Black girls are often forgotten by the gaming industry, and Pokémon Go is no different.
It’s been a month since the game’s launch, which means it’s now experiencing the expected growing pains that come with a record-setting debut, though it’s still an international phenomenon.
I’m not much of a gamer, so I haven’t joined in on the insanity. But I do have a 19-year-old stepdaughter, which means I’ve had a front row seat to the frenzy. The week she came home from college for summer break, I couldn’t see anything but the top of her head. She was desperately trying to download the game and the server had crashed several times. When my 19-year-old is gnashing her teeth about a game, I know we’re teetering on the edge of a pop-culture moment.
When she finally got it on her phone, she was ready to find all the monsters around our neighborhood. But there was another glitch: “Why can’t I make a dark-skinned girl with a curly hair?”
Pokémon Go offers limited customizations when you create a player. After choosing your gender, you have four options for skin color: a default peach color, a slightly tanned color, a light brown color and a medium brown color. Hair comes with color options, but every style is straight. (A recent update offered more options for clothing and hair colors, but the four skin colors and straight hair remain.)
My step-daughter’s skin tone is represented in the game, but she was still annoyed that anyone darker than her—like her younger brother and many of her friends and family—could not create a realistic avatar for themselves.
Her frustration is nothing new. It’s been a part of being a Black girl for as long as I can remember. In the early ‘70s, my dad couldn’t find Black dolls for my younger sister and me, so he bought us white dolls instead. We weren’t allowed to play with them until he’d dyed them with his brown shoe polish.
My dad’s execution was flawed, but his intention was pure. In the 1940s, the infamous and heartbreaking “Doll Test” demonstrated that young black and white children overwhelmingly preferred white dolls and believed white skin color to be inherently better. My dad wanted us to see black skin tones in our toys in the hopes of counteracting everything we saw in the whitewashed world. (He also forbade us from watching shows like The Brady Bunch. If the show didn’t have at least a singular regular-occurring Black character, we weren’t allowed to watch it.)
By the time I became a parent, I struggled with the exact same things my dad struggled with. When she was much younger, my step-daughter watched the movie Legally Blonde and announced that she wanted to have blonde hair and blue eyes. I was devastated. I took my youngest daughter to a neighborhood pool when she was five and she pointed to a few of the girls in the pool and said, “I want my hair to lay flat like that when I get out of the pool.” That was four years ago and it still pierces me.
If you’re a Black girl or if you’re raising a Black girl, you know the drill when it comes to animation, illustration, gaming or entertainment as a whole. The representation is nonexistent, poorly executed, or just missing the mark.
I was curious about why the creators of Pokémon Go stopped at a handful of skin colors and only one (straight) hairstyle, so I set out to interview developers, designers and critics who could explain to me who makes these decisions and why.
Pokémon Go is the product of a perfect storm of tech and gaming brands. John Hanke, founder of gaming company Niantic, developed the game Ingress, which allowed players to explore the world around them and claim landmarks. After the success of Ingress, Hanke approached The Pokémon Company about a similar game with the Pokémon characters. The Tokyo-based firm owns the Pokémon copyright along with Nintendo, Gamefreak and Creatures.
There’s been a huge amount of press about the game, but comparatively little has been published about how such a multi-national sensation could be so lacking in visual diversity. Some of the criticism has pointed out that the game’s PokéStops are overwhelmingly located in white and affluent neighborhoods, and that other poorer neighborhoods, which are often home to people of color, have fewer of these locations. The game has also less interactive in rural areas. When designing the game initially, Niantic used locations from Ingress as a basis for Pokémon Go PokéStops, and to address these problems, Niantic implemented a system to allow users to request PokeStop locations, though they are currently not taking any more requests.
But it’s likely that the conversation about the avatars in general hasn’t taken off because this is an issue that plagues many games; a quick search on the topic of avatar customization in general led me down a rabbit hole of think-pieces, blog posts and arguments for and against dark-skin and curly-hair options.
One African-American woman I spoke to who works in game development put her thoughts about the game plainly: “Pokémon Go is a Kanye West-on-George Bush moment in gaming. Nintendo doesn’t care about Black girls.” (She asked to remain anonymous, for fear of losing access to exclusive information in the gaming industry.)
