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?

BF
Fred Arminsen playing Barrock Obama

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.

uncharted7
Left- Nadine Ross (Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End)

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.

2.jpg
Aveline de Grandpre (Assassin’s Creed Liberation)

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.

Further Reading: Motherboard’s VO Article, Kotaku’s Video Game Blackness Problem

3 comments on “Digital Blackface

  1. anonymous

    holy shit this is the dumbest thing i’ve ever read. God forbid a company hires a voice actor/actress that portrays the voice they wanted for a character, who also does not share the skin color of the character. Essentially, you’re saying that a black character *must* have a black voice. That’s a little racist in and of itself dontcha think? it shouldn’t matter who voices the character, as long as the character has the voice that the producer thinks is the way the character should sound. #stopbeingafuckwit

    • Hey thanks for reading 🙂 saying a black character should have a black voice actor isn’t racist, it acknowledges the systemic disadvantages and issues of cultural appropriation black people face and deal with. It does matter who voices the character, black people have perspectives and experiences that white people never will, they take that into the roles. It’s incredibly important to acknowledge the racist tendencies prevalent in the industry so we can begin to fix them.

  2. Pingback: My Love/Hate Relationship with Uncharted 4 – Stephan's Universe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: