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Black video game characters finally get their due in Dateline: Bronzeville

Artist Philip Mallory Jones previews his ambitious project depicting life in Bronzeville circa 1940.

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Black people are rarely portrayed in video games as anything other than stereotypes or ciphers. The few African-American characters who inhabit virtual worlds—whether Grand Theft Auto or Street Fighter—are typically gangsters, athletes, or sassy comic-relief types like Augustus "Cole Train" Cole, the thinly drawn professional sports star turned soldier from the Gears of War series—he's primarily defined by his imposing physicality and profane one-liners. More recently people of color in video games seem like props or extras, their personalities so stripped that their inclusion appears to be simply for the sake of diversity.

Such caricature is part of what makes Philip Mallory Jones's Dateline: Bronzeville, now on display as part of an exhibit of the same name at the Dorchester Art and Housing Collaborative Center, so welcome—the Atlanta multimedia artist's depiction of African-Americans is as three-dimensional as the graphics. Players walk in the spit-shined shoes of Runny Walker, a fictional photojournalist and columnist for a newspaper (based on the Chicago Defender) called the Chicago Advocate. There's a lurid murder mystery for Walker to solve, but the true draw of the game is immersing yourself in the people and places of Bronzeville in 1940, back when the south-side neighborhood was the bustling Black Metropolis, a cultural and economic hub filled with influential residents like Louis Armstrong, Gwendolyn Brooks, and a host of other black intellectuals, musicians, and artists.

Jones, a Bronzeville native, depicts the blackness of his characters in all its many shades, literally and figuratively. The cast is full of sinners, saints, and everything in between. They're complicated—in other words, they're human beings.

"It's not supposed to be simplistic," Jones says. "It's not to compromise who these people were. In this small 15-block plot of land, you had artists, entrepreneurs, thinkers, inventors, religious leaders, hoodlums, hustlers, and ordinary people—all at the same time. It was vibrant, ingenious, nuanced, and complex."

Contemporary first-person video games usually take thousands of hours of manpower to produce. It's impossible for one artist—especially one without game-developing experience—to capture the soul and complexity of an entire neighborhood during a specific time period. Dateline: Bronzeville is incomplete, and won't be released until at least 2017, which means this particular exhibit isn't a sample of a game so much as a skeleton of one. The show includes vivid prints of screenshots, a virtual tour of Walker's office, a slide show of additional scenes, and a display of Jones's vintage family photos and historical material, much of which has been scanned and digitized into the game for authenticity. The black-and-white snapshot of a three-year-old boy perched on Walker's desk? That's actually a picture of Jones's father.

"It's a blend of the fictional and the real," Jones says. "It's hard to call it a video game, really. I have a somewhat elusive idea: to go for an experience beyond distraction and come to a point where you can understand and experience the context and the environment of this amazing and electric place."

But until Jones secures enough funding to hire help for the engineering, programming, debugging, and dozens of other tasks needed to flesh out the project (a 2013 Kickstarter campaign fell short of its $75,000 goal), the current state of Dateline: Bronzeville is a what-if, a tantalizing preview of what could happen if someone cared enough to author a game that depicts blacks as thoughtfully as Jones does.  v

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