“Where’s my Black Shepherd?”

A brief look at Nubian representation in video games

Mass Effect. Image credit BioWare/ EA.

There are a few factors that we can definitively say contribute to the woeful lack of Nubian representation in videogames. Firstly, there is simply a dearth when it comes to awareness of African or Nubian culture and history in the mainstream consciousness. The simply ignorance of game developers and producers does not equate to incompetence, just that they are not well educated or informed to draw meaningful  inspiration from or accurate representation of Nubian-centricity to base a big-budget AAA or mid-tier game on, leading to stifled creativity – and even stereotyping – when it is presented. Most companies are in North American, Europe and Asia, meaning that games are most likely to draw on what best reflects what they know – that’s a fact.

One need only point to a rack of games to see stories and plots heavily or loosely drawing from or based in Anglo-centric lore like Christianity, Greco-Roman and Norse mythology and European/American history; or Eastern/Oriental mythology or history such as Japanese (Shinto), Chinese (Buddhist) or Hinduism. This is exemplified in the critically acclaimed God of War (4) by Sony Interactive Entertainment released just in April of this year which draws exclusively from Norse mythology and their Greek theocidal series protagonist Kratos to tell a compelling narrative of maturity and fatherhood.

Another component is that the aforementioned examples – save for Telltale’s The Walking Dead – met with no critical success or are financially viable; leading to the same maligned excuse used in film about funding a female lead superhero movie prior Wonder Woman (2017), or a black superhero film before Black Panther (2018). The videogame industry is inherently adverse to experimentation – a stark contrast to its humble beginnings – and multinational corporations are more content and affable to recycle ideas or genres that have proven successful in the immediate past, leading to clones and lead genres year in and year out. Even now there is a resurgence of nostalgia-fueled “remasters” of past successful franchises than actually producing a genuine sequel and numerous and shameless Battle Royale replicas. This is counterproductive as all of the best franchises were themselves experimentations. Sadly, this dilemma can only be overcome by a longshot block-buster hit as in the film industry to spur interest in a Nubian direction.

The simple statistic of demographics also have a hand to play in this problem. Yes, while hundreds of thousands of gamers are of African descent, demographically speaking, they barely make up 10% (often as low as <5%) of the population in the three major regions (North America, Europe and Asia). It is a flimsy excuse, since anecdotally there are far less female gamers – despite their growing numbers – but gaming companies are more contented making a female-led game in lieu of one starring a compelling multifaceted Black (male) character. This has more to do with passive acceptance of the Nubian consumer to play these Caucasian or Asia heroes or heroines, rather than actively demanding representation in their games outside of character-creator choice. It just is not viable from a corporate standpoint to acknowledge Nubian identity to the same degree as everyone else’s since they are not a perceived majority or demand of their broader customer-base.

At present, the only novelty or progress comes from indie/crowdfunded projects, as half the games listed above come from such sources. But these only cater to a niche genre, staying safe from mainstream action-adventure and shooters, which makes sense from an economic standpoint at both ends (cost and sales). As such, it is hard to convince larger companies of the well of creativity in terms of characterization and storytelling from a Nubian-centric perspective as being anything more than a high-stakes gamble.

Perhaps in (console) generations to come, Nubian stories and characters will be as ubiquitous as female characters today in gaming, finally moving us away from obscure alienation to full acceptance. But like most revolutions, it is a long, arduous and steady progress that needs to be rallied around and strived for by the people themselves. We cannot wait and hope for an avante garde developer to take a successful risk on Nubian representation; instead more Nubians must take part within the industry itself as ambassadors and the voice of this figurative minority. We may never get that iconic and transcendent videogame mascot like Ryu, Samus, Mario, Lara Croft or Master Chief, but here’s looking forward to the next blockbuster franchise starring (by default) my Black Commander Shepherd.

Hailing from the eastern-most Caribbean island of Barbados, Fabian Wood has long since been fascinated by the power of storytelling to inspire and invoke emotions – whether in film, comics or videogames. No longer content to be just an avid comic book reader and videogamer, he’s eager to exercise his literary acumen as an aspiring writer and reviewer.

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