What would Martin Luther King think of the state of black video game characters if he was alive today? Sadly, Dr. King was killed in 1968, well before the advent of the modern video game and we will never know what he would have thought. Based on what he preached, we can look at three of the most recent leading black protagonists and see if they fit a stereotype or stand on their own merits.
Aveline de Grandpre
Aveline de Grandpre from Assassin’s Creed: Liberation is the most recent, and possibly most ambitious character to date. Not only a female lead, the first for the Assassin’s Creed series, she is of mixed heritage.
Born to a wealthy French merchant who had a child with his African slave, she lived a passing lifestyle where she was both accepted into the slave community and the high society of New Orleans in the late 1760’s. After her birth, her father granted both her and her mother their freedom, allowing Aveline’s mother to become his unofficial bride.
The mythos of the Assassin’s Creed universe pits two factions against each other: the Assassins and Templars. Both factions seek peace for all the world through drastically different methods. The Assassins would accomplish this by free will of the people; the Templars would do the same through absolute power and control. Aveline begins the game as an assassin but is pulled between the two opposing forces while helping to undo the injustice against her people.
Aveline’s story is unique in that we have a mixed female lead that is surrounded by affluence and slavery. Her path takes her through both worlds to accomplish her goals. Kotaku pointed out in their review that both her race and gender are used to great effect within the story and the gameplay. Passing as a slave, her actions stand out to guards and the populace but as a lady, she is able to use suave and charm to work her will.
While her methods are decidedly violent, her ultimate goal is peace and freedom, a juxtaposition that has always plagued the assassins.
She is a beautiful lady, but is never exploited as such. She is strong and athletic but still feminine. She is fiercely loyal to her loving father as a high society woman, able to bribe and charm her way in and out of trouble. In many ways she is the the perfect female lead, with only the weakness of the portable title’s gameplay holding her back from being something truly spectacular.
Nilin from Remember Me is worth highlighting, because the developers do not make a point of her heritage as pointed out in an op-ed by Kotaku. Remember Me is a cyber punk game that has elements of physical free flow combat, memory manipulation á la Inception, and a strong drive from the protagonist to discover her past and act upon what she believes is the right thing to do.
Without spoiling too much of the story, Nilin is also of mixed heritage with a self imposed exile from her background of great wealth. Her goal is to make the wealthy and powerful remember the consequences of the technology that is permeated throughout the world. This allows anyone to share and erase memories at will.
As part of a rebellion, none of the people in the movement treat her differently because she is darker than they are, and Nilin does not act differently to anyone else.
It doesn’t matter to the game or the player within the context of the game that she is black, as she is treated based upon the content of her character, rather than the color of her skin.
Franklin is one of the three main protagonists in Grand Theft Auto V from Rockstar Games. Much like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Franklin fills the role of the stereotypical gangster with a father who abused his mother, who later became addicted to cocaine. After being expelled from school, he became a gang banger. When the player is introduced to him, Franklin is an unwitting partner in an illegal repo operation for a crooked car salesman.
Of the three characters in GTA V, Franklin is probably the most level headed. Dan Houser, one of the writers of the game, described Franklin as ambitious to a fault, eager to take on new & illegal challenges. His ambition is only matched by his loyalty to Trevor and Michael, the other two lead characters of Grand Theft Auto V, who are also career criminals.
Franklin’s dialogue is riddled with more n-words and curse words then actual dialogue. To continue the stereotype, he owns a big scary dog, murders police and other criminals like it was going out of style and still holds hope that he can rise above the fray to become someone of quality. As Dan Houser also described him to IGN, he is “the gang-banger in the post-gang-banging world.”
Franklin’s character embodies the majority portrayal of black males in video games through this point in history. With only a few notable exceptions, this stereotypical black video game male is violent, angry and foul mouthed with few redeeming qualities. While there are real life examples of people that fit similar bills, such as a video that the Inquisitr reported on showing a child being exposed to similar language, it can be argued that a character such as Franklin only enforces an unhealthy stereotype rather than overcoming one.