Two Video Games with Unusually Black Protagonists
Whether intentionally or not, two of this year’s new console titles have forged a fresh frontier in video game minority representation. Protagonists of color are unsettlingly hard to come by in the world of console gaming, but within a few weeks of each other, Activision’s Prototype 2 and Santa Monica Studios’ Starhawk will deliver black protagonists to fanboy screens everywhere, quietly–if only temporarily–upending the callously monochrome M.O. of the gaming industry.
As it usually goes, white characters, and typically male ones, are the center of attention among shooters, adventure games, RPGs and so on. When nonwhite characters show up, they’re almost always in supporting roles (and almost always black, which is of course its own problem regarding other underrepresented groups). While there have been some noteworthy black characters in modern gaming, they often tend to be sidekicks, guides, confidants or villains. Even when they’re nudged a little closer to spotlight status, the focus on them usually stops short at their roles as part of an “ensemble cast,” or as a partner to another protagonist who’s white. Several sports games have black faces on their covers, but the practice is more for branding purposes than anything indicating protagonists driving actual narratives. Only once in a blue moon are black characters ever trusted to carry the entire burden of a game’s story as definitively leading heroes.
One recent-ish exception is 2004′s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. But predictably, the game’s lead, Carl Johnson, is tangled in a web of gang violence that keeps the character clouded in the usual stereotypes. A similar problem plagues 2005′s 50 Cent: Bulletproof, which offers the usual fare of black urban crime as story fuel (with a sequel that switches up the locale but sticks to the pillars of rap, cash and disses to perpetuate the “hood” feel of the first.) Although there are a few other exceptions, most of them are old, and unfortunately easy to forget. In the meantime, white protagonists have more than overwhelmingly dominated the gaming stage dating back to the inception of the industry.
All the more reason to celebrate Prototype 2 and Starhawk as significant, despite being drops in the bucket. The protagonists of these games aren’t only black, but defy the the racial generalizations they would normally imply. Starhawk‘s Emmett Graves saves lives for a living in a futuristic world that honors the Spaghetti West. Prototype 2‘s James Heller isn’t even a “good guy,” but doesn’t need to be to avoid stereotypes and exist as a compelling character just the same; his role is that of a super-powered war veteran both saving and destroying the streets of New York in the wake of a viral outbreak. In both cases, race is an afterthought; the characters happen to be men of color without a shred of gaudy gangsta-ness, and fully able to carry fun, original stories on their own. Here’s hoping for more nonwhite leading characters to come, black and otherwise.
Photo courtesy of Activision.
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