (unless you want to include Shadow). And unless you count the Black Mage (which I don’t), there were no black Final Fantasy characters until the Playstation debuted. But there have been some forward-thinking developers that have created impressive black characters not borne out of ignorance but out of optimism. We’ll most likely never be rid of these stereotypical characters for any race or ethnicity; xenophobia is an unfortunately natural part of humanity that will always exist. However, as a community, gamers can refuse to be complacent. We can mature as a unit, seeking well-rounded characters of color instead of two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs that don’t do nearly enough justice to an important part of our population.

List by scarletspeed7 (01/19/2011)

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