I’ve beaten the reboot of Tomb Raider weeks ago and I’m still befuddled as to why I didn’t like it. On paper, everything is there: great voice acting, diverse looking cast, non-killing activities and beautiful locales. I even cringe as I say, “they even gave her sensible breasts!” I’m still parsing what that even means in my small hetero dude-brain. I’m also processing what Tomb Raider games have to be in order to be deemed successful. I’m still figuring out why this game is another brick in the wall of why, even the best big budget games, are equal parts off-putting in their over-reaching goals.
Max Payne 3 turned out to be the game people wanted after they realized realistic gun violence needs a better soundtrack. I never was a Max Payne fan. I think this is a result of playing the PS2 games well after the Matrix hype died down. Shooting bullets at a slower rate of speed was cool. I mean “bullet time” became a known term because of Max Payne. What have you done for me lately Max Payne? Have you upheld all the current tropes in gaming? Yes, you have. This video game stars a white dude in a land of poor people of color. He shoots them and the developers made sure it felt mechanically great. This game is well liked in my friend group and I can see its charm, but outside of the dope soundtrack, Max Payne 3 a big budget fart of a game.
I want to preface this by saying I have hope for games writing. I have hope, because I see Evan Narcisse, Zolani Stewart, Sidney Fussell, Austin Walker and the great catalog of work they’ve built over the years. They, among other men of color in games writing, have worked without a shred of the recognition they truly deserve to get on platforms like Kotaku, Boingboing and Giantbomb where their voices grow stronger. There are a number of black writers and specifically black men who write critically about games, but these are my favorites to reference when delving into today’s topic. Honestly, they’re my favorites in general.
So, we kinda suck when it comes to writing about black women.
It has taken me the better part of a month to write this and I’m not sure why. Writing about my 240-plus hour experience with Dark Souls may prove more difficult than playing the game. I didn’t have a bad time, I like Dark Souls. It does feel like I’m playing a different game all of my friends played years back. That part is cool. I kinda think this new age of patch updates and downloadable content means that someone who plays a game in 2009 is guaranteed to NOT have the same experience someone else has playing the game years later. This also means how we are challenged as players has to change with those times.
[I promise you I’m gonna climb out of my little writing depression, but give me a little time y’all. It’s taking me long periods to organize thoughts. Thank you for reading.]
So, I played The Walking Dead Season 2 and The Wolf Among Us within one week. Only, that week was about two months ago from the day of me writing this. In between that time I’d been thinking about how we choose our adventures with media -- and how that reflects our daily lives. Though I can’t predict how the average person who has a 9-to-5 plays games. I’ve just begun scraping the surface on how I decompress after a long day with games.
As a preface, I really stewed over the title of this piece. I concluded, that if a billion dollars worth of people are eager to hear this word, hundreds of times in a video game, then why socially veil it behind “the n-word?”
I’m writing this because I’m truly conflicted about that word -- because I use it. I use it in private company. I listen to it in my preferred music. I see it in some of my favorite films. And now, I guess I have to get use to it in my video games.
Another vital point: as of me typing this, I have never played Grand Theft Auto V. I’ve played others, just not this one. I’ve been over a friend’s house and watched her play it for a few hours. I’ve watch a few live streams by critics and pals on the internet, but I haven’t [for whatever reason or many reasons] played this game.
This word isn’t new. The internet will tell me to not be surprised at Rockstar’s ability to have it’s finger on the pulse of such specific cultural witticism and casual slang-infused dialogue between their characters. Ever since hearing CJ shout it out of a speeding car in San Andreas in 2004, there was some sort of benchmark set here. A benchmark for the word, nigger.
It really stings to write that word versus saying it aloud. That word. Ugh. A word I use. A word I ‘joke’ with. A word I put the “a” at the end of to try and dilute the impact and its history. A word that, I majorly use around friends who so graciously let me pollute their ears with it. There is no excuse for me using it conversationally. There is no excuse for me using it at all. Knowing why I use it doesn’t give me a conscious feeling of maturity.
