This former Winnipegger is trying to show his daughter different kinds of beauty with an all-black video game
'There's no thought behind what those black characters look like,' in most games, says Derek Ng-Cummings
A former Winnipegger is creating an arcade-style street-fighter video game with a difference: all of the characters in the game are black. And it's all thanks to what happened after his young daughter watched the Disney movie Frozen.
"She's half-black, half-Chinese," said Derek Ng-Cummings, a studio director at Kabam, a mobile gaming company in Vancouver.
"She got my hair, so it's really curly. She started feeling like she wasn't pretty because of her hair. She wanted to look like Elsa," the main character in Frozen.
We're always outdated. We always have the afro, the baggy pants, the gangster look. The thought process going into making these characters is not the same as if it was a Caucasian character.- Derek Ng-Cummings
Ng-Cummings said he tried to convince his daughter that there are different types of beauty by showing her plenty of black cartoon princesses — but he found almost none.
"It really stuck with me, and I just started realizing that I was part of the problem."
As a studio director, Ng-Cummings has worked on everything from NBA to Marvel games.
But one day about two years ago, he looked around his office and sank in his chair.
"I looked around the studio and I realized that I was the only black person in my studio, and the only black person of my stature," he said.
"I make content and I make video games and this doesn't reflect anybody except for Caucasians."
Representation of black characters 'outdated'
After more research, Ng-Cummings started creating Blacklash, a street-fighter game that features only black characters.
Ng-Cummings says there's more to representation in video games than just making more characters black.
"We're all guilty of, 'We'll just throw a black character in there,' but there's no thought behind what those black characters look like," he said.
"We're always outdated. We always have the afro, the baggy pants, the gangster look. The thought process going into making these characters is not the same as if it was a Caucasian character."
He uses the example of the first time he played a game with black characters.
"I was all over that game. Then when I got into 'create character' mode, I was so devastated because I couldn't pick anything other than gold chains, baggy pants," he said.
"I'm very into fashion. I like my skinny jeans. I wanted to make myself look like myself, and I couldn't do that."
One way programmers can create more diversity in their games, he says, is by being intentional with the features of black characters.
"In black culture, you can actually tell where they're from, what part of Africa or South America they're from," he said.
"Everyone knows where you're from just based on your features, and I don't think that gets recognized enough. Just from their forehead, their nose, their cheeks, their lips, the skin tone, their hair. No one takes that into consideration."
'Daddy, that character looks like you'
Blacklash is a solo project for Ng-Cummings, and he's expecting to be working on it for at least another year before it's ready to play. Meanwhile, his daughter is watching his progress.
"My daughter looks at my game sometimes and she says, 'Daddy, that character looks like you.' I thought that was awesome," he said. "That's exactly what I'm trying to get at. I want kids to look at that and think, 'That looks like my dad.'"
And in the end, he hopes his daughter is proud of herself, and of him.
"I don't want her to grow up knowing that I work in the industry, and I didn't do anything about it."