Tomorrow, the United States will inaugurate its first black president, Barack Obama. In honor of this watershed moment in American history, I thought we should pay tribute to another African-American trailblazer: the first black video game character. After some searching, I believe I've found him.
Thirty years ago (1979), the first obviously black video game character appeared in Basketball, programmed by Alan Miller for the Atari 800 home computer. That same year, a black basketball player also appeared in Atari Basketball in the arcade. Which came first is, at present, uncertain, but the 800 version had a distinguishing characteristic: it was in color. Interestingly, the arcade game only rendered its graphics in black and white, so the Atari 800′s black basketball star — let's call him John Q. Basketball — broke the color barrier in more ways than one.
Atari released an earlier version of Basketball for the Atari 2600 in 1978, but it depicted the players in solid shades of purple and yellow, owing to the 2600′s limited palette. Prior to the Atari 800, home game consoles lacked the technical sophistication to display much detail. By 1979, improved graphics technology allowed programmers to more accurately reproduce skin tones, including those of African-Americans.
It's likely that some black characters appeared in printed video game literature (i.e. instruction and service manuals) as illustrations prior to 1979, but Basketball for the Atari 800 was the first time you could actually tell that a black person was being represented in-game.
Some folks claim that Activision's Boxing for the Atari 2600 created the first black character, but that statement has two problems: (1) Boxing was released in 1980 (after Basketball), and (2) the character represented in Boxing is not obviously racially black.
In a personal anecdote, Basketball for the Atari 800 was the first video game I remember playing, ever. As a very young child (3-4 years old), my brother and I would compete against each other, although his superiority at Basketball would drive me nuts. He could always steal the ball from me no matter how hard I tried to keep it, make a fast break, and score. I also remember being amused at how funny it was to just jump in place, or to make it look like your player was jumping on the other player's head. Ah, those were the days. But I digress.
On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let's raise a toast to John Q. Basketball, the Jackie Robinson of video games, for adding a little more color to the world of digital entertainment. We should also thank Alan Miller for putting him in the game.
[ Special thanks to Sijmen Schouten (aka Mr-Atari) for providing the Atari 800 basketball box scan seen at the top of this article. ]
Update: 01/25/2009 - Brian Deuel has alerted me that Sega's Heavyweight Champ from 1976 contains a character that could be black, although it's really hard to tell for certain. If that's true, then Heavyweight Champ hosts the earliest black video game character we know of, and the fellow in Basketball for the 800 is the first known black video game character in color.