DoctorHair spends way too much time thinking about video games. He is constantly torn between two worlds: that of a media-consumption, and that of content creation. What good are ideas if you don't devote any time toward expressing them?
Destructoid's own Jonathan Holmes recently wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about the representation of black characters in videogames. For an article which dared to ask gamers to consider the existence of imperfections within the medium of games, it sparked surprisingly little controversy and even less anger. In fact, the vast majority of the article's comments were composed of one of two things: calm criticism about the facts within the article itself, and good-natured musings between commenters about the various little implications that the data within the article suggested.
One remark, by a user named Megamatics, was of particular interest to me. He submitted for consideration a few black characters who had been left out of the article, one of whom was SEGA's Sonic the Hedgehog. He explained that his primary reason for considering Sonic "black" was his erstwhile Saturday-morning portrayal by famous Urkel-er Jaleel White.
Now, obviously, Sonic the hedgehog isn't a black man. He's blue, and not a person. But he's not just an animal, he's an anthropomorphized animal with lots of human traits and race is a very commonly-observed human trait. Is it incorrect to attach certain human traits to characters like these? Where does one draw the line?
Previous to reading Megamatic's comment, I had given very little thought to this subject. However, it did cause me to realize that I'd always considered a different character from the series to be black: Knuckles the Echidna.
Full disclosure: I was a Nintendo kid, so my first substantial experience with the Sonic cast outside of the cartoons was the GameCube port of Sonic Adventure 2. In this game, every character has specific theme music, as well as songs that only play during their stages. Knuckles's music selection is a bit unique in that it's almost entirely vocal music sung from the perspective of Knuckles himself. And--I'm just going to come out and say it--it's all rap.
I am very aware that rap is not exclusive to any one race, and I'm certainly not trying to imply that only black characters can be represented by rap. However, this particular rap is all explicitly from the perspective of Knuckles. Nearly every song has the black artist performing it refer to himself as Knuckles several times, while other tracks simply describe the details of a specific level from a first-person perspective. As far as SA2's music is concerned: Knuckles literally IS a rapping black man.
I was actually shocked to find that, as far as I can tell, Knuckles has NEVER actually been voiced by a black man. Scott Dreier's performance in SA2 didn't really give an impression either way, so I'd always assumed it was a black voice due to all the accompanying theme music.
Am I wrong to consider Knuckles "black"? Is Megamatics wrong to consider Sonic "black"? Are people who consider them to be "white" right, or less wrong? Why?
If I have a "point", so to speak, I suppose it's that anthropomorphic characters are human-esque by the very nature of their design. It is impossible to exclude them completely from the categories we use to define humans. In the case of Knuckles, I think the association with black culture was pretty deliberate on SEGA's part when they made Sonic Adventure 2. I may have "decided" he was black when I was 11, but I think that decision holds up pretty well to scrutiny.
While there may not be a way to definitively tell what race a blue hedgehog or a red echidna is, in human terms, it's an interesting little gray area to consider. What does it mean for a specific race when a company very obviously tries to make a cartoon animal resemble them through superficial qualities? Is it a compliment, or an insult?
And, most importantly, which of these critters are our redneck family members supposed to hate?