At Emerald City Comicon, Aina Braxton cosplayed her own personal superhero—Inferna Bird of Paradise. She wore sparkly face makeup and a bright red costume, complete with a cape and knee-high boots. She looked awesome. She explained how she’s been developing the costume—and the Inferna’s backstory—for years. (Her background as a performance artist might have helped with that.) One motivation for her to create her own superhero was frustration with the fact that there aren’t a lot of superhero characters who are like her.
In fact, people of color, women, and anyone who doesn’t fit the cultural norms often feel left out when it comes to representation in the media. Braxton believes media representation matters. All kinds of kids should be able to see themselves represented in media.
As part of her work around this issue at UW Bothell’s Digital Future Lab, Braxton examined some of the Black characters in video games—and what those characters mean to Black students. Recently she did a workshop on the topic with high school students from the Seattle area. We asked her to go into a little more detail on the workshop for Black Opportunity and Leadership Day and what she found out.
The Digital Future Lab is trying to create inclusive games. What kind of research have you been doing to further that discourse?
I just had the opportunity to teach two workshops to high school students that were brought to UW Bothell’s campus for Black Opportunity and Leadership Day. They had over 260 students from Federal Way, Tacoma, South Seattle, Garfield High School, all these different high schools. The subjects ranged from college readiness to the one I taught: “Mom, Why Aren’t There Any Black Superheroes?”
I did some background research on six characters from different video games. Three of the games were from the Top 10 list of 2013: Tomb Raider, Grand Theft Auto, and Bioshock Infinite. We took the Black characters from those games and I got character profiles on them. We had three characters from different games. Three men, three women. The students went through the process of looking at pictures of the three characters and discussing who the characters might be: are they playable characters, are they main characters, are they protagonists, are they antagonists?
Then they received the character profiles to find out that a lot of them were really dead on with their descriptions. Then they went through an RPG [role-playing game] of playing in their groups as that character. Afterwards we discussed and debriefed on the constraints of playing along as, say, a murdering drug dealer. It was really awesome.
How old were the kids?
The kids ranged from 9th grade all the way up to seniors in high school. There was such rich dialogue. These kids, at multiple times, broke the logic of my game completely. Just in the debriefing session it was so awesome to hear feedback from them on why they thought these characters were written the way they were. Why it was sometimes uncomfortable to play as these characters.
One character, Aveline de Grandpre from Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, was the only one that could technically fit as a “superhero” and the kids were not comfortable with her being a superhero.
Because she was a murdering assassin. And they were like “that is not a superhero.” And it was so awesome to hear that from them. Both groups said this independently of each other when confronted with this. And they all could identify that she was really the only one out of the group that could be identified as a superhero, because she was the only one who was a playable main character, she was the only one that was a complete protagonist; but none of them felt comfortable with the moral implications of the fact that she was a murdering assassin. It was just really good.
Did you design that whole process?
Yeah, I designed it for this event specifically, and also I’ve always been curious about this. I’ve always wanted to flesh out more about all kinds of underrepresented groups and how they’re written into these games in ways that sometimes can be really awesome and sometimes can be really hurtful and leave a lot to be desired. The groups that got assigned to the side characters, they were so clear in feeling like “man, these characters were a little flat.”
Did you have Daisy Fitzroy from Bioshock Infinite?
Yes. And the students asked, “Did they try to write her after Harriet Tubman?” And I was like “Yes, and something went terribly wrong in her story,” and they were like “Yeah. That sucks.” There was this palpable moment of me and 45 students in the room just letting that sink in. That here was this figure that was supposed to be like, the superhero and ends up, because of how she was written, to be a sociopath.
She ends up torn down for the narrative that isn’t hers.
Yeah. And I didn’t have any answers to give them on that note.
I find it really interesting that students can come to those conclusions without the greater context of the game. That it’s so clear what the writers were intending, and where they made missteps.
Yeah. The first part of Daisy’s story they were really excited about, and then they were like, “Oh.” The group that ended up playing her just happened to be a whole table of young Black women. And they were just disappointed. They were like, “It was kind of predictable playing as her, because if she’s a sociopath…” You know.
