Weekly Video Games Thread Pays an Insincere Tribute to Bald Whitem’n

Happy Monday, folks, and welcome to the Weekly Video Games Thread! It’s your one-stop shop for discussing video games, game development, and game culture. But it’s the last part I want to talk about, so bear with me. Let’s go back in time to talk about someone I haven’t consciously thought about for a while—in fact, he’s someone Lovely Bones highlighted in her Games Thread last week. Not the Reverend Cole Lightningface from InFamous, no, but his alias: Xbox 360 and PS3 champion Bald Whitem’n.

We all know Bald Whitem’n. Most of the time, he’s not actually bald; in fact, he typically sports unkempt brown hair and a stubble, the better to tell you that he’s a man who doesn’t have time for personal grooming. On rare occasions he’s not white, either. And he’s certainly not called “Bald Whitem’n.” But you’ve probably played him, and if you were gaming sometime between 2006 and 2013 you definitely saw him. He’s Nathan Drake. He’s Frank West. He’s Niko Bellic, John Marston, the default Commander Shepard, Alan Wake, Heavy Rain Guy, and Marcus Fenix. Even classic gaming heroes got to be rebooted as Bald Whitem’n back then, like Chris Redfield, Castlevania Dracula, and Bionic Commando‘s Nathan Spencer. If you played a Call of Duty game from that era and they let you see the character’s face, Bald Whitem’n was there more often than not. He’d look down at you from a video game cover, on posters and key art, or as the subject of terrible promotional swag. This was your hero, we were told. He was you.

For those of you who didn’t experience the seventh generation of video games in depth, and as a veteran of those days I don’t exactly blame you, this character trope was omnipresent. To be upfront, I’m not saying that we’re in a place where diversity is completely great or “fixed” from back then. Marginalization in games and in the studios that make them remains a serious problem. But there’s generally at least some degree of effort to present *a* level of inclusiveness in the world of games that I really never saw much of back then. Certainly not in the mainstream, Triple-A games. Characters like these were just expected, at least up until the point where they became so frequent that it turned into an industry-wide joke. Games have always been a fraught place for the discussion of politics and society, but the prevalence of this character type at the expense of any kind of diversity amongst the industry’s biggest stars was an undeniable issue. It was kind of an early major step in the “discourse” about representation in games. Some gamers argued, stupidly and cynically, that catering to the “biggest audience” of white boy players was just naturally good business. Others pointed out that diversity is good for its own sake, which it is full stop, but also that maybe having a hero who looked and acted like every other hero on the market wasn’t exactly good for making a commercial impact.

On that note, it wasn’t just that these men all looked the same, oftentimes almost exactly the same (and more than a few times voiced by the same man, Nolan North). The aesthetics and values of Bald Whitem’n were always along for the very cinematic ride. These were hard guys, often fathers or husbands grieving for family members who existed to be motivation. They were mean, serious, and their jokes were caustic if existent. Always “average men,” regular joes who respond to danger in the way you’d like to, just more badass. They were meant to be charismatic, serious, and ostensibly deep, like the games they led. Hell, I think there’s an argument that even the hero of the industry-defining Braid is, if not visually the same (he’s a clean-shaven redhead in a clever 2D puzzler / lazy Mario satire), still the archetype in spirit. In fact, you could say that the Seventh Generation kind of was Bald Whitem’n, sometimes in its triumphs and more so in its tragedies. And there were some mild triumphs, as characters like Niko or Shepard managed genuine depth and complexity. But it was just too constant, too oblivious. After a certain point, many of the era’s most mockable flops—your Hazes, Dark Voids, Too Humans, Homefronts: The Revolution… I could literally go on forever—are memorable mostly for how aggressively they toed this line. I mean, does anyone remember Fracture, starring the super-bald, super-white, and super-boring “Jet Brody?” Because I only learned about it for this header. As a game it’s apparently bad, but as a part of our culture it’s just one stage in a giant punchline.

Maybe The Last of Us passing the torch from Bald Whitem’n Joel to courageous queer girl Ellie was the thing that helped take us from the Seventh Generation to the Eighth. And that was an era where this began to get more interrogated and challenged, if not consistently. It’s very much for the better that this kind of character is at least less prevalent in the industry, though the issues of marginalization, discrimination, stock writing, and caricature that surrounds it are still a bugbear. There are a few modern examples of this character trope, though some find depth (or more often at least a kind of pithy meta satire) in their own way. Like, my headcanon is that Ethan Winters in Resident Evil Village is a dull white guy who thinks he’s Bald Whitem’n but not even able to reach that level of toughness.

Today, Bald Whitem’n is a goofy, almost quaint example of the excesses and cheapness of the video game industry. Even if the tropes that fueled him are there, everyone’s just a little bit scared of being quite so blatant about them. In some ways, I find him almost charming, though I’ve no nostalgia for that time or desire to see him return. He’s so dumb and blunt, the perfect product of an industry this mercenary. There was an actual time where people looked at Uncharted and GTA4 and Mass Effect and decided to ape not the stories or the gameplay or the level design, but just the dudes on the cover.

Well, that was a fun thing to write from midnight to 1AM. Anyway, for the prompt, what was your first conscious experience with Bald Whitem’n? Any favorite games, or times where the trope became especially clear to you? And what did you play this weekend? Personally, I played Mario Tennis Aces and Dredge… but that’ll be for the comments.