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Credit: Nioh 2 Koei Tecmo

The Authenticity of Digital Blackness

So, March has been something for many reasons I’m sure that you know why. If you’re a fan of video games you’ve may have come across know Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Nioh 2 were released. They’re some of the biggest releases of the month but that in and of itself isn’t surprising. What’s surprising however is how they both allow very genuine experiences for Black video game fans. These experiences are so surprisingly genuine they feel unapologetically Black in their own respective ways.

Before I get on with my article; as someone whom is both a critic and consumer of games, I have to be very picky with my purchases (don’t get paid for this). After nearly three decades, I really can’t be excited about games with an all white cast/worlds where Black or Brown skin doesn’t exist or is solely regulated to background characters. This probably sounds ridiculous to you. My answer to that is the same when games still largely adhere to the above. We still don’t have a regular slew of high profile titles staring Black and Brown folks.

Now, Animal Crossing in and of itself isn’t “Black”. Blackness has no definition, Blackness is simply to be. This is why time and again we have to remind non-Black people we aren’t a monolith. We’re humans with a wide variety of interest and tastes as well. The activities of Animal Crossing reminded me of the hobbies Black folks have that often go unnoticed and hardly acknowledged.

We too care about our flora and fauna to the most intricate of details. Where their well being, arrangement and care are crafted down to a science. Much like your neighbor whom you see everyday watering their yard at the same time, we’re the best botanist on the block. We can be so meticulous with our plants we can immediately detected a bruised leaf or thirsty flower. — God help the poor soul that happens to step on your flowers.

I’m sure you’ve probably have had a friend or family have you come over to see their place. Not so much to brag (hopefully) but to show with pride the space they’ve created for themselves. Shockingly enough a lot of us spend time on decor and design. Did you know some of us happen to be professionals at it? We love to make sure that no piece of furniture is out of place. Some of us happen to obsess on the fact that home (digital or not) has to be the most stylish things in our lives. Through the game and social media you can see that people have even given HGTV a run for it’s money. — We need more Black decor shows by the way

Animal Crossing isn’t Black, but people existing in the bright colorful world and making their spaces their own? This is most certainly Black, because we’re out here existing wanting nothing more than peace and tranquility. Then there’s the occasional chopping it up with cool ass neighbors. Having to live to while trying to beat student loan debt err I mean Tom Nook (Crook). Aside from us all needing a chill time, I can’t help but acknowledge this game legitimately including Black and Brown customization helped it feel that way. It’s amazing how games can attract a newer/bigger audience when you acknowledge Black & Brown consumers in earnest.

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Credit: Nioh 2 — Koei Tecmo

In the case of Nioh 2, the Blackness here is more akin to seeing acting talent in a film. The title takes place in 1500s Japan and your protagonist can quite literally be anyone. Including someone Black for no reason other than the fact that we too can be the stars/leads of any adventure, fictional or otherwise.

Most reviews about Nioh 2 focus on how genuinely challenging it feels and its exciting mechanics that make you adept at combat. What you won’t see a lot of talk on is how robust the character creator is. I mean very robust.

The following is to give you an idea of how deep the character creator is. With the face you can choose from its shape and appearance of age for example. Thus, you’re essentially able to manipulate facial features to your liking. Case in point the nose. With the nose, you can structure the height to its position, to width, bridge height and etc. Similarly, you can do the same for eyebrows, mouth, and etc.

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Credit: Nioh 2 — Koei Tecmo

With enough time and patience you can create an avatar that looks like an actual Black person. Someone you’d see at work, a family cookout, and etc. You’ll be able to have an avatar with a larger nose, fuller lips, and skin that ranges from light to dark the and other features that we natural have that make us beautiful. The same features that are often appropriated and far from being appreciated.

I often get kudos on the detail of the characters I create in games, much like the female avatar I created for Nioh 2. I always appreciate the sentiment of course, but this is often the result of taking all the time I need to re create someone I know…if I can.

There’s an art to creating authentic Black people in video games. It’s a hobby within another hobby that I find immense pride in. To be able to even come close to showcase our beauty authentically, and legitimately? I suppose this is how I show genuine care and send affirmations to those of my racial background. Sure, society (and the world) can keep on ignoring us but we don’t deny our beauty. So the process of making someone Black and then playing a story as them? This is unapologetically Black because we too are the leads of stories and adventures big or small.

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Credit: Animal Crossing New Horizons — Nintendo

You know I spent quite a few words telling how nice it’s been to be pretty damn Black in games. However I do have to mention it hasn’t been without a few criticisms. Animal Crossing and Nioh 2 surprisingly enough both have the same exact issue. No, no I’m not talking about the uncomfortable air of colonialism (It’s a thing in Animal Crossing). Both titles only allow you three natural Black hair styles.

Sure, we could acknowledge that both these titles were developed in Japan, hence the limited choices. Well that’s kind of not really an excuse in 2020. Animal Crossing has a durag as one of the hat options for crying out loud. Durags are primarily worn by us for a wide variety of hairstyles…so umm huh?

The hairstyles in Nioh 2 involve some elaborate braids and locs. I can only assume a certain degree of research went into that. So why did they stop at three afro hair styles. Our illustrious hair has been in existence just as long as all others too. I don’t care how tired I am at the limited choices but I will call developers out on this. You can do better, you were close. I wish you went the extra step.

Also I would be remiss to not mention games still not going us the option to choose body sizes feels restrictive. This too is somewhat alienating because we aren’t all able bodied super heroes ala Nioh 2. One can hope that (this decade?) we can have bodies more reflective of reality for larger profile games.

Anyway, yeah it’s rather surreal in the world right now. We need all the joy and comfort we can find. Mine undoubtedly comes from the fact that I can be myself in digital spaces. Of course, another part of this I love sharing my experiences with these games to others. Just as I’ve expressed how relevant this subject is always to me, it’s the same for so many others. Whom doesn’t want to go on a chill island trip and or keep the land safe as yourself?

So I leave with the following thought: If we can’t create a dark skin Black person with hair you’d see in public is that game doing enough? This is rhetorical, of course it wouldn’t be — You’d be missing the authenticity we also deserve.

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I bat for PoCs, marginalized, equality, inclusion & geekdom. I'm warming the bench until coach subs me in.

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