Coding of Darkness: A History of Black Video Game Characters
Historically, whiteness has been considered the default, a privilege not granted to people of color. The players of the games we have mentioned have received the choice play like someone black, not to be forced to, which was the case with the white characters of Punch out‘s Little Mac at The witcher‘s Geralt of Rivia and many other AAA titles.
Forcing players, especially those who identify as white, to play the role of someone who is not a white male is a politically radical act that can combat the lack of whiteness and, arguably, cause a systemic change in the industry to some extent.
On Commodore 64 in 1986, the now defunct London developer Computer Rentals Limited (CRL) released one of the first black-led single-player games, Cyborg—Which has been reissued as Mandroid in 1987. The game put players in the metallic shoes of titular black character Cyborg, who must reestablish communication with a ground expedition team that has gone dark. Another title from Commodore 64, Street beat (1987), was one of the first games to feature an all-black setting: Funkytown (yes, like the song Disco). The player controls Rockin ‘Rodney, who must use his “ghettoblaster” (a stereo) to get the locals dancing while delivering demo tapes to the head office of Interdisc, a gaming company.
Other original characters from the noir video game include voodoo priest and warrior Akuji from Akuji the Heartless (1998), Col. John R. (“Rusty”) in Blade of sin (1998), former Marine John Dalton of Unreal II: Awakening (1998), and one of the first black female characters by the name of D’arci Stern from Urban chaos (1999).
This trend for original black video game characters in the ’90s was short-lived as celebrities and source material with black protagonists would soon give way to greater representation in games. Games like Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (1990), Barkley Shut Up and Jam! (1993), Shaq Fu (1994), and Micheal Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City (1994) used black celebrity to frame and sell black culture in the video game industry.
Other licensed properties have also given you control over their dark protagonist in the form of movie or comic book games, such as Beverly Hills cop (1990), Predator 2 (1992), Todd McFarlane’s Spawn: The Video Game (1995), and Shadow Man (1999). The games have also permeated hip-hop and rap culture to make black protagonists like in Rap Jam: Volume One (1995), Wu-tang: the Shaolin style (1999), Def Jam Vendetta & Fight For NY (2003-04), Grand Theft Auto San Andreas (2004), 50 Cent: bulletproof (2005), and Getting up from Marc Ecko: content under pressure (2006). What this period tells us is that having a black protagonist in video games depended on pre-established marketable source material like hip-hop and sports superstars or big budget movies. But as the new millennium dawned, the chains of those rules would soon begin to break, and a more nuanced black protagonist would soon begin to take shape.
Where are we now and where can we go?