Oluwatayo Adewole is a critic, poet, and editor. They’re interested in the way that art interacts with and challenges society, while also digging deep into people’s stories and perspectives (especially if they’re marginalised). She also loves to do the absolute most. You’ll most likely find him rambling on Twitter or wandering the streets of London trying to convince people to watch Isaac Julien films.
Video games frequently have acts of violence as part of your core gameplay loop. This usually happens as your main character becomes weaponised, with the violence employed often racialised in nature, as Cameron Kunzelman discusses here in relation to The Last of Us 2. The rare times when Black bodies are inserted into protagonistic roles, the position of the player-character as a weapon takes on wider connotations.There is agency in digital violence that comes with whiteness due to it being seen as the default, so a character can exact such violence using their skill, training, trauma, or more. By contrast, with Black characters, it is specifically their race which becomes weaponised because of how they are Othered. As Kishonna L. Gray notes in Intersectional Tech (2020, p30), “mediated outlets have a significant history of creating and sustaining stereotypical narratives of Blackness”. In this essay I will be exploring how gender is used to uphold that ‘racial project’ in games, which construct Black people as weapons for the use of non-Black (especially white) people.
Turning people into tools is fundamental to the construction of Blackness. The social category itself was specifically constructed to justify the enslavement and exploitation of African bodies and lands. Enslaved and free Black women have been used as mammies to raise white children. Black cowboys were used to facilitate the US’ genocidal colonisation of Native American land. Black labourers and soldiers were instrumental to World War 2, the Vietnam War and continue to be a part of modern war efforts. Enslaved Black women were used as test subjects by the father of modern gynecology. Black people have even been used as bioweapons in the Tuskegee Project, which continued until the 1970s, giving hundreds of Black men syphilis without their knowledge for government research purposes.
Throughout the history of the exploitation of Black bodies, the Western construction of gender has been essential to the distribution of that violence.There were many different interpretations of gender before European colonisation. Some were similar to the genital-based notions in the West; this can be seen with the gender dualism of pre-colonial Igbo culture, and some were far more expansive—like the various two-spirit identities in indigenous communities from the Americas which persist to this day. However, in the process of colonising, those understandings of gender were erased and marginalised, replaced by a Eurocentric set of ideas. This construct is not only the means by which Black people are sorted into assigned roles as seen above, but also key to defining who does or doesn’t get to be human. Since gender as we understand it in most parts of the world is constructed around whiteness—something Maria Lugones expands on in her notion of the “coloniality of gender”—the vast majority of Black people cannot fit into those deliberately exclusionary boxes. The few that do fit are there on an entirely conditional basis, reliant on their ability to approximate whiteness and be useful to white people. As a rule, Black women are masculinised or degendered, Black men like Mike Brown are considered to be hypergendered beasts, and Black non-binary people don’t exist in the cultural imagination. Since gender is key to humanity in the colonial mindset, Black people are made inhuman.
You can see this in action with this cartoon from the Herald Sun about an incident in the Serena Williams/Naomi Osaka tennis match in 2018 where Williams broke her racquet in frustration. In the cartoon, her hair is wild, her size is exaggerated and her lips are thickened in a way that leans heavily into the caricatures of the Black female body throughout history. Osaka, who has Black and Japanese heritage is recast as a lithe white blonde woman in contrast to the supposed savagery of Williams. The subtext is that Osaka, with her perceived aesthetic proximity to whiteness is (temporarily) a real woman, then fatphobia and anti-blackness is used to make Williams a brute. Through this degendering, Williams is robbed of her personhood and made into something inhuman and monstrous.
As a result of this dehumanisation, Black people can be used as tools and (more specifically) weapons, by whiteness. This is abundantly clear when we look at games.
Perhaps the most notorious example is in Final Fantasy 7. Barrett Wallace is the leader of the cell of Avalanche, an eco-terrorist group, which you work for in the majority of the game. He was very clearly modelled off of blaxploitation characters like Mr T and is physically the biggest major human character in the game, coming in at 6’6” and with a very heightened musculature. Perhaps his most notable physical feature is that his right arm is a large gun, in place of a forearm. Aesthetically, he is a figure that embodies the hypermasculinity projected onto Black men.
This is then compounded by his personality. While Barrett is the leader of this cell, he often ends up as the butt of the jokes. He makes impassioned revolutionary speeches but half the time they’re played for comic relief, dismissed with a quick eye roll from Cloud or Tifa. He rushes into fights. He can’t seem to stay quiet. One or two of these traits can be humanising and sweet, but when put together he becomes a buffoon—a role which is frequently assigned to larger Black men. This runs in parallel with Cole Train in Gears of War, who embodies “stereotypical tropes associated with Blackness and Black and Black masculinity” (Gray, 2020, p.48).
