I can't feel the bullets grazing past me, or the rush of adrenaline that usually accompanies a brush with death, but it's like I'm there anyway. Picking my way up the side of an icy cliff, where a horde of enemy soldiers waits for me at the top. In the middle of a good old-fashioned Western shootout, protecting myself from the circling bounty hunters who want me dead, if only for the cash reward. Off-roading through muddy terrain on a foreign planet, waiting for the inevitable moment I'm ambushed by fleets of alien space crafts. I've lived through it all — in video games, at least.
I have spent many hours (days, weeks, years) parked mindlessly in front of Xboxes, PlayStations, Wiis, Game Boys, and other consoles — enough time for my parents to consider it "a waste" — so I consider myself pretty well-versed on the topic. But even the most sporadic gamer only needs to test a few to make one obvious yet lasting observation: In games, no matter what kind of adventure you're looking to get yourself into, you're probably going to do it in the body of a white dude. (And, if your character is a woman, she's likely a white woman.) If "white dude" doesn't describe you, it is unlikely that you've felt well-represented by video games until recent years, if at all.
Undoubtedly, there are more women and people of color than ever in video games, but taking a look at some of the biggest blockbuster releases and best- selling series of the past decade or two, there's much to be desired in terms of inclusion. This is particularly true in the action and adventure genres — Call of Duty, Halo, Red Dead Redemption, and the list goes on — frequently gravitate around the same archetype of gruff, muscle-bound, unflinching-in-the-face-of- danger, male heroes.
When game creators do place focus on women and people of color, it's paramount that they don't fuck it up. There aren't a whole lot of them in these respective universes, so they need to make an impact, both with their personalities and their looks, in order to be taken seriously by audiences. Which brings up a question about video games that's been nagging at me since day one: Who the hell decides what video game characters look like, anyway? Who has the power to dictate each character's race and gender, and to decide what their bodies, faces, and hair look like? I asked the creators of several games to find out, and hopefully to discover why there's such a lack of diversity, to begin with.
Artistic Choices & Creative Decisions
When we're talking about smash-hit games created by major companies (Rockstar Games, Ubisoft, and Sony are good examples), characters' appearances are determined by a group of people: "The decision when it comes to characters' physical details such as hair, skin, and makeup is the result of the collaboration between the art director, the creative director, and their teams," says Martin Dubeau, a video game art director. "The creative director usually comes up with the idea of what the character embodies, what the background story of the character is at that point in the game, and their state of mind at that moment."
From there, he explains, the art team will collectively refine a character's appearance until it embodies the director's exact vision before it is handed off to the production team. "Nothing is left to chance in the choice of the physical characteristics of the characters," Dubeau says. 2018's Shadow of the Tomb Raider, for which Dubeau served as an art director, is a prime example of how video game designers are using today's animation technology to make women characters more representative with hair and makeup. The game is the second in a series of reboot games based on the Tomb Raider PC game from 1996, infamously fronted by Lara Croft, a beautiful and whip-smart archaeologist who knows her way around a gun.
The original Croft had a comically curvy body, a high braid in her impossibly long, dark hair, and a chiseled face without much detail save for a dark lipline and razor-thin eyebrows (it was 1996, after all). She wore a skin-tight blue tank top and cargo shorts that, frankly, were basically underwear. At that point, she was definitely more of a sex symbol than an action hero — but she became an instant icon nonetheless.
Modern Lara Croft embodies much of the same characteristics as the original: She's hyper-intelligent, passionate about ancient history, and ready to brawl at a moment's notice. But now, Croft's realistic and approachable appearance adds to the game's plot rather than distract from it. Now, her body looks like a real body, and her tank top and cargo pants are far more practical than before. You can see every single strand of her dark hair, haphazardly thrown back into a low ponytail with visible flyaways and outgrown bangs. Her seemingly makeup-free face is often covered in dirt and soot from her latest escapade.
