Black History Month: A look at how far gaming has come and where it needs to go

A look at the representation of Black people in video games and amongst the people who make them.

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Every Black History Month, it’s become tradition for major corporations and organizations in America to step forward and voice their unwavering support for Black people in their ongoing struggles against racism and adversity. In recent years, we’ve seen this extend to the gaming industry as well, with developers, publishers, and media outlets releasing special statements or commemorative videos every February to celebrate BHM. That said, it’s hard to tell when these are just performative acts, or moves to effect real change.

A movement, not marketing

Black Lives Matter protestors in Baltimore Maryland following the death of George Floyd. Credit: The Baltimore Sun.
Black Lives Matter protestors in Baltimore, Maryland following the death of George Floyd. Credit: The Baltimore Sun.

Social tensions reached a boiling point last summer when George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police during an arrest. Though Floyd was just the latest in a disturbingly long list of Black lives claimed by police brutality, his story caught fire, sparking nationwide protests. In light of this, we saw countless video game studios and outlets come forward and release statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. From pre-game messages in Call of Duty, to an 8:46 moment of silence during a Destiny 2 broadcast, it felt like the gaming industry was coming together to fight injustice. Or, was this simply a marketing move to stay on consumers' good side?

It was only a short handful of years ago that the Black Lives Matter movement exploded in the media following Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem prior to NFL games. At this point, the Black Lives Matter movement was still taboo. Those that spoke up and used their platform to spread the message had far more to lose than they had to gain. Many that kept quiet then, are the loudest now.

Of course, I’m not trying to shame folks for supporting the cause. As a Black man who’s spent his entire life gaming, it means a lot to me to see The Pokemon Company or Xbox make a stand for people that look like me. However, I just want to make sure we’re never letting those in financial power off the hook for a little performative activism.

Be the change you want to see

Xbox's Black History Month logo, using color from the Pan-African flag.
Xbox's Black History Month logo, using color from the Pan-African flag.

These companies and corporations that have publicly backed the BLM movement have the actual pull to create some real, lasting change. Last year, we saw EA announce social justice initiatives within the company introduced alongside a $1 million donation to the cause. We need more of this. More companies using the millions and millions of dollars that they generate to fund those fighting for change. Whether that be bailing out protestors, helping to fund programs for the youth in low-income areas, or simply introducing mandatory training to better educate its own employees on how to recognize and eliminate their own racial biases, and be more conscious of the world around them.

Of course, it’s difficult to achieve this when Black people make up such a small share of most major gaming studios. When more companies make it a priority to have a diverse crew on staff, so many of these issues will begin to resolve themselves. It’s tough when your idea of “diversity” is two black employees who are not in a position of power on a team of 20-30 people.

If you’re only speaking up about the racial issues in America during Black History Month, or when another Black person is killed by the police, you may not be the ally you claim to be. Instead, you may just be clearing your own conscience, or making sure you fall on the right side of history. I appreciated the sentiment shared by Xbox in its BHM 2021 post, where it committed to supporting the cause far after the month was over with plans to support and uplift Black voices in perpetuity. If more companies commit to being a voice for change not just when #BlackLivesMatter is trending, we could create a much more inclusive and welcoming gaming industry.

Representation matters

Marcus Holloway, the protagonist of Watch Dogs 2.
Marcus Holloway, the protagonist of Watch Dogs 2.

We often hear the phrase “representation matters” when discussing diversity in our entertainment media. While there’s still a long way to go, gaming has made strides in being more representative of diverse backgrounds. When people bring up the need for better representation in games, it’s easy to write it off as insignificant or as unnecessary pandering, but people underestimate just how much our worldview is shaped by the entertainment we consume.

For a long time, the majority of Black characters in video games were thugs, criminals, or athletes, with a small handful of exceptions sprinkled in. Over the last decade, we’ve seen more Black characters rise to the forefront, allowed to shine on their own stage. I think of games like Watch Dogs 2 and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, games that star nerdy Black guys that aren’t stereotypes, yet still feel authentically Black in their behavior and mannerisms. Representation was never something I thought about growing up, and it was surreal to see myself reflected on screen in the games I love.

