The gaming world now has an achievement unlocked. The first deaf Black character has been cast in a video game!
Meet Hailey Cooper, the First Deaf Black Character in a Video Game
The first deaf Black character in a video game is thanks to Sony and Insomniac Games. Late last year, the companies released “Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales” for PlayStation 5. Miles knows American Sign Language (ASL,) hence the introduction of Hailey Cooper, a new character in the Spider-Verse. Played by Natasha Ofili, Cooper is a street artist and activist in East Harlem who is deaf.
A viral tweet announced her existence, along with the fact that Miles signs.
“Her deafness is an aspect of who she is but it’s not what her story is about,” Mary Kenney, the Insomniac Games writer behind Hailey’s character, told the LA Times. “Her story is about what she wants to do for her community, and how she expresses that.”
Turns out Miles is trilingual. His primary languages are English, Spanish and ASL.
“[Miles] hesitates as he’s signing,” Kenney told the LA Times. “He’s looking for signs. He spells out Hailey’s name because he doesn’t know her name sign yet. And it’s those touches that make it really feel real.”
Playing Hailey Cooper
Natasha Ofili — who plays Hailey — says she saw her video game avatar for the first time when her agent emailed her after the clips circulated on social media.
“I’m still in shock,” Ofili told the LA Times over Zoom, speaking in both ASL and English. “I keep watching myself over and over, and I can’t believe this is real. And it looks like me. I’m still very honored and full of abundance.”
“I keep watching myself over and over, and I can’t believe this is real.”
The Los Angeles native is a fashion designer turned actress. She says she didn’t even know what the game was in her audition – just that the role was for a deaf character. She later learned more about Hailey and fell in love with her. Ofili said she likes that her character’s identity is not wrapped up solely in her deafness. The actress has some similarities to the character she plays. As she told the LA Times, they’re both edgy, independent, and with a sometimes sassy style. Ofili also said that Hailey represents Black deaf culture in her edge, swag, and tenacity.
Playing a video game character is a little different than traditional acting. It involved motion sensors and performance-capture acting. Ofili loved the challenging process.
To Insomniac’s credit, the company met with a group of deaf culture contestants to learn more. They wanted to get it right. Sony was excited when Kenney asked if they could animate a character with sign language. They told her they would have to invent new technology, but said they were ready and excited to do so. Insomniac’s creative director, Brian Horton, made sure the game was thoroughly accessible. Whenever a character signs, subtitles automatically appear. Ofili also recorded her lines in a vocal booth for players with low visibility.
Horton told the LA Times that the studio is committed to allowing as many players as possible to play. “I think you’re going to see this trend happening in games across the board,” he added.
Natasha Ofili’s Other Roles
This isn’t the first time Natasha Ofili has been animated. She was also the first Black deaf actor animated in a TV show called “Undone.” In Netflix’s “The Politician,” she played principal Karen Vaughn. She was slated to play one of the leads in Deaf West Theater’s production of “Eurydice,” but the show was cancelled after opening night due to COVID-19. Writing, producing, and directing are new creative outlets for Ofili, who lost her hearing at 18 months.
So often we see characters in books, movies, and shows represented only by their disability. Ofili pushes for a world where a disability doesn’t make up one’s whole identity.
Hailey Cooper is not the first deaf or hard of hearing character in the superhero universe. In 1999, Echo made her first appearance in the ninth edition of “Daredevil.” The deaf Native American character has photographic reflexes. They allow her to perfectly copy another person’s movements. She even dated Daredevil at one point.
The new Disney+ series Hawkeye will feature Echo, played by Alaqua Cox, who is Native American and Deaf. Also in this show, Hawkeye, played by hearing actor Jeremy Renner, will be portrayed as hard of hearing for the first time on screen.
Hello, my name is Catalleya Storm (they/them). I work to bring awareness to issues impacting the Black, Deaf, disabled and LGBTQ communities. I was born hearing but started losing my hearing in my late teens. I identify as Deaf/HOH, with the understanding that I am apart of both the hearing world and the Deaf world. I believe that we all can bring about positive change in the world, and that’s what I hope to do with the time I have here.
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