Shakespeare’s Othello is one of the earliest and most successful plays starring a character of colour in the history of Western theatre. It’s a tragic tale of one man’s love for a woman who is prohibited from returning his love based on their different skin colour. It’s also one of the earliest and most famous examples of blackface, as this most famous character of colour was not played by a black man but a white man, wearing black make up.
What’s the issue?
Blackface is when a white actor or actress wears makeup to pretend to be a race they are not. Cultural commentator John Strausbaugh describes blackface as a tradition of “displaying Blackness for the enjoyment and edification of white viewers” (Source). It’s a practice that was largely abandoned after the Civil rights movement of the 1960s challenged the gross exploitation and appropriation of black culture. Blackface lives on, however, in certain Western cultural spheres like Quebecoise comedies, the New York Met and Saturday Night Live. It’s also taken on a new form in the age of digital media and video games known as Digital Blackface.
Video games are the most profitable entertainment industry, yet it still carries with it some of the deep-rooted racist tendencies that are so ingrained in our culture that people of privilege like myself don’t even notice them.
I had no idea some of my favourite non-white video game characters were actually voiced by white voice actors and actresses. That was until in the months leading up to the release of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End I saw that Nadine, the black South African militia leader, was voiced by Laura Bailey, a very white woman. I thought “well that doesn’t seem right” and started reading up on what I would soon realise is a much larger issue than just Uncharted 4.
Why does it matter?
The general consensus in both mainstream games media and the games industry is that there is absolutely no issue with casting white people as black characters. Uncharted 4 director Neil Druckman believes he made the right call casting Laura Bailey as Nadine, stating that “Your outward appearance doesn’t matter at all,” and it comes down to your skill and talent as an actor (Source). He believes he’s not being racist, that there is no fault. And he wouldn’t be at fault, assuming the voice acting industry was an even playing field but it is not an even playing field- it’s a very, very slanted playing field, favouring whiteness above all else.
There is an immense racial bias in gaming culture, just look at the characters in the most successful games. For every game starring a black person there are hundreds and hundreds of white characters drowning out any diverse perspectives. As the industry and the people who love games become more and more diverse, the previously unchallenged racist tendencies are being challenged. Tendencies to ignore people of colour in games to the point where even when there is a non-white character they are still represented by a white actor. This has to stop.
It’s not just Uncharted 4, some of the best-rated, most high profile games are guilty of Digital Blackface. Clementine from Telltale’s The Walking Dead is a young African-American girl who’s voiced by Melissa Hutchinson, a white woman (Source). Aveline from Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation is a French-African slave revolutionary in the deep south, but she is voiced by Amber Goldfarb, a white woman (Source). There’s digital blackface in Remember Me, Prototype 2, Resident Evil 2, Street Fighter and so on. These are big games, some of the biggest in the industry and the community. And they all appropriate black culture. They all present black culture for the aforementioned “edification of white” players.
What can we do?
There is a solution: hire black voice actors and actresses for black characters. There are so many talented and eager black people dying to break into the industry. So let them. Stop letting ingrained racist tendencies and misguided beliefs of meritocracy continue to soil the medium we love. This is the only way we can begin to create art that accurately reflects the increasingly diverse teams that make them and community that loves them.