But it was interesting to flesh that out in the debrief for the whole group. And that was kind of my point, right? It wasn’t that every single team is going to have a great time. In fact, some of the teams are going to not have a great time, and why are they not having a great time?
Who do you think had the worst time?
I would say that group had the worst time.
Because of the disappointment of a good start, and then the crash?
Yeah, and they just knew that when it came to scenarios where they could opt to not murder the person they were encountering, they knew that because of the predisposition she had to violence that that was what she was going to do. And that was frustrating to them. They wanted her to not do that. They wanted her to do something different. They wanted the non-violent choices. But I liked to hear that from them, right?
I think that’s what we want in general for games. Something that isn’t the cookie-cutter “fight your way to this place or out of this place,” but finding creative solutions. I like that they hit on that.
Exactly. But it was funny because in the second workshop, the characters that were playing Dwayne Forge from GTA IV had a blast making him kill everybody. And he was one of the characters that could have gone either way. He could’ve killed, or he could’ve maneuvered around that. But they actively chose to make him a murdering psycho, and they had a blast with it. But I think they were having fun with it, and that was cool to see too.
That’s a good point; and GTA is meant as a parody so I feel like there’s more room there to decide “this isn’t real” and to take it to the extreme.
And they thought it was absolutely hilarious. And when they got to the end scenario, you know, he gets arrested and sent to prison for life—that’s how I wrote my game, right? Because I wanted it to be a little bit more realistic.
And they thought it was absolutely hilarious and funny, and then were able to deconstruct the fact that his character profile was very stereotypical, his choices were very stereotypical, and his ending was very stereotypical. And he was representing a really hard truth in our world right now. And they were all very aware of that and able to articulate it. These kids blew my mind.
Do you have future plans for workshops like this?
I’m working with researcher Christian Anderson and the Office of Community-Based Learning and Research. I’m adjusting the workshop and will be doing it again this summer as part of a greater curriculum, for a participatory action research project in the Lake City community. We’ll teach Photo Story software as well as personal narrative and public agency to kids at Lake City Court.
The whole curriculum is based on using technology for emancipatory purposes. I’ve been building it over the course of 10 months now with Christian, and we’ve pulled in a team of eight other researchers that are staff or former students, as well as a K-8 consultant. I’m tweaking the program with the consultant right now, and focusing on the idea of what it means to be your own personal superhero, within the framework of democracy, human rights, and agency. I’m a sucker for indoctrination of what I think are good values.
Are you planning on rolling it out to other communities as well?
My long-term vision for this is not that it wouldn’t roll out over other communities, but I am focused on building a stronger network between UW Bothell and the Lake City neighborhood. It’s a high-needs neighborhood. They need investment in human capital right now. I grew up in that neighborhood and because of that lack of investment there are high levels of drugs, violence. There’s lots going on.
It’s tapered down a lot, however we just hit a huge recession, there’s a huge population of young families, recently immigrated families, and youths living in that area. Just this past summer I saw tons of youth just kind of roaming, with nothing to do.
What you have in this neighborhood is 30,000 to 35,000 people living in what you would consider Lake City. Sixty percent of them are homeowners. The other 40% of people are all renters. That’s a huge minority—it’s not the majority, but it’s a huge minority. And within that 40% you have a huge spike of people living in low income. You go from home ownership to people living on food stamps in public housing, and there’s not a huge buffer between those groups.
At my son’s school, 80% of the kids are on free and reduced lunch. At another school in the same neighborhood 80% are not on free and reduced lunch. The demographics alone are reason alone to think there will be some needs in this community. Most of the outreach skips over pockets like this; you’re talking about 40% of 30,000 people. Who cares if this population is going to prison, who cares if their kids are going to prison, or are up for deportation at age 14?
So this community is very important to you.
I have a passion, a want to respond to that. And I think that universities and institutions need to do the local outreach really well before they think about jumping out. This community is 15 minutes away from our campus. A lot of professors and students live in the neighborhood or around it. For long-term investment, when you can build strong relationships with the locals it means you can do that in a bigger sphere. My intention is to build it out within that network and see how that can grow.
This stems out of trying to facilitate personal agency in this community, and what does it mean to be a superhero in your community.
For more from Aina Braxton, read The Next and check back at Pixelkin next week for a two-part interview about how she games with her son.