* This article was originally published in June 2022. The Open Source Afro Hair Library is launching on Juneteenth (June 19) 2023. 

The Open Source Afro Hair Library is coming to help the gaming industry achieve a long-overdue, higher level of racial inclusivity.

If you’re a Black hairstylist or have worked on Black clients, you certainly know that the look and texture of Black hair is different from that of other races. It’s often thicker, coarser, kinkier and coilier, depending on the individual’s exact hair type. Common Black hairstyles usually differ from those of other races. Care and maintenance are different; moisture is everything. And of course, Black hair moves much differently than other hair textures.

Unfortunately, these differences are not always celebrated—or even considered—in the world of video games. The gaming industry is notorious for its terrible representations, or lack thereof, of Black hair. Launch any game or app where you get to create your own character and you’ll probably see what the issue is. Type 3a to 4c hair is notoriously difficult to find. The selection of Black styles (if there is any selection at all) is typically small and includes poorly designed spherical afros, ambiguous buzz cuts, or tube-shaped locs. Texture and movement are afterthoughts, making the styles look unkempt or stereotypical.

The Open Source Afro Hair Library

This discussion has been mounting within the video game community for several years: what can developers do to make their games and character creation options more inclusive? This is where the Open Source Afro Hair Library will come into play. Conceptualized by UC Santa Cruz professor A.M. Darke, the database is scheduled to launch on Juneteenth 2023. The project,which will be the first free digital collection of Black hairstyles modeled in 3D, aims to provide game developers and animators with creative and diverse hair options for their Black characters. The unique styles are illustrated by a talented selection of six young African American artists who know their own culture’s hair best, and who desire to share their creations with the gaming community that they love so much.

Game developers lament that it’s difficult to get the textures of Black and African American hair right. However, Black players feel that developers’ complacency with mediocre or too few designs is not inclusive, and even offensive. After all, the Black community has much more than just a couple of hairstyles, and a lot of aspects of game design are just as challenging. Hearing developers make excuses instead of putting in the work makes people of color feel unseen, despite being a large chunk of the gaming market. To put it most simply, being pushed aside hurts the feelings of Black gamers. Eliminating this issue is one of the main goals of the Afro Hair Library.

Ask a Stylist: How Do We Get it Right?

NYC-based hairstylist Stacey-Ann Houston (@stacceyann) would particularly like to see a focus on getting the movement of different textures right.

“We have different levels of curl patterns,” she points out. “If you’re doing loose curls, the movement and the bounciness of the curls should fit with the curl pattern. And if you’re doing something more like a 4c type of hair…there’s not a lot of movement.”

She advises creators to consider the style as well, which can also change the movement of the hair.

The Importance of Accurate Representation

Concerning the depths of this argument, some creators and gamers wonder, what’s the big deal? It’s just gaming, not exactly a representation of real life. The reality is that it’s a joy to be allowed to make a character look however you want. Many gamers go to certain lengths to make their characters look as much like them as possible, wanting to fully immerse themselves. Black gamers are no different; they desire that same experience. But without the option to endow your character with your real-life hairstyle, or even one that represents your culture in a pleasing way, some of that joy and immersion is lost.

This issue can have an especially negative impact on young gamers, who may develop feelings of otherness and inadequacy from not seeing themselves in their favorite media.

Houston worries about it affecting her young daughter, who enjoys playing the popular online game Roblox. “She asks me for money to buy hairstyles,” she explains, “and when I look at it, I’m like, wait a minute. There’s nothing that really represents my daughter’s texture that she can pick for her avatar.” But she also feels that, because of projects like the Open Source Afro Hair Library and the ongoing discussion of Black hair discrimination and inclusivity, we are moving in a largely positive direction.

Stacey-Ann Houston is an NYC-based Ulta stylist and an expert in natural hair textures. - Stacey-Ann Houston

Stacey-Ann Houston is an NYC-based Ulta stylist and an expert in natural hair textures.

Stacey-Ann Houston

We know that all hair is good hair. Beauty professionals are in the business of making people feel beautiful, and even if a client’s hair requires more or different care based on its texture, a stylist’s goal is to reach that perfect end result for them. Everyone deserves to feel good about their hair, no matter what it looks like naturally. It should be the same with our representations in the gaming world.

“I’m just so happy that they’re working on this,” Houston says of the Afro Hair Library. “They’re going to make a lot of girls and guys happy out there.”

 To subscribe to the Open Source Afro Hair Library, go here. 

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