What It's Like To Write About Race And Video Games<em></em>

What It's Like To Write About Race And Video Games

Illustration: Jim Cooke (GMG)

I’m no stranger to controversial takes. I ask people at parties whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich (it’s not). I think Jupiter Ascending is a fun movie, and if I never see another superhero flick again I think I would be okay. But every time I mention race on this site, even if my opinion isn’t nearly as controversial as thinking Samoas are bad cookies, the reaction is surprisingly strong.

I write about a lot of things on Kotaku, including, sometimes, race. I’ve written about the lack of black female characters in Overwatch. I’ve written about how much I liked the box art for Far Cry New Dawn, which features two black women. Most recently, I wrote about how refreshing it was to see black women in Apex Legends. Each of these articles discussed race in a way that felt pretty cut and dried. I pointed out facts: Overwatch, a game that prides itself on its diverse cast, does not have any black female playable characters. Far Cry New Dawn has two black women on the box, and there aren’t very many black female characters in video games. As is part of my job, I temper these facts with my own opinions: I think the presence of more video game characters who are women of color is good. In my article about Apex, I wrote, “Just seeing those characters, and knowing those small lore details about them, does actually make a difference to me. It makes me want to explore more of the game and its systems, spend more time in the world, and figure out how to be even better at it.” These should not be controversial statements—I’m simply stating something I appreciate, something that’s relevant to me—and yet some readers responded as if I’d suggested that all gamers should amputate their pinky toes.

When I wrote about the lack of black characters in Overwatch, people asked me if Symmetra, an Indian woman, or Pharah, an Egyptian Arab woman, are black. Some of these questions felt honest; they seemed to be coming from people who genuinely did not know. I was surprised—I don’t often have to explain that Southeast Asians are not part of the African diaspora—but I appreciated that they were asking questions to further their knowledge. I wanted to engage with the the truly curious who want to understand something that might be new to them. Part of the purpose of my job is to inform people. If I can take some time to respond to a comment and help someone out, I want to do it.

Other people asked questions that felt less genuine. When I wrote about Overwatch’s lack of black female characters, one reader horrifyingly wrote, “Don’t you already have Winston?” referring to the game’s playable gorilla. When I wrote about Apex Legends, people advised me to “leave Apex Legends alone” and accused me of “perpetually complaining” or “race-baiting” because I broached the subject of race at all. Some even called me the “real racist” for my assumption that people from different races may sometimes have different experiences of the world. Some questions, such as the oft-repeated “why does it matter if there are black characters in a game?” felt like they were trying to lead me into a trap where there was no right way to answer. If I start explaining why it matters, I know I’ve already ceded to the notion that it might not. The only winning move, it seems, is not to play.

What confused me about some of these questions was that some people read any statements I make about race as a sign that I’m angry or offended. I’m not sure they would believe it if I told them that very few things actually offend me. I’d like to see a black female character in Overwatch, but in terms of pressing issues in racial justice, it’s just a video game, you know? Diversity in reality, such as the people who make games, is more important to me. A lack of it in media itself is annoying, but isn’t something that keeps me up at night. I’m not going to say it’s not cool to see people on screen who look like me or share some characteristics that I also have. It’s just more meaningful overall to see real life people in the world break through glass ceilings.

Alas, my job here at Kotaku is, in part, to look at things I see in games and reflect on them. Sometimes that means injustices like a model whose likeness is being used in a game without her permission, and sometimes that means thinking about things in games I’d like to see improved. But sometimes readers see me pointing out these minor flaws and seem to think it’s the most important thing I have going on or the only thing I care about. New Yorker writer and former Jezebel staffer Jia Tolentino wrote about a similar experience in her essay “No Offense.” She wrote, “There’s a large gap between ‘this is bad’ and ‘you should be offended’ that seems to vanish on the internet, and the harder we try to widen it on this website [Jezebel], the more we are constrained by that lingering expectation: that Jezebel exists, as some have always imagined it to, for the infantilizing purpose of telling women when they should get mad.”

That certainly rings true to me. My recent article about Apex Legends was merely stating something I appreciate. I was praising the game, and yet it seemed hard for some readers to see a discussion about race and not immediately take it as an attack on a game they like. They didn’t seem able to see that I like the game too. Many of the times I write about a game in-depth, I at least like it. In the case of Apex Legends, I freaking love it. Nothing about Overwatch or Apex offends me at all. When I write about things, I often point out the complications in them that I find interesting. If I hated video games, or thought they were all racist, I wouldn’t have a job writing about them. What would the point of that be, to wake up every day and make myself angry? I so much more enjoy doing something I love. For me, taking the time to take apart a piece of media is an act of love. Seeing that love confused for being offended leaves me at a loss.

Against my better judgement, I want to engage with the people who think I must be offended. I’m the daughter of a professor; if someone’s argument is based on a misunderstanding, I want to correct them. But, like Jia, I find myself in this trap, where I worry that responding only further compounds this idea that people have of me or where I’m coming from. I don’t write things with the intention of making other people mad, or being divisive. But if I respond to bad faith questions, more people acting in bad faith come out of the woodwork to hurl insults at me. If I ignore them, I find myself ignoring the people who actually want to engage with me as well, helping no one.

Sometimes in fandoms, “passionate” can be a euphemism for “needs some fucking chill.” Our all-encompassing love of something can make us resistant to having conversation about how it could be better, or how other people might experience it differently than we do. It can be easy to see any critique or complication about something we like as offense. If you read media criticism as saying nothing is ever good enough, then it can be easy to accuse every critic of being perpetually offended. In actuality, many things are good. It’s just that nothing is perfect. Engaging with media we like, in all its mess and complication, is what makes it better. It can even make your connection to a piece of media stronger.

