Last night, Genshin Impact began trending on Twitter for all the wrong reasons. Which ones, exactly? Well, that’s the thing: Nobody can really agree on what lies at the core of the erupting volcano that has sprouted next to developer miHoYo’s cash cow. Currently, the #BoycottGenshin hashtag is composed of legitimate complaints about stereotypes, some others that require no small number of asterisks, and a whole lot of arguing about which is which.
While it is difficult to trace the exact origin of the hashtag, it appears to have really picked up speed as the result of a discussion about Hilichurls—one of Genshin’s most common enemy types—and a developer video briefly depicting an indigenous dance being used as a point of reference for them. But others have suggested that the conversation kicked off because of rumors that upcoming in-game content has been delayed. Since the hashtag began, it has trended multiple times under different names and picked up additional bones to pick, including accusations of racism and colorism involving two playable characters, Xinyan and Kaeya, and minor NPCs lusting after other characters who are children.
Fan arguments have run the gamut from declaring every grievance legitimate to the standard culture wars tactic of ranting about SJWs and insisting that games—notably based on reality and capable of influencing reality, especially when cross-continentally popular—are completely divorced from reality. It has, as you can imagine, gotten pretty ugly on Twitter, as well as other places like the Genshin Impact subreddit.
Each argument is a minefield unto itself, within the larger #BoycottGenshin minefield. The Hilichurl discussion is the clearest cut, which is saying something, because it’s still not entirely clear cut. What is definitely true is that miHoYo showed a video of an indigenous dance being used as a reference for its animalistic humanoid enemy species in a studio tour video, and that’s not great.
“I just want to say that the Hilichurls being inspired by indigenous people is absolutely not okay,” a player who identifies as indigenous wrote on Twitter. “People used to laugh at their dance and just people (including me) now finding out about this is really hurtful. It makes us feel like we are being mocked for something that means so much to us. Our culture is not something for you to take and just use, miHoYo. It is not okay, it’s not funny, and I’m really disappointed. A lot of us are.”
Even some in the anti-#BoycottGenshin crowd have agreed that miHoYo dropped the ball here. Others, however, have pointed out that Hilichurls are not purely villainous (they’re being manipulated by a different group of villains) and also that they bear a pretty strong resemblance to Bokoblins from one of Genshin Impact’s biggest influences, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The former point misunderstands why stereotypes are harmful (they’re not suddenly OK just because characters who might not be villains are enacting them) while the latter gets at a much larger topic that the #BoycottGenshin hashtag is only beginning to dive into: the presence of “primitive” humanoid enemies in many action-adventure games and RPGs.
In short, Bokoblins, with their animations, skull necklaces, and other bits of iconography that more subtly evoke indigenous stereotypes (not to mention other stereotypes, like those surrounding Haitian Vodou), fit into a lineage of video game enemies that draw on perceived “tribal” stereotypes to communicate a lack of civilization or intelligence. Orcs are their own, separate conversation, but the words author N.K. Jemisin wrote about fantasy not-quite-human races while discussing orcs continue to ring true.
“Orcs are human beings who can be slaughtered without conscience or apology,” Jemisin wrote in a 2013 blog post. “Creatures that look like people, but aren’t really. Kinda-sorta-people, who aren’t worthy of even the most basic moral considerations, like the right to exist. Only way to deal with them is to control them utterly a la slavery, or wipe them all out.”
This isn’t strictly a Genshin Impact problem, in other words. Whether we’re talking Hilichurls, Bokoblins, or some other fantasy race that acts as an endlessly disposable baddy, it always comes back to that same ugly calculus. In this regard, Genshin Impact is neither absolved of responsibility nor exceptional. It is the latest permutation of a trope that represents a wider systemic issue in games. In a medium that can imagine infinite worlds, perhaps it’s time to move on from the idea of subhuman races. Perhaps it has been time.
#BoycottGenshin’s other arguments—not all of which are supported by those who support the hashtag(s)—are thornier. On one hand, in-game text does describe one darker-skinned character, Xinyan, as having a “fierce appearance” that draws comparisons to “one of those hooligans who tramp about the marketplace,” which inspires “fear” in those who see her and makes children cry. On the other hand, this seems to be attributed more to her outfit—which is all spikes and punk rock gear—than her skin color. Another darker-skinned character, Kaeya, is described as “exotic.” However, this might be a reference to the fact that he’s from a place called Khaenri’ah, rather than the nation where the game takes place, Teyvat.
Still, players have pointed out that both characters are only dark-skinned compared to the rest of the game’s cast and it might not be a coincidence that one is considered scary, drawing accusations of colorism, but also further fueling discussions about the specific parts of Asia Genshin Impact is drawing inspiration from for its current (and upcoming) locales. This is also thorny. Some are using the game’s Asian roots as a reason to shut down the idea of representation in the game. Many who are for and against additional forms of representation do not seem to have firsthand experience of the cultures and places they’re discussing.
The pedophilia conversation is equally winding. Two characters who appear underage, Barbara and Flora, have minor older male NPCs lust after them. In the former’s case, it’s a misguided superfan, because Barbara is basically a popstar. In multiple quests, the game depicts this as awkward verging on outright bad. In Flora’s case, things are less straightforward, with an otherwise unnoteworthy NPC saying he’ll one day “confess my love to Flora on board a dandelion boat,” which would be super objectionable if not for the fact that the line was added in an earlier version of the game, back when Flora’s character model was that of an adult woman—not a child. However, miHoYo has had months to remove the line, and it still hasn’t, despite fans previously making note of it. Then there’s the game’s reliance on the trope of petite, high-voiced women characters with childlike appearances and tendencies—which also has thorny (though less-discussed) implications.
Some on Twitter have taken to characterizing #BoycottGenshin as a sudden upsurge of outrage instigated by a DLC delay, rendering it inherently disingenuous. Clearly, though, many of these misgivings (and others around issues like security and the game’s business model) have been brewing in Genshin Impact’s fanbase for a while. It remains to be seen whether the hashtag will result in tangible change, or if the modern, engagement-driven structure of the internet will doom it to drown in toxicity like so many other well-intentioned movements.