Sticks And Stones

by Guest Contributor Yu Zun Kang, originally published at No More Lives


There are many feelings that rise up when I think back to the first racial slur that was directed at me—but none of them, strangely, are malicious or sad. At the time, my family and I lived in a mid-sized town in the northwest region of Germany, near the Netherlands border. Even though we didn’t live in a metropolitan area, my first grade class represented the changing racial demographic in the German workforce and society: there was the Korean kid (me), the half-Turkish kid, and one of my best friends whose parents immigrated from Portugal to open an ice cream store. Like those kids, almost all my friends were Germans—my best friend lived three blocks from me above the bicycle business that had been passed down in his family for generations; and my first girlfriend came from a tight-knit German family that had a big backyard for all the messenger pigeons they raised.

The slur the kid used actually had a catchy rhyme, one that I heard occasionally wherever I went while we lived in Germany:

Ching Chang Chong Chinese
Eierkopf und Kase

(rough Translation of the last line: Egg-shaped head and cheese-colored skin)

I don’t think the slur had an immediate effect on me. As a child, you react from the gut. Insults are insults—there is no sociological or racial theory that a child can conduct in his or her head to yell injustice. But why didn’t I say anything at the time? Here was the problem: how do you make fun of someone who bases the normal and ideal off his or her features? How do you, as the stranger looking around and seeing that you are the anomaly, take away his power to define you in those terms? How do you mock “perfection?” How can someone not feel powerless in that kind of situation?

I tell this story to make a point—words are never merely words. These ordinary words, “egg” and ”cheese,” are meaningless and powerless until you give them meaning and context. If you come from a position of power or a position of majority, then you have the power to define a word. And if you have the power to define a word, then you have the power to define the person at whom it is directed. Through that word, you can own and control the other person’s identity.

In a measured and thoughtful response to the Scribblenauts “sambo” controversy, Ian Bogost, while expressing his disapproval behind the use of a word loaded with a history of degrading and institutionalized racism, asks his readers to consider the game’s purpose: that “Scribblenauts is a game about what words mean and do when mustered in particular situations.” More importantly, he asks “what if this is the experience? What if messy quandaries about the ambiguity of “sambo” is precisely the sort of thing that Scribblenauts was meant to bring us?”

Subsequent interviews convinced me that this was an honest mistake. Regardless, the discussion, like all discussions concerning race, can get defensive and hostile. That’s why I liked the way Bogost’s question rose above the heated emotions, and calmed and shifted the issue so that readers could consider the overall theoretical intent of the game. However, as great as that sounds, I want to remind Ian that there is a real person at the end of that question. To quote Olliemoon, “[we] don’t exist for your personal intellectual growth.” I am a person, Ian, and not a question to be parsed.

I think this controversy, and the discussion leading out of it, is analogous to the recent Game Critics discussion on race and gender in games. Physical representation of race and gender, again, deal with the identical power dynamic. Once again, there is a vocal segment of the gaming world that isn’t willing to consider the implications. That is unfortunate, because until there is a genuine understanding of this kind of power dynamic, we are not going to see a proper, sincere, and respectful mainstream representation of minorities.

All gamers must understand that the industry’s ability to shape their perception of gender and race is pervasive and ubiquitous, especially when a gamer lacks a personal relationship with someone who is different from him or her.

When I moved from Germany to Korea at the age of nine, one of my favorite activities was going to the movies. In the 90’s, the theaters used to put large, hand-painted, kitschy billboards of the films on top of the theater. When you bought a ticket, you had to sit in the assigned seat—a policy to deal with overcrowding and sneak-ins.

Theaters mostly played American movies. Again, when I wasn’t seeing African Americans on the screen, the times they appeared they were either homeless, criminals, loud-mouthed comedians, or athletic superstars. Living in a racially homogeneous country like South Korea, where we have no interaction with African Americans, those films were the only source we had into the African American life in America. I still remember when an African American soldier walked into a record store and everything became very quite as people whispered and moved away from him, or the time when my African American tutor from the U.S. State Department left our house and got mobbed by a bunch of kids asking him if he could dunk. I don’t think there was anything inherently racist in that—that is simply ALL we knew.

When we moved to North Carolina, my anxiety over interacting with the African American students amplified when one of them was shot and killed at his home. Add to the mix the three African American bullies who made my life hell for not speaking English very well, and everything I learned from the movies went from perception to fact.

It wasn’t until a Nigerian kid in my neighborhood became my friend, and took me to his friend’s house in a trailer park, that I got see him and his friends as people apart from those distorted representations I watched as a child. I still remember when he bought the PlayStation and we sat in his room, playing Resident Evil without a memory card. As we huddled in the dark, screaming and laughing in unison as the dog jumped through the window, there was nothing but the glow of the screen, the whir of the disc, and the opening sounds of doors.

As long as we have gamers dismissing this power dynamic it won’t matter how many minority or female characters make it into a game. What you developers say, and do, and show makes a difference. What you do shapes perception, and you have the power to define how we are perceived. Remember that.

Suggested Reading

If you are at all interested in reading some new and exciting voices in the game blogging world, and are interested in exploring this topic, you should follow these excellent writers who have written extensively on the topic:

Latoya Peterson
Racial Inclusiveness in Gaming Offers pragmatic suggestions to developers on how to make games more racially inclusive.

Denial and Delusion – Why Public Conversations About Race Fail Before They Begin

Pat Miller
Well Said: A Response to Chili Con Carnage

Are Video Games Racist?

Race and Player Characters

You Got your Race in My Game

Alex Raymond
Mass Effect: First Impressions

Quick Hit: Bioware writer responds to my criticisms

Beyond Gender Choice: Mass Effect’s varied inclusiveness