People of color are underrepresented in video games, and what few characters of color exists are often voiced by white actors.
In a recent trailer for Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, the highly anticipated PlayStation 4 exclusive from developer Naughty Dog, protagonist Nathan Drake opens a door to find Nadine Ross, a brown-skinned, curly-haired, muscular adversary.
Nadine owns a South African security company, which provides her with ample weapons and troops. She is ready for combat, as is apparent in how quickly she puts our hero Nate on the floor.
People of color across social media sparked with excitement over seeing a main character of color in a popular franchise. Unfortunately, that excitement was tempered when it became known that Nadine Ross, a black woman from South Africa, is voiced by Laura Bailey, a white woman from the United States.
Once again, a black character is not voiced by a black person.
This is no surprise; black female characters in video games are rarely voiced by black women. Assassin's Creed III: Liberation's heroine Aveline de Grandpré, who is half French and half African, is voiced by white Canadian actress Amber Goldfarb. Remember Me protagonist Nilin, whose mother is black, is played by white Welsh actress Kezia Burrows. Clementine from The Walking Dead, whose parents are both black, is voiced by Melissa Hutchinson, who is white.
The problem is that we do not live in a society where true merit is the only deciding factor. There is still some bias when hiring voice actors, even if their faces do not appear on screen
This phenomenon also affects black male characters: James Heller in Prototype 2, Marvin Branagh from Resident Evil 2, and Balrog from the Street Fighter franchise are all fictional black men voiced by real white actors.
Evan Narcisse has pointed out the trend numerous times at Kotaku. Developer Shawn Alexander Allen even dubbed it "digital blackface."
I contacted Ubisoft, Telltale, Dontnod, and Naughty Dog to ask why they decided to hire non-black characters for their black characters. They all have yet to respond. However, Naughty Dog's Creative Director Neil Druckmann already publicly shared his feelings on the issue at the Playstation Experience event.
Having a white actress play a black character is part of the beauty of games and voice acting, Druckmann said. "Your outward appearance doesn't matter at all," he said.
Part of the appeal of voice acting is the ability to play characters that are impossible in reality. In theory, physicality and race cannot stop someone from getting a job in voice acting. This is all under the assumption that everyone has a fair shot to begin with, however, and that those who have been historically oppressed are not, still, subject to discrimination today.
Druckmann's magical thinking ignores the racial bias that permeates entertainment media, including the gaming industry. But even if entrenched players like Druckmann struggle to comprehend this criticism, talk of racial justice in society has infiltrated the entertainment industry (see the #OscarsSoWhite boycott). Audiences are asking for more authenticity in entertainment's depictions of people of color, even when it comes to voice acting.
An Invisible Problem
While researching casting calls for voice actors, I expected to find data that closely resembled that Hollywood. What I found was nothing.
When I spoke to Adam Moore, who directs the the Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity department of SAG-AFTRA over the phone, Moore told me that he currently had no data to give me. "Do I have data specifically on the demographic of voice over performers with respect to their race or ethnicity? The answer is no…Is there a tendency to hire more people from the predominant communities in entertainment, being historically Caucasian and historically male? The answer is yes."
Moore claimed that finding data beyond the anecdotal may be difficult because voiceover actors do not want to be seen. He said, "They don't really want you know what they look like…because you should be judging the merits of their ability to do the job on whatever their demo tape is or audition tape is."
The problem is that we do not live in a society where true merit is the only deciding factor. There is still some bias when hiring voice actors, even if their faces do not appear on screen.
As Moore stated, members of the dominant community, in this case white voice actors, are still being hired over people of color, even if the character is a person of color. That's because people who make the hiring decisions bring either conscious or subconscious biases to the table, he said, although he doubts there are many who purposefully favor white actors.
He did note, however, that game studios are also businesses, meaning they avoid risk-taking and abide by the status quo. A study found in 2009 that 80 percent of games protagonists are white. Seven years later, not much has changed.
Name recognition is also a great way to receive attention and potential profit, and many voice actors are well-known enough to be a part of that equation. The newest game in the Metal Gear Solid franchise features actor Kiefer Sutherland of the television drama 24 as the title character Snake, for example. Game company Bungie took a similar tactic when hiring Game of Thrones Star Peter Dinklage to play the role as a robot in the game Destiny. When Bungie had to replace Dinklage because of his unavailability for further voiceovers sessions, Bungie replaced him with well-known voice actor (and voice of Uncharted's Nathan Drake), Nolan North.
It's All in the Writing
Dave Fennoy and Phil LaMarr are two prominent black voice actors who have worked both in television and games for years. Fennoy earned accolades for his portrayal of Lee Everett for TellTale's The Walking Dead. LaMarr is perhaps most known for his roles on television, such as Hermes Conrad on Futurama and Samurai Jack on the self-titled show, but has voiced many game characters, such as Vamp from the Metal Gear series. I spoke to them both separately by email about their experiences getting jobs in games.
