[Content warning: This post contains, among many other things discussion of anti-Native ethnic slurs.]
So there’s thing that happens semi-regularly to me in my G+ circles; someone links to a game that is being crowdfunded (usually on KickStarter) that is cringe-inducingly racist, and there’s a discussion thread where people say things like – shit, this is so bad. How is this this bad? But a lot of the time, these discussions happen in more private circles, since nobody wants to risk accidentally giving exposure to a terrible thing that shouldn’t exist. And I avoid writing about it here for the same reason, and then it sort of slips away and I forget to write about the issue again until yet another cringe-inducingly racist game KickStarter pops up in my feed, and the cycle starts all over again.
So. Enough is enough.
White game creators, it’s time to have a talk – white person to white person – because seriously. This has to stop. You’re killing me over here.
Before we start: Ground rules
Quite a while ago, I wrote a very basic set of rules that you should look to follow in order to create inclusive games.
Last year, I wrote about the basic rules you should follow when looking to write inclusive games. But for the purposes of this post, we’re just going to concentrate on the lowest-hanging of the low-hanging fruit – rules #1 and 2:
- Cultural appropriation is bad
- Don’t erase marginalized groups
- Don’t combine #1 and #2
Of course, there’s more to it than that. A LOT more. As in, 10,000 words more. If you want to read my entire series on writing inclusive games and how to avoid offensive stereotypes, you can find it here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part3. But for the purposes of this post, that’s what we’re going to focus on, with some examples of what this shit looks like in the wild, since I went to the trouble of digging up some examples of things that a) have already funded or b) won’t actually fund. That way I’ll be able to illustrate what I’m talking about instead of attempting to talk in generalities.
Depressingly, I will note that all of the examples that I dug up for this post center on anti-Native racism. The game that prompted me to write this post was racist against a different group of people entirely, but sadly it seems even easier to find games that are racist about Native and Aboriginal peoples on KickStarter than any other group. (At least anecdotally speaking.)
Also: yes this shit does actually fund sometimes
Thankfully, most of the examples that I have to talk about are things that people emphatically did not vote with their dollar to see produced. Unfortunately, games based on racist tropes and stereotypes do still find audiences, and they do still fund. Case in point:
I’ve written about Going Native on this blog before, so I’ll just quote myself rather than attempt to rehash something I already stated well and succinctly:
Not too long ago there was a game that successfully funded on Kickstarter called “Going Native: Warpath”. (Really, even just the title should be a giant red flag.) Going Native: Warpath is a minis war game in which players have armies that are based on real-life native and aboriginal cultures which has been written and developed by (of course) a white dude.
Because nothing says “sorry for that one time we committed genocide against your people and then forced the survivors into institutionalized poverty” like casual cultural appropriation. Bonus points for managing to convey the added baggage of “well killing your people wasn’t as bad as it could have been since you were already doing it to yourselves”.
So let this be a cautionary tale. Just because I’m intentionally picking examples that will not be getting their target funding doesn’t mean that KickStarters for racist games aren’t still a huge damn problem.
Now: Down to the nitty gritty
I have three examples to discuss, which I will cover in order of least offensive to dear god what the actual shit how did you spend this much time creating a KickStarter without ever once critically examining what you wanted to KickStart?
The first is a game called Indigenous, whose tagline is: “In an uncharted jungle you have to hunt animals, build shelters, collect ingredients and fight other tribes to ensure your survival.”
Okay. A bit dodgy, but possibly not so bad right? However, here’s the very first sentence in their campaign description:
“With this game we try to achieve something realistic and entertaining enough, to let you immerse into the rough land of primitive indigenous people.”
PRIMITIVE. INDIGENOUS. PEOPLE.
Now I will at least give these developers credit: they did at least describe them as people – something the next two games certainly can’t lay claim to. But, given that this is a game being KickStarted by a team from Germany which is composed of (as much as I was able to discern) decidedly white-appearing folk… the execution is tone-deaf at best, and really gross even if you’re attempting to look at this charitably (which I don’t really think this game deserves). Thankfully, as they are currently sitting at 1.4% funded with about a week to go, there’s no real danger of this KickStarter succeeding.
Of course, clueless and tone deaf is at least still better than games that intentionally fail at not being offensive. Like Deadskins: a game that managed to actually gain $6000 in pledges, despite incorporating an actual goddamn ethnic slur in the name of their game:
And again, unsurprisingly, the KickStarter was created by a decidedly white-appearing dude. Because this shit is so predictable you can practically set a watch by it.
Unlike Indigenous, Deadskins also was Greenlit by the Steam community, proving once again that Steam is depressing and will Greenlight just about anything. (Hell, if it’s REALLY depressing, Valve founder Gabe Newell will apologize for people trying to censor your project if it gets too much blowback.)
And honestly, it’s hard to know where to even begin in explaining just why this game is so awful. I mean, look at this screenshot:
So… Let’s start with the fact that this whole damn game is a pastiche of offensive tropes and stereotypes. Deadskins combines Romero-type Hollywood zombie antics with awful stereotypes about natives in that awful way that a lot of game creators do when they want to cherry pick the most “awesome” elements of a real world (usually) non-white culture for their game. For instance, the zombies in Deadskins actually defeat their enemies by scalping them. Also, the above screen shot is an example of a zombie spirit animal. That you can ride. You know. Just because.
