In a marketing blitz becoming all too common, 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin' movie will be preceded this November by its soundtrack and, of course, a video game. At some point that month, Sierra will release 50 Cent: Bulletproof, a fictional story of guns and glory starring the rapper and his G-Unit soldiers. The game will also feature Eminem as the detective, and Dr. Dre as a "street-wise veteran." Meanwhile, Snoop Dogg will star in director John Singleton's Fear and Respect, a game that purports to realistically depict gang life in South Central.
Both games will join Midnight Club: Dub Edition, EA's Street series of spin-offs, and the Def Jam games as hip hop themed console offerings. Sports games now uniformly include a number of hip hop tracks as their background music; Madden 2005 features Will.I.Am and Z-Trip, while ESPN NBA 2K5 has more than 20 licensed songs from artists like Del the Funky Homosapien and The Roots. But other than a few celebrity vehicles and soundtrack choices, has hip hop really gotten past the surface of gaming?
The fact is, despite these few examples of influence, games are far whiter than any other American media. Keeping statistics on diversity by age, race and role in television acting, the Screen Actor's Guild credited little more than 15% of lead TV roles to African-Americans in 1993. That same year, the U.S. Census put the percentage of African-Americans in the population at around 13%. No doubt, there is still plenty of room for improvement in how television portrays people of color, but the gaming industry assigns an even more restrictive role. According to this year's Metacritic top-rated 100 titles for PS2, only one game (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas) has an African- American lead protagonist. Needless to say, it is not exactly a well-rounded look at African-American culture (or of any culture, really).
It would be convenient to blame this diversity gap on a wider social prejudice, and be done with it. Again, I certainly won't argue that racism has been eradicated in other forms of entertainment. But perhaps there's something about the violent nature of video games themselves that makes it easier for them to follow a path more akin to blaxploitation than to Spike Lee. Certainly there's little equivalent to the family drama or comedy in video games, and only a small amount of middle ground between full-on violence and abstract puzzle solving.
Proceeding down the thousand or so games in the Metacritic ratings, most of them only have African-Americans as members of sports teams, a collection of fighters or secondary (often non-playable) characters. To be fair, most games that allow the player to create a custom avatar (such as the Tony Hawk multitude) do offer a full range of ethnicities. Still, of those with black protagonists (my unscientific count found seven), four are adaptations of movies starring African-Americans (Catwoman, Blade II, Men in Black II and Enter the Matrix). One is an adaptation of a comic book (Shadow Man 2), which also had an African-American main character in its original source. The remaining two games are from the Def Jam series, which does present a somewhat more noteworthy cast including hip hop stars and black actors.
None of these titles are original intellectual property with African- Americans in lead roles, and most of them aren't good games. In short, the number of black main characters in gaming is virtually zero, and the roles that they're assigned when they do appear usually fall into the same stereotypical categorizations: athlete, criminal and/or rapper.
Why should we care about this scarcity of non-white leads in video games? Besides a simple sense of social justice, examine the demographics of the market in question. Phoenix Marketing International notes that African-American gamers spend an average of $48 per month on their hobby, $18 more than whites. Furthermore, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, they're more dedicated: 8- to 18-year-old blacks play for about 20 minutes more each day than their white counterparts. To cap it all off, a 2004 Nielsen study confirmed to the marketing world that African-Americans and Hispanics are a lucrative, underserved market. One would think that there's money in those kinds of numbers - but apparently not enough to buy the spotlight.