I have three modes of relaxation; gardening, gaming, and music. The only one of the three that gets me riled up fairly frequently is the gaming part.
Though there are now many Black gamers, and groups like Black Girl Gamers, when I transitioned into playing multiplayer games online we were few and far between. Just being female was rough; anyone who has followed the Gamergate saga knows the toxic history of sexism in gaming. The openly spewed in-game racism was, for me, even more uncomfortable. While those players I interact with in-game are unaware of my race, it means they are free to spew the N-word all day; my only real option is to walk away, or report them, which is usually futile.
Since the day I joined and made my first character, I didn’t opt to hide behind a male avatar choice, even though I knew women in the game were often given a hard time. The options for how I wanted my character to look were also limited. My first character was a human on the Alliance side (the game is structured as Alliance vs. Horde). The human choices of skin color, features and hair styles were all gradations of Europeanness.
This is an issue with games across the spectrum, which Eric Peckham addressed last summer for TechCrunch.
When the only option to experience the fantasy worlds of many games is through white characters, it internalizes in many gamers that those fantasy worlds weren’t designed for them. “Anything is possible in games,” (Professor Kishonna) Gray told me in reference to her passion for the industry, “But anything is only possible for white characters. When they add Black characters to a game they root them only in their real world context … why can’t Black characters ride dragons?”
Data has shown that the representation of different races within games correlates to the racial makeup of the game development community. According to Williams. “It was pretty much a one-for-one representation.”
The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) found in the 2019 edition of its annual survey that among game developers worldwide:
- 81% identify as “white/Caucasian/European”
- 7% identify as “Hispanic/Latinx”
- 2% identify as “Black/African-American/African/Afro-Caribbean”
“People draw their inspiration from their experience,” explained Gray, “that’s why we still have a problem with representation.” (Brass Lion Entertainment co-founder Rashad) Redic said that during his career — which includes roles at top gaming companies like Bethesda and Crytek — he has frequently been “the only — or one of very few — Black guy among hundreds of game devs at a company.”
In answer to Gray, the professor who asked why Black characters couldn’t ride dragons, I do ride dragons. But until very recently, in-game I’ve only been a white or a non-human race when doing it. My love of dragons, swords, and sorcery dates back to reading science fiction as a kid, and searching for female heroes in the genre. Frustrated by the overwhelming white maleness, I shifted to reading authors like Joanna Russ, Anne McCaffrey, and Ursula K. Le Guin. (Octavia Butler hadn’t come along yet.)
It’s not surprising that, due to my reading choices, I would choose role-playing video games that allowed me to step into those fantasy worlds.
Coping with sexism, racism, and white supremacy is bad enough in real life, but it’s a pain in the ass to have to deal with it during what should be fun, games, and fantasy time. Over time, some players like me have started pushing back; the protests we are all too familiar with in the streets have carried over into gaming.
As a response to the murder of George Floyd, and anti-racism protests, gaming companies are beginning to pay lip service to player ‘plaints. In June 2020, Noah Smith reported on this stance for The Washington Post.
Video games represent one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the United States, with 43 percent of U.S. adults playing “often or sometimes,” according to a 2018 Pew report. That same report found 90 percent of teenagers play video games. Yet, as video games continue to grow, both in popularity and scope, racism and harassment remain endemic to the experience.
A 2019 study from the Anti-Defamation League found that two thirds of gamers had been harassed in total and of those, 65 percent had experienced “severe” harassment, which “includes physical threats, stalking, and sustained harassment.”
Some instances of racism in gaming are glaring and brazen, such as players creating usernames, or online aliases, using the n-word. In the week after Floyd’s death, a video posted on Reddit showed a user scrolling through a series of explicitly racist usernames on “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,” Activision’s latest title in one of the best selling video games franchises of all time. In response to this and other similar posts, Infinity Ward, the Activision-owned studio that made the game, tweeted that they “need to do a better job” and are issuing thousands of bans daily. The company said it will add a new in-game reporting system, “additional resources to monitor and ID racist content,” and other features, including more permanent bans.
The rise of vile and racist Trumpism, which has made real life difficult for so many of us, has of course spilled over into gaming life, because real people are behind the keyboards and screens—real people who feel free to insult and demean all and sundry. Nevertheless, I refused to give up gaming. Being proudly and openly Black in the realms of WoW hasn’t been easy, but I found small ways to resist. I made my characters as tan as possible, and gave them names that were distinctly not European; several have African diasporic names of deities, like Jemaya, Yansa, and Shangomi. The rest are named various iterations of Suluca, the name of a distant ancestor who my family said was born in Africa.
