When Black gamers booted up the shooter-RPG hybrid Outriders last April, only four of the 24 hairstyle options for characters could conceivably be considered a Black hairstyle. Even worse, all of them fell under the tired tropes of minifros and dreads. And even those were pretty atrocious: Textures were wrong, and patterns looked scraggily and unkempt.
Then again, just a handful of years ago, programmers modeled afros on cauliflowers.
“Black hair has been bad forever in games—from the worst box braids to the raggediest of dreads to even messing up naturals at this point,” said Kahlief Adams, host of the Spawn on Me podcast, which highlights people of color in the gaming industry. “Like, you’ll see a character and think, ‘Sure, you got a close fade, but I don’t know where your hairline is fam.’”
Last year, Oakland-based artist and UC Santa Cruz assistant professor A.M. Darke had had enough. She started recruiting Black artists for the Open Source Afro Hair Library, the industry’s first free database of 3D-modeled Black hairstyles. The library, slated to launch on Juneteenth 2023, will function as a source for usable 3D assets for gaming, animation, and other ventures as well as an online gallery to inspire and normalize Black inclusion.
By recruiting all Black artists and making the database free, Darke plans to create an anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and feminist approach to the portrayal of Black hair as well as a sense of unified ownership and investment in how the hairstyles are used.
“All of us can be caretakers, all of us can be stewards, all of us can look at the work and think about how to use it ethically and point out unethical practices,” said Darke, 36, who teaches Digital Arts, New Media, and Performance Play and Design. “I want to create a space that's open for all Black folks to have this conversation about what we want this to be.”
Darke realized the need for an open source platform dedicated to Black hair while she was working on a project of her own in 2019. Though not a 3D artist herself, she was scanning for Black hairstyles on popular 3D asset marketplace websites like CGTrader and TurboSquid. And she discovered they had no effective way of looking for Black characters.
When she found a workaround by using the term “African American,” the results were deeply offensive: models of animals, homeless caricatures, hypersexualized Black women, and “voodoo warriors,” just to name a few.
“I found the relevant keyword that did result in the return of more Black characters,” she said. “But then look at the people that it returns. Look at the depictions of these digital objects, the Jim Crow era mammies and the minstrels, and yet I can’t find a twist out.”
In games like the Elder Scrolls series, Destiny, and other non-NBA sports video games like the WWE 2K series, Black hairstyles feel like an afterthought thanks to absurdly limited options, if any exist at all. Black players looking for anything that’s not cornrows, dreads, or an afro are typically out of luck unless they want go with a racially ambiguous buzz cut or a bald head.
“It’s either very high, puffy, and tight, or it’s weird succubus dreads,” Adams said. “There is no real in-between where you showcase that stuff working really well, where you do that zoom in and you get the textures and things that you’d want to see on these characters.”
Japanese developed games released in the U.S., like Capcom’s Monster Hunter World, have fared much worse, with some titles ignoring the existence of textured hair altogether. Monster Hunter World players didn’t see any Black hairstyles added to the game until the release of a paid expansion nearly two years after its initial release.
For years, the modding community—players who take it upon themselves to add new textures, assets, levels, and other modifications to games they love—has become the de facto way around this lack of representation. Modder Xmiramira rose to prominence for her creations that give players of color these options. But for the more than half of gamers worldwide playing on closed platforms like consoles and mobile, mods aren’t an option.
“We’re not necessarily critical of the media we’re consuming because it’s so normal,” Darke said. “Like I’ve been identifying with straight, white, brown-haired, middle-aged dudes for forever because those are the protagonists of these stories. And it’s not just in games, so you just kind of go along and get used to it. I think all Black people tacitly understand this.”
Good looking Black hair in games is such a rarity that when it’s done right, it’s cause for celebration. Sony studio Insomniac was widely praised for its take on Miles Morales, a Spider-Man of Afro-Latino descent who’s crisp line-up and fade easily took the crown for gaming’s best hair in 2020. It was a massive improvement over the character’s struggling hairline in the series’ first installment two years prior. A Black character featured in a trailer for the upcoming God of War sequel also stirred excitement because of her beautifully realized locs. There are entire Twitter accounts dedicated to spotlighting it.
For Darke, the solution is to have Black artists create their own people’s looks. And recruiting for the project was as much about finding ways to support talent as it was finding those qualified to participate.
“With every problem, chances are there’s already some Black people who are thinking about this, who are working on this, know how to do it, and just we have not asked them,” Darke said. “My thoughts were, ‘We know how to do this, but may not have the time, the material and communal support to author on our own visions.’”
Through grants she’s earned, Darke has been able to provide the first round of six 3D artists $1,500 stipends for their contributions. Each artist provides a single character bust with at least nine unique hairstyles, and they have complete freedom.
But creating hair types of all kinds is a challenge, according to H.D. Harris, one of the 3D artists working on the Afro Hair Library. Black hair, in particular, can be even more difficult considering the curls and the unique textures of Black hair and how it interacts with characters, environments, and other geometry. But it’s not impossible to overcome. While developers are pressed for time to meet release deadlines, the dearth of good Black hair speaks more to a lack of representation and respect.
“Artists have forever been working within the limitations of the available technology and pushing them to the limits, to meet their creative aesthetic goals,” Darke said. “And so the problem there is that it's a lack of imagination, an impoverished view of blackness. So if you can't imagine blackness, then you're not going to make it.”
And the damage isn’t just done to audiences.
“These days a lot of Black and brown people do work on these teams,” Harris said. “When making hair like ours gets pushed to the side or treated like a side project or something that gets worked on if there’s time, it sends a message to us and to their own team members that not only are you less than, you’re not even going to be considered if we have to spend too much time on you.”
“I hear a lot of people say, ‘Why does it matter?’ Because it means a lot, you know? You want to see yourself.”
Although the Afro Hair Library is still more than a year out, the public can already view several examples of what to expect. In addition to more accurate and clean-looking depictions of Black hair, the library also includes other designs that are dazzling, creative, colorful and unlike anything seen in most games.
Jovan Wilson, another 3D artist and lifelong gamer working on the Open Source Afro Hair Library, told VICE News that working on assets for the library has been therapeutic for her. She remembers playing the 2004 Everquest spinoff Champions of Norrath as a kid and wishing so badly that there were in-game hair options that matched her own kinky curls.
“I hear a lot of people say, ‘Why does it matter?’ Because it means a lot, you know? You want to see yourself. I’ve seen so many kids faces just light up when they see dolls and characters that look like them. It means something,” Wilson said. “So seeing this project for the first time was like time for me to heal my inner child.”
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