The Politics of Game Hair

N.B. Many thanks to Latoya Peterson for allowing me to ask her a few questions, and my friend Janathan for reading and giving me feedback. I do not claim to have these experiences, but it is something I rarely see addressed.

The choices for game hair often are often disappointing. The physics for realistic hair are not quite there, meaning longer hair is rarely seen. However, as a white male with the accompanying privileges that can afford me in terms of being represented in games, it took me a while to realize just how bad the hair options are. It first started around 2000, when I began making my little Sims and basing them on real life friends—it was then that I realized, try that I might, I could not model my black friends effectively, because many of them liked to wear their hair naturally

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).

Ronia Shepard, from Mass Effect 2, pointing to punctuate a point. She is a black woman with short hair, pulled back into a small ponytail (the bald look didn't quite work for her).

Ronia Shepard, from Mass Effect 2, pointing to punctuate a point. She is a black woman with short hair, pulled back into a small ponytail (the bald look didn't quite work for her).

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.

Sim Janathan is holding on to a telescope while being tractor-beamed by a UFO. He is wearing a blue suit, and has a short 'fro.

Sim Janathan is holding on to a telescope while being tractor-beamed by a UFO. He is wearing a blue suit, and has a short 'fro.

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.’

About Denis Farr

Denis Farr is a white, androgynously gendered, TAB, German-born and U.S.-schooled, male-sexed queer person (with a penchant for other male-sexed queer persons) who started writing about games at Vorpal Bunny Ranch (in other words, he's loquacious). He has continued with this endeavor, expanding his writing to both GayGamer.net and here at The Border House. A strong proponent of expanding diversity in games, his focus is often on how characters are depicted in games, and exploring the language we use to explicate games themselves.
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42 Responses to The Politics of Game Hair

  1. Kimiko says:

    Hear, hear. I have felt frustrated too at the limited options for creating black characters in many games. Skin color only goes up to medium brown (or uses black outlines for details, which become invisible on dark skin). Hair can be any color of the rainbow and beyond, but can’t be anything but straight. I would hope that before going for alien combinations, game makers would make it so actual humans can be represented.

    • Korva says:

      I followed those links and found them really educational, thank you. And yes, I have noticed the lack of black customization options as well. Take Dragon Age: Origins — the darkest skin color isn’t black, it isn’t even a particularly dark brown, it’s an unpleasant and entirely “WTF?!” shade of muddy purple. Imagine if there was only one “white” skin colors and that was a sickly shade of green. We’d never hear the end of it. But making the only remotely black customization options look shitty is fine? Ugh.

      @Kimiko: Hear, hear. Less freaky aliens, more diversity in human appearance.

      • Denis Farr says:

        Glad they were of use! There’s a lot of knowledge and written words about the topic that can explain it better than I.

        It does often confuse me how the one black skin tone in games is often no more than a really dark tan. Sigh.

    • Denis Farr says:

      Yeah, and while I do love me some aliens and fantastical races, getting the basics right seems like a good first step.

  2. Lima Zulu says:

    I’ve noticed this, too. One egregious example is in Pirates of the Burning Sea. It’s a ship-based MMO taking place in the Caribbean during early Colonization. Despite the fact that there were many black sailors at the time, and very few Asian sailors in the region, the game offers one black skin and if memory serves 3 Asian skins. I asked in game in a few areas (Miami, I think, and Antigua). General responses were usually racist, in the vein of, “No one wants to play black folks,” but more in depth and much more ignorant than that simple allowance.

    • Denis Farr says:

      I…

      Wasn’t aware of this MMOs’ character creator, but this just seems a WTF? It’s the Caribbean!

      I can imagine a lot of people who would be interested in playing as black pirates, since the only pirates we see are undead or white.

    • 8mph Ansible says:

      *facepalm*

      I remember those days… and there was also that contingent that believed the game should be programmed to limit content and access based on the character’s race and gender, e.g. if your character was a white male then the sky would be the limit, if your character had only one of those traits then the limit was the sky.

  3. Lima Zulu says:

    *explanation, not allowance. O-o

  4. Rawles says:

    Yes yes yes yes to all of this.

    As a black woman who wears my hair natural AND who almost exclusively creates women of color, and primarily women of some measure of African descent, when I’m given the opportunity to make a character, the choices of hair and of skintones is pretty much always intensely daunting. I usually can’t make a character darker than maybe medium brown at the most (and often even that is obviously not considered something anyone wanted to use considering how bad lighting effects and such things tend to render, the darker the character gets) and heaven forfend if I want one of my characters to have a braid-out or twist-out or just a variety of natural curls or really anything that isn’t a 70s-style perfectly spherical picked-out ‘fro.

