Deviating from the Norm: Examining How Blackness is Punished in Video Games

Curator's Note

The purpose of this discussion is to examine how the normalization of Whiteness and masculinity within video games leads to the punishment of Blackness. I argue four key ways that Blackness is punished: 1) stereotypical representations, 2) racial tourism, 3) conquering the other, and 4) deletion of Blackness. Augustus ‘Cole Train’ Cole from the popular series Gears of War, CJ from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Black characters from Street Fighter, and others are all examples of stereotypical representations of Blacks in video games. The mediated story of Black’s is limited and situated within buffoonery (comedy) or crime. Media outlets have created essentialist notions about Blackness and what it means to have an ‘authentic’ Black experience. And because there are limited counter narratives, this singular story only confirms hegemonic notions of what it means to be Black. Racial tourism is another means to punish Blackness within video games. In shooters (Resident Evil, Blood on the Sand, True Crime, etc), fighting genres (Street Fighter), and even sports (NBA Street), these games are situated in urban locations that are highly ghettoized given the never-ending hip-hop soundtrack and presence of graffiti. This glorification of de-industrialized inner city communities only serve to commodify Black urban culture. Conquering the other is another means to punish Blackness in video games. In many games where the protagonist is White, the main goal is to conquer urban bodies (GTA III), Third World enemies (Blood on the Sand, Resident Evil), and other bodies of color deemed fit to die. As racial projects, video games legitimize white supremacy and hegemony through the ‘othering’ process and via pixelated minstrelsy by depicting Black and Brown bodies as objects to be destroyed. Deletion of Blackness is the fourth area that demonstrates a tendency to punish Blackness in video games. Many early video games featured playable characters of color but many moved away from these progressive images for more widely acceptable characters. For example, Everquest featured the Erudites who were Black playable characters. With the release of EverQuest II, the Erudites evolved into skeletal Caucasoid. World of Warcraft even contributed to the deletion of Blackness with the change of the Black (although buffoon) viral Leeroy Jenkins into a White general to avoid appearing racist. This hegemonic change re-privileged whiteness, as the narrative deployed was the devaluing of one race over another. Although many people claim that race shouldn’t matter, to black and brown bodies, when you are constantly omitted or erased, it does. Beth Kolko found it surprising that in spaces that dramatized other aspects of identity such as gender and class, ethnicity is shockingly absent from most multiplayer games. Debunking utopic assumptions of virtual space, Kolko argues that the internet is far from liberatory but rather a space that continues a cultural map of assumed whiteness.


Thanks, Kishonna, for this discussion of the punishment of blackness in video games. I am really interested in this discussion of games as a site of punishment, and I liked how you brought together a set of different modes of racism in games, including both representation and erasure, under this rubric. The term punishment can imply discipline, and I am wondering if you could say a little more about if you thought of the punishment of blackness in games as a form of discipline, for gamers or for characters within the world of the game? The video seems to engage with the discipline of black commentators' emotions (ex. tone policing) by introducing a split between the narrator and the narrator's hyperemotional and critical alterego. How did you see the video engaging with the punishment of blackness? Loving your post, Diana

I fell in love with this video because it represents the duality that many Black gamers operate within: a calm tranquil gaming experience that is often abruptly interrupted by ignorance. And then after the lash out towards whatever the event was, a return to normalcy. What's significant is that many Black gamers normalize these experiences (online) and always assume characters and avatars won't have any connection to Blackness. I typically use the secondary definition of punish in examining this phenomenon: to treat someone in an unfairly harsh way; unfairly disadvantage, maltreatment. In this sense, punishment is used to describe the mistreatment of Black characters by not fully developing them, by representing them singularly, etc. Online, punishment is as you stated, implying discipline. Any gamer that deviates from the White male norm is punished. Women are punished. People of color are punished. Sexual minorities are punished. They are punished because they have to endure being limited and relegated to a small aspect of their identity within the space. Even more problematic, they are relegated to the derogatory form of the perceived self: bitch, fag, nigger, etc. Because they 'sound' different, they are subject to extreme forms of harassment.

