The ‘Killmonger Cut’ Is Everywhere In Games, Here’s Why the Industry Needs to Fix This
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The ‘Killmonger Cut’ Is Everywhere In Games, Here’s Why the Industry Needs to Fix This


The return of Eddy Gordo, the capoeira specialist who’s been a fan-favorite in the long-running Tekken series since his franchise debut 25 years ago, should have been a slam dunk for Bandai Namco. His absence from the critically-acclaimed Tekken 8 was a serious point of contention between series director Katsuhiro Harada and overzealous fans as early as last summer, and his inclusion via DLC was a step towards correcting the unpopular omission.

But news that Gordo would be kicking off post-launch support for Tekken 8 was quickly overshadowed by the public’s reception to his new, updated look. Gordo’s signature dreadlocks had been replaced by the dreaded “Killmonger cut” and Black gamers in particular were not happy about it.

“Eddy’s hair is iconic,” Annabel Ashalley-Anthony tells IGN. Ashalley-Anthony, an author and founder of Melanin Gamers, an online community of Black and brown players promoting diversity and inclusion in the games industry, was among the thousands of gamers peeved by Gordo’s redesign, which was reminiscent of several prominent Black characters featured in some of the industry’s biggest games. “You never needed to do this.”

Eddy Gordo rocking the 'Killmonger cut' in Tekken 8 | Credit: Bandai Namco.
Eddy Gordo rocking the ‘Killmonger cut’ in Tekken 8 | Credit: Bandai Namco.

Gordo became an inflection point for gamers demanding more imaginative depictions of Black hair in the medium, but he wasn’t the only character catching flack among the discourse. “Eddy Gordo is not where the buck should have stopped,” Melanin Gamers’ principal researcher and Annabel’s brother Alan said, calling attention to Miles Morales’ similar redesign in 2023’s Spider-Man 2. “Even though Insomniac did so much right in that game when it comes to representation, I couldn’t believe what they’d done to Miles, especially when his line-up from his own game was so clean.”

From Spider-Man, to Valorant hero Phoenix, to the protagonist in the excellent Prince Of Persia: The Lost Crown, the “Killmonger cut,” as it’s been referred to, has quickly gone from a novelty departure from the stereotypical cornrows, afros and fades typically given to Black video game characters, to the point of oversaturation. Its overuse has become emblematic of an industry more interested in following trends from six years ago than portraying Black existence accurately.“Black people have some of the most diverse hairstyles in the world, but you’d never know that from gaming,” Annabel said. “And it’s really frustrating that it feels like developers have substituted this one hairstyle for the other boring hairstyles we wanted a break from in the first place.”

“I couldn’t believe what they’d done to Miles, especially when his line-up from his own game was so clean.”

The Cultural Impact Of Black Panther

It’s hard to remember a world before 2018’s box office smash Black Panther. Ryan Coogler’s Academy Award-winning adaptation of the America’s first Black mainstream comic hero would become that year’s biggest film and the ninth highest grossing film in history. Imbued with afrofuturist aesthetics, aspirational depictions of African royalty, and fashion lovingly inspired by traditional and contemporary couture of the continent’s many countries and tribes, Black Panther proved that an unapologetically Black production could not only be successful, but a international blockbuster enjoyed by the masses. This critical and commercial darling’s impact would reverberate through pop-culture in ways few cultural phenomenons ever have.

Among the plethora of iconography spawned by the Marvel film, Michael B. Jordan’s revelatory turn as Erik Killmonger stands as its most influential. The ruthless-but-oh-so-charismatic villain of the film was perceived as both antagonist and sympathetic anti-hero thanks to the character’s undeniable swagger. He wore power armor reminiscent of Dragonball’s Vegeta, and most importantly, rocked the coolest depiction of Black hair seen on film since Wesley Snipes’ Blade trilogy: a fade, with a bundle of short dreadlocks parted to one side.

Michael B. Jordan popularized the look in Black Panther | Credit: Marvel Studios.
Michael B. Jordan popularized the look in Black Panther | Credit: Marvel Studios.

Though Killmonger is credited with popularizing the hairstyle, it had first reached prominence online at least two years prior. French model Harry Samba shook the internet’s perception of what was possible with locs when a photo of him sporting the hairstyle went viral.

Samba revolutionizing the look also coincides with a broader trend among the biggest names in entertainment in the mid 2010s. Black celebrities like Jay-Z, Willow Smith, Wiz Khalifa, Zendaya, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar not only helped popularize different styles of locs, braids and wicks, they ushered in a new era of mainstream acceptance. Black Panther took the trend and blasted it into the stratosphere.

Drawn To The Zeitgeist

Like the rest of the world, the collective games industry witnessed the success of Black Panther and how it helped create a new standard for Black visibility in media. It proved that appealing directly to Black audiences wasn’t just viable, it could be lucrative.

