Black history permeates all facets of our lives—and video games are no exception. From the 8-bit days to the 4k Ray Tracing present, Black video game characters have occupied various positions; from the precarious period of early sports games in the ’70s, which included titles like Heavyweight Champ and the nameless grayscale sprites, to Spider-Man: Miles Morales as the poster child for a new gaming generation today, Black representation has come a long way.
Similar to other mediums, such as film, music, and literature; Black culture has been, and is, integral to grappling with our collective understanding of video game history. People of color have often been portrayed in popular media as stereotypes and tropes that speak to an underlying structure of racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and other forms of systemic oppression. As a Black queer gaymer, the only time I ever saw myself on the screen was through character creation, but that’s just cheating in the context of this story.
Video games are complex systems of visual culture that “create and uphold value systems and hierarchies of one constituency”—often the dominant class at the expense of another, says Soraya Murray in her book On Video Games: The Visual Politics of Race, Gender and Space, published in 2017. In short, they can be racist too.
But the history of the Black video game character isn’t that of failure. Just as in reality, Black characters have strived to break outside of their pixelated parameters to present a more autonomous and complex image of what race can be in the world of video games.
Let’s Play Some Ball: The Sports Role
Most of the earliest depictions of Black and brown characters can be seen in sports titles.
Sega’s Arcade release of Heavyweight Champ in 1976, which arguably showed the first black video game character on screen, was likely the starting point. It’s “arguable,” however, because the game was rendered in grayscale, with one light and one dark player. In the 1987 reiteration of the franchise, the player’s race became undeniable as the game shifted away from grayscale to a multicolored sprite program.
Outside of boxing, other sports games like the Atari Basketball series (1979), Track & Field (1982), and One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird (1983) offered even more avenues for depicting Black characters—such as Basketball having Black players on the cover art—but they didn’t stand out much from the white characters beside the fact that they had different colored sprites.