Black characters are still underrepresented in games, where white is still seen as a kind of ‘default.’
Over the past few years, there has been notable improvement to the range of representation in games. Last year alone saw two separate big-budget titles featuring black protagonists, Mafia 3 and Watch Dogs 2-an embarrassment of riches, compared with the last few decades. As we begin to see more characters in games who resemble us and more developers taking the time to think about us, a question worth asking is: How well do games visually represent black people and others with darker skin tones? The clues to begin answering this are situated in the history of film, a medium to which games owe much of their visual aesthetic.
Stretching back to the earliest instances of film photography, capturing darker skin tones has rarely been prioritized or even much considered. When, in the 1980s, Kodak film—which was originally balanced against lighter skin tones—finally modified its film stock to be more sensitive to the brown and red ranges of the spectrum, it was to satisfy furniture manufacturers who complained their wood grain wasn’t showing up.
To this day, many black actors are underlit, even on big-budget movies and TV shows. It’s necessary, if not always adhered to, to adjust your lighting and makeup for actors with different skin tones when they’re in the same scene together. More often than not, it’s creators of color who take on the work that their white colleagues neglect.
Moonlight, which won this year’s Best Picture award after a shocking mix up last weekend, succeeds in part due to director Barry Jenkins’ and cinematographer James Laxton’s deep understanding and care for depicting black actors on the screen. “Whereas many cinematographers play it safe in exposing dark skin tones, especially in harsh light,” writes Indiewire’s Chris O’Falt, “Laxton built his look around pulling rich, beautiful color from the actors’ faces while still executing one of the boldest lighting designs of the year.”