On Video Game Voice Acting, On-Screen Representation, and Inclusive Casting

More white voice actors should step down from their roles as characters of color.

This week, famous actors like Kristen Bell and Jenny Slate have stepped down from their voice acting roles as characters of color in shows like Central Park and Big Mouth. It’s a move of recognizing white privilege — and, more importantly, addressing it — that the voice acting industry in video games should follow.

In a statement on her Instagram, Slate wrote that “Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people. I acknowledge how my original reasoning was flawed, that it existed as an example of white privilege and unjust allowances made within a system of societal white supremacy, and that in me playing ‘Missy,’ I was engaging in an act of erasure of Black people.”

Bell also provided a statement on her own Instagram, stating, “Playing the character of Molly on Central Park shows a lack of awareness of my pervasive privilege. Casting a mixed-race character with a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed-race and Black American experience. It was wrong and we, on the Central Park team, are pledging to make it right. I am happy to relinquish this role to someone who can give a much more accurate portrayal and I will commit to learning, growing, and doing my part for equality and inclusion.”

Voice acting has been more complicated to discuss in terms of diverse talent than on-screen acting. After all, theoretically, voice acting allows anyone to play the part of… anyone. Your race shouldn’t play a part in who you have the chance to play since all that’s coming through on the screen is an actor’s voice. But this is not and has never been how the voice acting industry has operated, especially in video games.

Even though video game casts are more diverse than ever, the talent doesn’t often reflect that. Kait Diaz (Gears series), Nadine Ross (Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End), Chloe Frazer (Uncharted series), Clementine (Telltale’s The Walking Dead), and Maya Brooks (Mass Effect 3) are just some women of color in video games who are voiced by white women. Mirage (Apex Legends), Delsin Rowe (inFamous: Second Son), Pagan Min (Far Cry 4), Kai Leng (Mass Effect 3), Dudley (Super Street Fighter IV), Balrog (Street Fighter series), Rico Rodriguez (up until Just Cause 4), and Kojo Agu (Halo 3: ODST) are some of the men of color who are voiced by white male voice actors. This is even bleaker when one considers how few characters in video games are people of color.

nadine ross

And the talents behind these roles, while skilled at their craft, receive many of the accolades, while Black voice actors and voice actors of color get ignored. Black voice actors and voice actors of color aren’t always given the opportunity to play characters who look like them, let alone play characters who don’t. Cases like white leads of blockbuster franchises, like Kratos in God of War (2018), being voiced by voice actors of color are exceptions, not the rule. While the notion of meritocracy is extended to white actors, this isn’t usually extended to non-white ones.

As a piece on the casting for characters of color in video games at The Verge, written by Alan Wen, notes, the secretive nature of the games industry doesn’t help this problem.

“Due to the highly confidential nature of the games industry, actors often don’t even know what game they’re appearing in, and when it comes to reading a role at an audition, the character breakdown can be equally as opaque,” Wen writes. “A white actor might not even be aware that they’re auditioning for a person of color role, and vice versa.”

This is what happened with Laura Bailey, who voices Nadine Ross in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. In response to the criticism, the actor put a statement on Twitter clarifying the casting process for the character, of which she had no physical concept when she auditioned for the role. “It wasn’t until we had rehearsed and arrived for our first day of filming that I saw the concept art for Nadine. One of the very talented artists at Naughty Dog had come up with a beautiful design for her, and it happened to look… very different than me. And that was difficult. Not because it changed anything about my performance. Nadine was the same woman. She had the same background, the same personality, the same strength. But suddenly, because she had a different skin color than I did, there was a chance some would deem my portrayal unacceptable.”

As Wen explores in the article, for many auditions, developers use the practice of casting blind by just listening to audio files. “Blind casting — also referred to as nontraditional casting — was meant to allow people from marginalized backgrounds to play roles that had been written as white. But if a white actor is taking an underrepresented role, then it’s clearly not working.”

And it isn’t, for that’s assuming the talent pool is even and has no limitations; that systemic issues don’t exist, and that marginalized people tend to have as many opportunities as nonmarginalized people do. As Kimlinh Tran from developer Chucklefish says, “It’s only fair if the talent pool is a 50-50 split between the marginalized and the not so marginalized. You’re not trying to say the best person we could find is a white person to play a black person when you only have 5 percent black people in your talent pool instead of half.”

As Wen states, it’s hard to pinpoint whitewashing and erasure in voice acting solely on casting directors or actors. But there is a responsibility on developers in positions of privilege and in charge of these decisions to cast marginalized people. This doesn’t apply to just roles for cisgender characters of color, either.

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tell me why game

While there has been criticism of the writing for The Last of Us Part II‘s Lev, who is a trans boy of color, by people in the trans community, he has also resonated positively with many trans people. A not-insignificant reason as to why is because he is voiced by Ian Alexander, someone whose identity correlates to the character he’s playing and who likely had input on the authenticity of Lev’s writing in addition to the trans developers who worked on the character.

Elise Baldwin, Audio Director at Microsoft, revealed on the Microsoft Pride 2020 stream that the game’s team focused highly on — among many inclusive practices — inclusive casting. Ideally, for the team, every actor would have lived experiences that correlated to the role they were playing.

This was actually a rather complicated process, especially in regards to finding transgender talent to audition for the role of Tyler Ronan, who is one of the two main characters and is a trans man. Baldwin elaborated on how most casting databases have designated male and female voice actors, so directly going to agencies for casting calls was never going to be very productive. Additionally, despite asking specifically for cisgender actors to not apply for the role, they still did.

Since you can’t legally ask someone for their gender identity, Tell Me Why‘s casting directors needed to use unconventional methods to find talent. This consisted of Instagram diving, YouTube watching, and exploring “deep internet rabbit holes” to deepen the talent pool for auditions. Eventually, they found a perfect fit: August Black. And, most notably, through the diligence of the localization team, Tyler is voiced by a trans voice actor in every localization, which Baldwin also noted is the first time this has been done for a video game.

So it’s clearly something that can be done — and that the white actors who have stepped down from appropriative roles, like Bell and Slate, know they should have already been fighting against. This has been a problem for long — it’s just that it’s taken some privileged voice actors until now to actively examine that privilege.

As Black Lives Matter continues to grow as a conscious global movement, it’s expected that more white actors in the animation industry will follow suit. The video games industry, especially considering its dearth of marginalized representation both on and off-screen, desperately needs to do the same. It’s time that there’s at least a minuscule industry-wide effort to combat white supremacy’s effects on the talent that voices the characters we get to know and embody.

A previous version of this article listed Elise Galmard, Narrative Designer at Dontnod, as a speaker of note when it was Elise Baldwin, Audio Director at Microsoft. It has been corrected and we regret the error.