In case you missed this, our founder Tanya DePass, along with Shareef Jackson, Kahlief Adams and Cicero Holmes of Spawn On Me, and Dr. Kishonna Gray were interviewed for this piece in the NYT by Justin Porter
A mixed-race man comes home from the Vietnam War to more carnage: His adoptive father, the leader of the black mob, is betrayed and killed by the Italian mafia, the main criminal power in a fictional city based on New Orleans. So the veteran, Lincoln Clay, starts taking retribution, leaving hundreds dead in his wake.
That’s the familiar revenge-as-motive storyline of the video game Mafia III, developed by Hanger 13 and published by 2K, but the twist is that Lincoln is also a victim.
The game pulls no punches in depicting Lincoln’s violent nature, and it does the same in showing players what it meant to be a black man in the Jim-Crow-era South. Some shopkeepers refuse you service and call you names. Several police cars hunt you down if you commit a crime in a white, middle-class neighborhood. Do the same in a predominantly black neighborhood and one car will show up, if that. No matter where Lincoln is, the police are watching. He fights racist organizations, casual bias and the prejudice of friends.“So many people have come out and said this game really speaks to what’s going on today and really resonates,” said Haden Blackman, lead executive of Hanger 13. He said he believes they “only achieved that because we didn’t set out to achieve it.”
Shareef Jackson, who together with Kahlief Adams and Cicero Holmes runs the Spawn On Me podcast and the game site spawnon.me, refers to Mafia III as “the game of the decade” for the way it handles race. “It was just so poignant and it was so in your face about the message that it’s trying to deliver,” he said.
It is the fastest-selling game in 2K’s history, the publisher said.
“To all of us, that’s the power of video games,” Bill Harms, the lead writer on Mafia III said. “It’s not passive. You’re not watching Lincoln Clay, you are Lincoln Clay. There’s a lot of power in that, I think. In transporting you to the time and place, and letting you view and experience the world through this very specific man’s eyes.”
Big-budget video game heroes mirror those in big-budget action films: square-jawed, fetchingly stubbled, angst-ridden, and white.
“We don’t have enough black heroes to even know what does the black hero look like,” said Kishonna Gray, a lifelong gamer and the author of “Race, Gender, & Deviance in Xbox Live.” She said she didn’t believe that “all black heroes have to have pro-blackness in their origin story.” But she said that mediated framing makes it easier for mass audiences to view blackness in safe spaces they are comfortable with: as the help; as a criminal; and now as a protester.
Another game, Watch Dogs 2 from the developer Ubisoft, comments on race in ways that are subtler than Mafia III. Marcus, a black man from the Bay Area, is the victim of racial profiling and joins the hacker group DedSec as a means of clearing his name and striking back at big data. In an early section of the game, Marcus must infiltrate the Silicon Valley campus of a fictional company called Nudle. As he and his DedSec partner Horatio, who works for Nudle, arrive in the bus that takes employees to work, Marcus, in a humorous way, says he’s scared. “Don’t nobody looks like us,” he says.
“Welcome to Silicon Valley,” Horatio replies.
As they’re walking in, Horatio says: “You haven’t experienced corporate life until you’re the only brother in a meeting, and you have to represent all of blackdom. If I had a nickel for every time somebody complimented me on being well-spoken.”
It was an exchange that the members of the podcast found very familiar. In the next scene, Marcus and Horatio drop the casual way they usually speak, changing their diction around the predominantly white men and women around them.
“Code-switching is a survival tactic,” Mr. Holmes said, “especially for black men. It is our way of immediately disarming someone and letting them know that we are one of the good ones.” It’s necessary, he adds, to be successful and even survive.
But video games are predominantly for entertainment, and a relatively new medium for social issues. In discussion threads for Mafia III and Watch Dogs 2 on game forums, user reviews on Metacritic, or comment threads below the reviews on sites like Polgyon and Gamespot, it’s common to read opinions that these games are just Black Lives Matter or “social justice warrior” propaganda.
A review for Mafia III on Metacritic said: “Maybe you’ll like it if you hate white people, but I don’t think that’s a very large market, and if it is then it’s certainly not for video games.” The argument rages back and forth, with Mafia III catching most of the criticism.
Mr. Jackson remarked that gamers want their passion to be taken seriously, and for games to be considered important, “until it delves into something that makes them uncomfortable.”
Dr. Gray said that views like this come from a “segment of the entitled gaming population feeling that they are losing something that has always been theirs.” Instead it should be understood that there is space for everyone, she said. For this she blames the gaming industry: “Who gets catered to? Who gets marketed to? Whose stories get told? Who is the face of advertising?”
Tanya DePass started the website I Need Diverse Games because she was “sick of games where I don’t get to be the hero.” She finds it frustrating because, despite some gamers’ anger that these issues would creep into video games, “it’s not a majority white audience anymore, not even close.”
According to findings by the Pew Research Institute in 2015, nearly half of the Americans who play video games are black or Hispanic, but a comparatively small number of games feature a protagonist of color and a black protagonist even less than that.
“Here you have two bigger companies that have done the work, and clearly done it right for people to feel as if this is an authentic experience,” Ms. DePass said. But she calls that progress “baby steps.” An obstacle in the way of accurately representing a more diverse palette of heroes and narratives is something that Watch Dogs 2 already pointed out: the industry itself.
“When you have a bunch of people who look exactly alike, you don’t move forward, you don’t innovate,” Ms. DePass said.