It’s 1996. I am standing before a massive Dwarven gate covered in intricate runes. I am weary from my travels and unsure of my purpose. I fear the world in which I journey, for I am oh-so-small and the world is oh-so-large. If I cannot pass through this gate where my supposed allies wait, how can I pass through the greater gates ahead of me, like Morannon?
The only clue I have is the door itself; twin trees wrapping their branches around the pillars of stone, a hammer and anvil — no doubt, the sigil of the Nogothrim who dwell within — and a crown which I can only assume speaks to the royalty of the inhabitants. Around the top of the arch is writing: the name of the gates, the builder of the door, and the inscriber of the rune, with a simple riddle, ‘speak friend and enter’. I think it to be a too-simple riddle: whatever the Khuzdul (Dwarven) word for ‘friend’ is, that word is the password.
But I keep to myself. I am too small to be seen and heard in this world, and so I wait. Eventually, a wizened old man steps forward and says ‘how foolish I have been! It is the Sindarin (Elvish) word for ‘friend’, ‘mellon’. This seems, to me, to be a very silly answer. Sindarin is not a common language, to be sure, but at the time of the door’s construction, it would have been more so. Khuzdul, on the other hand, is a private tongue constructed for the Dwarves and kept secret. But the doors open despite my logical protests. After all, I have no say in this world.
Really, I’m sitting in a massive couch — I’m sure it’s a one-person chair, but I am oh-so-small and the world is oh-so-large — in the front office of my elementary school, waiting for my grandparents to pick me up. Y ou see, I’m “sick”. I’ve decided to play hooky from my Spanish class because it doesn’t interest me. What does interest me? This story of another oh-so-small boy and his adventures in a world that is oh-so-large. He, like me, seems unsure of his place. He is a hobbit, meant to stay at home and live a quiet life. And yet he finds himself driven onwards by a mental fortitude he doesn’t quite understand. Best of all, he’s never described in the books. I can be Frodo Baggins.
At this point, however, my narrative is interrupted; my homeroom teacher walks into the office to chastise two girls my age who are obviously not sick. They run and play around the room, making noise and taking up space. He sends them back to class:
save the front office for the obviously sick, like Mattias
I’m not sure how to feel. On the one hand, I haven’t been caught. On the other hand, I feel like an outsider: my naturally private behavior makes me ‘sick’. I find myself drawn to outsiders in literature. I read The Animorphs; Marco appeals to me at first; he might look like me, although I’m pretty sure from his name and description that he’s Hispanic. Close enough. Maybe not. Soon, I meet Tobias. He is trapped in a hawk’s body, unable to return to human form. Like me, he never quite felt like he belonged. Now he can fly free, and leave it all behind. He doesn’t look like me, but he is like me.
At that age, I have yet to get into gaming. I can read books alone much more easily. I’ve always liked being alone. I need time with my thoughts, and being around people just tires me out. My schoolmates know not to bother me when I’m reading. But if they see me playing a game, they want to join in, or at least watch.
More importantly, in books, I can pretend. Games present me with the harsh reality of the world; that there aren’t people like me.
The first game which allows me to choose a character is Jet Moto. There’s the protagonist, of course: The Max. Perhaps not. At the age of 8, I think that he looks too…normal. In retrospect, I realize that I might have meant ‘white’ by ‘normal’. I find the black characters distasteful, however. They’re all massive, either fat or musclebound. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not my style. I settle on Technician. He is a cyborg; half-human, half-robot, and he races with his mind, not his body. I can get behind that.
Soon, new technology comes to the world of basketball video games: you can make your own avatar. I try to make my own avatar. I can make a black character whiter and whiter and whiter, but all I get is a weird, pale-looking black guy. I can send my white character to tan all I want, but I just look like a surfer dude. If I were Asian or Mexican, I’d only have 2 options. But I’d have options. I end up making myself as white as I can without going Michael Jackson: think Thriller, not Bad. That is how I will come to see myself over time: tinted white to avoid being seen as ‘too black’ — at 25, writing this, I’ve only now begun to understand Michael Jackson’s body-changing quest. Despite all of my efforts with my basketball character, I can’t change a few things.