A particular point of focus here is his speech patterns which feel like a particular bastardised version of AAVE which is present in many Black characters across various media. Gray (2020, p.48) says that “as the bearer of this speech Cole Train is rendered ignorant and incapable of serious thought and agency”—and the same applies for Barrett. This becomes especially troublesome when you consider that the majority players are non-Black people for whom this speech becomes a symbol of buffoonery, rather than a real dialect. In reference to Train being played by white players, Gray’s narrators say “they start mocking how he talk. And like go overboard like white folks always do”. In other words, through the game’s ‘commodified ghetto cool’ (Gray, 2020, p.50), the Blackness of these men becomes a tool of the non-Black player for both amusement and violence—both virtual and actual.
It’s important to note that Square Enix and Nintendo (which I will mention later) are Japanese developers, so cultural ideas and discourses around racialisation aren’t identical to those in the US and the broader West. However, this context doesn’t diminish the power of this symbolic image, especially when we consider how a large proportion of their audience are still white Westerners. Nicholas R. Ware (2010) talks about how, with its characters, Street Fighter reproduces a “distinctly white Western ideology” and “creates an Other that is neither East Asian nor White Western”.
The same Othering applies to Barrett in FF7(R). Despite being amongst a diverse cast, as the one Black character in the main cast, Barrett is still subject to hypergendering and being rendered as inhuman. The key way pathos is created through him is the way he looks after his adoptive daughter, Marlene, a child who reads as East Asian. While this relationship is heartwarming, it symbolically asserts that for a Black man to be considered anything approximating human, he must act in service of someone from the hegemonic race.
These ideas around Black hypermasculinity are also fundamental to Barrett’s role in combat. He is designed to be the tank, with a higher HP stat and durability than the other characters, alongside abilities like Steelskin (decreasing incoming damage) and Lifesaver (taking damage for the party). There is a clear parallel with the persistently false beliefs that Black people are inherently more resistant to pain, which dovetails with the fatphobia which is lethal for Black men like Eric Garner. When the player attacks, they are also using his body—usually the gun arm. The other human character who fights primarily with their body, rather than an external weapon or magic, is Tifa, who is a hand-to-hand fighter. However, the difference here is that her hands are used for other purposes. After all, we’re introduced to her making drinks with those same hands. Fundamentally, the player is weaponising her skill/chi and the hands are just vessels for that, whereas with Barrett they’re weaponising part of his racialized body which cannot do anything but kill. A gun is just a gun. All it possesses is lethality.
On a visual and mechanical level, the traits of a supposed Black hypermasculinity are weaponised by the presumed white or East Asian player. You also see this with the Black boxer trope in fighting games, where Black fighters can only be conceptualised as brutish fighters, as Joshua Adams expands upon here. Through imagery and play, Black men in games —and culture at large—have their masculinity so exaggerated that they cease to be men and instead become weapons.
Black women in games are also made into weapons through gender. A recent example of this was Twintelle from ARMS. In this game, all the characters fight with spring-loaded arms, the exception to this is the one dark skinned character Twintelle. When considering her curly hair alongside her skin, she is pretty clearly meant to be read as Black. Unlike every other character, Twintelle’s mechanical weapons are attached to her hair. On a symbolic level her curly hair, something which is intrinsic to her Blackness, becomes a weapon. This is especially glaring when you put it in a broader context where Black women’s hair has frequently been a political battlefield. As Tanya DePass puts it in her piece for Mic: “hair like mine is often weaponised in real life, too. It’s been made illegal to wear as it grows, been feared and politicised to the point of having job offers rescinded because the wearer has locs instead of chemically straightened hair, or been checked while going through airport security without a legitimate reason”.
The specific use of hair here is important. As is reflected in the Herald Sun’s Serena Williams cartoon, hair is key to constructing the image of Black women as dangerous brutes who don’t belong within the (white-centred) category of womanhood. Hair being wielded as a physical weapon that’s unique to Twintelle, a Black woman, reinforces this degendering in the symbolic and mechanical violence being enacted. It makes the part of her body which connotes Black femininity uniquely dangerous.