When I first started playing, I was solitary, but I wound up joining a Guild, and tried hard to ignore the casually racist and sexist comments made by my Guildmates during gameplay. When they became too much, I spoke out, shocking some of my guildees who had no idea I was an older, Black woman. One even exclaimed, “But you speak so well. I’m so surprised.” Grr.
I wound up quitting that Guild, and went back to playing alone, only grouping up with others when the game forced cooperative efforts. I don’t know if I would still be playing had it not been for a serendipitous turn of events.
I joined Daily Kos in 2008, and about a year later, in May of 2009, I stumbled across a post here about World of Warcraft. Intrigued, I popped into the comment section with caution, writing, “I hope I’m allowed to be here 🙂 I’m not horde, just realized that Kos folks played wow. Perhaps I’ll start a horde toon to join ya.”
And I did! As a result, a whole new world opened up for me. I now had a crew of people to play with, who were anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic and anti-transphobic. They had named their Guild “the Wreck List,” a play on the name of the Daily Kos list of user recommended diaries, which at that time was nicknamed “the Rec List,” now the Trending List.
The Guild’s Statement of purpose tells its story.
Welcome to the home of the Wreck List, the guild for liberal and progressive bloggers and their family and friends! Moodyloner founded the Wreck List in March 2009, to be a sanctuary from the bigotry and the threatening racist, homophobic, and misogynist language and ideas that we have had to endure while playing.
While guild chat is mostly non-political, it is also where we express our liberal and progressive political views, which sometimes may include a sharp word or two about Trump and the GOP. Because some guild members did not come to the Wreck List through political blogs, we do not expect everyone to hold progressive views on all issues; however, we do expect that all members respect the liberal foundation of the guild. This guild is a haven for us and not a forum for debating the views espoused by Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer, Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro or other provocative figures on Fox News and the right. To that end, we do not tolerate promotion of right-wing candidates or points of view in guild chat, whispers, or in vent. If you are a supporter of Trump or the GOP, then the Wreck List isn’t the guild for you, nor is it the guild for friends and family who support the GOP and/or Trump. Those who think that there were good people on both sides in Charlottesville when the Nazis marched with Tiki torches are not welcome here. Nazis, white nationalists, and those who support them are always the bad guys.
In 2011, the Wreck List was even featured on a gaming blog.
There’s plenty about Wreck List of Garrosh (US-H) that’s a little different from your run-of-the-mill World of Warcraft guild. The sprawling social guild doused Ragnaros just days ago with a team of core raiders rooted by several members in their 50s and 60s. In fact, the guild is run primarily by women over the age of 50 — “at age 51, I’m the baby of the group,” admits guild leader Dkosmama. With a median member age of about 40, Wreck List boasts well over 200 members, half of them women.
Even more remarkable than its unusual gender and age mix, though, are the guild’s roots — Wreck List is the unofficial guild of the popular progressive political blog Daily Kos. Not limited to members from the Daily Kos community, Wreck List is open to any player looking for a sanctuary from trade chat madness, away from “threatening racist, homophobic, and misogynist language and ideas.”
Wreck List became my safe-space of sanity. For those folks who also want to see the game from the Alliance perspective we have a small Alliance Guild, called “Left-Winged Conspiracy.”
Research galore has proven the value of representation—to young people in particular—but we oldsters crave it, too.
I had a comfortable online gaming home, and simpatico people to play with, but that did not fix my problem with how my characters looked. They were still white, and also permanently youthful; there are no options at all to be an older person, so I constructed all my characters with silver hair.
Finally, in 2019, after 15 years of the game’s existence, WoW designers finally got the message!
Of course, none of these new options would be available till Shadowlands, the new expansion of the game, dropped, which happened in late November 2020.
I was busy doing post-election political work and didn’t get a chance to play much till the new year, but finally I am content. I took all my “toons” to the in-game barber shop, where you can change hairstyles, skin tones, and facial markings.
One of my alt human characters from Left-Winged Conspiracy, Kossulta, is pictured at the top of this story, with her brand-new silver cornrows. My main toon, Suluca, is not a human. She’s a blood elf mage, an alchemist and herbalist. Now, instead of a deathly pale skin tone, she is gorgeously black.
When I get fed up with real-world problems, depressed about COVID-19 or the state of things in electoral politics, I can now dive into the fantasy world of WoW, not giving a damn about in-game bigots ‘cause I’m flaunting my Black avatars all over Azeroth (the fantasy world where we play).
When I disappear from Daily Kos comments or Twitter for a few hours—you’ll know where I am. As I fly off on my dragon mount, you may just hear me shout with glee, “For the Horde!”