When asked whether black characters should always be voiced by black voice actors, both actors had mixed feelings. Fennoy said that on one hand, he would prefer black actors to play black characters "so black actors are able to work" and because "there is a history of whites in blackface doing degrading imitations of black people and in fact all too often we have continued the practice." On the other hand, Fennoy said he knows white actors who can portray a black character authentically. "Lord knows I have played black, white, Latin, Asian, Eastern European, and hundreds of creatures with hundreds of accents both authentic and fabricated," he added.
LaMarr also felt conflicted about his answer. "From an artistic perspective I would love it if race didn't have to be a factor, but from a "paying-my-rent" perspective, I'm glad it does," he said. "If I have to compete for a Black male role with every Black male voice actor AND every white male voice actor, my chance of getting a job decreases immensely," he said.
The problem, of course, lies in games and its slow moving process of creating complex stories and characters of color. A black protagonist is still a rarity in games. Having people of color in games who are not mere background or minor characters with few lines of dialogue still is not the norm. Even if black roles were always designated to black actors, those roles would be few and far between, which is why actors like Fennoy and LaMarr have found success in playing roles outside of their race and sometimes outside of their species altogether.
Sometimes hiring black people to play black characters can actually feel like a step backward for black progress, if it means the search for authenticity becomes more stereotypical.
"Early in my career, white directors would ask me to make a read 'blacker,'" said Fennoy, "to which I would reply 'would you ever ask a white actor to make it 'whiter'?'" His goal, as he says, was to educate the director, and "to help them understand that we are not a monolithic group of people."
Similarly, LaMarr mentioned bad writing when I asked if it was common to be asked to speak in stereotypical black accent or slang for a character. "I have played Black characters that were rappers, government agents, vagrants and scientists," LaMarr said. "I suppose if someone insisted an upscale physics professor say 'm---- f----' every other sentence it would bother me. But probably because it's horrible writing more than 'stereotypical.'"
Writing is at the heart of the problem with bad representations of people of color, and subsequently the lack of hiring people of color. Hiring more people of color to be a part of the creation process can help create more authentic depictions of people, Fennoy said.
"We need more Black writers telling our stories and writers of other ethnic persuasions who dig deeper into the background and backstories of the black, Asian, and Latin characters they create," he told me.
Advocating for Voice Actors
Video game voice actors are in the middle of a battle with game companies over compensation and are threatening to strike.
There is no union action specifically directed at helping voice talent who have been historically underrepresented, Moore said, although he does recognize that injustices in the industry may affect black voice actors disproportionately.
Voice actors already face worse conditions than television and film actors, he said, and "often are taken advantage of," and "are asked to do way more for way less" compared to the more established platforms such as documentaries or commercials.
People of color then get an even worse deal because they won't be able to work as often, he said.
The strike isn't actually happening just yet, but the the union has authorized the right to strike if demands are not met. Its demands include reducing a recording session to two hours if it is vocally taxing on the voice actor and the elimination of what it calls "reckless and ill-advised fines" against actors for being late or inattentive during recording sessions.
The big ask, however, is for a performance bonus if a game does well. The video game industry, as LaMarr stated, "Is the only billion-dollar entertainment industry that doesn't reward actors of any color for their contribution to hugely successful properties."
The Voice of Nadine Ross
Uncharted 4, a hugely popular franchise that's backed by substantial marketing, is sure to sell well. If the union's demands are met, the performance bonus for Nadine Ross, who may be the year's most prominent black female video game character, will go to a white actress.
So how did Bailey land the part of Uncharted's Nadine Ross? (I reached out to Bailey through her talent agency SBV Talent, but did not hear back from her personally.)
There are too many variables at play to speculate why, LaMarr said.
"For me to know if race affected this decision in a negative way, I'd have to know why they made the decision," he said. "Was it done blind and this was the voice that best fit the character design? Are the creators able to distinguish between various South African accents? Do they care? Do they like drawing black people but are scared to be in a room with them? Who knows?"
Moore thinks that having Nadine Ross in a big budget game at all is a reason to celebrate. "I'm loving the fact that we've got a storyline in a major video game depicting a South African woman," he said. "That's what people are going to see. And that's what the majority of the audience is going to relate to."
Certainly, Nadine's existence is a sign of progress, but she is also a sign of the ways black people and people of color are still mistreated, especially at the hands of the gaming industry. It felt surreal watching Nadine's trailer during its debut at the Video Game Awards, which happened at the same time as The Wiz Live! on NBC. The show, which featured an all-black cast, earned around 11.5 million viewers, beating out last year's Peter Pan Live! with more than double the audience. For many black people, The Wiz was yet another clear symbol of black excellence and the need to recognize black talent.
Meanwhile, at the Game Awards, Troy Baker, who is one of the most popular voice actors today, joked that to be a voice actor for games, one must save up money to buy a good microphone, and to "Wait for Nolan North and I to die." Of course, it's a joke, but one that acknowledges the difficulties anyone, especially people of color, face when carving their own space in a white-dominated world.