Once again, the Black body and Blackness writ large are being used as a weapon—this time through the politically loaded afro hair. Shonte Daniels argues that the use of her hair as a weapon is actually empowering. Writing for Paste, Daniels points out that “She isn’t fighting against her hair, she fights alongside it”. There is merit to her position and the reclamatory narrative is there for Black players who seek it. However, it’s important to situate Twintelle’s Blackness in the realities of development and play. She is the sole Black character, the producer of the game is non-Black, the development team is likely predominantly non-Black, and in the presumed audience of these games, Black people are a small minority. The majority of the experiences of playing this character will be non-Black players using a Black woman’s hypergendering as a weapon, with which they can enact violence upon other (non-Black) characters. Once again, Blackness becomes a weapon for non-Black hands.
The easy answer here would be to argue for the humanisation of Black people and Black trans people. In this argument we need more characters like Marcus Holloway (Watch Dogs 2), Lee Everett (The Walking Dead) or Vella (Broken Age), who, for the most part, aren’t defined by racist tropes. Through these characters we could maybe give Black characters the same potential for humanity as any other.
Yet while representation is an admirable goal, that would be a woefully incomplete resolution to the problem. First, that solution isn’t realistic. As established above, it is impossible for Black people (even cis Black people) to fit within the Western cultural understanding of gender. That framework was constructed through whiteness and inherently excludes those who are racialised. Pursuing that is an exercise that’s doomed to failure, especially for those who are most alienated from conventional ideas of what binary gender looks like, such as people who are visibly disabled or plus-sized. Plus, why would that even be desirable? The restrictions that these boxes place upon us are both violent and limiting.
In My Words to Victor Frankenstein, Susan Stryker draws a parallel between transgender people (especially those who medically transition) and Frankenstein’s monster. Much like the body of the monster, the medically altered transgender body is horrifying to the hegemony because “it is flesh torn apart and sewn together again in a shape other than that in which it was born”. She proposes that we “lay claim to the dark power of [our] monstrous identity” and use that to define and liberate ourselves. Following this, we can use the rage and alienation from the weaponisation of our identities through gender as a means of resistance.
In terms of gender and Blackness, the metaphor only works partially though. What happens when the shape in which this creature was born could never be considered human to begin with? Danielle Braithwaite-Shirley finds a potential path for that in her game Black Trans Archive. The game opens by declaring in large text that scrolls across the screen, “This is a pro-Black trans space” and “This was made for us”. In line with Stryker, Braithwaite-Shirley is reclaiming that power, but this time putting it in the hands of Black trans people. It is immediately distinguished from the aforementioned games which put the gendering of Black bodies in the hands of the non-Black player.
The assertion of the ownership and purpose of this space is further reinforced when the game forces you to choose a path dependent on whether you are 1) Black and Trans 2) Trans (and implicitly non-Black) 3) Cis. In the first path the focus is on affirmation and empowerment. The latter two are instead a challenge. They push the player to declare their intent of future support for Black Trans people in both the emotional and the material. Again, the interests of Black Trans people are centered.
All of these pathways are guided by these abstract embodiments of Black Trans people and ancestors. These range from bug creatures, to a human-ish body made from material that looks like a yellow foam, to a grey ball-like shape with seaweed. This is the key place in which Braithwaite-Shirtley moves beyond Stryker’s transing of Frankenstein’s monster. Where Stryker uses the monster to empower a “similitude of a natural body”, Black Trans Archive rejects the ‘natural body’ entirely. The entities in the game feel more like abstract concepts than material bodies, as if reducing them to human forms would be insulting. These figures, all designed by Black Trans people, take the weaponised de- and hypergendering of the Black body, repurposing these to liberate themselves.
Unlike the other games I’ve mentioned, this space is made for Black trans people to exist outside of violence. When you talk to one of your ancestors here, they let you sob into their chest and say “I’m sorry you had to fight to survive”. There is also a Trans Relaxation Spa with a bright sign saying, “We pay you to relax”. All of this establishes a space where, unlike with Barrette or Twintelle, Blackness is powerful, but also has power beyond being a weapon in service of whiteness.
Black bodies will never fully cohere with Western notions of gender, and with that carry an intrinsic power. The power is compounded in Black trans bodies; if white trans people are Frankenstein, then we’re the Colour Out of Space. Neither notions of whiteness nor gender are accessible tools in humanising us, and that makes us dangerous. When that power is employed in service of non-Black people, we are stripped of our agency and identity, becoming weapons to be used and disposed of. Instead, it is when the power is put in our hands and not theirs, that the potential becomes limitless.
Gray, K.L., & Sarkeesian, A. (2020). Intersectional Tech: Black Users in Digital Gaming. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Nicholas R. Ware (2010) ,”You Must Defeat Shen Long to Stand a Chance”: Street Fighter, Race, Play and Player,”. PhD, Bowling Green State University