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.
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:
- 25 to Life (2006) – Freeze
- 50 Cent: Bulletproof (2005) – 50 Cent
- Bad Boys: Miami Takedown (2004) – Marcus Burnett & Mike Lowrey
- Bad Day LA (2006) – Anthony Williams
- Bebe’s Kids (1994) – the kids
- Boxing (1980) – the black boxer
- Catwoman (2004) – Catwoman
- Cyborg (1987) – no name?
- Daley Thompson’s Decathlon (1984) – Daley Thompson
- Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard (1998) – Cyrus
- Frank Bruno’s Boxing (1985) – Frank Bruno
- Interstate 82 (1999) – Taurus
- L.A. Rush (2005) – Trikz
- Sanity: Aiken’s Artifact (2000) – Cain
- The Scorpion King (2002) – Mathayus
- SiN (1998) and sequels – John Blade
- True Crime: NYC (2005) – Marcus Reed
- Unreal II (2003) – John Dalton
- Urban Chaos (1999) – D’arci Stern
- Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style (1999) – Wu-Tang Clan
Supporting or “share the spotlight” must-play characters:
- Eternal Darkness (2002) – Michael Edwards
- Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy (2005) – Tyler Miles
- Killer 7 (2005) – Garcian
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.