Why is racial belonging for game protagonists so one-sided?

I was playing Gears of War 2 the other day when I suddenly came to think of how game developers usually portray the game’s protagonists. Marcus Fenix is a hard-necked stereotype bad ass, and the variations are endless. Link from Zelda is a quiet kid, Cloud from Final Fantasy VII is a heroic soldier and Lara Croft from Tomb Raider is a strong, independent woman. It’s hard to find something that can be described as a common denominator, when clearly these main characters are so different. Then it hit me. They’re all white. I did a quick scan of the dusty library in my head to find at least one game where the protagonist is black. Bingo – Carl Johnson from GTA: San Andreas. One the best games in the last five years had a black protagonist. My search went on. Barrett from FFVII! Uhm, no. Tiger Woods..? No again. After a while I had only come up with Mr Johnson and Afro Samurai – one gangbanger and one satiric ancient Japanese warrior.

The game industry is rather fresh compared to the movie industry. But we can’t use that as a reason as to why there are an abundance of black people as main characters in movies and why there are practically none in games. This is mainly because of two reasons; the market for games is practically as big as it is for movies and because we don’t live in the same world as we did when motion pictures were fresh out of the box. We all agree that you have to search really hard to find some examples where “famous” game protagonists are black, and although I don’t want to go as far as to say “Houston, we have a problem”, I do want to find out why this is the case. What would’ve happended if Bartz, Terra, Cloud, Squall, Zidane, Tidus or Vaan weren’t white?

Let’s narrow it down a bit. The worst-case-scenario would be if the reason why game protagonists weren’t black is because gamers wouldn’t want to play such a game. Seriously, if gamers in general were that narrow-minded I would be utterly surprised. The fact that GTA: San Andreas was the best selling game of 2007, ahead of both Vice City and GTA III, completely crushes that reason. Also, I don’t see that the excitement for Afro Samurai is being lowered because of the protagonist’s skin color but perhaps the other way around.

Another reason could be that there are very few black people that make games. I have no figures that can show if that statement is true, but Jason Ellis, a blogger who wrote an article that listed “the only eleven black main must-play game characters”, says that’s the case. According to Ellis’ contacts in the game industry there are in fact very few black game developers. I’m having trouble accepting this as the reason, mainly because there are so many characters in games that are black. If the dominantly white game developers don’t enjoy creating black playable characters, why do they bother creating black non-playable characters?

Another reason could be that game protagonists don’t stand out very often. For many gamers, it’s easiest to feel “in the game” or personally connected to the character if it doesn’t talk at all. Too much talk draws attention to a character, can make the player feel distanced and the easiest way to avoid this would be to make the character white and a bit unsocial. This would make a lot of sense if it wasn’t for the fact that black people also play games. Do the white game developers think that’s not the case? Probably not. What can possibly be the reason then? If gamers don’t care if the protagonist is black, if black people play games and if game developers most likely aren’t hesitant to create black characters, then why are there no Morgan Freemans in gaming?

It’s a tough question to answer. Although game developers don’t believe that people would be put off if their next game’s main character was black, they might think those two very influential words — “What if?” — and then proceed as usual with a winning concept. It doesn’t matter to me if the character I’m playing is black or white and there’s no point in using affirmative action to make it more diverse. Black game protagonists are likely to increase over time together with the fact that games today are something for everyone. Everyone can be casual gamers and everyone can be hardcore gamers. And yes, I think a Final Fantasy game with a black protagonist would be just as successful as its predecessors.