The History of Black Video Game Characters | NowThis Nerd

Hey everyone, I’m Uchenna Over the last few years, the Black community has made huge strides when it comes to representation in movies, TV, and comic books, but when it comes to videogames, for the most part, the first character that comes to mind is either a blue hedgehog, a short and round Italian plumber, or a grizzly 30-year-old white guy

You don't have what it takes to kill me We’re slowly seeing improvement, but there are still real systemic changes that the industry needs to make, if we ever want to see real representation in games The first step to progress is understanding how we got here, so today, in honor of Black History Month, I want to talk about The History of Black Video Game Characters Even though games are a relatively young medium, there’s still a lot of outdated ugliness to parse through Especially towards the beginning, where Black characters were defined by Sports and Stereotypes The earliest depiction of a playable Black character that I could find dates back to 1976, in an obscure arcade game from SEGA called ‘Heavyweight Champ’ The game’s in grayscale, so it’s kind of up to debate, but one boxer is definitely rendered darker than his opponent

A more clear-cut example comes from 1979, with Atari’s ‘Basketball’ On the more famous Atari 2600 version, you choose between a purple guy or a green guy, but the later releases on more powerful hardware make it clear that one of the characters is Black As sports games became more complex, they began relying on real-life stars to sell copies, resulting in games like “Daley Thompson’s Decathlon’ and ‘Frank Bruno’s Boxing’ putting Black athletes front and center Speaking of boxing, the ‘Punchout!’ series gave us some of Nintendo’s only Black characters, in the form of your hard-working trainer Doc Lewis, and the ugly caricatures he helps you fight Japanese companies have always had a strange relationship with representation, and even though they’ve made some progress over the years, they can still do better

Seriously, there are over 70 fighters in ‘Smash Ultimate,’ and not a single one of them is Black FAILURE! Today, characters of color are no longer limited to sports, but the legacy still persists as a stereotype From Barret Wallace to Cole Train, Tried to tell you to stay away from the chopper, man! Sounds like crap got thick for you It did Thanks for the assist, Cole

Jackson Briggs to Doomfist, the default mode for Black characters seems to be loud, aggressive, enormous dudes, whose athleticism, strength, and masculinity are their defining traits That’s why heroes like Lee Everett, Marcus Holloway, and Lincoln Clay are so refreshing, they’re down-to-earth everymen, not roided-out rage machines Oh, I know that feeling Now, I’m not trying to rag on sports games, they’re a huge pillar of the entire industry, and over the last few years, Black artists like Jay Z and Spike Lee have been deeply involved with elevating them, producing awesome entries in the 2K Sports series But simply dropping African-American characters in a game isn’t enough, especially when they stick to tired tropes

[GROANS] Black characters have existed on the periphery since the earliest days of gaming, but it took a little longer for them to become Stars One of the first non-sports games to feature a playable Black character, is SEGA’s ‘Quartet’ from 1986, an arcade shooter that let you choose from four players, Including Edgar, a Black supersoldier Soon, plenty of titles were at least giving gamers the option of playing as a character of color, especially fighting games ‘Street Fighter 2’s’ selection of World Warriors like Balrog and Dee Jay helped ignite a trend of multicultural rosters, and today, some of the most diverse casts can be found in fighters, Including my fave, Eddie Gordo from Tekken That dude's got sweet Capoiera movies You win

The deep, inclusive rosters could be a reason why the fighting game community, is home to far more people of color than most gaming scenes It’s one thing to give gamers a choice to play as a person of color, let them create their own, or to showcase Black people in supporting roles, like Alyx Vance or Sergeant Johnson, But what about games where you have to play as a Black character? Where the only way to experience the game is through a person of color? An early example is ‘Cyborg,’ a little-known PC game from 1986, not to be confused with DC’s superhero of the same name, When there's trouble, you know what to dooo Call Cyborg! which may be the reason the game was pulled and re-released as ‘Mandroid

’ ‘Mandroid’ didn’t have much of an impact, but just three years later, the massive hit ‘Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker’ put you in the King of Pop’s shoes Michael! Other games based on Black celebrities followed suit, like that piece of crap ‘Shaq-Fu’ and other decent games, like ‘Michael Jordan’s Chaos in the Windy City’ Meanwhile, ‘Predator 2,’ ‘Spawn,’ ‘Blade,’ ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ and other licensed titles gave you control of their Black protagonists, but they’re not really videogame characters, even though today, ‘Shadowman’ is far more known for his 1999 game, than his obscure comic series Original Black heroes were few and far between, like the problematic Voodoo priest ‘Akuji the Heartless,’ Explore all the lands in each vestibule of Hell FPS forerunners like Rusty Blade and John Dalton, or, in the sadly all-too-rare example of a woman of color in a leading role, rookie cop D’Arci Stern from 1999’s ‘Urban Chaos

