While celebrating my 10th Christmas in 1992, I unwrapped a present from my parents, a copy of Streets of Rage 2, a beat ’em up side-scroller for Sega Genesis. One of the playable characters, Eddie “Skate” Hunter, a black teenager, sported a backward red cap, yellow shirt and white shorts and rolled around on skates as he punched and kicked foes. In that moment, I thought for the first time that I saw myself reflected in a video game character that I controlled. That emotional connection probably explains how the game’s music seared itself into my memory — I hum the beat from the first level as I write this.
Outside of sports titles, the video games I have enjoyed have rarely represented my black maleness, which makes the black male representation in Overwatch, the team-based first-person shooter, so pleasantly surprising. Although blundering in representation of black women, Blizzard, the game’s developer, nailed the representation of black men.
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Black men account for three of the 30 playable Overwatch heroes. Lúcio, a support character who can heal and boost his teammates’ speed, hails from Brazil. His dreadlocks bounce about as he glides through the game’s maps on his Rollerblades and utters remarks about his music and equality.
Doomfist, of Nigerian ancestry, offers players a short-range damage dealer who delivers blows with his “Hand Cannon,” which looks like an oversize mechanized boxing glove that covers his entire right arm with spikes over its knuckles. The bald-headed, chocolate-complexioned Doomfist wears tribal paint on his face and torso and voices his various boastful lines in a West African accent.
In Baptiste, a support hero, Overwatch fans get the game’s newest addition. A Haitian combat medic, Baptiste totes a machine gun that unloads bullets at the opposition and launches grenades that heal his teammates. Baptiste speaks in an identifiable Haitian accent and sometimes even breaks out Haitian Creole.
Unlocked & loaded.
SPEC OPS Baptiste and the rest of his items are now available on the PTR! pic.twitter.com/syyIQldFuB
— Overwatch (@PlayOverwatch) March 6, 2019
Each of these characters has his own interesting backstory, engaging persona and attractive aesthetic. Most integral to the game, they each provide an enjoyable experience in their individual way.
I’m at the age now where I ponder fatherhood. My wife recounted something that happened when she was a child. She picked up a white doll, and her father made her put it down and purchased a black doll for her instead. In 2019, kids tend to play with virtual toys. Rather than play with a plastic action figure, they pick up a plastic game controller and play with a computer-generated action figure.
If black kids never get to play with characters that look like them, what messages are they being taught? In a world that often feels hostile to their identity, these representations help create an atmosphere from which positive self-identity can flourish.
The black men most represented in video games are presented as Americans, even if that isn’t outwardly stated. Perhaps the most groundbreaking aspect of the game’s black male representation is that each black man is of obvious sub-Saharan African lineage but not American.
Baptiste is perhaps the most alluring black male character and the most culturally significant, given his Haitian identity — an identity rarely included in popular culture, let alone video games.
Jean Calixte, an Overwatch gamer of Haitian descent, said he rarely sees Haitians in popular culture: “We can literally count on one hand the number of major [pieces of] entertainment that featured Haitian characters. From [The Serpent and the Rainbow] to Assassin’s Creed … I got a sense that the mainstream appears to believe Haitians are a variation of Jamaicans, the most egregious example being Bad Boys 2.”
Matt Shiflet, who makes Overwatch-related YouTube content as the HaitianHomie, delights in playing as Baptiste. “I didn’t realize how much a Haitian hero would mean to me until I got it,” Shiflet said. “Overwatch is my favorite game of all time. I’ve played it for hundreds of hours casually and competitively, and I have countless memories with friends, thanks to the game. Baptiste’s addition feels like I’m being thanked for playing all these years.”
Baptiste connects with Shiflet’s family experiences. “When I play as Baptiste, I hear my uncles talking,” he said. “He’s a medic with voice lines about healing people and taking care of them. I hear my grandma doting over a cut or scrape. He’s got sass, and I hear my mom scolding me. He’s there to offer help and support, but he can also be fierce and kick a– to protect those he loves, and I feel that from all my family.
“When Baptiste released, I realized something: In a virtual world where I can be anything I want, I am proud to be myself. I’m proud to have that option. I’m proud to say, ‘That’s me, that’s the HaitianHomie! That’s my family, my heritage!’… My heart is honestly overjoyed that I have the opportunity to represent my loved ones and myself in Overwatch. For many people, Baptiste is maybe either the first Haitian they’ve encountered in media, and probably first time it’s been positive. I’m glad we Haitians get to introduce ourselves in gaming like this.”