“He had this look, this demeanor to him,” Ackeem Durrant, character artist and art lead at Surgent Studios, makers of the upcoming Metroidvania Tales of Kenzera: Zau, tells IGN. “And I guess it just caught fire for those in the games industry because we’re drawn to the zeitgeist. We’re drawn to what’s cool.”

As games that have been in development over the last half-decade finally come to light, players are now seeing just how heavily developers leaned on the Black Panther villian as a key source for contemporary Black style.

“There was such a vacuum of cool people that look like us that after working in isolation for four to five years, by the time their first trailer comes out they’re realizing that everyone else chose the same cut,” Del Walker, an artist, manager, and developer for over 14 years and has worked on big triple-A titles including Halo War 2, The Last Of Us: Part 2 Remastered, and Suicide Squad: Kill The Justice League, told IGN.

Miles sports the look himself in Spider-Man 2 | Credit: Insomniac Games, SIE.
Miles sports the look himself in Spider-Man 2 | Credit: Insomniac Games, SIE.

The saturation of the Killmonger cut is also evident of game development’s larger issues with diversity. In 2021, a survey by the International Game Developers Association found that just 5 percent of developers are Black. It’s hard to realize how narrow one’s perception of Black culture and people can be without having Black people in the room in the first place.

Ironically, in all their admiration of Black Panther’s ability to tear down cultural barriers, the industry failed to learn the most important lesson from how the film balanced success and authenticity: listening to and amplifying Black vision, voices, and creatives.

Durrant has worked at mid-to-large-sized studios including Rare, Bulkhead Interactive, and Slighty Mad Studios. Durrant said working on the kinds of projects studios of this size are known for make it especially difficult to note issues with representation or lack thereof.

“At a place with 200 plus people, there’s only so much back and forth you can do, and only so many voices you can hear,” he said. “And there’s so much at stake in terms of financials, peripherals, how many games you have to make and find success with before your studio goes bust, and so on. All these things are at play when we see developers not take risks.”

“I guess it just caught fire for those in the games industry because we’re drawn to the zeitgeist. We’re drawn to what’s cool.”

For developers willing to push for better portrayals of Black hair and identity, doing so isn’t easy.

“It takes extra time because you’re required to pitch things that otherwise do not appear in most developers’ world, whether that’s the publisher, whether that’s the stakeholder that owns the IP, whether that’s the art director, they don’t know what they don’t know,” Walker said. “They know lightsabers are cool because they’ve seen those movies. When you’re bringing them a Black hairstyle, you have to create something like a pitch deck to be like, ‘here is what I think we should go for, and then here’s what qualifies me to say this.”

As a 14-year industry veteran, Walker says his persistent vigilance about Black representation throughout his career only carried weight once he began locking down senior roles of his own. The problem is, this was after 10 years in the business.

This speaks to a larger issue as the lack of representation in games is also a result of the industry looking to films for inspiration in general.

“When’s the last time I saw a dope Black hairstyle just in Hollywood?” A.M. Darke, artist, game consultant and associate professor of Digital Arts and New Media, Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at UC Santa Cruz, tells IGN. “How many Black folks have had to do their own hair in movies, or just get a simple low fade because they don’t have Black hair stylists on set?”

“If games are pulling from Hollywood, which has its own issues with representation such that they don’t know how to do Black hair, then we’re just in this positive feedback loop of terrible Black hair options,” she continued.

Working Around The Excuses

The wider games industry missing the point on how Black Panther struck its delicate balance between success and authenticity doesn’t mean the work hasn’t continued elsewhere.

Last October, Darke officially launched the Open Source Afro Hair Library after years of collaborating with dozens of Black 3D artists sick of seeing poor and limited depictions of Black hair in video games. The Library functions as a reference point for other artists that want to feature more varied Black hairstyles in their projects.

Darke also wants the Library to be an educational resource, one that could inspire Black youth “who maybe aren’t even in games yet but has that little twinkle in their eye thinking, ‘I would love if I can do this.’”

Since its launch, Darke goal has already gained significant steam. In November, she collaborated with Dove on the Code My Crown project, a 224-page step-by-step guide on creating a wide variety of Black hair textures and styles accurately and efficiently using today’s development tools. A common excuse posited for why Black hair often gets overlooked in games is the technical limitations of rendering hair with more complexity.

Here it is in the new Prince of Persia | Credit: Ubisoft
Here it is in the new Prince of Persia | Credit: Ubisoft

“I specifically chose styles that based on the existing limitations of technology could already be made but we just missed opportunities because people weren’t aware of how simple they were,” she explained. “For example, we’ve seen all these jacked up cornrows for years. But why have we never seen, like, double dutch braids become standard? They’re just two jumbo cornrows. If you’re able to do cornrows with patchy spots, you can double dutch braids.”

Darke’s not alone in her crusade to push developers beyond the Killmonger cut, as well as the afros, cornrows and afros before it. Jay-Ann Lopez, CEO of Black Girl Gamers, says it’s something she’s regularly brought up to developers when doing consulting work for games in production.

“My past as a Natural hair content creator for 8 years really comes into play here,” she said. “There are things that people just don’t know about the diversity in Black hair and how hair physics and behavior can change depending on your texture.”

“I’m cognizant of texture discrimination that often happens in the process of creating characters, even if it’s subconscious,” Lopez added. “So, when I consult on games, it’s not just the game itself I’m aiming to affect – it’s the sentiment that Black people also belong and deserve to be present in the medium.”

Getting It Right

There are a handful of developers who have done right by their Black characters. Games like Horizon Forbidden West were a revelation for Black players not used to games getting, not just hair right, but skin tones too. God Of War Ragnarok’s Angrboda, whose locs are lovingly realized in the Sony Santa Monica sequel, stirred excitement, and so did the surprising breadth of customization options for Black wizards in Hogwarts Legacy. The hairstyles Deathloop’s two playable characters were as slick as the game’s grindhouse presentation. Larian’s Baldur’s Gate 3 as well as Amazon Games’ MMO New World have also included a decent amount of options in their character creators.

“It just naturally made sense that our characters should have as diverse a range as possible to match our potential players,” Charles Bradbury, Art Director of New World told IGN. “We spent a lot of time and energy researching and collecting data both from reference research as well as consultation with multiple subject experts.”

A number of developers who got it wrong have made it up to players disappointed by inauthentic or absent portrayals of Black hair. In 2019, Capcom added a ton of new options to Monster Hunter: World via the Iceborne expansion, and was met with praise.

The Sims, a series centered around portraying the mundanity of real life, had long been bereft of Black hair options. For years, community modders like like XMiramira, Ebonix, and Sheabuttyr filled the void for Black Simmers until the community had enough: more than 85,000 players signed a petition demanding developer Maxis and publisher Electronic Arts to fix the lack of representation in the life simulator, with many more using the hashtag #EAListen to voice their frustrations.

It was enough to get both parties to respond immediately.

“The Senior Art Director pulled me into conversations for research and estimates not long after community discourse took off,” Shannon Munayyer, a concept artist for The Sims 4 told IGN. “Hairstyles actually take quite a long time to make for our game, which meant we needed time to plan, especially as we wanted to ensure authenticity, but it wasn’t long before art teams went to work.”

Munayyer said that artists and directors worked with game consultants, professional hairstylists, and Black creatives in The Sims community for collaborations and feedback on the additions.

Other studios are getting it right by broadening the very scope of what games can be about. When creating character art for Tales Of Kenzera: Zau, a game steeped in Bantu mythology, Durrant says that he’s had the unique opportunity to do the research that so many studios neglect. The result is work that is an unabashed representation of Black culture.

“It just feels nice to be at a studio where we are telling those stories, where I do get to explore the lore and learn about stuff that I had no idea about and then relay that to people in an artistic way,” he said. “It’s what I wanted to do, and it feels like this is just a place that does it.”

It Matters

The players and developers we spoke to believe the industry can move beyond the Killmonger cut and the other unimaginitive depictions of Black hair seen in most games today. Walker says players, Twitch streamers and social media users regularly highlighting excellent examples of Black hair in games is one of the key ways to communicate the importance of representation to game makers. He recalled Twitch streamer P1SM, whose emotional and tender reaction to seeing his Puerto Rican heritage represented in 2020’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales had a huge impact on the internet.

“That went hyper viral. That was much stronger than any PR or comms manager tweet that Insomniac could have done,” Walker said. “It’s just good business to include different types of people in your game.”
Annabel says one of the reasons she started Melanin Gamers in 2018 was because she felt unseen in the media she loved most. So when games do get it right, the feeling is unmatched. “I want to play that game,” Annabel said. “It also leaves me wondering ‘well if these devs can get it so right, so perfectly, what are the rest of you doing?’”

“It’s not just the game itself I’m aiming to affect — it’s the sentiment that Black people also belong and deserve to be present in the medium.”

“It’s about nipping it in the bud,” Alan adds, saying that until there’s an understanding among developers that there are other cool Black hairstyles than just the Killmonger cut, they should expect players to continue cracking jokes about this overused trope online. “Let it be highlighted as an issue now rather than four years down the line because we said nothing.”

Lopez argues that this goes beyond Black people seeing themselves in the games they play. “When calling for ‘representation,’ Black gamers have to be nuanced in our idea of what ‘representation’ is,” she said. “Anyone could argue ‘this character is Black and he has a Black hairstyle.’”

“What we’re really looking for is equity.”

Trone Dowd is a freelance writer for IGN.





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