God, I can’t imagine the impact it would’ve had if I played a game like Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales 10-15 years ago.

That said, there’s still a ways to go. Games in general need more diverse leads. Our world is a melting pot, and that should be constantly reflected in our media. I’d love it if there were more Black leads that just felt like another protagonist - that just happened to be Black - instead of being one of the exclusive handful of Black characters that we highlight and point a finger to.

Work to be done

The Black Lives Matter logo, given as a free badge to all players in Apex Legends to commemorate Black History Month 2021.
The Black Lives Matter logo, given as a free badge to all players in Apex Legends to commemorate Black History Month 2021.

Black History Month will always be a time for reflection and introspection. We must constantly look around and ask ourselves, “Am I okay with the state of things right now?” And when the answer is no, “What am I doing to make things just a little bit better?” I truly believe that the gaming industry has made significant progress to create a more diverse and inclusive world both on and behind the screen, but there’s still a long way to go.

Contributing Editor

Donovan is a young journalist from Maryland, who likes to game. His oldest gaming memory is playing Pajama Sam on his mom's desktop during weekends. Pokémon Emerald, Halo 2, and the original Star Wars Battlefront 2 were some of the most influential titles in awakening his love for video games. After interning for Shacknews throughout college, Donovan graduated from Bowie State University in 2020 with a major in broadcast journalism and joined the team full-time. He is a huge Star Wars nerd and film fanatic that will talk with you about movies and games all day. You can follow him on twitter @Donimals_

From The Chatty
  • reply
    February 24, 2021 9:00 AM

    Donovan Erskine posted a new article, Black History Month: A look at how far gaming has come and where it needs to go

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      February 24, 2021 9:55 AM

      "Representation was never something I thought about growing up, and it was surreal to see myself reflected on screen in the games I love."
      As a person who was a huge anime fan I didn't even know that was a thing you could want.

      Also I was thinking about Period Piece movies today. I just watched 85% of Argo - good movie, need to see the very beginning (GREAT songs!) - and afterward an explosion in my head said "There was not a single black person on screen in that entire movie. Not as an extra or security guard on a movie set, not as a cab driver, not as a random pedestrian. CERTAINLY not as a protagonist. Plenty of Middle Easterners of course, and I guess that's gonna just have to be enough for Black People.

      Maybe that's just me, but there are a ton of big movies like that.

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        February 24, 2021 9:59 AM

        fair amount of canadians are mad about argo because once again hollywood changed history, much like u-571, so that americans were the heroes

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          February 24, 2021 10:01 AM

          I'm mad because Jimmy Carter got no credit. They did let him cap the film though, which was super cool.

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          February 24, 2021 10:06 AM

          They changed things about the book for the worse.


          I don’t like Affleck’s directing - The Town sucked too (unpopular opinion?). Gone Baby Gone was alright though despite him.

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            February 24, 2021 10:13 AM

            unpopular opinion, the book for gone baby gone was awful, i couldnt get past the first chapter the writing was god awful so I liked the movie better.

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            February 24, 2021 10:43 AM

            I think that's a great point: those movies succeeded despite him, not because of him

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        February 24, 2021 10:00 AM

        I didn't close that quote. This shit won't compile!

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        February 24, 2021 10:34 AM

        [deleted]

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          February 24, 2021 11:29 AM

          I noticed that with the name at the end but I figured Tony Montez could still be a white name.

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        February 24, 2021 12:20 PM

        So I've had a question I wanted to ask for a long time that's a bit of a tangent to this: There seems to be a huge number of anime fans in the black community (not even sure if this is a fair statement, but just my impression). I had speculated that it might be because it's media produced by a non-whites, and so has fewer reminders of systemic racial issues that black people have to worry about every day - making it a way to relax and escape from reality for a short time. Am I way off base, here?

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          February 24, 2021 12:25 PM

          It's because it wasn't bullshit fights where everyone is fine afterwards.
          GI Joe Plane Explodes (pilot ejects after and drifts down on chute).
          GI Joe Tank Explodes (entire crew crawls out from under after TURRET BLOWS OFF.
          Star Blazers: People die in combat, HEROES DIE IN COMBAT, Others die out of combat.
          Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999 did not fuck around.