’ And of course, her name has to be spelled the Black way, with an apostrophe Today, Black protagonists are far more commonplace, from Avelline, Adewale, and Bayek of ‘Assassin’s Creed,’ to Billie Lurk from ‘Dishonored’ But including characters of color is only part of the equation, because Blackness is far more than a color It’s a Culture One of the earliest games to feature predominantly Black characters is ‘Street Beat,’ a 1985 Commodore 64 title where you wandered the streets of London making people dance with your giant boombox

It's weird It was an early, unsuccessful attempt to inject rap culture into games, and an omen of even more awkward attempts to come But as hip hop grew in influence and games continued to evolve, the two art forms were destined to collide In 1994, Biggie unleashed the floodgates by boasting of his console collection: Super Nintendo, SEGA Genesis Something in Brooklyn, I couldn't picture this I don't know the words

Publishers were quick to cash in with hip-hop inspired games, like the SNES “classic” ‘Rap Jam: Volume One,’ an ‘NBA JAM’ clone that let you play as ‘90s icons like Queen Latifah, Onyx, and LL Cool J Wu Tang Clan got in on the action, too, with the 1999 fighting game ‘Wu Tang: Shaolin Style,’ complete with its own really weird custom PS1 controller, that's look like you can't really hold it, but whatever ‘Def Jam: Vendetta’ combined rap with pro wrestling, using the ‘WWF: No Mercy’ engine to kick off a series, that pitted Def Jam’s biggest stars against each other In a no-holds-barred brawl Nobody ever beats me The love affair between hip hop and videogames reached its peak in 2004, with one of the greatest games of all time: ‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

’ Despite being mostly written by two white dudes from England, ‘San Andreas’ was an authentic, earnest love letter to early ‘90s gangsta movies like ‘Boyz N’ The Hood,’ Yeah Taken off the mister falcon set with an absolutely incredible soundtrack, and some of the most fleshed-out, compelling Black characters I’ve ever seen in games, We all the same, Carl, you, me We all trying to pull ourselves out of the hole Somebody steps on me, I gotta step on you voiced by stars like Samuel L Jackson, Ice-T, Charlie Murphy, and Faizon Love Games like ‘50 Cent: Bulletproof’ and Marc Ecko’s ‘Getting Up’ continued the trend, but as the years went on, and the line between rap and pop continued to blur, “authentic” hip hop games fell out of fashion as rap fully merged with the mainstream

Modern music is so splintered among streaming and subgenres, that no single style can have the same influence that hip hop did in the ‘90s and aughts Black culture is the culture now, but as the recent controversy over ‘Fortnite’ appropriating dance moves shows, Developers still have no qualms exploiting Black artists to turn a profit The challenges of Black representation in gaming are more than cultural, because the problem is Systemic There are a lot of reasons why there aren’t enough Black videogame characters, but it’s definitely NOT because Black people don’t play games A recent poll showed that 89% of African-American teens played videogames, compared to 71% of white teenagers

but behind the scenes is a very different story Black developers have played a huge role in gaming history, like engineer Jerry Lawson, who came up with the concept of interchangeable ROM cartridges, in an era where games were built into the hardware The guy was a real game-changer But today, we’re barely represented in the industry In a 2017 survey, only 1% of the devs polled identified as Black, a truly outrageous number that explains a lot about why the industry falls so short

As Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ so gorgeously taught us, Black skin requires careful consideration when it comes to lighting, but the shaders and engines common in the industry fall painfully short when it comes to depicting darker complexions, letting characters of color fade into the backgrounds where their lighter-skinned counterparts pop The same goes for hair For years, Black characters were limited to dreads, caesars, and cartoonish afros, because no one really bothered to figure out how to capture the texture, depth, and weight that comes with natural Black hair Games like ‘Afro Samurai,’ ‘Wolfenstein’ and ‘Uncharted: The Lost Legacy’ do a better job than most, but without people behind the scenes who have lived the experience who understand the complexities of portraying Black people correctly, most developers still build their games with whiteness as the default Things are getting better though

Just recently, ‘Apex Legends’ dethroned ‘Fortnite’ as the hottest game in town, with a diverse roster that includes two playable Black women, which is two more than ‘Overwatch’ has Remember this: I'm the one you should have concerns about Meanwhile, Terry Crews has become the real-life face of the ‘Crackdown’ series, and games like ‘In the Valley of the Gods’ and ‘Far Cry: New Dawn’ are also giving Black women the spotlight they deserve Black characters have come a long way since ‘Heavyweight Champ,’ but there’s still a long road to go And if we can't take it

We'll break it The industry needs creators of color from the top down, developers who have lived the experience and can bring that insight to the games they make If we truly want to achieve equality in the electronic gaming space, companies need to work harder to create more opportunities for people of color, because change starts from within, and it starts with you

Ooh ooh Yeah! Hey, I’m Uchenna, And thanks for watching my first Nerd video! Let me know some of your favorite Black videogame characters, Leave a comment, Or a like, And please subscribe to NowThis Nerd

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