When you think of black hair in games, what comes to mind? Maybe a clean set of cornrows? What about dreadlocks? Or, and this is probably most likely, are you thinking an afro, a Caesar fade, or just a bald scalp?
This litmus test is a conversation that has raged in the gaming industry for as long as games have featured playable protagonists and character designers. same old Kotaku Staff member Evan Narcisse took the discourse to task in his essay on the struggles of portraying darkness in gaming, illustrating that we’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go.
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While all of the aforementioned hairstyles are likely to be found in nearly every character builder today, they are unfortunately still incredibly limited for black gamers when it comes to creating digital versions of themselves. As any black person will tell you, our hair has a depth and range that is barely represented in our favorite medium.
And that’s exactly what Kinda funny games’ host and producer, Blessing Adeoye Jr., tackles in his latest episode of The Blessing Show. So we decided to sit down with him and talk about how bad it is when it comes to dark hair in games.
Character designers are good, but they could be better
Adeoye Jr., one of the newest additions to the Funny games crew, has its own series examining aspects of games and design. In his latest episode, “We Need to Fix Black Hair in Video Games,” he provides a history of black hairstyles, noting that the most commonly seen look in games, cornrows, dates back “over 3,000 years in Sub-Saharan Africa”. It’s deep. Deeper still is the diversity of black hair styles, which include 360 waves, bantu knots, fro-hawks, Jheri curls, and twists, among others.
Unfortunately, many of these styles are missing from most modern game character designers. That’s not to say things haven’t improved. It points to games like Nioh 2 and, sigh, Hogwarts Legacy as examples of great options for black gamers to create an extension of themselves with matching hair.
But it’s clear that Western standards of beauty – blonde hair, fair skin, blue eyes, slender figure, etc. – are still the industry standard. As Adeoye Jr. mentions, “a good amount of popular games are developed in countries like Japan,” meaning the education around the more natural, “ethnic” hair that black people wear is much less common. As such you get something like Ring of Eldencharacter creator who, while vast in his options, is limited in his ability to accurately portray a black individual. FromSoftware’s magnum opus is the best-selling game in the Japanese studio’s catalog, but it doesn’t even quite describe Blackness.
The juxtaposition of games like the nioh series and Ring of Elden shows how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
Western beauty standards in games
According to a US Census Bureau estimate, blacks make up only 13.6% of the US population compared to whites, who dominate at 75.8%. Judging by that alone, you’d assume that black features — such as our tanned skin and frizzy hair — aren’t “normal or common enough to consider,” as Adeoye Jr. suggests in his video. And he is not wrong.
Throughout history, black people have been demonized for their natural features to uphold Western standards of beauty as the ideal that everyone should strive for, whether it’s possible or not. It’s something both of our families have been through – straightening their hair to avoid the discrimination that comes with wearing a more natural style. And we went through it in our teens, perming our hair in an effort to get closer to whiteness and thus be seen as beautiful by our classmates, teachers, bosses and co-workers, even our parents. . No matter what damage it was doing to our roots; straightening our hair made us beautiful because it was the hairstyle that society wanted.
Because black people don’t even make up a quarter of the US population (and less in places like Japan), it’s no wonder natural hairstyles aren’t found or are limited to the usual suspects in games. Nor is it surprising that so many of them favor physical traits that denote whiteness like: pale skin, straighter hair textures, smaller lips and nose, etc.
While some games, such as Pokemon Scarlet And Purple And The Sims 4 received updates to “expand” the available options, most of them, like The fall of Babylon, couldn’t even acknowledge that black hair (or people for that matter) existed. And even when we exist in these worlds, our portrayal is inaccurate at best or cartoonish at worst (looking at you, CJ).
Take Varl, the member of the Brave tribe and a major character in Guerrilla Games’ Horizon series. He has an impressive head of locs that are “refreshing and inclusive” for Adeoye Jr., but even Varl isn’t exempt from the strangulation that Western beauty standards have on game design. Taking a closer look at the taper fader Varl has in the 2022 sequel west forbidden, you can see that the texture of the hair is straighter than what would be considered natural for a hairstyle like this (i.e. kinky curly hair). The same can be said for Varl’s beard, which also seems to have a straighter hair texture.
Blacks are not monolithic, of course. The texture of our hair varies by culture and each individual’s scalp, but Varl’s design exemplifies the difficulty of portraying darkness in games. It’s almost there, but so often misses the mark and that’s a shame. In most cases, it’s clear that a lot of love has clearly gone into these characters, and improvements in graphics rendering technology provide the means to further improve these depictions – we just need the education to go along technical progress.
There are, however, shining examples for black gamers
Miles Morales with the sharpest range in games. (Screenshot: Insomniac Games/Kotaku)
The games didn’t have many good examples of genuine black hair. However, the “next generation fade” of Miles Morales, Kimberly of Street Fighter 6 and her huge pigtails, and Estelle de Season: A letter to the future with his short afro are among Adeoye Jr.’s favorite depictions of Blackness in games.
“I think usually when you’re trying to portray black women in a video game, you go for something like Kimberly or you go for something longer, but whether it’s a shorter afro for a character, I think that’s awesome,” Adeoye Jr. says of Season in an interview with Kotaku. “One of my sisters has a shorter afro, so as soon as I saw [Estelle] I was like, ‘Oh, snap, that reminds me of my sister.’ It’s a hairstyle that a lot of black women have and so having that to define her character, I thought that was a really good thing too.
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It’s easy to default to something like GTA online And NBA 2K for character builders with decent options for black players. But what about inclusive representation in The Simswho promised to do better for the black community – and kept his promises. The Sims 4 implemented many of the mods that Black Simmers created, allowing for greater precision and variety when creating black characters.
WWE 2K22 is another strong character builder with its diverse selection of body types, skin tones, and hairstyles. Or the Saints Row series that blew us away with the number of options available to create our own “Boss”.
Loops don’t go anywhere
Often, whenever conversations about black representation in video games arise, a vocal subset of the gaming community downplays any merit that the review highlights with apologies and “what-sales.” While stonewalling during black representation speech baffles Adeoye Jr., he wants his video to be relaxed and welcoming to both Kinda funny public and the gaming industry as a whole.
“It’s a video that I made with the hope that it would be accessible, it looks like something that does not attack most of the time. I feel like sometimes I can be aggressive about it, but I want to give that option to people who want to watch the video and not feel like it’s me talking badly to them,” says Adeoye Jr. ..
Despite the likelihood that the majority of Kinda funnyAdeoye Jr.’s audience is white, Adeoye Jr. believes the arguments he made in his video and the digestible way he delivered them “will go a long way” to encouraging viewers to advocate for better representation in games .
“When you have a predominantly white industry, it’s hard to see these issues. It’s hard to look at these characters and be like, “Oh, there’s something wrong here or there’s something wrong, isn’t there?” As black people playing these games, it’s something that’s close to our hearts,” Adeoye Jr. says.
Adeoye Jr.’s video might not lead to an immediate shift within the video game industry towards a more authentic representation of the people of BIPOC, but it more than successfully encapsulates the many occasional frustrations and joys that black players feel when it comes to seeing themselves in the games we play. Here’s hoping we get even more hair options besides just fro or fade in games like Diablo IV And star field.
. This is about damn Time Games Git Gud at Black Hair