Gita Jackson, an award-winning writer and critic, has had the same Black-girl experience as my stepdaughter when it comes to creating an avatar both in Pokémon Go and many playable games.
“There’s always something missing,” says Jackson. “As a [Black] woman, there are no options for hair besides completely bald or a really cheesy ‘70s style Afro.”
I mentioned to Jackson that it seems like sports games like the NBA 2K series gets things extremely accurate . So clearly it can be done.
“The thing about sports game is that they’re dedicated to fidelity,” says Jackson. “Their users—all races—would not buy the game if Kobe’s hair wasn’t realistic.”
There is often an eye-rolling reaction from the gaming industry if women push back against their products’ visual limitations. Jackson explains that the usual rationale from the gaming industry doesn’t apply to Pokémon Go.
“The criticism for why we don’t get more realistic characters is that women only play mobile games,” says Jackson. “Well. Here we are. Pokémon Go is a mobile game so you know we’re playing it. How about more realistic customization now?”
Perhaps there’s an argument that spending the money to offer realistic customization for Black girls doesn’t make fiscal sense because they are a small percentage of the gaming audience.
io9 writer (formerly of Kotaku) Evan Narcisse, a Black man who has covered this topic in depth, says there’s no excuse. “That’s bullshit. If people are making a game meant to appeal to people from all walks of life, then they should try their best to reflect the players in the real world. If you pay money or invest time playing a game where you can create avatars, only to find you can’t recreate yourself or someone you want to play as, that’s a letdown.”
Earlier this year, Marcus Montgomery, the founder of wearegamedevs.com, a site that highlights and promotes diversity in the gaming industry, took the diversity issue into his own hands for (pretend) Black girls in the tech world. Mattel had created a Game Developer Barbie, but it was available in a white version only. His wife wanted a Black girl version and Montgomery delivered, swapping out a Black doll with the clothing and accessories of the original doll.
When Montgomery isn’t busy making his wife happy by customizing dolls for her, he’s also mulling over the issue of racial dynamics in video games. He makes it clear that while there are some issues that are just a by-product inconvenience of being a minority, there are some things that companies like Niantic can do better.
“My suspicion is creating extensive customizations option for Pokémon Go avatars was far down on the team’s line of priorities,” says Montgomery. “Also, when making a mobile game, you do the bare minimum to get it out to market and you can improve options later.”
And what if the options never improve for Black girls?
“It’s a challenge people of color have had for a long time,” says Montgomery.
“I noticed the lack of character customization options in Pokémon Go immediately,” says Catt Small, an African-American woman who works in product and game design. “The default character is white with light eyes and straight hair. That is not me. The saddest thing was that the darkest available skin tone is unfair to a lot of people.”
As an artist, Small concedes that realistic curly hair is incredibly difficult. She pointed me in the direction of articles that explain why curly hair is hard to render. Here’s the short story: you have to show the spiral of the curl and the curl has to move at the same time. (I am now officially obsessed with the idea that my hair defies physics.) Now that I think back, I remember watching Brave and being mesmerized by the main character Merida’s mega-curly hair and how realistic it was. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a watershed moment in the depiction of realistic animated curly hair.
But Small believes adding skin colors shouldn’t be an issue. “Changing a skin color is quite similar to changing the background color of a layer in a program like Photoshop.”
So then why the four options in Pokémon Go, for example?
“I think many of the designers don’t personally know black or brown people,” says Small. “They haven’t had to consider how important representation of black and brown people is.
“There’s no excuse for not adding in a few more skin colors,” she adds. But the numbers may explain part of the issue. The most recent demographics from the International Game Developers Association cited the number of game developers who identify as Hispanic/Latino or African-American at a low 10 percent.
When I reached out to the company that owns Pokémon Go for comment about their design process, I got an unsurprisingly pat response back that essentially says it all. “Thanks for your interest in Pokémon GO!” said Andrew Karl, who handles PR for the game. “We unfortunately do not have any information to share on this topic at this time.”
My 19-year-old is still playing Pokémon Go, but her fervor has died down a bit. My nine-year-old isn’t interested, but she did just ask me to buy her an app called Top Girl. You create a character and dress her up in fancy outfits and don’t ask me what else. What I do notice, though, is that although the hair options are limited, the skin tones go from peach to chocolate.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at aliyasking.com.