There’s also the fact that all of this undead Native crap is a super casual perpetuation of the Vanishing Native myth – the idea that that Native peoples are disappearing and that their total disappearance is a foregone conclusion. Which is fucking horrific, because. You know. We (ie white people) enacted genocide against them so that we could take their land and resouces. Not to mention that the Vanishing Native myth is still causing very real harm today.
And I don’t care HOW sheltered you are, after the continued, persistent, ongoing controversy over the Washington R*dskins’ team name, even the most dedicated of non-sportsball-fans should be aware of the fact that the term “redskin” is an offensive ethnic slur.
And yet, as awful as Deadskins is, it still doesn’t manage to beat out the campaign for a game called Tap N’ Trap, OF COURSE BY WHITE MEN, which manages to combine cluelessness, horrible racism, and casual dehumanization quite catastrophically:
Yeah, I knew it was going to be bad when it started with “help ABORIGINALS”. Not help aboriginal PEOPLE. Help ABORIGINALS. Worse, they mix terms and portrayals pretty freely. (Because, you know, why bother with research or any of that when you can just combine a lot of primitive looking shit from different cultures, right? Who cares as long as it ends up looking cool?) In the description of their campaign, they refer to the non-white characters as “aboriginals”. But in the captions for their character designs, they’re referred to as “Natives”.
Which. You know. Okay. In Canada the terms are used somewhat interchangeably, so maybe I could give that a pass if it weren’t for the character designs:
The description makes it sound like they’re talking about Native or Aboriginal peoples, but the skin tones and character designs – especially the masks – visually reference a pastiche of African cultures. Which. Uh. At the risk of stating the obvious, Native people and African people aren’t even from the same continent. They’re entirely separate ethnic groups with completely different languages, cultures, and traditions.
The nail in the coffin? The magical power-up item for your “Natives” is a GODDAMN WATERMELON:
BRB SETTING EVERYTHING ON FIRE. (If you’re not familiar with the history of why watermelon imagery associated with black people is seriously not fucking okay, especially when it’s being created by white people, then just follow this link to this Google Image search. Just be warned, it’s so racist it’s probably NSFW.)
Honestly, this is the sort of “ironically” awful games that I could see being published by a certain Edgy Game Designer. But the game creators actually seem pretty earnest about using this game as a springboard for social change. Unfortunately, the cause that they are espousing isn’t anything like, say, (to name a few Canada-specific issues affecting Native populations) the epidemic of murdered and missing indigenous women, or the lack of access on reserves to adequate housing and education, or hell even the lack of access on reserves to clean drinking water. No. The cause that they want to espouse is environmentalism and disappearing endangered species.
So all of that horrible racist shit. The conflating nonwhite cultures that have nothing to do with one another, the casual dehumanization, the perpetuation of fucking horrible racist stereotypes… all of that shit is just the creators using PoC as PROPS to talk about what really matters. ANIMALS.
Which is why Tap N’ Trap wins the award for THE MOST RACIST SHIT I HAVE SEEN ON KICKSTARTER, yes even worse than Deadskins. Because congratulations, when you perpetuate harmful racist bullshit while simultaneously prioritizing animals over actual goddamn people, that makes you a shitty human being.
White people: It’s time to get our act together
Look, white people. I say this as a white person who writes games about non-white people. I get it! It’s hard! Writing games about non-white people is hard! It takes a lot of time, effort, and research. It also requires talking to people who come from the group of people that you are writing about. And most importantly, it involves being willing to dismantle your own bullshit and a willingness to look for where you fucked up (because I promise you, you will always fuck up somewhere). All of which requires the willingness to be uncomfortable, and to sit with that discomfort. And all of that is HARD. And uncomfortable, and unfun. And isn’t making games supposed to be about having fun?
But we aren’t not even talking about making games that are truly inclusive and promote diversity here, because frankly we suck at that, white people. (Yes, including myself in that. There are things that I could do better.) So, babysteps. Let’s just work on not crowdfunding shit entirely based on horribly racist stereotypes, okay? Please?
 Although it’s worth noting that the actual percentage of funding is almost the same as Indigenous, given that goal was a ludicrous $365,000.
 That’s not to say people who aren’t white men don’t make racist games. But the ones that I’ve seen that get as far as KickStarter tend to have been created by white men.
 If you’re interested in reading more, the Wikipedia entry on the team name controversy actually provides a pretty good starting point as to why the term is problematic and its history, even if it is a bit too focused on remaining “balanced” for my liking.
 Given how fucking common it is for native populations to be portrayed in ways that dehumanize them, it’s important to always refer to native people in ways that emphasize their humanity. Native people, not Natives. Aboriginal people, not Aboriginals. It’s the same reason why we say “transgender people” instead of “transgenders”, frex.
 Although I have heard people say “transgenders” as a noun and seriously. Just. Don’t.
 Because seriously, if there’s one thing that gaming DOESN’T need, it’s more games about white people.