We Need More African Women Depicted in Video Games

By Shaan Khan (22/02/21)

In my humble beginnings of picking up a controller and playing video games on my PS1 console, I was enthralled with the stories told in this interactive medium that I was a part of!

In a way, It felt like my story; since my actions would lead to conclusions—if I collected a key from the evil bad guys for example, I could then go & save the princess locked away in a castle!

What I came to find was the ‘good guys’, the ones that could always ‘get the job done’, were the glamorised, White American gals & guys, who were the heroes of these virtual worlds! Fighting off the zombies in Resident Evil! Battling aliens in Halo! Or killing giant mutant dinosaurs in Dino Crisis!

In these digital lands of fiction, rarely, if not ever, did we see African women being represented; placed on pedestals as cultural icons within video game history. Instead, we were left with legends like Master Chief, Mario & Link; White males who were not all American—but none, African women.

According to the IGDA Developer Satisfaction Survey (2017), 68% of game developers were Caucasian, and 72% of game developers were male.

Therefore, we saw through the lens of a White-American-male-dominated workforce in Gaming development.

It was their fantasies they shared with us, and that’s what many of us grew up with. We admired their characters, wanted to be like them and saw others who looked like them as the select few that were depicted as unworldly figures.

Not giving African women a voice and an awe-inspiring story within gaming titles, leads their culture & identity to be unappreciated, not celebrated or gifted positive attention worldwide in this new-millennia of tech-centric mediums & communications.

Getting left in the dark, with games African women can’t connect to, is another attributing factor to the lack of popularity video games have amongst African Women worldwide.

According to the IGDA, only a shocking 1% of gaming industry professionals identify as African or African American.

Fortunately, a shift in video game development is bringing rise to diverse voices & stories worldwide—to be heard & experienced over the world through advanced gaming technology that only makes storytelling even better & more palpable to mass audiences of many demographics today!

Strong female leads are taking the stage in videogames, inspired by tales or real stories from all over the globe.

We’ve now entered an era of nuance in video game storytelling, stepping away from the narrative design pulled right from a cliché-80s action flick where big biceps save the day.

These females have deeper purpose. Some characters include-

  • Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn, a girl living in a post-apocalyptic world heavily inspired by Native American culture. She was born an outcast and exiled by her tribe. When she grew up, she wanted to prove herself to them as a worthy warrior that should be allowed back into the tribe with her father.
  • Farah from COD: Modern Warfare (2019), with a story closely resembling reality, Farah is a freedom fighter trying to liberate her homeland of Urzikstan from the occupying Russians.
  • Yuna from Ghost of Tsushima, a Japanese warrior fighting off invading Mongols, in this story loosely based around real historical events.

Extraordinary women of diverse cultures and ethnicities yet tell the truths of women worldwide, who struggled through tragedy, defend their loved ones at all costs—heroes, with caring souls that female gamers everywhere can connect with & celebrate.

Now it’s time for African women to have their place in the spotlight.

The tales & real stories of legendary women from Africa are ones video games are made for. It saddens me uncovering all these phenomenal stories in such a short length of time. Instead, they should be just as recognisable worldwide as any European explorers many learn about in school. For the sheer fact being, these African women from the past can teach us of the mistakes we are making in the present. In this lust for greed brought on by a history of white-washing & imperialism that shaped the modern world. Not cool pre 21st century Europeans…

Here are some African female legends whose tales & stories would be excellent video game adaptations or inspirations!-

  • Yennenga – A legendary princess of Burkina Faso who lived over 900 years ago. A woman truly plausible for the title ‘Khaleesi’ for you Game of Thrones’ lovers. She symbolised the human free spirit breaking free from cultural restraints. Unlike most non-African princesses, she was a warrior at the age of 14. Her father cherished her importance in battles so much that he disavowed her from marriage! (shocking to us westerners, I know!) But her heart had felt empty and yearned for love, she expressed as such uniquely, by growing a field of wheat. When the crops grew, she left them to rot. Expressing to her father how she felt treated, leading him to lock her away before going against his words. But through the help of an ally, she would break out and find herself on a lonely & difficult adventure to find a life & someone her soul desired.
  • ya – A deity in the Yoruba religion, a female orisha (spirit) that is the patron ruler of the Niger River, who yields winds, storms and lightning in battle, this warrior queen is known for her intensity and charm. With popular video games designed around supernatural beings and mythical Gods like Kratos & The Prince of Persia—Ọya could be what gamers are looking for. Just by browsing the phenomenal artwork that exists of this unique deity; should already have people excited to see these artistic renditions’ come to life in a video game.

Outside the stories of legends, there are the stories that go unheard; points in history that get left behind. Really, they should be brought back to life through creativity as our pasts define our culture. There should be fictionalised characters based around African women within different timelines—including the future.

In a decision-making game like the Life is Strange series, we could port ourselves into the life of a modern-day African girl, trying to survive or succeed in an environment that seemingly goes against her ambitions. To understand such struggles women in Africa’ face, the website ‘Through the Eyes of African Women’ hosts a plethora of stories & poems that would give you an idea of what a game about African women in the format of a ‘Life is Strange’ game, could look like in the future.

That is what video games offer, experiencing culture in new ways, bringing life to our stories, art and history. Even environments, building a digital world of Africa for people to immerse themselves into and admire its natural beauty of plains like the Serengeti or the mountains of the Ethiopian Highlands.

We could use our creativity to envision the future of Africa in sci-fi video games that rarely has, if not ever, been achieved before.

What’s important though, is authenticity.

Games for African women; designed & approved by African women.

Then we must consider resources, how video game companies with the largest budgets are predominately based in North America, Europe and Asia.

If Africa lacks a foothold in gaming development, then how can African women create the games of their dreams?

Well, the website ‘Games Industry Africa’ gives insight into how. One story posted on the site gives you a general idea of the direction of video game development in Africa.

It’s about a two-women team of Kenyan artists developing a fantasy RPG game called Kawia’s Adventure. Set in Precolonial East Africa, you play as the African girl known as Kawia, who sets off on an adventure in a world that allows us to experience the roots of African culture before the arrival of European colonists. It’s a burst of history & mythology where you defeat evil spirits with the power of dance.

This project was thanks to both artists access to free video game development software such as Unity, Blender and Unreal Engine. The artists could teach themselves through the power of the internet and experiment with free software. These two women would pitch an idea for a video game that was then funded by ‘Sony Talent League’, an initiative by tech company’ Sony, to ‘Break the Creative Distance’ and empower aspiring creators worldwide.

So free access to resources create video game developers, and international funding allows them to create video games! This is how it begins; a video game made by African women can then be distributed and shared over the world. African women can then succeed and have a choice to use their international earnings to start studios, grow larger teams and work on bigger projects like the established video game developer companies in other continents.

We are in a time in history where the cultural mould in video games is being broken, and African women are being represented in video games by African women. To leave on a positive note, I want to share with you a video from Unreal Engine, where they showcase their new tool that will be available on their video game development software. The tool is called ‘MetaHuman Creator’, which will allow humans to look more real than ever before in video games, which should give you an idea of a way African women could look like in video games of the near future.

I originally wrote this article for AMAKA, you can find the edited version on their website here- https://amaka.studio/explore/articles/we-need-more-african-women-depicted-in-video-games

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