Why Is Mavis Beacon Still the Best Known Black Woman in Video Gaming?
Black women remain massively underrepresented in a medium that has produced notable examples of nearly every other conceivable population group.
The legendary computer typing tutor Mavis Beacon never existed – not really, anyway. She was, as VICE's Mike Pearl recently explained, a kind of Betty Crocker-like figure conceptualised and cast by creator Joe Abrams for The Software Toolworks, the company that produced many of the early iterations of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing in the late 1980s.
But the real mystery surrounding Mavis Beacon wasn't that she was fake. Even as a kid struggling to master the intricacies of the QWERTY layout, I had assumed she was – much like, say, the multi-ethnic cast of the NES near-classic Lee Trevino's Fighting Golf ("Super Mex" Trevino himself turned out to be quite real, and one of the best golfers of the 1970s and '80s).
No, the most mysterious thing about Mavis Beacon is how she remains the go-to answer for an infrequently asked but rather compelling trivia question: who is the most famous fictional black woman in video game history?
My video game-loving friends struggled to offer better answers.
"The Williams sisters," came one friend's hasty reply. "They've got to be in an EA game."
They're otherworldly athletes, but they're not fictional.
"Oh, then, uh, the other little girl from The Last of Us. The one with the brother."
You're thinking of Sam, a 13-year-old boy. (Although Ellie's friend in the Left Behind expansion, Riley, is black.)
"I know the voice actor for Ashley in Mass Effect is African-American."
The character herself isn't.
"Storm from X-Men on SEGA or anything else."
Not a bad response, but she was created by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum in the 1970s for Marvel Comics.
Black women are massively underrepresented in a medium that has produced at least a handful of notable examples of nearly every other conceivable population group
And so it goes. The banter was somewhat comical, but the larger point certainly isn't: black women are massively underrepresented in a medium that has produced at least a handful of notable examples of nearly every other conceivable population group.
Critical race and gender theorists place black women at the "intersection" of racism, sexism, and many other forms of bigotry. As a result of these intersecting forms of oppression, scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw argue that black women occupy a subordinate status totally lacking the privileges afforded to men, caucasians and other members of various dominant social groups.
"How many African-American females are involved in computer programming?" asked a colleague of mine who studies the history of gender, race and ethnicity. "Surely not many. And while I don't know anything at all about video games, I would guess there aren't many African-American women producing or creating those, either."
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There are grassroots movements afoot to remedy these glaring deficiencies, non-profit tech education groups such as Black Girls Code and ScriptEd, but this doesn't change the fact that individuals hoping to play a black female character will have to go to such lengths as selecting the Redguard race in The Elder Scrolls and creating her from scratch.
As for Mavis Beacon, the chance decision to cast a Haitian woman in that role had a surprising impact on my own development. I spent the bulk of my childhood in Plymouth, North Carolina – a town with a majority African-American population – and seeing black women in positions of authority came as no surprise, given that most of the teachers and administrators at the public school I attended were black. In fact, my office and clerical skills instructor was a young black woman who bore a striking resemblance to Beacon.
My mother, a schoolteacher herself, had seen her doctoral studies slowed by an inability to type, and the decision to purchase a family PC turned almost entirely on her desire to force me to "play" untold hours of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. She also mandated my enrolment in an array of vocational courses centred on typing and data processing activities, all of which were taught by the aforementioned Beacon lookalike.
My mother's effort yielded two notable results: I became an exceptionally fast typist and the countenance of Mavis Beacon, prim and proper and letter-perfect on those oversized software boxes we never discarded, became seared into my memory as the computer teacher. When I imagine the instructor of any online course, it is Beacon who comes first and fastest to mind. I can't help myself; she was always there, urging me past the 100 words-per-minute barrier.
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In the United States, the justification for affirmative action programs is frequently challenged: shouldn't the "land of liberty" be a colour-blind society, with race playing no part whatsoever in hiring and promotion decisions? But role assignments matter, as do the role models who fill them. The frequent casting of Morgan Freeman, Keith David and Dennis Haysbert as presidents and generals (David, for example, voices Admiral Anderson in the Mass Effect series) is sometimes lampooned, but surely these decisions, even those made by non-black creators, had some slight yet non-negligible impact on the election of Barack Obama in 2008.
If something is seen often enough, it becomes easier to believe. The under-representation of women in gaming, both as characters and as participants, has begun to remedy itself. Such a development amounts to a virtuous circle, a feedback loop that in this case has gradually but continuously reinforced itself.
Mavis Beacon was an iconic outlier, but she also remains the quintessential virtual teacher. The conceptualisation of similarly unforgettable black female video game characters, each more vibrant and relatable than the last, appears inevitable as the gaming industry becomes more inclusive with the passage of time. As gaming develops into a field of entertainment encompassing everybody, it will surely begin to properly represent all of us, too.
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