'The Last of Us 2' proves games can make us better people

As a Black gamer, I spent decades separating my hobby from my identity out of fear that nobody would want to play with me.

But the more I’ve opened myself up, the more I’ve been surprised to find a solid base of friends through video games. Over the last two years, in particular, identifying with people through gaming has been a godsend — even if the games we play and discuss are often far from perfect.

Video games like Prototype 2, The Last of Us Part II, and Persona 5 have allowed me to make connections with people I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. And games have enabled my friends to understand aspects of the Black experience they previously didn’t. For most of video game history, Black game characters have been treated unfairly at best. Square’s shockingly racist Japan-only RPG Tom Sawyer is a perfect example of how that history has been conveniently forgotten. The 1989 game is bursting with darky iconography ripped straight out of 19th century America. But recent games have given us more thought-provoking and empathetic portrayals of the Black experience.

James Heller of Prototype 2.Radical Entertainment / Activision

Here’s an example of what I mean. Over the last couple years, I’ve become friends with a white guy, who I will call Drew, through a gaming group on Facebook. We talked at length about 2012’s Prototype 2. In it, the Black protagonist James Heller is infected with a supernatural virus that enables him to consume humans — kind of like Venom. Drew pointed out how the portrayal of James drew from harmful real-world stereotypes: that Black people are violent murderers, regardless of what we’ve done or not done. That somehow, you’ll “catch” Blackness if you hang around one of us too long.

“I don’t need acceptance from my family as long as I can accept myself.”

I agreed. When people get treated like Frankenstein’s monster because they have a different skin tone, hair texture, or nose shape, what progress have we made as humans? I could relate to feeling like a literal monster for many years of my life. But being able to talk about those feelings with someone like Drew was a totally new experience for me.

Ellie and Dina enjoy a quiet moment in The Last of Us Part II.Naughty Dog

This goes both ways, and as the stories games tell have evolved, I have been fortunate enough to learn how to relate to people from other underrepresented groups, too. One of my Jewish friends, Steve Demain, and I had an outstanding conversation about the role Judaism plays in The Last of Us II, as Ellie and Dina navigate the zombie apocalypse. It’s a quiet episode in an otherwise intense and brutal story, and although Dina isn’t particularly devout, her faith gives her a sense of connection and kinship. Her memories of attending temple before the world fell apart, along with her now-dead parents and sister, have stuck with me ever since.

“I could relate to feeling like a literal monster for many years of my life.”

In a May 2021 piece for Wired, my super-talented friend Esther Mollica shared her experience with discrimination within her own family—and how Persona 5 helped her find peace with her mixed Asian heritage. In the game, Ann Takamaki’s blonde hair and green eyes lead her classmates to assume she’s sleeping with a predatory teacher. (Eventually, she embraces her status as an outsider through modeling and becoming a secret vigilante crime fighter.)

As someone who has also dealt with hatred because of my skin in the past, sometimes perpetrated by my own family, it was cathartic to identify with Ann and Esther. Persona 5 gave Esther the power to finally say, “I don’t need acceptance from my family as long as I can accept myself,” and that moved me to tears. I totally understood that sense of ultimate pride, that empowerment through gaming.

Ann in a cutscene from Persona 5.Atlus

We still need more diverse games. There are always going to be stories that never get told if enough people insist we don’t need to see new characters or different perspectives, but for games to tell more diverse stories in the years ahead, they need to be made by a more diverse group of people. Although the industry has made important strides where representation is concerned, there’s much more work to be done. As of March 2021, only two percent of professionals in the industry are Black. I’d love to see more games out there that focus on underrepresented communities and individuals. The results of that could truly change the world we live in.

Empathy can change so much. Finding common ground with people outside my community has helped me to realize how we’re all alike, something society long told me wasn’t true. Identifying with people you’ve never met, learning stories you never would otherwise is a huge part of what makes gaming valuable and precious. And these experiences have helped me fully accept that we are all a part of the same species, and deepened my empathy for the people already in my life.