Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

An English / Feminist Studies / Race & Ethnicity Studies Course Blog

Alienation in Interactive Media


As we watched the film adaptation of “The Colour Purple” today in class, I began to contemplate the presence and portrayal of black people in the media. My media of choice is not television or films (usually), but that oh-so-fun evolution of interactive fiction: the video game. I could immediately go on a long and entirely valid rant about stereotyping in games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas or any of the Def Jam-sponsored games, and I’d probably fill a book just listing the problematic aspects of those games. But what I began to contemplate was the presence and portrayal of black individuals in more plot intensive games. (Yes scholars, many video games do have plots, and many of them are quite compelling.) What I observed is that there are few “normal” black NPCs (non-player characters) in such video games. Any time a black character interacts with the player, they are either an intended source of comic relief, or a source of great wisdom, or even an unstoppable “bad-ass” action hero. But they are never just a person who happens to be black. It seems the script writers draw a blank when it comes to writing this sort of character. “They’re black, what do we do with them?!” “Oh I know I know! Let’s make her an evil cyborg and let’s make him a demi-god in human form.” Fine plot elements, but it just seems worth note that when a black character appears in a game, they’re either comic relief, a villain, or in some other way alienated, othered from the player-character. One might argue that video games aren’t populated by “normal” characters, as the stories necessitate (as any story does) a certain level of abnormality to further the plot, but I just find it fascinating how black characters seem to be given far less range than their light-skinned counterparts. I really had not considered this until recently, but as soon as I thought of it, I found myself struck by just how prevalent this othering was. Even when it places the character in a positive role, they are still othered from the protagonist, never on the same level with them or the player; either they are just a funny sidekick, they are beyond parallel in their martial abilities, their wisdom transcends time itself, they are a sadistic villain, or they aren’t human at all. This, I feel, is an issue that warrants some examination in future academic endeavors.


3 thoughts on “Alienation in Interactive Media

  1. You should play Bioshock Infinite for interesting portrayals of Black characters in a video game. I’m only like half way through it, but it handles race in a way I have never seen a video game do. The idea is that you are in a separatist racist American society that identifies with the founding fathers more than modern (1912) America. So there’s this whole question of where do Black people fit into this society and how are they treated. It’s pretty interesting stuff. There’s some racism in it that made me extremely uncomfortable.

  2. Don’t mean to throw a wrench in your thought, but I believe that The Walking Dead by Telltale Games appears to transgress this trend in video games on portraying black characters. In fact, the protagonist of the story is a black character who in my opinion is one of the best developed characters I have ever encountered in a video game. Placed in the same zombie-infested universe as Rick and the other survivors in the TV series, the story breaks beyond the themes and issues that black characters in books and films face and unfolds the story of finding compassion and humanity in a world where civilization has all but vanished (Glimpses of American culture and perceptions still permeate into the story in the form of comic relief or character development, which could prove problematic to the literary critic in me).

  3. Oh certainly there are good, reasonable portrayal of black people in games. Walking Dead comes to mind, as you indicated. If you consider dunmer/dark elves black, then Elder Scrolls and Kingdoms of Amalur have many as well. This post was more of a general treatise, not meant to say, “Every game portrays black people poorly all the time forever and always.” Only that problematic, othering portrayals tend to come about oftentimes. Oftentimes not equating to always, of course. I was perhaps unclear on that in my initial post, my apologies.

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