Black hair in video games looks horrible. These 3D artists are changing that.


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Two of 3D artist Jovan Wilson’s submissions for the Afro Hair Open Source Library. (Image courtesy of the source)

When black gamers started the Hybrid Shooter-RPG Outriders last April, only four of 24 hairstyle options because the characters could possibly be considered a black hairstyle. Worse yet, all have fallen under the tired tropes of minifros and dreads. And even those were quite atrocious: The textures were wrong and the patterns looked scruffy and sloppy.

Again, just a few years ago, programmers modeled afros on cauliflower.

“Dark hair has always been bad in games – from the worst box braids to the most dreaded dreads that can even spoil natural ones at this point,” said Kahlief Adams, host of the Spawn on Me Podcast, that showcases people of color in the gaming industry. “Like, you’ll see a character and think,” Sure, you’ve got a close fade, but I don’t know where your hairline is. “”

Last year, 36-year-old artist and assistant professor at UC Santa Cruz AM Darke had had enough. She began to recruit black artists for the Open source afro hair library, the industry’s first free database of 3D modeled black hairstyles. The library, slated for launch on June 2023, will function as a source of 3D assets that can be used for games, animation and other projects, as well as an online gallery to inspire and normalize black inclusion. .

By recruiting all black artists and making the database free, Darke plans to create an anti-racist, anti-capitalist and feminist approach to the portrayal of black hair as well as a sense of unified ownership and investment in how hairstyles look. are used.

“We can all be gatekeepers, we can all be stewards, we can all review work and think about how to use it ethically and report unethical practices,” said Darke, who teaches digital arts, new media, and performance play and design. “I want to create an open space for all black people to have this conversation about whatever we want it to be.”

Darke realized the need for an open source platform dedicated to black hair while working on her own project in 2019. Although not a 3D artist herself, she searched for black hairstyles on websites. Popular 3D asset market web like CGTrader and TurboSquid. And she found out that they had no effective way to research black characters.

When she found a workaround using the term “African American,” the results were deeply offensive: animal models, caricatures of the homeless, hypersexualized black women, and “voodoo warriors,” to say the least. name a few.

“I found the relevant keyword that resulted in the return of more black characters,” she said. “But then look at the people he turns over. Look at the depictions of these digital objects, the Jim Crow-era mammies and the minstrels, and yet I can’t find a detour.

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Two of 3D artist Keneisha Perry’s submissions for the Afro Hair Open Source Library. (Images courtesy of the source)

In games like the Elder Scrolls series, Destiny, and other non-NBA sports video games like the WWE 2K series, black hairstyles seem like an afterthought thanks to absurdly limited options where applicable. Black gamers looking for anything other than cornrows, dreads, or an afro are generally out of luck, unless they want to go for a racially ambiguous buzz cut or a bald head.

“It’s either really tall, puffy, and tight, or it’s weird succubus dreads,” Adams said. “There’s not really a in-between where you present this stuff that works really well, where you zoom in and you get the textures and things that you want to see on these characters.”

Games developed in Japan and released in the United States, like Capcom’s Monster Hunter World, have done well, with some titles completely ignoring the existence of textured hair. Monster Hunter World players haven’t seen any Black hairstyles added to the game until the release of a paid expansion nearly two years after its initial release.

For years, the modding community – the gamers who take it upon themselves to add new textures, assets, levels, and other modifications to the games they love – have become the de facto way around this lack of representation. Modder Xmiramira rose to prominence for his designs that give gamers of color these options. But for the more than half of the players playing worldwide on closed platforms like consoles and mobiles, mods are not an option.

“We don’t necessarily criticize the media we consume because it’s so normal,” Darke said. “Like I identified with straight, white, dark and middle-aged guys forever because they’re the protagonists of these stories. And it’s not just in games, so you kinda get used to it. so I think all black people understand this tacitly.

Beautiful dark hair in games is so rare that when done right it is a cause for celebration. The Sony Insomniac studio was widely welcomed for his take on Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino-descent Spider-Man whose crisp make-up and fade easily took the crown of the game’s best hair in 2020. It was a huge improvement over the character untied in the first installment of the series two years ago. A black character featured in a trailer for the upcoming God of War sequel as well aroused excitement because of its beautifully made locs. There are integers Twitter accounts dedicated to bringing it to light.

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Two of 3D artist HD Harris’ submissions for the Afro Hair Open Source Library. (Images courtesy of the source)

For Darke, the solution is to get black artists to create the looks of their own people. And recruiting for the project was as much about finding ways to support talent as it was about finding those who were qualified to participate.

“With every problem, there’s a good chance that there are already black people thinking about it, working on it, knowing how to do it, and we just haven’t asked them,” Darke said. “My thoughts were, ‘We know how to do this, but we may not have the time, the material and community support to draft our own visions.’ “

With the grants she won, Darke was able to provide the first round of six 3D artists with stipends of $ 1,500 for their contributions. Each artist comes up with a unique character bust with at least nine unique hairstyles, and they have complete freedom.

But creating all kinds of hair types is a challenge, according to HD Harris, one of the 3D artists working on the Afro Hair library. Dark hair, in particular, can be even more difficult given the unique curls and textures of dark hair and the way it interacts with characters, environments, and other geometries. But it’s not impossible to overcome. As developers are pressed for time to meet release deadlines, the dearth of good dark hair is more testament to a lack of representation and respect.

“Artists have always worked within the limits of available technology and pushed them to their limits, to achieve their creative aesthetic goals,” Darke said. “And so the problem is, it’s a lack of imagination, an impoverished vision of the dark. So if you can’t imagine the darkness then you won’t.

And the damage isn’t just to the public.

“A lot of blacks and browns these days work on these teams,” said Harris. “When doing hair like ours is pushed to the side or treated as a side project or something we’re working on if there’s time, it sends a message to us and their own team members that not.” only you are less than, you are will not even be considered if we have to spend too much time with you.

“I hear a lot of people say, ‘Why is this important? Because that means a lot, you know? You want to see yourself.

Although the Afro Hair Library has not existed for over a year, the public can already see several examples of what to expect. Along with sharper and crisper representations of dark hair, the library also includes other designs that are dazzling, creative, colorful, and unlike anything seen in most games.

Jovan Wilson, another 3D artist and longtime gamer working on the open source Afro Hair library, told VICE News that working on assets for the library has been therapeutic for her. She remembers playing the Everquest 2004 Champions of Norrath spin-off as a child, and she so wished there were hair options in the game that matched her own kinky curls.

“I hear a lot of people say, ‘Why is this important? Because that means a lot, you know? You want to see yourself. I have seen so many children’s faces light up when they see dolls and characters that look like them. It means something, ”Wilson said. “So seeing this project for the first time was like the time for me to heal my inner child. “

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John C. Dent