Author’s note: Please, for the love of the Hylian Goddesses, read the criteria below before commenting with Elena or Storm.
There’s a huge debate going on right now about the number of female protagonists in video gaming as opposed to the male. It’s a good discussion that is having a noticeable effect. Ubisoft was castigated by fans in 2014 for not including a female assassin option in Assassin’s Creed: Unity’s four-player co-opt, especially after they responded making a female character skin was too much additional work and other game developers openly mocked them for the excuse on Twitter. Now the upcoming Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is slated to have a female co-lead character, Evie Frye. Progress, right?
That said, my buddy and exceptional Houston artist Isaiah Broussard recently mused on Facebook, “How many black female playable characters can you actually name?” Excluding games that let you customize skin color, licensed games like X-Men titles that include characters that already exist and fighting games where playability is a factor equally shared by all the characters usually the numbers are surprisingly dismal. I count only 14 total across the entire history of gaming, and that’s using a tremendous amount of wiggling in the counting. Only 14 black women have ever been put in the hands of a player, and only two of them before the year 2000. That is just sad.
Who do we have?
There’s Sheva Alomar from Resident Evil 5, easily everyone’s go-to lady of color when it comes to kicking ass. She’s great, but the spearchucking, hut-dwelling Zulus in the game do sort of poison the positivity. Side note: You’ll notice throughout this that black women seem to do better in zombie games, meaning we have to destroy the world and overrun it with monsters before we’ll let black women be the heroes a lot of the time.
You get to play as Shinobu in No More Heroes 2 for a couple of levels. Not perfect, but not bad either. Dead Island has Purna and Left 4 Dead has Rochelle, both worthy entries in the aforementioned zombie-killing black girl trope.
There was Aveline de Grandpre in Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation. She was the example brought up a lot last year during the Unity controversy, and a lot of people pointed out that as a portable title not using the distinctive gameplay of the Assassin’s Creed console entries, she really wasn’t so much an Assassin’s Creed protagonist as she was an Assassin’s Creed character in another game based on Assassin’s Creed. Still, de Grandpre was pretty badass.
There’s a great little indie game out, Broken Age, that has an adorable black girl named Vella as the protagonist. Nillin from Remember Me was also half-black, strong and quite memorable. Leave it to Dragon Age: Inquisition, who gave us the first openly LGBT character on the game box (Yes, Ellie from The Last of Us is gay, but we didn’t find that out until the Left Behind DLC), to do well with the diversity quotient by having Vivienne. Evolve had Maggie as one of your hunter options, a powerful trapper with a 400-pound trapjaw companion.
Historically, the first true black female playable character comes from a fairly obscure PC and PlayStation 1 title, Urban Chaos. D’arci Stern seems to be the trailblazer in this regard, though most people don’t even remember the game. Urban Chaos came out around the same time as Hunter: The Reckoning, which contained the character Samantha Alexander. Samantha is slightly cheating, though — as is Clementine from The Walking Dead — in that they are original characters, but from licensed properties.
Jade from Beyond Good and Evil is considered by many fans to be black, even making a list of significant black characters in a Wired article. However, her race is very ambiguously portrayed and she could just as easily be Asian, Pacific Islander, a mixture of all or none. The public relations manager for the game, Tyrone Miller, has stated that it takes place on an alien world and that Jade is of no established ethnicity.
Finally, there’s Fran from Final Fantasy XII. As far as games that get sexual equality right, XII is the best in the franchise, with three men and three women. Fran is the only woman of color, but she’s also a Viera, a member of a rabbit-like race. Because of that, her skin color seems more like exotic flavoring than that of a human of African descent, but I’m including her anyway because dammit, I like Fran.
Only five of the women on that list can truly be called the main protagonists and not partner characters, guests or just part of a team. Five black women across all of gaming, and the oldest of the bunch is D’arci Sterns. Even with descriptions, the entire roster fits in a 1,000-word article. Things are obviously getting better, but feminism in gaming is still failing black women at a rate higher than white women.
In fact, look at two of the biggest games in recent years, The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite. In the latter black woman Daisy Fitzroy becomes a violent antagonist that turns on Booker. In the former, Marlene also betrays Joel in the end, forcing him to kill her. Even Ellie’s friend Riley gets bitten, tries to kill Ellie and Ellie has to put her down. Three high profile black women in popular Triple A games, and all three of them turn traitor in some way so they can be killed with a quiet conscience by a white hero.
I am truly glad that the need for more female leads has taken front and center over the past several years, but I encourage developers to think about this list I’ve made and consider what kind of attention they are paying to women of color as well. Feminism that is not inter-sectional is not truly feminism at all.
Jef has a new book about robot sharks, "A Senseless Eating Machine" out now in Lurking in the Deep. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter.