Why Black Women Protagonists In Video Games Like Rani In ‘The Gunk’ Are So Important
The Gunk for Xbox

Growing up, Black girls and women were few and far between in video games. A Storm in early X-Men games here (1989), a D’Arci Stern in Urban Chaos there (1999). Overall though, representation in gaming, for Black women, has been incredibly limited. That’s why when we get the chance to see protagonists who look like us in new titles, we’re always thrilled about it. The most recent addition to a small but growing list of them is Rani of the new action-adventure game The Gunk for Xbox.

With a powerful suction glove in tow and one other lone human to navigate foreign planets with (her partner Beck, who stays with their ship and acts as a voice of reason), Rani scavenges an alien planet for resources. She runs into challenges and beauty as she seeks to remove a pollutant she calls “gunk” to uncover the remains of an alien civilization she wishes to help save. Rani is smart, resourceful and caring, and she has natural hair — an added bonus.

The Gunk for Xbox

She not only is a welcomed sight as a Black woman character in a game of adventure for those who desire more diversity in their offerings, but she also will certainly be that for young Black girl gamers who rarely get to delve into such quests with characters who look like them. We chatted with Sarah Bond, head of game creator experience and ecosystem for Xbox and a Black woman, about what characters like Rani truly mean in efforts to have more representation in gaming — in the titles and for those who create them.

ESSENCE: We’re starting to see more Black women characters in gaming, but how significant is it to you to have a Black woman protagonist like Rani in The Gunk?

Sarah Bond: When I was first introduced to “Rani,” there were many things I liked about the character design — the art style, her attitude. But it was when I showed her to my daughter that I saw firsthand the impact on-screen representation can have on an audience. That is even more powerful when it comes to games because games have a unique power to let you walk in another person’s shoes. Games make foreign things feel personal. So having gamers experience the world of The Gunk in the shoes of a Black woman protagonist like Rani who’s resourceful, smart and authentic is fantastic. I can’t wait to see more characters like her.

When you were younger, if you were a gamer (even a lightweight one), did you desire that in the characters available in the games you played?

Every child deserves to have the opportunity to see themselves in the world around them. Recently, there was an article that circulated online about a small boy who looked just like a character in Encanto and his excitement in seeing himself reflected in the movie. As a Black woman who grew up in predominantly white spaces, I know and understand firsthand how difficult it can be to feel a sense of belonging when you don’t see anyone else who looks like you in your day-to-day spaces. It can be alienating. And something as simple and familiar as being able to choose to play someone who looks like you in a video game can be an enormous comfort and acknowledgment that people who look like you are seen and valued.

Also unique is that Rani is the lead in an action-adventure game. The norm is to see Black women characters in fighter/shooter titles. In what ways would you say that is important as well (if you indeed think so)?

Video games can be a unifying force in the world. So, it’s important that we have representation of all types of people in all types of characterizations. It’s easy to use the standard tropes and stereotypical portrayals of types of people, the goal is to move the needle to show dimensionality across all types of people. Entertainment in general has been struggling with this for a long time, and while we’re making progress, we definitely have a long way to go.

The Gunk for Xbox

How can we get to a place where we see more Ranis in our video games and to see more Black women and men in positions of prominence in the gaming industry like yourself?

At Xbox we look for ways to showcase, support and drive discovery for games that represent all the cultures of the world. We are focused on making it possible for people to experience the full breadth and diversity of stories that are out there and move beyond what would have traditionally been their comfort zone and experience new stories. The Gunk is an excellent example, and so are games like Soup Pot which is being made by a trio of developers from the Philippines. Their experiences and backgrounds will help them deliver something that we’ve never seen before. Also, She Dreams Elsewhere is a game that I find particularly interesting. It’s from an African American developer who has largely made the game by himself. It explores issues such as mental health and our sense of identity based on his own experiences, which are topics we don’t often see in games.

One of the reasons I chose to work in gaming and technology is to make a difference and create a path for others. It’s going to take all of us working together, creating opportunities, supporting each other, and uplifting each other to generate change. When I first started out, you didn’t see many people who look like me. We’ve made some small progress as an industry, and we have a long, long way to go, but we’re working to create inclusive spaces where Black leaders have the opportunity to grow and thrive.

The Gunk is available now for Xbox Series X and S, Xbox One & PC via Xbox Game Pass & Xbox Games Store

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