For many of us, playing video games is a much-needed break from all the trials and responsibilities of everyday life. When COVID-19 forced the globe into quarantine, gamers shared how playing games like Animal Crossing was an important part of both having fun and maintaining mental health while in isolation.
Despite elements of randomness that are pervasive in many games, video games often feel like a level playing field. Unlike life away from our controllers, the rules of video games are explained, the parameters and limitations made clear. Whether it is Mario jumping over pipes or fighting a boss in Final Fantasy, the avatar is an extension of you. Getting your Pokémon to Level 99 is a reflection of the time and effort (and money) you invest in the game. Though scholars like Christopher Paul warn us about the toxicity that can arise from seeing video games as pure meritocracies, it isn’t inherently wrong to see video games as one of the few places where (to the greatest extent possible) you get out exactly what you put in. Everything that happens is a function of your input, no matter what demographic you come from.
Lately, I’ve been playing games like FIFA, Smash Bros., and River City Girls with my girlfriend. Spending time with her while doing something we both enjoy has been a silver lining in the pandemic quarantine, but there aren’t enough Switch games in the world to drown out all news stories and videos of unarmed black suspects and bystanders being killed in just about every context imaginable.
For some gamers, particularly those coming from the African American community, the video of a police officer kneeling on the neck George Floyd has been a vortex on our minds, bodies, and spirits. Playing video games may serve as a fun distraction, but the issues of racial injustice, police brutality, and current protests and riots are something many black gamers can’t just block out. We have a big problem here in America and we have a lot of work to do.
Being African American can feel like you are stuck in a game where your difficulty settings are turned all the way up while everyone else’s are set at “normal.” It feels like the output on the screen refuses to match the buttons pressed on your controller. Yet an outside observer may see what appears to be the same game, same rules, same controller, same system. When you voice your frustration, many see it as miscomprehension, complaining, or playing the victim. If you show them your broken controller, they give you an apathetic set of answers–ranging from placing the blame on you, to saying that fixing it would be unfair to them. And if you manage to win despite all the odds set against you, many will point to you to justify why the unequal rules are just fine.
Black people want equality, not cheat codes. They want society to function more like our favorite games: to be able to play by the same rules as everyone else, opportunities to fail but also receive second chances; to get out what they put in. You don’t have to agree with the politics of the protestors, but as a gamer, you have at least some experiences that can help you humanize the people screaming for justice or demanding that America value black life.
Check on your black gamer friends. Listen to their stories. Think about how you can affirm their presence in the real and online gaming communities you inhabit.
If you can imagine why someone would throw their controller across the room when something “unfair” happens in a game, you should have at least some insight into why people around the world are protesting. Though these two instances are different in degree and in kind, they both stem from frustration–the feeling we get from lack of control and the absence of an equal playing field. Frustration sits between helplessness and defiance. We’ve all felt moments of frustration playing a video game. Imagine seeing people who look like you getting killed and there never seeming to be any repercussions for it.
But in using games as an analogy for society, we shouldn’t forget that games (though often played in solitude) are experienced in a community. Each of us has our own experience playing The Last of Us or Fortnite, but we share these experiences with others on blogs, social media, YouTube channels, podcasts, or in person. Tournaments, conventions, chatrooms, and live-streams can be spaces of comradery, not merely places for individuals to play games. At its best, gaming communities can be a welcoming refuge.
The turmoil in our lives often compels us to search for community. Community can provide a place of safety, enjoyment, peace, and friendship. The gaming community often provides all of these things. The fandom behind our favorite video games can be a gateway to lasting friendships. There’s a funny paradox behind it–simultaneously being able to be who you are (unapologetic about your love of gaming) and someone you are not (the characters on the screen). And yet, for many women, gender non-conforming, and people of color (particularly those who are black), gaming spaces can be bastions of harassment.
My very first online interaction with any video game was playing Halo at a friend’s house. The person on the other end of my headset asked me if I was black and told me that I played like an N-word. What could have been reaffirming space for me as a teen–going through all the awkwardness and struggles for self-actualization that all teens, regardless of race, go through–was shut down from the onset. The irony is this instance of casual anti-blackness is one of several examples of things I’ve experienced, in the gaming community and outside of it. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
In the scheme of things, the gaming community is a fraction of the larger society. But we could work to reclaim them as affirming spaces from everyone, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. And in this period of social upheaval, we could make sure that black gamers get the same refuge–a space to have fun, recharge, and connect with others.
The social and political issues that COVID-19 and the ongoing protests against police brutality can’t be solved by everyone playing video games together. These are issues that require massive and systemic solutions. But on an individual level, we can start where we are. We can do our small part by making the communities we are in better.
Check on your black gamer friends. Listen to their stories. Think about how you can affirm their presence in the real and online gaming communities you inhabit. You don’t have to agree with all of their politics. But they could use your kindness.