I played a game over the weekend that changed me into an Asian person. And then a white person. One time I stayed black. That was good, I guess. Except for having to kill the "wetbacks."
Yeah, Race Warriors made me feel pretty terrible.
Artist Nate Hill knows his October 2011 game creation is racist. That's kind of the point. Or as the Race Warriors website says:
The game is racist.
The game is absurd.
Therefore, racism is absurd.
If you're looking at the screen shots above and thinking that the game looks a lot like SNK's Ikari Warriors games, you'd be right. Hill—pictured below in his performance as "The White Ambassador"—worked with programmers to hack one crucial difference into an emulated version of that old-school shooter. Before players jump into the action, they're forced to answer a weird survey with innocuous questions like "Do you like roller coasters?" Based the answers given, the survey reconfigures the game so that the main characters and their enemies get a skin surprise palette swap. White enemies get blue mohawks, Asian bad guys get colored bright yellow with bamboo hats and Hispanics turn a reddish brown. The game plays as it normally does, but those small changes work together to create a bunch of conflicting impulses.
I first played the game in preparation for moderating a panel which Hill would be participating in called "Why Make Games?" at the Babycastles Summit. Initially, I chuckled at the randomness of Race Warriors' skin tone deal-outs. Which answer was it exactly that determined I was going to be playing an Asian soldier? Was it the fact that I don't have pets? I didn't feel bad playing it at first as I mowed down wave after wave of "wetbacks" or "crackers." (The enemies in the game are all referred to with insulting epithets.) But they kept coming and coming, with the words "You: HISPANIC Them: CRACKERS" over the screen. My stomach churned. As much as I told myself that I could play Race Warriors like a normal video game, I couldn't.
Part of it was the idea that some algorithm behind a bunch of questions was suddenly declaring me to be something other than I wanted to be. And the "You" and "Them" classifications constantly forced the game's ugly context on me. Any retreat into comfortable fantasy was blocked. The enemies weren't quite empty ciphers and I wasn't myself. When I play as an established character in titles like God of War or Tekken, I can tell myself that I'm slipping into a fiction suit to experience the game. I do that by choice. But Race Warriors only gave me the illusion of choice.
Hill released Race Warriors as part of his Racist Incorporated cycle, where his art and performances were pitched as inoculations against racism:
Racist Incorporated is a company dedicated to being as racist as possible for the right reasons. We research how to fight racism with more racism. Why? We believe in people. We believe that when racism is isolated in its purest form, that it exposes itself as gross and absurd, and people will recognize that. Our claim: We create racist experiences for good.
The description for Race Warriors explains the ideas behind Hill's work a little further:
Race Warriors Dot Com Vaccine
Synthesized: October 2011
Race Warriors is a racist, hacked Nintendo video game. It offers 16 different race war video games between Whites, Blacks, Asians, or Hispanics. As mentioned before, traditional vaccines expose the immune system to a dead or weakened germ. In this case, the racist germ is weakened. Here's how: Before killing another race, the young player must answer 10 questions that supposedly decode their racial prejudice, and from this, the game creates an appropriate race war scenario to be played. The problem is that these questions, for example, "Do you like candles?", have nothing to do with race at all. Regardless of your answers, you're directed to a completely random game. You may even have to kill your own race, or fight for the race you hate the most. This all makes for an absurd, racist experience. The strength of the game is that within its world, racism is absurd.
During the panel, Hill acknowledged that he wasn't a programmer and that Race Warriors is a glitchy creation. It isn't fun to play in the way that the original Ikari Warriors was. And that's okay in this instance. The playable artwork that Hill released is supposed to be medicine and like a vaccination shot, it stings at first. If you want to see what the Race Warriors inoculation feels like, go here to play it.