Excellent post, Kishonna. You've adroitly summarized the central problematics of the way the triple-A industry treats Blackness. I wonder if you could comment on depictions of Blackness that rest somewhat within and somewhat outside these tropes, though. I am thinking primarily of Louis from Left 4 Dead, Lee or Clementine from Telltale's Walking Dead adventure series, arguably an incredibly small percentage of the already scant presence of Blackness in triple-A games. While Louis escapes the buffoon or criminal characterization, he also loses background identifiers other than a white button-down shirt, red tie, and slacks that frame him as some kind of middle-class office worker. Here we might argue Left 4 Dead enacts the fantasy of a post-racial society, since the developers go out of their way to frame Louis more by his class and socio-economic mobility (he's infinitely hopeful) than his race, which does not play into the interpersonal dynamic between the game's characters at all. Here's an interesting video that showcases all of Louis' voice over lines, one of the only insights we get into his personality and backstory. Worth thinking through: In Walking Dead, we meet Lee Everett in the backseat of a squad car as he is being transported by a police officer on the interstate away from Atlanta, instantly framing him as a criminal. We later learn that Lee is a university professor that has, in a moment of passion, murdered his wife's lover. After being thrown into a zombie apocalypse, Lee tries to distance himself from his painful past by becoming a surrogate father-figure for young Clementine, a girl in search of her lost parents. The relationship between the two forms the emotional core of the game's narrative. Unlike most other triple-A depictions of Blackness, Lee is a complex character, a flawed but caring man who always tries to do the right thing in the face of impossible choices. Of course, like Left 4 Dead, race in Telltale's Walking Dead series is never treated as a problematic in society, and an assumption forms that once the structures of everyday life crumble, race will cease to matter as much as survival. This again evokes the myth of a post-racial society, one that ironically sutures a post-racial utopia to a post-apocalyptic dystopia. The only solution to the problem of difference, these game's suggest, is for everything to go to shit.

Many thanks, Kishonna, for this thought-provoking post, and many thanks, John, for such salient examples of the post-apocalyptic lengths triple-A games seem to feel compelled to go to in order to accommodate more complex depictions of blackness (the irony of this being, as you say, the pre-requisite of a post-racial/post-apocalyptic world where everything has gone to shit anyway.) But your Walking Dead example - as well as the call of the narrator of Kishonna's chosen video for fewer Cole Trains and more Lee Everetts - got me thinking about how blackness may not go totally unpunished even in this ostensibly post-racial context...Lee is meant to be a kind of interactive stand-in for Rick Grimes, the protagonist of the Walking Dead comics and and television show; both men are fathers/father figures to (initially vulnerable) children whom they protect at all costs; both are leaders within their respective survivor communities; both provide a kind of moral compass for the audience/player. So, despite the initial glaring contrast between their origins (Rick as white cop and Lee as black prisoner), in many ways the larger franchise suggests their equivalence post-apocalypse. But it's interesting to me that Rick continues to anchor both comic and television series over a decade into the franchise's existence, keeping his small but sacred family intact, while Lee's trajectory lasted a single season of the Walking Dead games, at which point he is subject to both the bodily destruction and erasure Kishonna notes as recurring categories of punishment in mainstream games. True, this erasure is handled with a high degree of pathos and utmost respect for Lee's significance (which echoes throughout Season 2), but he's still gone.

I was talking to my Intro to Film students about this earlier today, so I apologize if it's too on the nose, but I think it's worth mentioning in terms of erasure and representation of blackness as set up by Kishonna and the comments of John and Jessica. The intriguing part of the instances John brings up and Jessica thinks through as forms of "punishment" is that each case still falls within what film scholars have generally described as a "safe space" for minority representations: the genre film, particularly sci-fi, but also action and, to a limited extent, horror. The post-apocalyptic scenarios of The Walking Dead and Left 4 Dead seem to fall in line with this idea of the spaces within which minority intrusion is allowed. If the world has gone to hell anyway, then who cares that much about whether someone is black or white? The backgrounds of the characters barely even matter beyond the simple group survival dynamics (which may be racial, but don't need to be, as evinced in Left 4 Dead). So returning to the video critique of blackness in mainstream games and the game avatar shared in this post and the Commander Shepherd example from Mass Effect (I chose the game's white female counterpart from the games for a reason this week), what does it say about the fact that this space, even when seen by the black video game player as a positive change, still falls within the parameters of sci-fi or action genres instead of, say, puzzle games, or platformers? Is there any space which could open up without these constructs at this point, and what would that even look like, I wonder? I know progress is always slow, but still. Just throwing this out there.

It's funny you bring up mass effect - my students told me its a game i need to play and they brought all three discs! i dont know where they think i have time to play an entire series! i want to play these games so i can talk about them. i am too much of a gamer at heart to begin to analyze games that i have not played myself at least the majority of the game. but your take on the post-apocalyptic series is soo interesting and one i didnt consider. yes you discuss this intrusion at a time when who cares! we're all dead! and im' guessing their characters aren't at all racialized. i wish i knew these games to provide a better analysis to the awesome questions you all are posing. but it gives me something to look forward to for the 2nd edition of the book! lol

These are two great examples that reveal what a Black character could and should look like. I am impressed with their development and their popularity reveal that gamers will play a character that's not a gangster or buffoon. But where are the others? I struggled coming up with a list of characters that were like Lee and Louis. I couldn't find them. So yes these characters exist. Lee appeared in 2012 which was after my data collection phase! And Left 4 dead scared the crap out of me! I couldn't play it long! But I will make sure to discuss these and others in my next book. But two examples won't offset the damage that the others do.

