Ever since that time I have kept an eye on the characters I am able to design in my games. From the original Sims to White Knight Chronicles to both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series (and many more besides—MMOs for instance), I have noticed that if I want to create a black character model, I am typically given at maximum four options, if that, when choosing hair options that are not treated in some fashion: cornrows, locks, mini-fros, or going the shaved route. Even more curious is that sometimes this is even further divided between selecting to play as a man or a woman; when playing Dragon Age 2, I noticed that my male Hawke had more options than my female Hawke, oddly enough (or, as is the case with Mass Effect 2’s editor, I found myself unable to emulate Jacob’s features very well). For Ronia Shepard, for instance, I found the options to shear off all her hair, or go with the pulled back ponytail look featured below (which still isn’t perfect, but alas).
When presenting this topic to some people, there are typically two responses. Either, as I mentioned above, all hair options are horrible, so this should be seen as either a boon (this is said with a laugh, so as to make sure I understand it as a joke) or we should work on improving hair overall. The second is rarer, but also comes from a place of privilege, asking if black people really want these options? After all, the assumption goes, how many black people play these particular games anyway? And given that the assumed number is so infinitesimally small, wouldn’t that just be a waste of resources?
Of course, games are not alone in this lack of representation. In almost any media, when we do see a black man or woman who is supposed to be taken by us as attractive, there are certain standards regarding lightness of skin, acceptable facial features, and how their hair is presented to us—Eurocentric standards. The ideal is to have flattened, straightened hair for women, and short, closely cropped hair for men. This does not mean I want to excuse games, but want to point out how games are performing the same-old, which is a shame when we have games that propose that we get to create and make ourselves, to immerse ourselves in their worlds, or to inhabit some fantasy character.
In my first example, with The Sims, the problem was further highlighted by the fact that the game had a thriving mod community. Hair options abounded, as many were not satisfied with the original stock of hair options. Try as I might, I found myself frustrated on two fronts: rarely was black hair considered, and, back in the days of the first Sims, clothing was split into three skin color categories (white, a yellow/light brown, and a light-toned black), and quite often, white was the only option for particular sets of clothing within the modding community. With the release of Sims 2, we did not seen a return to the clothing divided by skin color, though natural hair options have still been somewhat lacking in the default selection as the series progresses.
Which only highlights the related problem of the lack of diversity in the industry, and further, those voices being heard in directing a project, or coming up with its assets. It is still common that even basic skin color never goes darker than light-brown, and that the skin tones are abysmal in certain lighting conditions. It starts to seem as if it is an afterthought. Since many white people I know are still relatively ignorant in terms of natural hair, or how the media quietly silences all but the ‘acceptable’ black beauty, it is not a stretch of the imagination to see how this occurs. Plainly: ignorance.
Games seemingly brag more and more often about their character creators, and how they have better options, allow more customization, and give the player the chance to really play themselves, or whomsoever they may choose. Myself? Yeah, I can play my pasty white-skinned self to my heart’s content, but I do not play games to always play myself, and I am one of those people aware of the self-loathing encouraged by media (both subtly and overtly) and the battles people can have about the politics of their hair in public (note: aware, not experienced). I want to play from different perspectives, even if the game does not wholly acknowledge my choices of created character.
There is a question of the social responsibility of games, and if we are to believe they have the same social responsibility as any media, we need more diversity in a number of ways, including self-representation for minorities (and theoretically for those who don’t want to play themselves all the time—much as with same-sex romance, it is folly to believe that only those who are queer would play such). The media’s black beauty standards should ideally have no role in games, though they are present. If we are to continue to open up character creators, however, we need to also allow a larger range of options, where natural hair does not get boiled down to what white society considers ‘acceptable’ and ‘politically safe.’