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Black hair in video games is mostly terrible, but these artists are changing that

Assistant professor AM Darke is set to launch The Open Source Afro Hair Library on Juneteenth 2023.

Black hair in video games is mostly terrible, but these artists are changing that
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Even if you are an aficionado at role-playing games (RPGs), you may not have noticed just how awful the options are for Black hairstyles. For instance, when video game players checked out the RPG Outriders last April, Black players in particular were quick to point out that only four of the 24 hairstyle options for characters could be thought of as Black hairstyles (and those choices were pretty terrible). To change the status quo, Black 3D artists are working on The Open Source Afro Hair Library, scheduled to launch on Juneteenth next year. It will be the gaming world’s first free database of 3D-modeled Black hairstyles, VICE News reports.


Oakland-based artist and UC Santa Cruz assistant professor AM Darke came up with the idea for the database. She began recruiting Black artists for the project last year. The artists will work on building usable 3D assets for gaming, animation, and other ventures as well as an online gallery to inspire and normalize Black inclusion. The Open Source Afro Hair Library will be completely free, allowing the professor to develop an anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and feminist approach to the portrayal of Black hair in addition to a sense of unified ownership and investment in how the hairstyles are used.


"All of us can be caretakers, all of us can be stewards, all of us can look at the work and think about how to use it ethically and point out unethical practices," she stated. "I want to create a space that's open for all Black folks to have this conversation about what we want this to be." Darke first recognized the need for an open source platform dedicated to Black hair while she was working on a project of her own in 2019. While she is not a 3D artist herself, she discovered that popular 3D asset marketplace platforms like CGTrader and TurboSquid simply had no effective way of looking for Black characters. A workaround she used was to search for the key phrase "African American." However, the results were deeply offensive: the professor spotted models of animals, homeless caricatures, hypersexualized Black women, and “voodoo warriors,” just to name a few.


Darke shared, "I found the relevant keyword that did result in the return of more Black characters. But then look at the people that it returns. Look at the depictions of these digital objects, the Jim Crow era mammies and the minstrels, and yet I can’t find a twist out." As a result, the modding community (that is, players who take it upon themselves to add new textures, assets, levels, and other modifications to games they love to play) has resorted to fixing this lack of representation. Unfortunately, for over half of gamers worldwide playing on closed platforms such as on consoles and mobile, mods are not an option.


"We’re not necessarily critical of the media we’re consuming because it’s so normal," Darke said. "Like I’ve been identifying with straight, white, brown-haired, middle-aged dudes for forever because those are the protagonists of these stories. And it’s not just in games, so you just kind of go along and get used to it. I think all Black people tacitly understand this." Indeed, "good" Black hairstyles are such a rarity that they are a cause for celebration when done right. For example, the Sony studio Insomniac was highly praised for its take on Miles Morales, a Spider-Man of Afro-Latino descent whose crisp line-up and fade took the win for gaming’s best hair in 2020.


Darke is thus committed to ensuring it is no longer such a rare occasion to see good Black hairstyle options for video game characters. The professor affirmed, "With every problem, chances are there’s already some Black people who are thinking about this, who are working on this, know how to do it, and just we have not asked them. My thoughts were, ‘We know how to do this, but may not have the time, the material and communal support to author on our own visions.'" Through the grants she has received, she has been able to provide six 3D artists with $1,500 stipends for their contributions. Each artist develops a single character bust with at least nine unique hairstyles, and they have complete freedom. Although The Open Source Afro Hair Library will only be unveiled next year, you can already take a look at several examples of what to expect here.


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