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In The Changing Same: Blackness, Representation, and Video Games, Dr. André Brock discusses the promise and peril of representing Blackness in video games. He explores black digital identity, examining visual representation as well as auditory and narrative representation in the games Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (Naughty Dog, 2017) and in God of War (Santa Monica Studio, 2019). For context, he discusses the “digital blackface” voice acting in Uncharted, and how it impacts BIPOC players’ ability to relate to the two racialized women characters in the game. This is compared to God of War, where the main character is a Greek man voiced by black voice actors. Dr. Brock argues that since many audiences, especially Americans, can identify a voice as black, this voice acting is a form of black representation. This is further reinforced through the character’s performance of various qualities of Black masculinity throughout the saga. Overall, Dr. Brock asks us to critically think about the erasures and openings around representations of Blackness in digital spaces.
Watch the lecture:
Digital Identity: A semiotic and material relationship between content, hardware, code, performances, and cultural phenomena in digital spaces. We construct our identity in different contexts by adapting our performance and curating how we represent ourselves in various online media spaces from LinkedIn to a group chat to Twitter. This enables the expression of identity in digital spaces, including racial identity, and can be used to identify the positionality of characters online.
Critical Technocultural Discourse Analysis: CTDA asks researchers to apply a critical cultural framework to digital objects by looking at the discourses of communities using various technologies. By applying that critical cultural framework, you begin to understand how video game players relate to industry efforts to portray a diversity of characters identities, as well as other ways that users relate to technologies.
Deficit Model: Many scholars argue that there are few minorities online or that POC in digital spaces fail to use technology properly. This is attributed to lack of economic access (e.g. not being able to afford physical technologies or subscriptions to services), and cultural access (e.g., technical literacy) by deficit models. However, Dr. Brock saw many POC in New York City using the latest technology, such as cellphones or laptops. Thus, Dr. Brock sought a way to analyze the way black digital expertise goes beyond the western white paradigm of digital expertise.
In this lecture, Dr. Brock applies methods of CTDA to explore how blackness, particularly Black masculinity, is communicated and represented in digital spaces and video games. He begins by discussing how people tend to try to recreate themselves in digital spaces, through how one distributes parts of their identity in social media from LinkedIn to Instagram, to how players will customize their playable character in games. One can learn a lot about someone’s real identity through looking at how they scatter themselves in the digital space. However, it is common for people to attempt to hide their blackness or other identities in online video game spaces. Often this is due to the high degree of possible harassment that many BIPOC people face online, due to the assumed norm of who a gamer is.
Many game developers believe the gamer is white, male, masculine, heterosexual (and in some cases, hypersexual), and middle class. This assumption is carried into the dominant archetypes of video game main characters. Most video game lead characters are white male killers and kleptomaniacs, even if the games are made in non-western countries. Nathan Drake, from the “Uncharted” series exemplifies this. He kills waves upon waves of people to pursue his temple robbing, despite being portrayed as a likeable rogue, a nice guy with a heart of gold. Even games produced outside of the west, such as Resident Evil 5, the characters can be read as white.
In what others digital contexts is white masculinity assumed to be the norm? How else does this identity assumption affect technological or media design?
Communicating Blackness, and the Black Digital Identity in Video Games
What clues lead the player to assume and/or learn the various characters’ identity?
Dr. Brock shows how race of characters, particularly “Blackness,” is communicated in video games through the visual appearance, the auditory voice acting, and the narrative in the games Uncharted: Lost Legacy (Naughty Dog, 2017) and God of War (Santa Monica Studio, 2019).
As Dr. Brock describes, it is rare for a black gamer to be able to see themselves in video games. Most game characters are created with lighter skin tones or at most tan complexions. In the context of games where the player can customize the appearance of their avatar main character, many POC often try to recreate their appearance as accurately as possible. But options for skin tones, facial features, hair styles, and hair textures are so limited this is often impossible. Although there are many players who create mods that allow for more racially diverse options, they are not readily integrated into games.
How else are game designers’ choices to cater their games towards the assumed norm of gamers affect the ability for people to connect to the game? Is this also a choice that excludes other demographics?
Research suggests that many people can identify a person’s race, including their race based solely upon a person’s voice. For instance, Americans are good at identifying if someone is Black just through voice, which can result in racial profiling or discrimination. This means that in video games, when voice actors lend their own auditory identity to the characters, it affects how players understand and relate to the character’s identity.
The character of Nadine Ross in Uncharted: Lost Legacy (2017) is a Black South African who commands her own mercenary army. Although she is visually identifiable as a black character she is voiced by a white south African. This can be described as a form of “Digital Blackface.” Perhaps more importantly, this is a missed opportunity to give POC voice actors an invitation into a white dominant profession.
Brock contrasts the whitewashing of Black voices in Lost Legacy with the voicing of Kratos, the leading character in the game God of War (2019). The character is Spartan, and thus Greek, and visually has very light white skin. Despite his visual appearance, in both iterations of the game series, Black men are cast to voice this character that exemplifies acts of brutality and male anger. For players like Brock, Kratos’ deep resonant voice marks him as clearly Black.
What could this mean to portray a hyperviolent white character with a Black voice? Does this relate to racial stereotypes that black men are violent and more generally are hypermasculine?
While blackness can be communicated through how a character looks and sounds it can also be communicated through narrative constructs. One such framework by Ronald Jackson, who highlights 5 common characteristics of Black masculinity in popular media: struggle, community/family, achievement, independence, and recognition.
Kratos’ narrative backstory and the objectives of the games are indicative of these constructs of Black masculinity. His personal struggle is highlighted through his tragic backstory of losing his family, and his dedication to his son. He aims to achieve revenge as well as recognition from the gods that they are the cause of the deaths of his family, thorough confronting them independently. These characterizations of Black masculinity are further highlighted in the game through the development of his relationship with his child in the game, as he transitions from not understanding how to raise a child to growing to love and protect him. This is a rare and positive representation of Black fatherhood in popular media.
Why is identity representation through specific narrative characterization, rather than just visually or auditory, particularly impactful?
Dr. André Brock (He/Him)
Associate Professor at Georgia State University.
Dr. Brock has published on racial representation and video games, critical informatics and approaches to data analysis and black technical cultures, on Twitter and elsewhere in new media.