Earlier this week, online indie game store Itch.io released a massive Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality, with proceeds benefiting the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the ActBlue Community Bail Fund. The growing bundle, which now contains over 1,500 games, has raised over 5 million dollars so far. It’s phenomenal.
With this, plus game companies’ public statements in support of Black Lives Matter, it feels like the first time something’s forced the gaming community to pay attention and speak out on racial inequalities. Gaming fundraisers are extremely common, but only this year have I seen many non-Black players and streamers all campaign together for organizations like Color of Change and National Bail Fund.
This is huge, particularly considering how often games get touted as escapist fantasies, and how frequently certain people claim games are not (nor should be) political. And while companies, artists, and developers alike have offered money, mentorship, and open DMs, there’s still much to do before any justice will be served.
Since the pandemic began, I haven’t found the motivation or courage to move beyond the sweetness of Animal Crossing: New Horizon’s serene tropical island. Like many people stuck home in quarantine, I too saw New Horizons as an opportunity to look away from reality. It was not a “perfect escape” for me, as many reviews claimed it to be, but it did provide a brief moment to exhale. I have no issues with games that comfort and soothe, but I quickly realized how difficult it was for me to play, write, or even enjoy simple creative endeavors in such a stifling, oppressive situation.
But New Horizons came out in March, two months before the murder of George Floyd, before the global protests for justice, before a vaccine for covid-19 (which still has not been found). Whereas March was a month to try to forget about a pandemic happening, the events of May and June took away any possibility of avoiding reality or staying home, even at the cost of potentially getting sick. And if New Horizons was everyone’s opportunity to ignore the pandemic, I worry about what new games we will find next to distract us from the undeniable reality of racial inequality.
Games need not always be escapes. Given how many larger titles rely on realism as a key selling point, many games don’t feel like much of an escape at all. It’s important, then, that games can also help us express how we’re feeling, or confront us with difficult dilemmas we must face and accept.
When I purchased the Itch.io bundle, I knew I’d finally found my opportunity to step away from New Horizon’s numbing sweetness. I looked through the bundle for lesser-known games that haven’t gotten as much attention as the more popular indies. After playing through a handful, here are a few games I can recommend.
With so many to choose from, I decided to play The Night Fisherman by Far Few Giants as my first. It’s a short, emotionally intense game about a fisherman being interrogated by an armed man while out at sea. While it’s not a commentary on the protests happening now, The Night Fisherman does deal with racism and violence in a way that feels both poignant and relevant to this moment.
The game doesn’t wrap itself up in a neat bow, nor does it comment on the scene the player witnesses. Rather, it shows the interrogation as what it is, a case of hatred and racism against immigrants that plays out entirely as a conversation between two people speaking while sailing alone at sea.
It’s quiet, save for one moment near the end that is loud to both the ear and in its statement. The Night Fisherman is tense to experience, but I recommend it to anyone who feels ready to look beyond games meant to soothe.
The next game I played was As We Know It by Jamie Scribbles Games. This 2017 visual novel follows a woman named Ashlynn and her mother as they join the underground city of Camden. Their world’s surface has grown too hot, so civilization has moved underground. Ashlynn and her mother suffered and scrounged to survive on the surface, but are now in a place where food and shelter are abundant. Ashlynn feels like an outsider, and worries about being considered suspicious or dangerous.
As We Know It features romance options for a few members of the underground community. One of my first encounters with a romanceable character was with a security guard named Eva. As a new member of the community, Ashlynn must find a job to help contribute to Camden’s society, and Eva wants Ashlynn to join her security team. While Eva seemed like a friendly person, the context of current real-world events around me influenced me both to reject her job offer and decline her romantic overtures. I was reminded of the ways the outside world shapes how we play, think, and feel.
Regardless, what I appreciate about As We Know It is the way it also gives the player cause to grapple with some pretty heavy realities. It is not simply a game about how to romance NPCs, but also how to navigate a new world in which some people still see you as a problem. I appreciate that throwing romance on top of that only makes the story more tangled and complicated.
These are only two out of the 1,637 (and counting) games now available in the Itch.io bundle, which will be available for about three more days. For many marginalized folks, Itch is the only viable distribution platform for their games. This bundle has some great, well-known games, but also a slew of hidden gems that could use the extra eyes, love, and money.
I encourage those interested in buying the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality to also consider the ways we play, and what kinds of games we often fall back to. Recognize the moment when a comforting game like New Horizons is a helpful retreat, but also when it is preventing you from seeing something that must be seen.
Looking for ways to advocate for black lives? Check out this list of resources by our sister site Lifehacker for ways to get involved.
Shonté Murray-Daniels is a writer based in Maryland. She’s on Twitter @ShonteWrites.