There has been a lot of talk lately about the need for video games and gaming culture to diversify. But there are many different ways to do this, and without clear directions, an ultimatum could just paralyze an industry already timid about widening its representation. That is why I would like to humbly suggest one potential artistic avenue gaming should explore to expand its borders: Afrofuturism.
“Afrofuturism is the intersection between technology, black cultures, the imagination, and liberation with a heavy dose of mysticism,” says Ytasha L. Womack, author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. “It is expressed through an array of genres including music and literature.It can also serve as the basis for critical theory around culture and/or race. It is a lens to see alternate realities through a black cultural lens.” And it is particularly prevalent in literature like sci-fi/fantasy novels and comics books, gaming’s geeky cousins. “Comic book and sci-fi fans are accustomed to connecting with metaphors, mythology, images, and time benders, so it is easy for fans to grasp the depth of Afrofuturism.”
As an emerging literary and cultural aesthetic, the term was first coined in 1993, Afrofuturism’s freshness pairs well with games, which are also just beginning to come into their own as a modern art form. Adopting the aesthetic could also give games a chance to be at the forefront of black narratives, an area they are currently lagging behind in to say the least. “Video games are stories where the player is the protagonist,” says Womack. “A cool story pulling from Afrofuturist themes would work wonderfully in the video game world because the story has such a rich pool of imagery, culture, and ideas to pull from.”
While the recent Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry did a better-than-expected job at respectfully representing slavery in its violent historical fantasy, the game still got criticized for how its emancipation missions just became a cold, mechanical system for improving the player’s stats. Plus, the silly, sci-fi meta-plot of the series lessened the impact of the real-world atrocities. Nevertheless the inherent digital quality of games as a medium perfectly complements Afrofuturism.
“The very nature of the aesthetic is one which conveys stories through a technology,” says Womack.
“Can you imagine a futuristic version of the Yoruba Orisha’s as the basis for a game? The art work would be stunning and the themes have the weight to be as compelling as X-Men.” Womack continues to ponder the potential, “Can you imagine the Detroit music duo Drexciya’s myth of an underwater black culture and the fun art work and stories that can emerge in a video game?”
Fortunately, some games are testing the Afrofuturism waters. While they never fully escape the gruff military stereotypes of characters like Gears of War’s Augustus Cole or Final Fantasy VII’s Barrett Wallace, Emmett Graves of Starhawk and James Heller of Prototype 2 are at least more fully realized individuals. They are the stars of their own games. And while it is never made explicit, their blackness also offers unique interpretations of their coincidentally similar sci-fi struggles. Both men are involuntarily exposed to an alien force that grants them incredible abilities but tears apart their humanity in the process.
Or better yet, consider Nilin, protagonist of Remember Me. Her blackness, however racially ambiguous, represents the face of underground resistance in a glossy, futuristic Europe. Meanwhile, the plot and gameplay, involving a surveillance state that steals and manipulates memories, speaks to actual marginalized people who have already experienced the erasure of their history by global oppressors. They have reason to fear what might, or might not, be remembered of them. But even with all of those ambitious ideas, the game’s merely average quality disappoints. At a certain point, Nilin sort of stops being the main character of what appeared to be her own story so a white male character can give the orders and take the spotlight.
However, Afrofuturism is just one of many creative roads video games could explore if they want new interesting ways of black representation. One could easily imagine a survival horror game being a similarly effective, virtual, interactive take on the black experience, although hopefully one less racist than Resident Evil 5. But because of what they share in common, video games that fully embrace Afrofuturism could be an especially harmonious mix. It would improve the artistry of the medium, it would help push Afrofuturism further into the public consciousness, and it would be just plain cool. Basically, we need The ArchAndroid of video games.
But to cultivate works like that, we need creators willing to make them happen. We need an industry willing to foster that creativity whether it is in the AAA gaming space or in the emerging black indie scene with games like Shawn Alexander Allen’s recently funded Treachery in Beatdown City. Finally, we need a gaming culture that is tolerant and receptive. While certain gaming sub-communities, like the fighting game community, may pride themselves on their diversity, the problem of race and representation in gaming overall is one that players and creators need to work together to solve. “Stories involving black cultures have yet to be explored on a broad scale. There is a treasure trove of stories to be explored through a black cultural lens,” says Womack. “The possibilities for creating fun, heroic stories of discovery through video games are endless.
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Jordan Minor is a 22-year-old freelance journalist writing about video games, entertainment, and technology. He is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and splits his time between Chicago and New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter: @JordanWMinor.
- What is Afrofuturism? (mediadiversified.org)
- “Popular culture” is no longer a “marketplace of ideas.” It’s a cartel. (mediadiversified.org)
- Birth of a Planet (mediadiversified.org)