The duality of being black in gaming rooms

evan narcisse, Black Panther author and narrative design consultant with a resume with hits like Spider-Man: Miles Morales and the War for Wakanda DLC for Marvel’s Avengerscontinues to navigate the complex roles race plays in the work he has brought on board, especially when it comes to black characters.

“I think there’s an aspect of some of these outreach cases where people just assume there’s some kind of homogenized, monolithic Black experience that I instinctively interact with and can recall in an instant,” says Narcisse. We talked about Du Bois’s work and how the phenomenon of double consciousness acted as a precursor to what we currently think of as intersectionality. We also talked about symbolism in the video game industry and how often black creators, actors, developers and the like are sought out to highlight a particular black experience that ends up being treated with little variation.

“We know that one of the things that makes video games unique is the ability to embody a character [and] control over their actions, resulting in a feedback loop of self-identification that is really strong,” says Narcisse about Zoom. He strives to follow one of his most important rules of character creation: treat your character like a real person. Allowing different characters to thrive in the digital space, with depth and dimension, is one of the ways Narcisse grapples with identity, race, and belonging in video game stories.

This notion allows us to present black characters as more than soldiers, criminals or barely humanized weapons that the player can wield with impunity. Such representation allows players to empathize with fully realized characters in ways that may prompt them to address their own implicit racial bias. Ozioma Akagha, whose voice actors occupy multiple iconic roles, such as Shuri in Marvel’s What I …? series and Alyx Vance from Half-life: Alyxexplains the importance of being able to see oneself in a certain role.

“When I see roles like Julianna [Blake] in death loop and Hana [Cole] in Gears of War 5, I’m like – look at this! We exist in this fantasy world. So that gets me excited and that’s what I’m going for.” Although the number of women in video games has steadily increased in recent years, the appearance of black women in lead roles is still rare. “The world tells black people what being black is, but I like how in the roles I’ve had…it’s a person going through a human experience in a human world, and that’s what being black is,” she says.

Akagha isn’t the only voice actor to appreciate the flexibility video games allow for the growth of black characters. Novena Crumbie, who starred as Nicole Olivia Wheaton in my loft and Solari Sentinel in Legends of Runeterraand who will play fan favorite Layla Ellison in Arkane Studios Austin’s upcoming vampire shooter? redfall, says her close relationship with her voiceover helps her land the right roles. They “email me specific roles they think I’m suitable for,” Crumbie says in a Zoom conversation. “Lately I’ve been seeing auditions where the specs say ‘mainly black people are looking for this role’, which is really good to see. Now these customers are really paying attention and looking for the right people for these roles.”

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