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My Black Avatar Doesn’t Look Like the Black Me

Video games' character creation tools let you play as whoever you want to be – but, traditionally, that's presented problems for BME gamers.

by Carl Anka
15 April 2015, 10:47am

Basing an 'Inquisition' character on Barack Obama, by user Tojo (image via nexusmods.com)

Video games have a problem with accurate depictions of race. It's no fresh revelation that the medium has a problem putting the player in the boots of anything other than a buff, buzz-cut space marine – but it's important that we ask why that is. Over the last decade, film, television and theatre have increasingly been forced into thinking about how they represent people from different backgrounds in their storytelling. Now, we should be asking: why are there so few minority characters in gaming?

There's a short, somewhat glib answer to that poser: because mainstream games aren't made by people from ethnic minorities. Art that exists in the commercial centre is by and large mono-ethnic, in its creation and representation. And gaming's problem with representing minority characters does not start with the designers in the studio, but what those creators studied to get there.

Culturally biased game design starts with a reliance on shorthand to build its mise en scène. More so than film, theatre and television, video games use visual signifiers to both depict and differentiate between characters and environments alike. One low level example of this is how gamers see big red barrels as "shoot here and things will explode" targets, while more complicated examples rely on stereotypes in order to get across character traits.

Video games remains a young artistic medium, one that's still asking its creators to "design what you know, and make what people recognise". As a result, many of the BME characters presented in games are still simplistic. Rockstar's black male protagonists in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Grand Theft Auto V, while some of the most balanced and nuanced characters in Western gaming, still rely on storytelling tropes involving gangbanging in the hood.

However, the problems in BME representation run deeper than how many characters there are, or how those characters act. The uncomfortable truth it that BME characters in games often don't look like BME people in real life. For years, I have struggled to make a half decent in-game avatar of myself using create-a-character tools. Too often the customisation options for minority characters have either been too limited or simply non-existent to allow satisfactory realisation.

In the past, this could be attributed (to some extent, at least) to limited processing power on consoles – it was difficult to properly render things like a fully jointed hand, every finger independent, so many avatars ambled around with permanently closed fists. Mario looks the way he does because, back in his Jumpman days, limitations on pixel numbers restricted what designers could accurately render. Similarly, it was hard to render "black hair" in games, so your character customisation options for a black character would be either cornrows or an afro. A recent playthrough of 2003's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic gave me two black male characters to tweak, both with the same skin tone and with only three or so hairstyles to flick through. Not great.

Creating a character in 'KOTOR'

Yet in 2015, the problem remains. When starting BioWare's acclaimed RPG Dragon Age: Inquisition, I had great trouble creating an Inquisitor protagonist that looked like me. I couldn't get the head quite long enough, light bounced off him in usual ways, and it all felt a bit off. The result didn't look like a black man – it looked like a white man, coloured black. This isn't to say that my design skills are bad or that Inquisition is a shoddily designed game, because on the whole it's anything but. Elsewhere, it makes great use of the new consoles' power, with some superbly rendered human and non-human characters alike. So why did mine appear so odd? Are black characters simply harder to make?

I decided to speak to some BME game art and design students currently at De Montfort University, Leicester, who provided some insight into the difficulties faced when creating minority characters. (All names have been changed.) "Robert", a first year student, explained to that the majority of guides used to draw people are based on an idealised set of proportions. And these rules – the eyes should fall in the middle of your face, your lip size should be in a certain proportion to your eyes, and so forth – are, for the most part, based on Caucasian characteristics.

Franklin from 'Grand Theft Auto V' is one of gaming's more balanced black player characters, but his personality is still driven by stereotypes

"Eliza", another student, told me about James Gurney's "colour zone" theory. Outlined in his 2010 book Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter, Gurney's theory explains how the colours that make up the face can be broken up into three zones based on blood flow and how light reflects off the skin. When painting, people are recommended to draw faces with a yellow brow, red cheeks and a blue chin. The issue with this is that BME faces aren't going to be best realised using the same principle. When painting a black person, you need to use more purples, oranges and greens to properly capture the differences in light reflecting against the various sections of the face. I had problems making my head in Inquisition not only because a person of my skin colour doesn't fit idealised art proportions, but also due to skin colour itself being rendered in subtly incorrect ways. I looked odd compared to other characters in the game, because the game was not built to take into account a character like me.

So how do we fix this? How do future games improve their depictions of minority characters? The answer seems to lie with education. As more BME people are getting into games design, more of them are making a fuss about how they look. It's essential that stereotypes are busted, and that ethnic minority designers stand up for their viewpoints on how avatars of their own appearance should be seen on screen. There might not ever be a book on how to paint black people in video games, but you can bet that, once the existing theory is proven ineffective in such circumstances, there'll be change nonetheless.

The increased graphical power afforded by new consoles will only help this progression. Despite the background flaws of many a current character creator, they are getting better in giving gamers ever-widening options. Greater contrasts in skin tone and more hairstyles creep into games year by year, as designers realise it's not such an impossible task to render Afro-Caribbean hair. Slowly but surely, the representation of minority characters is becoming a major topic in gaming's on-going evolution.

@ankaman616

Previously:

Why 'BioShock 2' is the Best 'Bioshock'

How Modern Games Coverage Has Reduced Critics to Human Punching Bags

Is Going Mobile the Future of Board Games?