          Also we were all latchkey kids and so were home from school when the Channel 17 Anime / Kaiju block was on.

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            February 24, 2021 12:28 PM

            "It was the first popular English-translated anime that had an overarching plot and storyline that required the episodes to be viewed in order, which paved the way for future arc-based, plot-driven anime translations.[1] It also dealt with somewhat more mature themes than other productions aimed at the same target audience at the time. "

            If a fighter blew up in Star Blazers? THAT MOTHERFUCKER IS GONE KID. HE AIN'T COME BACK TO THE ARGO / YAMATO.

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            February 24, 2021 12:29 PM

            Lol, yeah that's basically what hooked me as well. DBZ restarting from the beginning half way through the final battle with Freeza because they hadn't finished translating it past that point almost broke me (or at least this was my experience with Canada's airing of the show on YTV.

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          February 24, 2021 12:27 PM

          Japanese anime still have stereotypical portrayals of black people but it's not done with malice. I just think there are a lot of exciting things that can happen in an anime that just doesn't happen in Western shows.

          Story, environment, and mostly crazy fight scenes. It is an escape just like a game or book.

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            February 24, 2021 12:30 PM

            Oh some of that shit is harshly racist, with the balloon lips and bulging eyes. Bomber Girl has a cop who is fucking embarassing. And don't get me started on Mr. Popo THE DOORMAN.
            WE DO NOT DISCUSS TERRA FORMARS. Those two FUCKING KKK ASS JAPANESE MOTHERFUCKERS. Great art though.

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              February 24, 2021 12:34 PM

              Yep, guess I'm being a but generous but they are using Hollywood's media for their info.
              Most of what I watch, just doesn't have black people or their is the token black athlete.

              My eyes roll into the back of my head when the portrayal is over the top. Thankfully I chose to not watch those anime you listed

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                February 24, 2021 12:39 PM

                I highly recommend all steer clear of Terra Formars. Bomber Girl is really good though (I only know the Manga). And of course Piccolo is also black; that poor dead race genocided.
                SO many future tales with "The mythical dark skinned people who used to exist from ... 'Af-ree-cah'?"

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                  February 24, 2021 12:42 PM

                  I should have said, yeah I've watched Dragonball + sequels but yeah, none of that other stuff interested me and glad I was right.

                  Yes, piccolo is a brotha and Mr popo is some schmuck doing blackface

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              February 24, 2021 12:36 PM

              Yeah, there are very few examples of black people portrayed by eastern media that are flattering. It's so over the top, it feels like an extension of general Japanese xenophobia rather than the deep, subconscious/systemic nastiness we see in north America.

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          February 24, 2021 12:32 PM

          A majority of my friends (primarily black) love anime. I personally never got into it, but for a lot of my friends, that goes back to early elementary school days, watching Dragon Ball Z and Naruto. The point about the subject matter and themes being different is interesting, but I can't personally speak to it.

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            February 24, 2021 12:36 PM

            Oh hahaha. I forget I'm talking Battle Of The Planets, Speed Racer, Ultraman, Space Giants, Star Blazers, way back shit. Y'all talking stuff that is still current and being made.

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              February 24, 2021 12:38 PM

              I've seen some of it, but it's definitely before my time.

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          February 24, 2021 12:46 PM

          - We loved seeing white people getting their asses handed to them. Bruce Lee fucking white boys up. Tae Kwon Do and Judo wrecking shop.

          - There was a tremendous amount of geographic overlap between Blacks and East/Southeast Asian immigrants. You had Chinese restaurants opening up in Black neighborhoods cause that's where they were allowed to be, so you end up having a lot of crossover.

          - America did not give a shit for a long time about actually differentiating between Asian nationalities and everything just got blended together. Anime and kung fu and Buddhism and chicken lo mein all came from the same place. And the place they came from was not the West. It came from a part of the world that wasn't (as) dependent on Black enslavement for their success.

