The Death of Letitia

Jeeni has returned to Crowdcube to raise more funds for helping new talent. Jeeni founding director Mel Croucher says, “We’re ahead of our original schedule, but there’s still so much more to do. We need to scale our online platform globally now and build our mass artist showcases. Jeeni raised £100K in 6 days and we’re working hard to get more investors on board. Then we can hit all our targets, and give our new artists the recognition they deserve.” If you want to see our pitch click HERE.

Mel has been writing the best-loved column in top-selling tech magazines for over 30 years. Now he’s agreed to share his work with all our members. He’s a video games pioneer and musician, and to to find out more about Mel check out his Wikipedia page. Here’s one of Mel’s latest!

Black lives matter. Unless black lives feature in a videogame, in which case they don’t matter a toss. I still remember the feeling of hope and despair when I played Daley Thompson’s Decathlon for the first time. That was way back in the Olympic year of 1984, and it was a primitive sports simulation from Ocean software for a little home computer called the 48k Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Daley Thompson was an Olympic gold medal winner from Notting Hill. He had a fine body, and a great moustache, and according to his skin he was the son of his assassinated Nigerian dad. Anyway, I fired up the game and there on my glowing colour monitor was the pixilated figure of Daley, the great black athlete, running along a red cinder track. The thing was, the programmers had made him white. No, I couldn’t believe it either. A huge crowd of spectators also appeared in the gameplay, and every one of them was as white as a Ku Klux Klan convention in a chalk pit.

It’s not as if no black characters ever appeared in videogames. Almost all the assassins, hoodlums, terrorists, monsters and mobsters were black, and their purpose was to be killed off willy nilly. Apart from Michael Jackson. He was the hero in a Sega videogame called Moonwalker and his role was to rescue kidnapped children and take them home. So there was nothing creepy about that, was there. Mind you, wee Michael was mostly as white in the game as he was in real life.

For a real black and white issue from the early twenty-first century, I have revisited Ethnic Cleansing, developed by Resistance Records for PC desktop machines. That’s the one where the white player gets sent off on a quest to murder blacks. It is equal opportunity racism, because you also score points for killing Latinos and Jews. And speaking of equal opportunities let’s hear it for the computer character Letitia who appears in an update of Deus Ex, which is set in a cyberpunk future. Letitia lives on a rubbish dump, she is as horny as she is simple, and she speaks minstrel drivel in the sort of deep-South accent last heard in a Mel Brooks parody. You couldn’t make it up. Except that’s exactly what they did. And shame on you Mary DeMarle for writing it, Amanda Strawn for acting it, and Square Enix for publishing it.

In the USA, over 70% of all African Americans play video games, but they make up less than 3% of game developers, which tells me quite a lot about the state of the play over there. This side of the pond, things are much better, where we have over 10% of people working in game development of a BAME demographic. That’s a higher percentage than their number in the national working population, and way higher than in UK publishing, tv and music. This is good news, but it’s where the good news ends. Last time I visited a major gaming studio in pre-lockdown, I did see several black faces. One was on security at street level, one was behind the reception desk, two were behind the counter in the canteen, and one was swilling out the bogs. The number of black and minority ethnic decision-makers in the UK computer gaming industry is shockingly low. As a result, race has lagged way behind gender and sexuality when it comes to stereotypes in gaming.

Mainstream game designers tend not to question a norm, and they rarely rock the boat by refusing to carry out a questionable storyboard handed down to them by predominantly white hands from above. Most game designers I come across have less creative imagination than Rufus my Irish Setter, not to mention a much poorer sense of loyalty and the inability to lick their own genitalia. Video games have always followed movies in characterisation, and they are painfully stiff with stereotypes. Historically, lazy, myopic creatives have allocated blacks four roles – the violent black, the servile black, the sidekick black and the comedy black. I am removing sports games and music games from my list, since they exhibit no imagination whatsoever, but simply copy real people from the real world, unless you happen to be Daley Thompson or Michael Jackson, of course.

The blame for all this lies squarely with the course leaders who purport to teach video game creation in universities and colleges. I have never met a creative course leader who is darker skinned than me, and I’m a sort of mottled puce. They may well instruct their students to bung in a character of the negro persuasion as if to fill some sort of racial minority quota, a bit like when those tv adverts suddenly started to feature blacks doing non-traditional things. Like working in building societies, and driving new cars.

The change is coming through the independent video game creators, the so-called home-brew developers, and the change had begun in the UK way before the Black Lives Matter movement gathered such momentum. Creative change always comes from the mavericks and rarely from the corporates. As for the people who play the games, next time you come across a racial stereotype you know what to do. Take a knee. To the groin of the writer, programmer and publisher.

The Death of Letitia, from Deus Ex: Human Revolution

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Published by Jeeni

I am a founding director of Jeeni. Jeeni is an online platform for independent musicians and performers. Jeeni is for everyone and anyone creative: musicians, voice-artists, performers, poets, singer-songwriters ... hey, the list is endless. We aim to connect, collaborate, share and support each other, while we have fun and make a real difference.

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