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Video Games Are Missing Black Voices (Literally)

There aren’t many black characters in video games with speaking roles, which is why it’s controversial when some of them are voiced by white actors.
Image: Naughty Dog via Playstation Nation/YouTube

Radio Motherboard is a weekly podcast about science, technology, and their associated cultures. Subscribe on iTunes here.

Last week, Motherboard ran a story about Nadine Ross, the strong, black, female antagonist in the upcoming Uncharted 4, who is played by a white voice actress.

This is no surprise; black female characters in video games are rarely voiced by black women. Assassin's Creed III: Liberation's heroine Aveline de Grandpré, who is half French and half African, is voiced by white Canadian actress Amber Goldfarb. Remember Me protagonist Nilin, whose mother is black, is played by white Welsh actress Kezia Burrows. Clementine from The Walking Dead, whose parents are both black, is voiced by Melissa Hutchinson, who is white.

This phenomenon also affects black male characters: James Heller in Prototype 2,Marvin Branagh from Resident Evil 2, and Balrog from the Street Fighter franchise are all fictional black men voiced by real white actors.

Evan Narcisse has pointed out the trend numerous times at Kotaku. Developer Shawn Alexander Allen even dubbed it "digital blackface."


Immediately after the story came out, fans of Uncharted defended the casting choice. "Don't know about you but I'm getting real sick of all this outrage culture bullshit," one user wrote on Twitter. "No, you go with the actor that is best for the job. Example: Samurai Jack," another person wrote, referring to an Asian character played by black voice actor Phil LaMarr.

This line of argument echoes what Neil Druckmann, creative director at Uncharted maker Naughty Dog, has said in response to the criticism. At a panel, Druckman noted that another Uncharted 4 character who is white is played by a black actor.

"That to me is what's so awesome about this medium," he said. "Your outward appearance doesn't matter at all."

"In a perfect world, it probably shouldn't matter. But we don't live in a perfect world."

But to some black players, the fact that major black characters—few and far between as they are—are often voiced by white actors is a reflection of a systemic problem. It's not the same as a black actor playing a white character, they say, because white actors and white players don't have a problem with discrimination and exclusion—white people are well represented, if not overrepresented, throughout the industry.

This week's Radio Motherboard features freelance journalist Shonte Daniels, who wrote the original piece for Motherboard; Kotaku writer Evan Narcisse; and voice actor Dave Fennoy, talking about the practice of casting white actors as black characters and the way black people are portrayed in games in general.


Show notes:

3:08 Who gets hurt when a black character gets played by a white actor? Writer Shonte Daniels talks about her reaction.

6:38 Group discussion starts between Daniels, Kotaku writer Evan Narcisse, and video game voice actor Dave Fennoy. Fennoy explains how voice actors usually get these parts in games.

11:30 "In a perfect world, it probably shouldn't matter. But we don't live in a perfect world."

14:45 Statement from Laura Bailey, the voice actress playing Nadine Ross. She explained that she read for the part before the character had a design and auditioned alongside other actors of "several different ethnicities." It wasn't until after she had rehearsed, and showed up for the first day of filming, that she saw the concept art and realized Nadine was black. "And that was difficult," Bailey said in her statement. "Not because it changed anything about my performance. Nadine was the same woman. She had the same background, the same personality, the same strength. But suddenly, because she had a different skin color than I did, there was a chance some would deem my portrayal unacceptable." She tweeted her full statement here.

17:06 "To say race, sex, race, gender, or other identifying characteristics doesn't matter, is to obviate or negate the people who says it does matter. That matters to me."

19:42 Video games are the biggest entertainment vehicle in the world. The same rules that apply to movies should apply to games. Last week, we saw the casting of Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson.

38:05 Lee Everett in Walking Dead was a professor and a calm, relatable character. Spoiler alert.

45:30 The solution, everyone seems to agree, is to get more black people working behind the scenes on games (or, Narcisse says, starting their own studios and making their own games).

51:40 If you could write a letter to Neil Druckmann, the creative director at Naughty Dog, to explain why the race of the actor matters, what would it say?

57:00 That's our show! Subscribe on iTunes here.