Comic books and video games are more than just child’s play; they have everything to do with the consciousness of a society. Consider how the comic book character Thor, represents the Nordic god of thunder, by the same name, or how Hercules represents Greco-Roman mythology. Comic book heroes the Flash and Quicksilver are drawn from the Greek god of speed, Hermes, while Aquaman and the Submariner are drawn from the Greek god of water, Neptune.
Comic book heroes also reflect national identities. Who could deny the personification of the American self-image in Captain America or Superman? Who could miss the appeal to Irish folklore in the Green Lantern, or the appeal to the Swiss legend of William Tell in heroes such as the Green Arrow?
Comic book heroes personify societal mythology, and mythology tells people who they are and what they can be. A society that only imports its superheroes, but never produces heroes of its own, is a society that will always look to others to solve its social and environmental problems.
Ghanaian computer game designer and co-founder of the company Leti games, Eyram Tawia, believes that it is time for Africa to tap into its own mythology, folklore and legends to create an pantheon of African heroes to take their place alongside of those that have been generated by European mythology.
Tawia says that there are many African folk stories, and historical figures, whose archetypes can be mined and made into contemporary superheroes. He said, in a recent interview on the BBC, that people in Africa and around the world need to know that “there’s a Shaka Zulu who can chant thunder … and drive away wars, and fight pirates in Somalia.”
Making African superheroes internationally popular is a way of exporting African culture. Tawia argues that the best people to do this are the Africans, themselves. “Africa needs to make its superheroes known to the world,” he told the BBC, “They don’t need anyone coming to save them, or give them food, or to fight Malaria; we need our own heroes. We can reclaim our own heroes and transform them into today.”
Tawia is no doubt onto something. There is a close relationship between gaming, which is one of his specialties, and comic book heroes. Karen Rider, who writes about markets, recently discussed the benefits of gaming and the creation of fictional characters in the May, 2013 edition of The Writer magazine.
Rider said that many video and mobile games involve role-playing. She said that such games stimulate curiosity, creativity and learning, strengthen relationships with family and friends, develop abstract reasoning, teach cooperation and teamwork, and trigger innovation.
Moreover, a well-designed role-playing game provides “players with narrative structure, boundaries, rules and consequences for the choices” that gamers make, all of which are part of the comic book culture as well. Like Tawia, Rider draws a connection between fiction and the underlying thoughts and values of a society.
“Players express ideologies and values through visuals, narrative development and game mechanics,” she said. “These games require cunning negotiation tactics,” and the ability to analyze and manipulate facts, clues or resources in pursuit of a goal.
Rider argues that by putting oneself inside the head of a fictional character one becomes more self-aware and understands other people better. “Choosing a role that is either good or evil, players witness the effects of their actions and choices on the hero’s persona … this kind of game fosters self-reflection and understanding of human nature,” she said.
Tawia, who has developed African-themed games such as Kijiji, which means “warrior”, would probably agree. In a conference on gaming, earlier this year, Tawia led a discussion on “The Emerging Landscape of African Game Development” and pointed out that video game creators have had to be sensitive to the social and political effects of the themes and ideas behind their content. Comic book and gaming fantasies are drawn from society, but they also impact society in positive and negative ways.
Still, Tawia sees hope in the future of African heroes. “I think we have our own superpowers because there is so much voodoo and stuff here,” he said laughed. “We see the future in creating [heroes from African mythology, history and folklore] and creating our own brand.”