I give up in frustration. Screw everybody else and their characters. I’m too young to even think ‘fuck’, so I think ‘screw’. I keep gaming, though, because I like the escape from reality. But when I have to choose a character from a list? I find nothing. The black characters all look like they came straight from either the 70s or jail; they are either comical relief or brutes. I don’t see myself in either.
My older brother introduces me to Tekken (2&3). I try to find a character in 2, and am met with Bruce Irvin: “His ferocity and uncompromising technique dominated all the competition. It is thought that the reason for his temper and nature is due to the fact that, an an early age, his parents and brother were killed, which left Bruce on the streets having to fight on a daily basis just to survive. He learned to inflict great pain on his victims. He accumulated a small amount of money competing in pit fights and brawls. He lives for the fight! He entered a Muay Thai tournament in Thailand, where he was paid to rig a fight and lose. Bruce decided otherwise and beat his opponent to death.” Doesn’t really sound like the character I want to play; I’m so sick of angry black characters* that it’s starting to make me angry myself.
I briefly consider Eddy Gordo, but he feels more Latino than anything, and besides, my brother plays a similar character. I find it highly amusing that I can re-skin Eddy from Latino to black, as if the game is saying “what’s really the difference?”
Later, I’ll pick up SSX Tricky. My options? Eddie and Moby.
I decide on the former. I’d rather be ‘funky’ than ‘might just punch you to death if you look at him askance’. I really start to enjoy Eddie as a character. He’s playful, joking, and really enjoying himself. I can’t snowboard, but if I could, I like to think I’d have as much fun as he does. SSX 3 comes out, and in comes the graphical update. Eddie? He’s out of the game. You can use a cheat code to get him back:
Huh. That hadn’t quite been how I’d seen Eddie. A bit more…uh…white. I never really get into SSX 3. I tell myself I don’t like the gameplay; that the big air had gotten too big, the gravity-defying, too unrealistically defiant. And these things are true. I also just don’t want to go through the effort of finding another character.
Returning Tekken, I decide to play Marshall Law and Lei Wulong, the characters I will play for the rest of the Tekken series.
They fit better with how I see myself: lithe, serious, defensive, slow to anger; the opposite of every black character I’ve ever seen. I enroll in Kung Fu later that year.
My favorite show on TV is Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I feel I can relate to the characters better than the other shows on at the time. Will feels that he doesn’t belong. I understand what it means to be a scholarship kid at a school full of rich kids. My school is even near Bel-Air. I cry when his father leaves him, not because I fear my own father leaving me, but because I understand too deeply the feeling of feeling alone even when you’re not. But I am not Will. I am alone only once I leave the walls of my home: I am Carlton, the nerdy black guy that nobody takes seriously, because he should be doing sports or something, but instead he’s too busy being smart. It’s laughable that he likes Tom Jones, or can’t dance, because he’s black, and shouldn’t he be cooler and less responsible than that?
Like Carlton, it’s in school that I excel. I find myself on a game show for smart kids. Everybody around me continues to be white or asian. 2 years later, I enter into MathCounts. The coach who knows me supports me. The coach who doesn’t is scared. She thinks I’m too young and can’t handle the pressure. I don’t understand. Other, normal kids can be small and still good at math, but everybody always seem confused why I’m there. I take first place and qualify for state.
As the competition approaches, I get to see a list of competitors. Every name is German or Asian. I like reading the names. At least my name fits: Mattias Gustaf Lehman — funny enough, at 25, I still get similar comments all the time: try here and here — but when I show up to the MathCounts competition, I feel out of place. Some people think I’m there to support a friend. Another player on my team doesn’t even realize that my father is my father. I guess he thinks he’s just another coach. And who can blame them? My dad can sunburn indoors, and I laugh in the face of the sun.
I start to think that maybe it would make more sense if I were more asian. My favorite games at the moment are JRPGs, especially Final Fantasy. I’ve played from Tactics through to X and the only black character I remember is Barret:
I move into the customization game. I may play a few games with set characters (most notably HALO), but they just remind me how out-of-place I feel. They’re either about characters with no face (much like me, I suppose) or they remind me of my differences. Instead, I dive into the world of roleplaying games. I find Chaotic Good to be an appealing alignment. I’ve never cared much for law and order, or tradition and faith but I’m good at heart. I give up on trying to make them look like me, for the most part. Occasionally, I try again, only to remember how dissatisfied it makes me.