    This is one I was actually considering writing myself after my recent Mass Effect (re-)playthroughs and my renewed frustration with having to give all my black FemSheps a bun of obviously straight/straightened hair and pretending that they just gel’d it really well.

    • Asperity says:

      Absolutely. All my Bioware characters end up having the same hairstyle, as there’s exactly one that I can pretend is possible for a curly-haired person. You’d think they could at least put in a few really short naturally curly hairstyles; those wouldn’t be all that hard to render.

      At least rendering tech is getting better for this: the awesomely curly-haired heroine of Pixar’s upcoming Brave is promising. I hope we see more like her soon.

    • I know it obviously isn’t your responsibility to fix this for me, but if you have a selection somewhere of a nice range of hairstyles you’d like to see, I’d like more inspiration for my own character generators.

      (Going to look up ‘twist out’ now since I actually don’t know what that means. *sheepish look* )

      I tried to make at least a couple of appropriate options available, but at least from the ones users choose to upload, almost nobody uses them. Not sure if that’s because it’s not what people expect for anime characters or because my options suck. :)

    • Denis Farr says:

      If you do write that post, I would love to read it.

      Part of it is I imagine some developers believe they are doing a good thing, as they didn’t forget the skin tones and some hair options. Would really like to see more noise and commentary on how it could get better, what needs to be looked at, and point to specific examples.

      Whenever I play a fantasy game with these hair options, I try to be flip and just imagine they have some non-searing magic spell that relaxes their hair.

      • Rawles says:

        Heh. I might see if I can put together something examining the different options in-depth and then referencing the versatility of real life natural hairstyles.

  5. PlusSizedGamerWoman says:

    AMEN TO THIS! The lack of natural hairstyles for characters is ridiculous! I have had so many times where I wanted to give my women braids or dredlocks or twists, but couldn’t, because the default hair is always of Eurocentric standards!

    I also am a black woman with natural hair, and I mostly make black female characters. Game makers STILL have a long way to go….

    • Denis Farr says:

      What really, really confuses me is that when the game has both men and women, the men typically have more natural hairstyle options than the women. The women don’t even get the few options the men have, as if the thought is that every woman would relax her hair or use a weave. Really?

  6. Jargo says:

    typo … my nick is Jargo but i cant find a edit button :(

    • Jargo says:

      [hmmm, somehow WordPress eat my rather long post. i try to reenter it.]

      this is a very interesting topic. in RPG games i usually end up with a bald character because i am always unhappy with the bullet proof hairstyles. But i never thought of the cultural / racial aspects.

      the thing is that real time animated hair is always a nightmare for animators and programmers. that is the main reason we don’t see so much long open hair, real curly hair or even long beards in modern 3D computer games. (i loved playing a male dwarf in dragon age origins, but his cool red beard was clipping through his metal armor in nearly every dialogue)

      to make the hair look good and somehow natural you have to do a lot of animation work by hand (it cant be motion captured as far as i know) or you need some physics system only for the hair (like in Heavenly sword or Bayonetta, but these are unique uncustomizable characters) if adding armor with shoulder pads, backpacks or weapons equipped on the back of a character into the mix, there is a lot of work and issues to resolve.

      but of course with the current systems it is possible to do short or should length curly hair in many variants and don’t doing this is just racist ignorance of the developers.

      i would say the hair styles in Brink are a good example, how a small team can implement many non euro-centric styles in a modern game. only for male characters but this is a different topic :(

      • Laurentius says:

        Oh i do the same: short hair or bold characters, whether men or women coz generally hair looks bad and even worse when we add the colour thing, hair in games almost never ( with maybe special exeption for kind of black hair ) looks even close to natural human hair colour, rather very bad dayed hair.

      • Denis Farr says:

        I was rather curious how Brink handles this, but have yet to get to it. One day.

        Yeah, I can understand not being able to have loads and lots of hair, but it seems like some manner of shorter hair styles should be able to be mimicked, if they can’t be fully animated.

      • Amanda Lange says:

        Replying to this, because it is true.

        The short, straight hair is the easiest to make. Long hair is hard to make look right without special physics or it will clip through the model. Long, curly hair is the hardest to make. I know “it’s a matter of resources” is an old cliche around here, but this is why for example close-cropped styles are what is available in Mass Effect, because longer styles won’t work with the engine as-is and other aspects of the character such as armor.