Sometimes I fear that when I write about race some of the angrier commenters think I am some grand arbiter of what can or can’t be in a game. In truth, I’m only a person who has opinions, just like you have opinions. They might be opinions you’ve never considered before, and I know it can be hard to be shown an aspect of something that you never had to see before. Hell, I’ve long said that I don’t play or like competitive games, but here I am logging onto Apex as much as I can because I love it so much. Listening to each other and thinking critically about the things we like only makes our fandoms stronger.

My friends who like Overwatch, or at least the ones who align with me politically, took some time getting used to the idea that there might be things that the game could work on, but they came around. They understood that I’m not asking them to dislike a thing they like, or that they are bad for liking it. It’s just that it’s got this one weird aspect to it, and it’s good to remember it, even as you enjoy it. That realization didn’t come without its own internal tussling. As someone who has a knee jerk reaction whenever someone talks shit about pop music, I get that when you make something you like part of your identity, any criticism feels like a knife in the back. But it isn’t. It’s just a conversation, one that can be had clearly and plainly, without anger.

I don’t know how to relay that message to the people who think I’m constantly offended. There aren’t enough hours in the day to be mad about all the things they think I’m mad about, but they’ve already decided what I feel for me. The best I can do it to keep writing about the things I notice in games and my opinions about them, in the hopes that I can reach the truly curious. For the angry ones, I’m just hoping one day they’ll be able to listen.



A couple of things to consider (this ended up being a longer post than I thought it would; I know, a long-winded Arnheim post—shocking):

1.) Most people don’t understand that argument—at least in the academic sense—is an intellectual exercise as often as it’s intended to actually shift a person’s perspective on a given subject. I should know—I’ve been teaching the subject for fifteen years now, and every single semester I have to explain to more than a few students that opening a discussion on a topic does not mean I am trying to tell them how they should feel or think about that topic.

Asking some people to think invariably causes that portion of the population to assume that you’re telling them their present position is incorrect (and you might well be, but the default assumption that discussion = condemnation is anathema to anything resembling productive discourse), and they dig their heels in—because pride and “rightness” are often conflated with one another.  No one likes to be told that their favorite programs, actors/actresses, or games contain problematic elements--and many are those who will rush to the conclusion that, “because someone says this thing is problematic, that means they hate it, and they must hate me/think I’m stupid for liking it.”  This is fundamentally untrue, of course--I like all kinds of problematic shit--but we’ve reached a point where many people think of criticism as a form of condemnation, rather than investigation.

That is, at least in part, where you’re getting this pushback from—you’re dealing with a not insignificant chunk of the commentariat that feels personally attacked every time the subjects of race, sex, gender, identity, and representation (among others) are broached. This is partly because they’ve been conditioned to believe that anyone who wants to talk about those subjects must be “an SJW,” and partly because they likely feel attacked/marginalized when their worldview is questioned—and because they’ve never been put in the position of being criticized (because they’re likely mostly male, mostly hetero—and mostly white), they don’t know quite what to do—and so they react the way most people do in unfamiliar, fear-generating situations.

They go on the attack.

This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that logical argument is not taught in K-12 schools—and it isn’t taught nearly enough in collegiate work, either. This is why you’ll get people who don’t understand how basic research works spouting easily disproven “facts” to back up a misinformed opinion—or who will rely entirely on informal rhetorical fallacies to drive a point, never realizing that they’re using fallacious argumentative tactics that would get them laughed out of even a Rhet/Comp 101 course.

It’s difficult to engage fully with someone who is deliberately misusing the rhetorical toolkit; it gets harder when they’re backed by an echo chamber of similarly misguided individuals who are convinced that theirs is the logical position, despite all evidence to the contrary.

2.) You really don’t need me to explain this to you, but I’m going to say it anyway for the folks you’re calling out: The effect of the Ring of Ganges (or “anonymity,” more simply put) is powerful, and it emboldens those who are likely very quiet and confrontation-averse in public.

That means someone who wouldn’t dare utter a racist word or begin to question discourse on sex equality in public will readily and boldly make racist, sexist, or homophobic declarations when protected by a veil of anonymity online. It’s particularly ironic when these folks start referring to others as “keyboard warriors,” because their bravery only comes from the fact that their identity is hidden—or when they operate in groups.

Basically, what you’re running into with this crowd is the sort of intellectually disingenuous bullshit that permeates far too much of the national conversation in America as it is. The final redoubt of the terminally inept is almost always “I’m just asking questions,” when faced with a rhetorical situation they don’t know how to overcome—and, when that fails, they’ll start howling about reverse sexism/racism/what have you.

The bottom line is that these people attacking you are likely part of the current majority population in the US—that being straight white folks—who haven’t yet figured out that equality doesn’t require that they actually lose anything.

That’s not to say that everyone who says something asinine or hurtful is necessarily a bigot; sometimes people just operate on unfounded assumptions that can be corrected through exposure to new information and patient, kind educational efforts. You do an awful lot of that, Gita, and you should absolutely be commended for it.

That said, as I tell my students, there’s no sense in arguing with a zealot—or with someone who approaches a discussion in bad faith. You can beat your head against that wall all your life (or in my case, continuously punish your liver) hoping for change, but it’s unlikely to arrive that way.

...but, hell, we should still try anyway. Nothing changes until we do—and if we turtle up and refuse to engage with those who disagree with (or in some cases, even attack) us, we’re only forming islands of ideology that will, eventually, peter out.

Keep doing what you do, Gita. Don’t lose the faith, the intellectual honesty, or the openness to others that compels you forward, please.

-A Straight White Dude who thinks we really ought to be having more of these conversations.