So instead, I model characters about different things about me. I take a year of fencing, so I make duelist characters. I’m a man of the mind, so I make wizards. I realize that I’m less about studying and more about innate intelligence, which makes me feel like I’m better off playing sorcerers. I resent them their high Charisma scores. Everybody in my small school is dating. Well, most everybody. I wonder if it’s because I look different. I ask somebody out. She ends up dating a shaggy-headed surfer boy. And why not? I rejected Bruce Irvin because he looked too different to be my in-game avatar. Is there really a difference between us?
I internalize those feelings. I become angry at the world. I know why I’m angry; the world I want to be a part of seems to have rejected people who look like me. But I start to wonder: maybe I’m angry because this is just who I am. Every other black man I’ve seen is either goofy (Will Smith) or angry (every black fighting game character ever). What makes me different? Maybe nothing. I dive into the anger, start to enjoy resentment. It’s an addictive emotion. I end up resenting everybody for being normal. I take a turn for the dark. Chaotic Neutral is the tone of the day. I don’t care about the law or tradition, but I also don’t particularly care about others, unless they care about me.
I’m watching a lot of House; I’m not sure the misanthropic doctor is a good influence on me, but he makes me feel less alone. He’s like me in other ways: alone, angry, and hyper-rational in a way none of my peers has ever managed to be. Foreman (the black character on the show) is just a lesser version of House for most of the seasons. Why would I want that? I lie, almost compulsively. I take advantage of the fact that everybody knows I’m smart, and I use my wits like a cudgel, to beat people into submission. I make them question their intelligence, I insult them so subtly that they derive the insult on their own and don’t even blame me. I feel like I should be alienating everybody I know, and instead I just make myself into an enigma. I find this fitting. After years of not knowing myself, it’s somebody else’s turn.
Through high school, I don’t know why I keep doing sports, whether it’s to prove that I’m ‘black enough’, or because I like them. Maybe both? Either way, I never particularly excel. I try hard at them all through high school, but I’m just too small. Ironically, I’m afraid to try anymore in math. If I fail, I’ll be another black man who can’t do math. Nobody will see me as a white man who can’t do math, I’m sure. Everybody who sees me sees me as black, with a little bit of something else (or perhaps just brown). Nobody sees me as white, with a little bit of something else. I’m not sure why this asymmetry bothers me, but it does. I switch to Economics, then Philosophy, then Linguistics. I never do math again, despite loving it to this day.
I go off to college, and everything changes. Nobody there is like me, but everybody likes me. Everybody loves me. I make friends easily, more than I know what to do with. I kiss a girl for the first time. The next morning, she absently strokes my chest and murmurs ‘you have pretty skin’. It’s the first time I’ve felt affirmed, the first time I’ve heard that outside of my family.
I realize what bothered me so much about never being able to create an appropriate avatar. All this time, I’d thought that I wanted to be able to see my character as me. What I really wanted was for ‘me’ to be a character. I wanted other people to have thought “people might choose to play that”, and put it in a book or a game, because then I’d know that somebody would ever choose ‘me’. The fact that I was never a choice meant that nobody wanted “me” enough to even have “me” as a choice.
Final Fantasy XIII comes out. Sazh is the new black character. He’s nothing like me. He’s very emotional. He’s very protective. He’s not angry. He spends a few key moments of the story BEING angry, for legitimate reasons, but his anger does not consume him, and he reacts to it with disgust. He’s funny. He’s cool. He’s…a bit old for a Final Fantasy game. I like that. I’ve always felt a bit old. It doesn’t matter that he’s not like me. He’s likable. Relatable. A real character. He’s supposed to be so. He’s not comic relief. Not a brute. He’s basically the hardest party member to min-max around, and still keep the cool characters in, but I do so. Is this all I was looking for? I think it was. I wasn’t looking to make every character ME. I just wanted someone like me, so I would know someone could like me.
*On that note, I find it interesting that Street Fighter 2 chose between the following three famous black boxers:
And decided on Mike Tyson (the middle one).
Inspired by this wonderful post.