The First 11 Black Videogame Stars

Jade, Beyond Good & Evil's leading lady

Can you name all the black main must-play characters in gaming? Hint: There are only eleven so far.

When I was younger, I always wondered why there weren’t more black superheroes. And, while you could ask the same question today, it also probably matters less. Today’s kids don’t dream about playing superheroes, they get to be the heroes in videogames all the time. So, that got me thinking: just how many black characters are there heading up games these days. I’m not talking about non-playable characters. And I’m not even talking about playable characters in a roster of characters you can choose between (like Street Fighter). I’m talking about the primo alpha prime you-don’t-get-no-say main playable character of the game. In other words, I wanted to find out how many times game developers have said: “You are Black. Period.” Here they are…

Moonwalker (1990) – Michael Jackson – I suppose it’s fitting that the first alpha black videogame character would be the biggest entertainer of all time. Of course, the game is a shameless attempt to capitalize on MJ’s worldwide success as a pop star. He’s also a particularly safe choice, being among the folks that Pino calls “Black but not really black” in Spike Lee’s classic Do the Right Thing. Still, what other beat-em-up insists that you take out enemies by dancing them to death? At least that’s a first.

Shaq Fu (1994) – Shaquille O’Neal – Another fighting game, this time featuring a superstar athlete. Here, Shaq wanders into a kung fu dojo in Tokyo and manages to fall into another dimension (who knew?) where he has to rescue a kid named Nezu. Hilarious B-movie premise, awful implementation. Shaq Fu is known as one of the worst games ever.

Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City (1994) – Michael Jordan – A 2D platformer featuring Michael Jordan out to rescue his kidnapped teammates. Need I say more? It made Space Jam look like Shakespeare. Few were shocked when this stinker didn’t sell.

Spawn (1995) – Al Simmons – First of many Spawn games, this was one of those titles that my little brothers couldn’t stop playing and I couldn’t figure out why. It was a cookie-cutter sidescroller, and not a very good one. Sent to hell for misdeeds in the living world, Spawn returns to Earth a kind of anti-hero, taking out the bad guys in the most brutal ways imaginable. Though he’s definitely an interesting character, it’s too bad that the hyperviolent Spawn had to be the first black comic character to cross over to videogames considering all the alternatives.

Akuji the Heartless (1998) – Akuji – Here come the voodoo stereotypes! You are Akuji, a young voodoo priest bent on taking out his murderous brother. Experience the “violent and sensual world of voodoo” first hand! Eeks. It’s a 3rd-person Tomb Raider style action adventure, but with extra evil. Seems like dark story means dark skin.

Shadow Man (1999) – Michael LeRoi – LeRoi is a reformed bad guy. He’s also a reformed living person. Existing between the land of the living and the dead, he’s slave (ugh) to a voodoo priestess who must collect Dark Souls and prevent the formation of an army of the damned. Like Spawn, this guy does evil to do good. If you can get over all that, this comic-derived game is pretty fun.

Blade (2000) – Eric Brooks – Yet another black character that walks between the land of the living and the dead, at least Blade didn’t do anything particularly bad to end up there. He’s a half-vampire head-cracking badass that protects the polite society from the vampire underground. I can dig it (even though the game is awful). Still, when you’ve got demons, when you’ve got evil, you need something almost as bad to deal with them. And, at least in the popular media (and in the last 4 titles in this list), that almost-as-bad seems to mean a black man. Thankfully, that changed in 2003…

Beyond Good & Evil (2003) – Jade (see image up top) – Did we really have to wait until 2003 for the first (and only) original IP involving a black woman to hit the videogame scene? BG&E was one of the finest games of the year and, sadly, also one of the most overlooked. For those who played it, Jade’s adventures in war-torn Hillys managed to find fun in an impressive array of play styles (stealth, action, photo snapping, hovercraft racing) while telling a story that cleverly explores the power of citizen journalism. It’s special stuff.

Men of Valor (2004) – Dean Shephard – It’s fitting that the first AAA Vietnam War title from Medal of Honor publisher Vivendi Universal developer 2015 would feature a black lead considering the disproportionately high number of blacks in the real war. Sadly, the game isn’t quite as polished as its WWII counterparts, but it’s still good news to see a big name publisher put a black face on the front cover of a big name franchise.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004) – Carl Johnson – The final installment of the GTA 3 series is a special game, but not only because of its variety of play styles or expansive environments or numerous voice cameos. The big overlooked reason San Andreas matters is that this was the first time that a AAA series chose a black protagonist and nobody batted an eye. It wasn’t a topic of conversation, it just was. And, for all the potential for stereotyping the “hood” environment offered up, Rockstar North never quite took the easy road. Impressed.