I was curious how this video was received by an audience, so I watched from his YouTube channel and read some of the the over 2K comments. Despite the over-emotional tone of the narrator's delivery, which might encourage dismissal, the conversation in the comments largely agreed with the video producer's critique, taking it seriously. Like Diana, I too am curious about your take on this video. Why does the producer jump into this tone, and with what effect on his argument? I wonder if this is a defensive stance learned from his MW:COD playing experiences being a black male gamer? Many of the comments discuss what it is like to be disciplined as a black player in those online spaces. Great potential parallels between your analysis of game characters and that of game playing experiences.

I completely understand what this guy was saying in this video. I've experienced situations like this several times, people think because your name is something that your okay with being talked to Any kind of way. Which is not true. Not only that people act as if others don't have feelings in the gaming world which is indeed a problem. I completely agree with the person in this video its more than true with what he said throughout the video. Also i agree with Mrs. Greys points about the four points to how blacks are punished in the gaming world. The thing i thought that stuck out most was the video when he said every game that has a black person has the same 3 hairstyles and skin tones. Why isn't it games that allow black people to play with characters that look like us? Hey good argument

Great post! Made a lot of sense and had me thinking like some people you really do not think about things like this until someone brings it up or read about it. It is very true what your blog says with the four ways that blackness is punished by watching people play video games. They always have some kind of set avatars, always in the ghetto and they are never the hero always the bad guy. When watching the video it really did make a point. When a person goes to play a video game and make an avatar the African American is normally the same. I have never experienced any game live that people were actually talking but I can bet other gamer do call African Americans bad names. This needs to change with video games.

Before taking a class with Dr. Gray, I'd honestly never given a second thought to depictions of race and/or gender within video games. That said, it's rather incredible how eye-opening even a basic analysis of these depictions can be, as they are (sadly) overwhelmingly present within the industry. While black and brown bodies are often placed into gaming story lines as comedic relief (buffoonery) or as villainous perpetrators, they are also presented within games as negatively animalistic or "native." For example, in the recent release of Diablo, all character classes feature a playable white female or white male except for one class: the witch doctor. The witch doctor is a startling contrast to the other classes, as the other characters appear to be strong and poised, if not arrogant, with their heads held high in polished, form-fitting armors. The witch doctor class, in contrast, features constantly hunched-over, panting brown bodies wearing ill-fitting tatters of clothes that are updated throughout the game to include animal bones and exaggerated tribal jewelry. Unfortunately, this is often justified by players as a "tribute" to African ancestral culture. However, these characters (whose physical appearances cannot be customized apart from armors) and the class itself make for a rather unappealing play-through. They are limited by stereotypical "native" dialogue, move sets, and weapons like blow darts, and must often rely on the use of "pets" like spiders and toads to help deal damage equal to what other classes can deal by themselves. Sadly, it seems that Blizzard once again tried to avoid being labeled as "racist" through character diversity by trying to include a race besides caucasian into the game. However, their diversity strategy seems poorly executed. They gave the brown bodies in their game feral-like qualities that starkly contrast with those of the majority cast of white characters in Diablo III.

I found this post to be very interesting! There are many subjects that aren't typically thought about, or taken as serious are they should be. This issue is certainly one of them. I know video game creators try to back up racism in games by saying things like "this is the type environment the players want to see their characters in" but why is it that the villain is always one with a darker skin completion? How are children supposed to grow up and not have a skewed opinion about people of a different race when these video games are all they know? This is a serious issue that I believe certainly needs more attention, great post!

This video was very thought provoking, it mentioned several things that I had not thought about until watching. One thing that I found disturbing was the fact that in Call of Duty the player has 15 different character models for a white soldier, while for black soldiers there are only 2, which look very similar. The society that we live in has brought forth a since that whites receive more choices, not only in life but in video games as well. It is also noteworthy to mention that villains in most games are characters of a different ethnic background. Given these perceptions the children who are enjoying these games will grow up to believe that these ethnicities are "evil" which is a serious issue.

Thinking about our next generation, I can only think of how awful it is going to be for those who are of color to grow up in this society. Like you pointed out, the almost dehumanization of people of color in video games as objects to be destroyed or "the enemy" is something that will affect our society. In today's society, we (the 18-25 age demographic) tend to think of ourselves as progressive and accepting of all people, but we live in a society where everything is white-washed and people of color are dehumanized. Though we may not be consciously thinking about killing people of color, when it comes to violent video games, subconsciously the people that we target are those of color. I would be curious to see if in a video game that did not openly define the enemy, how many would shoot the person of color because they are seen as "dirty" or "evil". Another aspect I liked that you hit on was the invisibility of people of color. Not only the fact that people of color are rarely the hero in the game, but the complete lack of characters that are not white. In response to that video, though it was coming off as sarcasm, it does make a valid point that, people of color are stereotyped and discriminated against even in online communities. The fact that I can go into a video game and easily make a character that resembles me slightly, while a person of color is only given two options is disgusting. In addition, when creating the characters in Sims, the darker the skin tone the more distorted their appearance appears to be. The video also makes a great point in showing that even "joking" racism, is still racism and still hurts a population.

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