Last week, as widespread protests across the United States continued to grow in intensity and videos of police violence against protesters spread across social media, many corporations and industries publicly announced their support for the Black community in America. Among those were members of the video game industry, whose statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and subsequent blackouts and rescheduling of events, were met with mixed reactions from the gaming community. The reactions unfortunately reflect the underlying bigotry that many gamers bring into their play, and that the industry itself has done little to curtail.
On Thursday, Rockstar Games announced that for two short hours, online modes for Grand Theft Auto Online and Red Dead Online would be shut down to “honor the legacy of George Floyd,” from 2:00-4:00 PM ET (notably before the work day ends in North American time zones).
Black Lives Matter. To honor the legacy of George Floyd, today, 6/4/20, from 2:00-4:00 p.m. ET, we will be shutting down access to our online games, Grand Theft Auto Online and Red Dead Online.
— Rockstar Games (@RockstarGames) June 4, 2020
A vocal portion of the community reacted poorly to the server shutdown. In the replies to Rockstar’s tweet announcing the blackout, many gamers raged at the idea that they might not be able to play two games for a fairly short period of time, much like someone might mourn over not being able to watch Nickelodeon for nine minutes, or a Nordstrom being defaced.
Similarly, when Sony announced that its PS5 event would be delayed, while some gamers applauded the decision, others called it ridiculous and called for politics to be left out of games, while still others moaned that “Xbox would never do this,” and renounced their Sony loyalty in the apparently more prescient console wars (Xbox later said it stands with PlayStation).
— PlayStation (@PlayStation) June 1, 2020
— PlayStation (@PlayStation) June 1, 2020
It’s no secret that bigotry flourishes in online gaming communities. Ninja and Pewdiepie fans follow in their idols’ examples; Fortnite plunders Black creators for new dance emotes; non-white games journalists are continually harassed – the list goes on. Writer Patricia Hernandez’s piece for The Verge, Playing Red Dead Online as a Black Character Means Enduring Racist Garbage, examines the alarming prevalence of players who use that Red Dead Online’s wild west setting, and Rockstar’s commitment to realism, to engage in and excuse racist behavior, spouting slurs while role-playing as slave owners or members of the KKK.
As has been the case since the onset of internet anonymity, the space granted in between screens is a breeding ground of bigotry that goes happily ignored, with companies only taking action when proof goes viral. Look no further than Blizzard Entertainment for proof of that. In April 2019, an Overwatch player shared video of a group of bigots harassing her with slurs during a match of the competitive online shooter. Blizzard Marketing Lead Josh Engen responded to the tweet, saying simply (and vaguely) “I’m on it.”
A few months later, it was still wildly unclear what that response meant, as revealed by California congressman Lou Correa when he publicly called out Blizzard on Twitter for hosting a racist costume party (that looks a lot like a KKK rally) on World of Warcraft. “Enclave,” the guild responsible for organizing the event, isn’t new. Ben Makuch writes in the above linked article that posts regarding white supremacist guilds date back to 2007, while this particular guild has existed across several games since 1998, and players have documented instances in which they spread ideas of white power. To be clear, none of this should come as a surprise, given Blizzard’s track record in shutting down voices in its community voicing support for the Hong Kong protests. Between Rockstar, Playstation, and Blizzard, these companies represent a range of racist action — and inaction — that will remain unchanged by statements of solidarity alone.
Like many other industries, the video game industry, and the corporations that drive the largest parts of it, is complicit in the oppression: the systemic racism uttered as a ward against blame. Writer Amanda Mull of The Atlantic puts it best:
“Many large companies in the U.S. might feel comfortable invoking the Black Lives Matter movement when there’s little else appropriate for them to say, or acknowledging that racism exists when it’s all anyone’s talking about. But in describing those things as mysterious, intractable phenomena, they pull a neat little sleight of hand. These brands set themselves outside the systems they serve, marveling at the country’s racism as though it’s an invisible pathogen for which no one is responsible, and therefore one that no one can meaningfully address. If they caught a little bit of it themselves, it’s through no obvious fault of their own. They’re just trying to listen to their communities, as long as those communities don’t hold up a mirror right back at them.”
Words are empty without meaningful action, and while the producers of video games may not be able to affect what’s happening outside of their games, they certainly can within the games themselves. You can see a collection of statements from various studios and publishers below; until the companies that comprise the video games industry are willing to take steps to rein in the spread of hate-speech and bigotry within their games, there’s little hope for things changing among gamers in the real world.
— Activision Blizzard (@ATVI_AB) June 1, 2020
— Nintendo of America (@NintendoAmerica) June 3, 2020
— Bethesda (@bethesda) June 1, 2020
— Square Enix (@SquareEnix) June 2, 2020
Xbox stands together with our fans, creators, colleagues, friends, and the entire African American & Black Community against systemic racism and injustice.
— Xbox (@Xbox) June 1, 2020
— Electronic Arts (@EA) June 3, 2020
We stand in solidarity with Black team members, players, and the Black community. We are making a $100,000 contribution to the NAACP and Black Lives Matter and encourage those who are able to, to donate. #BlackLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/KpHZCF6VWx
— Ubisoft (@Ubisoft) June 2, 2020
Finally, here are ways to support Black voices in gaming:
BLACK GAME DEVELOPERS: While we have all this attention, now is the time to promote yourself. Post a tweet about yourself and your work and tag it with #Blackgamedev so I and others can find you.
— Black Game Developers (@Blackgamedev) June 3, 2020
10 Games By Black Developers That You Need To Play Right Now by Vanessa Taylor
Games Developed By Black Developers You Should Look Out For by Ural Garrett