‘God of War: Ragnarok’ Shows How Games Can Get Black Hair Right

"TL;DR, listen to/watch Black women talk about and show off their natural hair."
September 16, 2021, 1:00pm
Angrboda smiling at the camera.
Image Source: God of War Ragnarok

God of War Ragnarok's preview last week at the Playstation showcase ended with one of the most impressive examples of black hair in video games.

Over the past two decades, black women wearing their hair the way that it naturally comes out of their head has gone from a rare occurrence to the way that some of the most famous black women style their locks. In that time, video games have struggled to accurately represent black hair of any kind, let alone the huge variance of styles that black women wear. As this humorous viral tweet demonstrates, so often black people who play games have to make do with a dated caesar fade, cornrows, a perfectly circular afro, or baldness.

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That's why seeing Angrboda, a new character in God of War Ragnarok, was exciting. After years of games that almost but don't quite capture the reality of black hair, here's an example of a character model whose locs look right. Jeryce Dianingana, a Congolese developer born in France who works as a 3D environment artist at development studio Rocksteady Games and maintains a blog of authentic looking black hair in games, told Waypoint that the things that make black hair look good are in the details.

"If your game is supposed to be 'realistic' and the dreads are looking like perfect plastic tubes, you made a mistake," Dianingana told Waypoint. "Wearers of dreads will know that each loc is different, you can even have a favorite one. The way they are made for Angroboda feels like each of them has their personality. One is pointing up at the end, another one down."

It's easy to describe a bad example of black hair in games. Bad black video game hair doesn't have motion, or each curl looks and moves like pipe cleaners. In The Sims fandom, a piece of developer concept art comparing black hair to cauliflower was used as an example of the ways that developers were letting them down. Black hair looks and feels different to other races' hair, and has a great deal of variation. Seeing that the developers understand those nuances goes a long way with black players. One common misstep is using the wrong hair texture; black people's curl patterns can vary greatly even on their own head.

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"The common mistake is just to have the type 1 or 2 as an option," Dianingana said, referring to the terms that are used in the beauty community to describe curl texture. Type 1 hair is straight, while type 2 is wavy and type 3 are outright curls. Type 4 hair is kinky or tightly wound curls, and is rare in video games.

"Type 4 is the rarest and hardest one for developers since all the knowledge of the industry (tutorials, documentation) has been built around the first and second type," Dianingana continued.

Jane Ng, a developer who worked on the design of the main character of In The Valley of Gods, a black woman with natural hair, said that understanding the close relationship black people and other marginalized races have to their hair could help the game developers design it in an accurate way. For black women, the way you wear your hair is often more than just a cosmetic choice. While natural hair is a lot less political than it used to be, the afro gained popularity because it was a political statement, not just a hairstyle.

"Deciding to have natural hair for a character is not the same kind of choice as having different types of ponytails for a character with straight hair," Ng told Waypoint. "Having more diverse characters means you have to do the work of understanding how different the world is in the eyes of different people beyond just 'we have more characters who look different.'"

Luckily, some of the best advice on how to understand different people comes straight from the source.

"There are lots of women with type 4 hair who have wonderful youtube videos sharing what they love about their hair, how to style their hair and which natural hair wig is their fave," Ng said. "TL;DR, listen to/watch Black women talk about and show off their natural hair."

Looking at Angrboda as a black woman, at her baby hairs and the frizz between her locks, makes me seen as a black person who plays games. It's easy to tell when people who make games don't understand the needs of black players. Angrboda's locs have the opposite emotional effect, which is still all too rare.