  7. Laurentius says:

    While the issues is definietly there, the selection of games is pretty low, and DA and ME are both from Bioware made under Unreal Engine. Are there some positive examples ?, hmm i think sport games like FIFA or NBA from EA have it way better then mentioned games.

    • Jargo says:

      i think there a three reasons why sport games handle this issue better

      a) in most sport games you have no armor or equipment on the back of the characters so it is much easier to implement long hair

      b) because of the uniforms one of the biggest thing you can change to make different characters is the hair, so developers spend much more work on this issue then in RPG

      c) sport games want to look like the real-live sport game, and real-live athletes have a much bigger racial diversity then computer game NPCs

      … and dragon age was not done with the unreal engine ;)

    • Denis Farr says:

      Sports games tend to have some better options. I haven’t played them, but from what I have learned from speaking to some friends, even those options can tend to be pretty not-great. However, someone with better experience with those games would have to address that issue more directly.

      I honestly can’t think of positive examples. Even going to games like the Elder Scrolls or any MMO leaves me with a blank.

  8. Angel H. says:

    I was just thinking of this last weekend. The options for natural hair are always Afro, Dredlocks, or bald. Cornrows, sometimes. Twists, kinky-curls, never. Just different vairations of straight updos.

    • Denis Farr says:

      Pretty much. Even locks are hard to distinguish at times.

      I would really like to make my Ronia Shepard with a mass of kinky curls just taking up space and being wonderful.

      • (Before you read this, I’m all for doing what needs to be done to fix this. I’m simply explaining one of the reasons it isn’t.)

        The problem is, at least with what I see for that description, the hair would need to be its own object with collision enabled, as would the gun on her back. Why? Because otherwise you’d have clipping* issues where her hair would stick through it. This, in turn, means that you have to prevent her head from clipping through it, and then make sure that it all works with every possible combination of gun, action, and hair. As it is, if you can only have short hair, then it can be part of the base texture and you don’t have to worry about it, because it never runs into anything.

        It could be done, though, don’t get me wrong. It’s just a very time intensive process.

        Also, the only character I have is Leona Shepard, a white female with short hair. I didn’t mess around much once I got her current features, as she looked good with them and I didn’t want to mess it up. Since that hair was pretty much the default, if I remember correctly, I didn’t see if there were options that would require the same kind of work as what you’re talking about. If there are, then, well, there’s no reason to not have it.

        *Clipping: It’s easiest to explain with an example: If an arm sticks through the sleeve of a shirt, that’s clipping. In other words, it’s a localized failure of the mesh.

  9. Amanda Lange says:

    (oops, meant for that to be nested under Jargo above, forgot it wouldn’t be. But yes, true in general.)

  10. 8mph Ansible says:

    In agreement with others. It’s always been bald, close shaved/fade, fro (often looking like a solid mass or helmet with little texture to it). Nowadays you’ll sometimes come across dreadlocks and even cornrows added into the line up.

    My expanse of character creators is limited but so far that’s all I’ve seen for black hair options and nothing more or even fancy looking. And that’s even when black hair options in spite of you being able to make a character with a skintone darker than “tan.” Most of the time, unless it’s a close cropped style it looks very lousy or quarter-assed anyway.

    Sometimes what’s odd is that natural hair styles only apply to men character models. Or women are the only models with hair longer than ear-length. But generally I found they won’t let you make a woman with very short hair or even bald.

    Definitely a long way to go.

    Not so oddly enough, a lot of this in comic books when it comes to black characters’ hair styles as well.

  11. Ohma says:

    As far as hair being hard to do goes many modern games can’t even manage short and straight, eg: that weird textured and spray painted plastic helmet thing you get in Mass Effect if you try any style/color combo other than brown shaved hair or a tight bun.

    This is really one of those things that’s more difficult for devs than it needs to be so long as photo-realism is thought of as the only way to go for your game’s look. You can get away with not even *trying* to make it look like you’ve modeled every single hair on someone’s head when they look more like a cartoon than a CG clonetrooper from the uncanny valley.

  12. GTA San Andreas, with its Black male protag, allowed CJ to get all kinds of different hairstyles, from shaven to Jheri curls to a pink mohawk. I think there were some 25 or 30 different styles available, which was pretty cool. :)

  13. Samia says:

    Wow I thought that pic of Ronia Shepard was just a tan white lady. Really wish games gave us more face shape options…everything is all pointy noses and tiny chins. :/

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