3D Artists are fixing the way hairstyles are seen in the gaming worldSun 09 Jan 2022
When gamers booted up the shooter-RPG hybrid Outriders last year, only a few options for characters could possibly be considered a Black hairstyle. All of them fell under the tired tropes of minifros and dreads with the textures wrong, and patterns looked unkempt.
However, when only a few years ago programmers modelled afros on cauliflowers.
“Black hair has been bad forever in games—from the worst box braids to the raggediest of dreads to even messing up naturals at this point. Like, you’ll see a character and think, ‘Sure, you got a close fade, but I don’t know where your hairline is fam,’” said Kahlief Adams, host of the Spawn on Me podcast that highlights people of colour in the gaming industry.
Last year, Oakland-based artist and UC Santa Cruz assistant professor A.M. Darke had had enough. She started recruiting Black artists for the Open Source Afro Hair Library, the industry’s first free database of 3D-modeled Black hairstyles. The library, slated to launch on Juneteenth 2023, will function as a source for usable 3D assets for gaming, animation, and other ventures 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 the hairstyles are used.
“All of us can be caretakers, all of us can be stewards, all of us can look at the work and think about how to use it ethically and point out unethical practices. I want to create a space that’s open for all Black folks to have this conversation about what we want this to be,” said Darke, 36, who teaches Digital Arts, New Media, and Performance Play and Design.
Darke realized the need for an open-source platform dedicated to Black hair while she was working on a project of her own in 2019. Though not a 3D artist herself, she was scanning for Black hairstyles on popular 3D asset marketplace websites like CGTrader and TurboSquid. And she discovered they had no effective way of looking for Black characters.
“I found the relevant keyword that did result in the return of more Black characters. But then look at the people that it returns. Look at the depictions of these digital objects, the Jim Crow era mammies and the minstrels, and yet I can’t find a twist out,” she said.
Good looking at Black hair in games is such a rarity that when it’s done right, it’s cause for celebration. Sony studio Insomniac was widely praised for its take on Miles Morales, a Spider-Man of Afro-Latino descent whose crisp line-up and fade easily took the crown for gaming’s best hair in 2020. It was a massive improvement over the character’s struggling hairline in the series’ first instalment two years prior. A Black character featured in a trailer for the upcoming God of War sequel also stirred excitement because of her beautifully realized loss. There are entire Twitter accounts dedicated to spotlighting it.
For Darke, the solution is to have Black artists create their own people’s looks. And recruiting for the project was as much about finding ways to support talent as it was finding those qualified to participate.
“With every problem, chances are there’s already some Black people who are thinking about this, who are working on this, know how to do it, and just we have not asked them,” Darke said. “My thoughts were, ‘We know how to do this, but may not have the time, the material and communal support to the author on our visions.’”
Through grants she’s earned, Darke has been able to provide the first round of six 3D artists $1,500 (AED5,509) stipends for their contributions. Each artist provides a single character bust with at least nine unique hairstyles, and they have complete freedom.
But creating hair types of all kinds is a challenge, according to H.D. Harris, one of the 3D artists working on the Afro Hair Library. Black hair, in particular, can be even more difficult considering the curls and the unique textures of Black hair and how it interacts with characters, environments, and other geometry. But it’s not impossible to overcome. While developers are pressed for time to meet release deadlines, the dearth of good Black hair speaks more to a lack of representation.
Although the Afro Hair Library is still more than a year out, the public can already view several examples of what to expect. In addition to more accurate and clean-looking depictions of Black hair, the library also includes other designs that are dazzling, creative, colourful and unlike anything seen in most games.
Jovan Wilson, another 3D artist and lifelong gamer working on the Open Source Afro Hair Library, said that working on assets for the library has been therapeutic for her. She remembers playing the 2004 Everquest spinoff Champions of Norrath as a kid and wishing so badly that there were in-game hair options that matched her kinky curls.
“I hear a lot of people say, ‘Why does it matter?’ Because it means a lot, you know? You want to see yourself. I’ve seen so many kids faces just light up when they see dolls and characters that look like them. It means something. So seeing this project for the first time was like time for me to heal my inner child,” Wilson said.