Commentary Media

Seeking Racial Justice in Real Life and in Games

Shonte Daniels

A recent two-day livestreamed charity event that addressed how #BlackLivesMatter was successful in two ways: It eventually met its fundraising goal, and it proved there is still much to teach gamers about how to address race.

Over the weekend, the Spawn on Me Podcast hosted a two-day livestreamed charity event under the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag to honor the many Black lives that have ended due to police brutality. Specifically, the fundraisera gaming marathon that involved different gamers playing mostly non-violent games, such as the party game Fibbage and NBA 2Ksought to “provide a deliberate space for [gamers] to have fun with the community, and to reflect on the unequal way people of color, and specifically African-American people, are treated by law enforcement.”

As of this writing, the event has surpassed its $5,000 goal, raising funds that will benefit the Eric Garner Fund and the New York City Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, which “continues to organize protests and bail funds for those imprisoned for exercising their 1st Amendment rights on this matter.”

Having watched the event, I would say that it was successful in two ways: It earned more than 80 percent of Spawn on Me’s goal during the allotted time period, only to meet its goal shortly after the weekend was over, and it proved there is still much to teach gamers about how to address race.

Charity events such as this one are not unique to the gaming community. Awesome Games Done Quick, for example, recently held its biannual charity stream in D.C. to help raise money for the Prevent Cancer Foundation. It collected over $1.5 million in donations for the foundation, which provides research and outreach programs to help educate people on how to detect cancer early or prevent it. Gamers have organized other charity stream events to support Child’s Play, an organization that gives games to kids who spend much of their time in hospitals. The difference between the Spawn on Me event and these other events, however, is that it focused on a social issue—one gamers still don’t appear comfortable talking about.

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Likely due to gamers’ resistance to talk about these issues, not many people tuned in to the marathon. While I didn’t follow the marathon for the full 48 hours, whenever I tuned in to the livestream, it was clear the view count was low. The event had been advertised on popular gaming websites like Kotaku. However, when Kotaku raised awareness of the fundraiser, it received comments from gamers who thought the event was unnecessary. “How about you game to raise money for the families of police officers killed everyday by criminals,” said one commenter. Others requested that the organizers change the hashtag from #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter or #HumanLivesMatter, minimizing or erasing the intentional focus on violence against Black people. The commenters’ resistance to acknowledge any sort of discrimination in the gaming community is indicative of how these particular gamers view issues of racial justice both in the real world and in video gamesand they’re not alone.

Joystiq, another online gaming publication, faced similar criticism when it published an article that addressed the difficulties of being a Black gamer. The article focused on the lack of conversations about racial and ethnic diversity both in the game industry and also within games themselves. Commenters, in spite of the article’s thesis, expressed frustration at the publication for claiming Black people who play games have it tough, or that having more Black protagonists in games even mattered. One person wrote, “Please don’t ruin Joystiq with subjects that are completely irrelevant to gaming culture or industry.” Another wrote, “I don’t care about racism or sexism in video games. These issues aren’t going to be solved in our society by game developers.” These gamers seem to think game developers don’t have a responsibility to create racially and ethnically diverse charactersnot to mention sexual orientation and gender diversity—because equality is achieved by disregarding difference completely. But as we all know, that’s just not true.

When I was younger, I shared that mentality. As a young Black girl, I wanted nothing but to be seen as equal to others. The solution was making my race unseen, and living life as if I had not faced any sort of racial injustices so as to avoid being viewed as different from my gaming peers. But as developer Dain Saint points out in the aforementioned Joystiq article, minority gamers are always viewed as different.

“The issues facing black players are the same issues that have been facing black people for decades—misrepresentation, stereotyping and latent prejudice,” Saint said. “When Jason Richardson won Philly Geek of the Year, he talked about the fact that black nerds are often introduced as ‘the whitest black dude I know’—as if it was impossible to be both black and nerdy (no disrespect to Weird Al). So I think there’s this kind of unspoken rule that once you’re ‘accepted’ into nerddom, the experiences that led you there become irrelevant. That kind of whitewashing prevents a lot of black stories from being told, and it’s hard for the community at large to pay attention to issues they aren’t even aware of.”

Saint describes the same experiences I’ve had being a Black person who plays games. When people in my life tell me I “act white” because I don’t speak in a certain vernacular, or because of my passion for games, they are implying there are only a few ways to be Black, and being a nerd who speaks standard English isn’t one of them. Gamers are wildly diverse, yet people both inside and out of gaming culture still believe that being white is the default, and that if you want to be acknowledged you have to “act white” in order to fit in. Thankfully, as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that I don’t need their approval. To the people who refuse to see my race, or acknowledge me: When you pretend my race has not produced injustices for me both in and out of the gaming community, that is the same ignorance that causes more racial discrimination.

But games discriminate just as much as gamers do. As the Joystiq article explains, a study in 2008 found that there are an equal number of Black and white gamers. Another study, from 2011, showed that African Americans were more likely to buy video game consoles than other groups in the United States. And yet, if you look at Black protagonists in games, many are depicted as gangsters or athletes. Black female heroines are almost nonexistent. That also rings true for Latinos and other people of color.

How am I seen as equal in the gaming community when games tend to show Blackness through common racial tropes, if Black people are present at all?

The issues of racial inequality in games is a crucial discussion, and the Spawn on Me event may have helped to spark a dialogue about Blacks in nerd culture, but an ever bigger conversation is needed in order for Black people, and other people of color, to be acknowledged both in real life and in games. The games we play are created through a lens of the real world, and that bridge is not to be ignored. I am Black, I love games, and I hate the racial discrimination going on in our society that is reflected in the games I play.

Better representation of people of color boils down to writers who feel comfortable creating stories with characters who may not resemble them. I almost sympathize with white writers who fear that creating a person of color may result in them being called a racist. Though there are racist depictions of people of color in games, no developer has been shunned from games or even denounced as racist. Even so, that isn’t a good enough excuse. If writers can create fantastical tales of characters who aren’t even human, like robots, aliens, or anthropomorphic animals, or create sci-fi adventures on made-up galaxies, then surely they can create stories with humans who are not white.

It’s important for games—and media as a whole—to provide more diverse representation because it shows different races that they are important and are recognized. When 80 percent of all protagonists are white, games further reinforce the problematic notion that white people are the superior race. They are not, nor is any race, and games should work harder to recognize all the people who play them.

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