This newer, toned-down version of Croft had to establish a "deep connection between her and her environment," but couldn't leave the character completely unrecognizable, either. "In the most recent games, we built upon the past, keeping her hair color, familiar clothing, etcetera, but made her physically more realistic than in previous games," Dubeau says. The South American setting in Shadow is much harsher than in the original game, and all of this accounted for her upgraded hair and makeup. "Lara's appearance is crucial in supporting the narrative...Her more 'raw' appearance lined up with the fact that she had to fend for herself in a very hostile environment."
After all, it wouldn't really make sense for Croft to be trudging through hot, humid, underground tombs with a perfect blowout and fresh pink lipstick. Though Croft's new design was certainly limited because of her predecessor, the Shadow designers made it much easier for women (myself included) to picture themselves in her heroic shoes, all because her hair, face, and body are more realistic.
Where Are All the Characters of Color?
It's amazing to see how art directors like Dubeau can make women characters more representative through their appearances — but Croft is just one white woman in one game franchise. The inclusion of women of color, particularly Black women, is a whole other story. It doesn't take long to observe that most Black video game characters are restricted to background roles or roles that enforce racist stereotypes. Those characters are also overwhelmingly male. When Black women are represented, more often than not they are hypersexualized and held to white beauty standards. Take Jade from Mortal Kombat, Sheva Alomar from Resident Evil 5, and Purna from Dead Island as just a few examples. They, like many other Black women characters in mainstream games, have straight hair, light skin, and, sometimes, light-colored eyes.
Until recent years, Black hairstyles — locs, afros, braids, kinky curls — were a rarity in mainstream video game design. This is most certainly due to a lack of diversity within massive game corporations, independent game developer Ian Sundstrom thinks. "Why does a game like Animal Crossing only have two black hairstyles?" he says. "Nintendo has hundreds of people working on that game; there are more furniture options than there are options for making your hair look a particular way."
(Sundstrom isn't the only one pondering these questions: There's currently a petition making its way around gaming circles aimed at convincing those in charge of Animal Crossing to increase diversity within the game.)
Although independent gaming companies such as Sundstrom's Herringbone Games are limited by time, money, and resources, they can wield a lot more power than major game companies when it comes to making decisions about the diversity of their characters — that is, if they choose to. The misrepresentation of Black women in games is, in part, what prompted Sundstrom to create Stacks on Stacks (on Stacks), a colorful tower-building game he developed almost entirely on his own. The game's only protagonist, Rockit, is a joyful young Black girl with the ability to fly (you know, like a rocket).
"It's very rare to see a female protagonist, although that's getting better and better — then, on top of that, a Black female protagonist is rare," Sundstrom says. To him, it's not enough for his sole character to be Black and a woman — her presence has to be normalized and encouraged, too. "There's space for representation for Black characters, but they're [usually] Black because they have to be Black to tell a particular narrative," Sundstrom explains. "While those representations are also really important, it's just as important that we see Black characters as goofy cartoon characters in a fun game."
"There's space for representation for Black characters, but [that's usually] to tell a particular narrative. It's just important to see Black characters as goofy cartoon characters in a fun game."
For Sundstrom, it was important that Rockit's hair stayed true to natural Black hair textures, which is why her appearance is dominated by kinky-curly hair, divided into two pigtails that bounce back and forth as she flies. Throughout the game, you can win a handful of new hairstyles for Rockit, all of which revolve around her naturally coiled hair texture. That was also an intentional choice by Sundstrom, who simply researched popular Black hairstyles for women on the Internet, resulting in styles like the TWA (Teeny Weeny Afro) available to wear in the game. "It's a lot of just Google searching a thing and then just looking at the entire page," Sundstrom says.
The animation process itself is ultimately the same for Black hairstyles as it is for Eurocentric ones, according to Sundstrom. "Usually you have to create the 3D model of the character, and then you do what's called rigging where you take that model and assign parts of it to different 'bones' that you make," he explains. "And then you take those 'bones,' set up your frames, and decide how those are going to move in space." That, he says, is the typical animation process for all games. It's just the degree of realism and detail that dictates how hard graphics are to rig.
All this is to say: Even within game design staffs that are lacking diversity, it shouldn't be that difficult for non-Black designers to grasp how to portray Black hair for women. Gaming companies big and small absolutely need to improve upon their own diversity, but the racial makeup of a team shouldn't stop game creators from broadening their knowledge of hair, skin, and makeup in order to represent more people regardless.