Marc Ecko’s Getting Up (2006) – Coltrane Crowley – Not the first game to feature graffiti writing as a central game element, Marc Ecko’s initial foray into “culturally savvy gaming” is quite possibly the worst. Though it fell flat, it did place a black man at the center of the exploding graffiti subculture. Is it respect or did Ecko make him black because being black is “edgy”? You decide.

Dishonorable Mention:
Final Fantasy 7 (1997) – Barret Wallace – Barret doesn’t exactly fit the criteria for this list. You must play him in the game, but he’s not the central playable character. The reason I mention him is that he is party to the single most beloved title in one of the biggest franchises in videogame history (certainly the biggest franchise mentioned here). The problem, of course, is that he’s an ignoramus who can’t manage to speak or behave property. Imagine all the worst qualities of Mr. T.

So, there you have it. 16 years have given us 11 alpha prime videogame stars who happen to be black, some a good deal more respectable than others. Why haven’t we seen more? A friend in the game industry suggested that one reason is that there are very nearly zero black folks making games. That needs to change because, frankly, I’m pretty damn sure there are a good deal more than zero black folks playing games. Here’s hoping the next 16 years see us better represented than the last.

What do you think? Did I miss someone? Leave a comment and let it be known.

 Visit the follow-up post Race in Games: The Unanswered Question

Extended List: Thanks to everyone who gave additions to the list in comments! Those that seem to meet the must-play main character criteria are:

Supporting or “share the spotlight” must-play characters:

PS: I removed Tiger Woods PGA Tour and Ken Griffey Baseball because, although they are the cover athletes, you are not required to play those characters in-game (at least from what I’ve read). I removed Guild Wars Nightfall because, while it is set in an Africa-inspired world, it appears you can make a character that looks however you want. I removed Jurassic Park 2, Streets of Rage and Crackdown per comment by Jerry X.

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209 Responses to “The First 11 Black Videogame Stars”

  1. 1 isaiah

    like anything else in this society gears the heros to be prodomently white video games included . or you have a secondary role in the game that’s not important of the outcome of the gamne .
    truth be told we still have this stigma of black participation and actual contribution to anything that means success in this world . i myself am so tired of seeing the same innate racist bigotry running rampid in this society , as mundane as a video game they still implement thier racist bigotry and that’s ashame. except it be about drugs and whores , shootem up violent games where do you find a significant balck hero in video games ?? no where to be found . reason i’m so tired of these racist writers and developers of video games reason i’m in college now at 60 years old in graphic design and gaming to bring a new venue to video games not just black heroes but indian, hispanics , chineese , jewish , etc. tired of the same old faces as heroes being just white men and women , aren’t you ?? hell we have our first black president doesn’t that say something about historical change in this society founded on racist bigotry ??
    when i graduate i will and don’t get it wrong develope games for all cultures and races so that all children see its not just white people that can be heroes in a video game , and not just cheap corny video games either that don’t sell, but actual main stream games for everyone to enjoy whites as well time to bridge this racist gap bring in new minds and creativity to the video game industry !!like spike lee did to the movie industry and tyler perry !! you go boys !!

  2. 2 flux

    Portal. You play as a black chick in Portal, one of the best video games ever made. How has this not been mentioned yet.

  3. 3 Micaiah

    Jade is clearly asian

  4. 4 Diablo

    Carl Johnson looks a bit lost, like his face is missing or something. Haha, old school graphics are always funny to look at. Wonder where we will be a in a few years.

  5. 5 Bogle

    Hi. If you want a valid list and people to follow by your requested criteria (main character, not an optional character), then please be consistent as well. I certainly appreciate your desire to “have Jade around” as she is well and truly awesome, but I think you’re aware she’s not black and yet are leaving her here anyway. I’m pretty sure that means anyone can say anything valid or not. The appearance of Jade is actually based on a French voice actress who is close to Michael Ancel (who created the game and Jade). He has stated that Jade is based on her. If you want to have a good list, just please make obvious corrections. You actually have a woman at the top of this supposed “all black” list who is indisputably not black. This destroys the authenticity of your list to say the least. I think you’re just keeping here there to get additional comments, but whatever…your page. I’m not concerned with what she is…she’s awesome regardless cuz she’s awesome, but a square is still a square and a triangle a triangle and so on. Let’s not get stupid. It’s kind of fun when something is disputed to undeniably prove something but, without further delay…here you go kids…the French voice actress Emma De Caunes and personal friend of Michael Ancel. Jade in flesh.

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