Coding Blackness: A History of Black Video Game Characters

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In 1988, two games — yes, two huge games for the whole year — gave you the choice to choose a colored character—Narc and HQ pursuit. But those choices are limited to player two, which means the whiteness centering is still in effect, leaving the black characters to only fill the roles of sidekicks or side choices.

These games also highlight another setting, like sports, in which mainstream video games often featured black characters: the downtown area. In Final fight (1989) you can’t pick a black character, but darker people are present as enemies in the pixelated, rough streets of the Capcom title, so that didn’t really matter. These black and brown enemies only help legitimize the inner city setting through racial stereotypes and caricatures. They were in a way props in the framing of urban culture. This was a passive form of using black figures to aid in the settings of the black town center.

However, the same year 1989, Ghost hunters 2 for Gameboy and Konami Crime fighters because the arcade gave you the choice to choose a black character without being limited to the second player location; which means you could finally be Black and the first player. These beat-em-ups, of Quartet at Crime fighters and others like Streets of rage (1991) reframed Blackness from tracks and fields to streets and alleys, which was not really a positive leap.

Still within the popular stereotypes of the day – facilitated by the dominant co-optation of hip-hop culture and the conservative Reagan race-based war on drugs – the creation and maintenance of ‘value systems and hierarchies of ‘one constituency,’ as Murray wrote, holds true. The games were an extension of the belief systems around American race relations. But it’s getting better, don’t worry.

Fighting games: multiplayer and multiculturalism

Following the multiplayer beat-em-ups of the mid-80s to the early 90s, a different kind of game was also starting to facilitate racial minorities.

Since their inception, fighting games have continued to rely on cultural and gender diversity when it comes to character selection. Street fighter 1 (1987) gave us Mike, the American black boxer (an enduring trope), while Pit-fighter (1990) gave us South Side Jim. Pit-fighter is not only important for its inclusion of a black character, but also for its use of digitized sprites in a fighting game, which would lead to Mortal combat (1992).

By far, the most impactful titles in the fighting game genre would be used as a seal of approval for the diversity to come: Street Fighter II: World Warrior (1991) and Mortal Kombat II (1993). Both games would lead the mainstream charge in terms of casting a variety of genres and races. From Jax, the all-American soldier, to Balrog (better known as Mike Tyson outside of the United States, since he was a caricature of the athlete), and the South Asian Dhalsim, a master of fire-breathing yoga. More black and brown images were seen, but the attempt to fix the meaning, a concept by Stuart Hall in which images and their meanings become limited in the media for racial stereotypes and orientalist views would prevent minority characters from going beyond the glass ceiling. This also includes images of black and brown female characters, who were not seen until Mortal Kombat II (1993) with the introduction of Jade.

The solo experience

Screenshot: Alamy

Historically, whiteness has been considered the default, a privilege that is 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‘s Little Mac at The witcher‘s Geralt of Rivia and many other AAA titles.

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