          - On a purely linguistic level, the musicality and intonation present in a lot of East Asian languages is much more comfortable beside hip-hop and AAVE than Western languages.

          - Japan has always had an interest in Black folks, and vice versa. Jazz was huge in Japan and is arguably more popular there than anywhere else in the world, and a lot of that was fueled by Black musicians like Sun Ra.

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            February 24, 2021 12:46 PM

            Also, Black folks loved themselves some Godzilla.

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              February 24, 2021 12:59 PM

              Also, a lot of the "bad" Black neighborhoods that Asian folks got shunted into, that's where a lot of the cheap-o theaters started up. Stuff playing badly dubbed Japanese, Chinese, Korean films. And while a lot of spots barred Black folks from entering, the same wasn't true for establishments that were non-white to begin with.

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                February 24, 2021 2:30 PM

                This is a good point. Most of the Dollar Movies were in heavily Asian/Hispanic strip malls. And Neighborhoods.

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            February 24, 2021 12:49 PM

            JKD not TKD

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              February 24, 2021 12:57 PM

              DIdn't say Bruce did TKD, but even if I did, Black folks stay calling all martial arts either Tae Kwon Do or Kung Fu so

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                February 24, 2021 1:02 PM

                Ain't this the truth, lol

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                February 24, 2021 1:05 PM

                ok. thought you cared about words.

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                  February 24, 2021 1:51 PM

                  What?

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                    February 24, 2021 11:52 PM

                    "America did not give a shit for a long time about actually differentiating between Asian nationalities and everything just got blended together. Anime and kung fu and Buddhism and chicken lo mein all came from the same place. And the place they came from was not the West. It came from a part of the world that wasn't (as) dependent on Black enslavement for their success."



                    Black folks stay calling all martial arts either Tae Kwon Do or Kung Fu so

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                February 24, 2021 3:04 PM

                [deleted]

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            February 24, 2021 12:53 PM

            OH I didn't branch into the Kung Fu. Don't forget, Bruce Lee put Kareem in his movie. Dr. J got into Fish Who Saved Pittsburgh, which I doubt was as critically or monetarily successful. Also the WHITE GUY SET-SHOT BUFORD IS THE HERO.

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            February 24, 2021 6:49 PM

            All great points! Some I haven't even thought of

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            February 24, 2021 6:52 PM

            i dunno if Japan's interest in Black people has always been positive. probably usually not malicious, though.

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          February 24, 2021 1:57 PM

          Also, social media and YouTube removed a lot of the traditional gatekeepers that kept Black folks out of these communities and conversations to begin with. With those things out of the way, a lot of Black fans and communities are finally able to push their way up into the light.

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            February 24, 2021 7:34 PM

            That's the kind of thing I wanted the internet to be all about, glad to know there's been some of it.

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      February 24, 2021 9:58 AM

      This is a great article, well said Donovan.

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      February 24, 2021 10:17 AM

      I go with dark skin when I have the option to customize my character.

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        February 24, 2021 11:26 AM

        This reminded me! I meant to post about that big kerfluffle a couple weeks ago about NOT ENOUGH WHITE CHARACTERS TO CHOOSE FROM. It was only 1/5th of the total RANDOM roll he got THAT TIME. WORTH COMPLAINING ABOUT ON INTERNET AND TO THE COMPANY.

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        February 24, 2021 11:49 PM

        Or, as the South Park games put it: Higher difficulty mode.

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      February 24, 2021 1:02 PM

      That was good, thanks.

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      February 24, 2021 7:25 PM

      Great article bother. Thanks!

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      March 1, 2021 7:31 AM

      Right on! And Marcus was a really good character in Watch Dogs 2 \m/ Very underrated game.

      FWIW CJ + GTA San Andreas was my favourite game for many years, even though that character's background was about as far from mine as you could get. And I don't really listen to hip hop and rap, but I got exposed to a whole lot of it in that game.

      I realize most of GTA: SA was stereotypes to the letter, but still.

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      March 23, 2021 5:38 PM

      I'm probably the only person who doesn't care about being represented in movies or games. Give me whatever character and I'm fine.

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