Small Steps & Big Changes in a Simulated World
Improved customization is one of the biggest priorities for The Sims 4's design team. The decades-old game franchise, for those who've by some miracle never played it, allows you to create your own custom characters, who'll live in the custom home you build for them, and do whatever the heck you tell them to. The Sims 4, which came out back in 2015, has a catalog of skin tones, hairstyles, and makeup options that's continuously growing to this day.
"With The Sims being a game about life, and most importantly, people, our team is constantly pushing to offer more and more diverse options for our players to use on the characters they design for their games," says Jill Johnson, an associate producer for The Sims 4. "We lean heavily on our community through programs like the Sim Gurus and Game Changers, as well as social media platforms for a direct line of communication from our community on what types of items they’re looking for."
The primary thing audiences wanted, by the sounds of it, was better animated curly and textured hairstyles, which the game producers admit were initially lacking in The Sims 4. "Our art team has put considerable focus into better translating The Sims 4 stylized art style for curly and textured hairs," Johnson explains. "Since the launch of the base game, our art team has evolved our art style and loosened some performance restrictions, which has led to the ability to offer a larger breadth of voluminous, curly, and textured hairstyles."
Back in 2018, the designers also provided an update to the game allowing users a wider variety of deeper skin tones. According to Johnson, that update won't be the last of its kind. "We’ve still got plenty of room to grow in these areas and are committed to continuing to offer our players new options to create Sims that are as diverse and beautiful as our players are."
With this heightened level of diversity in the game, anyone can create digital characters that look exactly like their friends, their celebrity crushes, or, most importantly, like themselves. Johnson likens games to movies — the whole thing gravitates around your connection to characters. And you're far more likely to be invested if you see yourself reflected within.
"For me personally, it’s magical how quickly I can get invested in my Sims, even if I’m not even trying and haven’t put much thought into building them beyond hitting the randomize button a few times," Johnson says. "Imagine the impact that has when you’ve spent the time meticulously recreating your little brother, complete with the cute little gap he has in his front teeth, or you’ve crafted the likeness of your mother with the same gentle eyes you recognize in real life." When you're able to literally insert yourself and your loved ones into a game like this, "it can elevate the gaming experience to a whole new emotional level," Johnson says.
Where Does Gaming Go From Here?
While The Sims 4 producers continue to update their game based on community outreach, and while indie creators like Sundstrom create protagonists based on a lack of representation, the rest of the industry — particularly the bigwigs — still has a long way to go in ensuring better representation through skin tone, hair texture, and the like. As it's been explained to me by game creators, the process of creating characters is usually determined by a small group of people, collaborating out loud. If those rooms are mostly reserved for white guys and some white women, the characters they come up with will likely look just like them.
Just take it from Sundstrom: "When it comes to the bigger AAA games with huge budgets, there's really not an excuse to not be hiring black artists and designers to work on your game," he explains. "But then [there's the] bare minimum: spending the extra time with the people you do have to add those different options and let people embody a character that looks like them."
Without that diversity in place, there can be a big disconnect between games and a whole lot of the people who play them. But with the right push, those bigger companies can improve. "At the end of the day, we need to make people aware that [diversity] is important and worth spending budgets on, plus putting people on your team that are from a lot of different backgrounds," Sundstrom thinks. "I think we'll go a really long way changing the kinds of characters we see."
If you haven't caught on to this fact somewhere in these couple-thousand words, changing the number of women and POC we see in video games is more than just important. The video game industry is worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and something that ubiquitous in our culture should never be reserved to just one type of person. Everyone deserves to be able to put themselves in the protagonist's shoes (or military-grade combat boots, or muddy climbing spikes, or spurs). Everyone should be able to defeat the bad guy, save the world, and live happily ever after. With the right representation in our little digital universes, we can all do just that.
For our Future of Beauty issue, we’re giving you a front-row seat to see the technologies of tomorrow while exploring the impact these innovations will have on our lives.
Now, see how eye makeup has evolved within the past 100 years:
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