I received The Walking Dead game from my brother Jacob for Christmas one year. At that point, I had been very fond of the television show and wasn’t aware of the Telltale counterpart. The first thing I noticed about the protagonist was that he was different: he was a black male. I remember feeling confused due to the fact that Lee didn’t fit the role I was so accustomed to seeing as a gamer. Sure, he was still a male with a beard, but he wasn’t a white male with a beard. Let me say that I was not uncomfortable or disappointed that he didn’t fit this archetype, but more so shocked.
As a gamer, I am not used to people of color as the protagonist of my games. I’m not even used to seeing my own gender playing the lead role. Ever since I could hold a controller, I’ve always seen the same recycled characters over and over again. It was the tall, dark-haired, bearded man with a strong build. Representation is important, especially within the AAA gaming industry. The fact that I was honestly shocked to see a black man as the protagonist of TWD goes to show that.
Lee Everett is one of the few protagonists of color that I can name who is the sole star of the show. He is not a secondary character or a sidekick. He doesn’t contain any detrimental stereotypes that tend to be slapped onto people of different ethnicities. The same could be said for Clementine, since TWD season 2 features her as the protagonist, but at that point I was already expecting it and wasn’t as taken aback. At that point, I wanted her to be the protagonist.
For those unfamiliar with TWD, You play as Lee Everett, a former college history professor who we first meet inside of a cop car. My initial reaction was that of disdain; of course they would make the black character a criminal. But I later found out that I had judged too harshly, since the crime Lee committed actually adds to his character. As Lee, you’re tasked with protecting a little girl named Clementine. From previous experience playing games with an “escort,” I assumed Lee would be cruel and Clementine would be useless. I was also wrong. She gives Lee more likable characteristics (unless you choose certain dialogue options).
Lee took any underlying stereotypes I had about his character and crushed them. He was not what I expected him to be at all; educated, compassionate, emotional, and strong-willed. He was a refreshing change from the “hardened military man with nothing left to lose” archetype that the gaming industry seems to cater to.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have the benefit of looking white, and therefore any privileges that come with it I can take advantage of. I can walk into a GameStop and see my skin color gracing the box art of almost every video game in there. Even if I come across a game that features a female, she will most likely be white. I don’t feel alienated when I go to buy a game. I don’t have to scrounge to find a video game that features a white person. The same can be said for my sexuality as well. The chances of finding a person of color as the protagonist is already challenging—finding LGBTQIA+ or any other sexuality represented would be even more challenging.
I can’t imagine what it must be like for gamers outside of the industry standard who go to buy a game that always features the same dudebro archetype. Diversity is so important—I can’t stress that enough. Lee Everett has ended up being one of my most favorite video game characters, and I can honestly say he wouldn’t be the same character if he were white. Skin color and/or sexuality is most certainly not the only defining characteristic of a person, but it’s important.
I want more diversity in my games. I need it. I’ll always be ashamed that the first thought I had when I looked at TWD was, “He’s black?” That thought shouldn’t even have to cross my mind. If there were more diversity within the AAA gaming industry, gamers wouldn’t be conditioned to expect the same repurposed material over and over again. I want there to be different ethnicities and genders and sexualities in my games. Lee Everett was a great start. Now I want more.