I’m use to using it. I’m use to poor, colored folks using it. I’m not use to it in video games. My brain, at times, doesn’t accept certain games beyond a toy image and this toy has traditionally been made by non-colored people in positions of power.
The elephant in the room is that in order to accept the image of colored folk in multi-dimensional roles they must adhere to a stereotype that makes their presence “more palatable.” Colored people in award winning films are: slaves, prisoners, whores, thugs, addicts, dimwits, clowns, violent1. Violent. Violent. In five months you will see nominations and awards given to a film called 12 Years A Slave. A film directed by a African-European. Film has had time to slowly mature and the rarity of having a black person direct a film involving black issues, colored people issues. This is something, I can only hope, the gaming culture can accomplish on just as large a scale.
Almost 10 years after hearing CJ use it in San Andreas. A character I was almost too happy to say represented shades of myself and family friends in my … old neighborhood. There was also this feeling, even at 21 -- a “mature gamer,” that I was playing something so edgy that my mom shouldn’t know about it. She wouldn’t get it. The very black woman who brought me into this world, who’d raised me on her own -- who showed me how to play Ms. Pac Man, wouldn’t get it.
I guess we all were dumb kids at some point.
This character, CJ, represented so much and held so much weight in GTA: San Andreas [even though you could send him on murderous rampages and have him beat up women] he was written to not only use that word, but to be an attempt at a three-dimensional person of color. A person from poverty who had tired of his gangbanging days and wanted out of the Los Angeles inspired, Los Santos.
There is this part of me that I’m not allowing to mature. I’m not letting go of that word and I think writing this whole thing out will help, in some way, process if I ever will. Either that or there will be several family members and friends on the internet giving me what-for, I expect mom to be the first to slap me. Form a line behind her.
Here’s where my logic becomes something unrelatable to many. I feel, especially after the word’s use in several games since San Andreas and now with casual conversation between Lamar2 and Franklin. I don’t know why this has to exist in GTA games anymore. I also feel, after the recent revelation that more people are currently playing GTA V than any game on Earth [for the time being], that if more people see this word used in casual conversation -- that the word within this generation, loses meaning. Within that there is this idea, that I should prepare for more major game publishers to culturally cherry pick portions of us3, more so than they have already.
Semantic satiation. The act of using a word so many times that the word is just a sound you hear. Meaningless. The psychological phrasing is semantic saturation, which may be more apt in a post-Dave Chappelle world. I also have to acknowledge that we live in an online connected community and as of me typing this, GTA V’s online features haven’t be turned on. When that happens, I’m wondering if my illogical hypothesis will bear fruit.
It’s not that I think having a game that has black people saying that word back and forth to one another will provoke others, in real life, to do as the Romans do. Because then we open the horrible conversation of “do video games cause…” when in reality, I’m not trying to be absolute in the result. But since CJ’s appearance in San Andreas, and the rise of violent video games being played by more people in an online capacity -- I’d be a liar if I didn’t say that there are more people on the internet calling me … that word.
A word, that I still use, but never online and never in mixed company. I still use it. And it disturbs me that a game that can’t -- won’t depict more minorities having casual conversation in their games is still willing to show these ‘attempts’ at semi-developed black men say one of the most hurtful words to one another to an audience that has spent decades co-opting and vulturing ethnic culture.
What perturbs me most, out of all of this, is that we see that there is so much good possible within games culture by looking at the most recent Grand Theft Auto games in the past decade. From depicting CJ as a thug who wants to escape his social caste system in San Andreas. From an Eastern Promises inspired Nico who immigrated from Russia to pursue the American Dream to find anything but. To The Ballad of Gay Tony, an attempt to feature a character who is gay, but is given more character development to the point of his sexual orientation being moot.
It would hurt less if these attempts weren’t made, but since they were we have to state the obvious. Rockstar is not capable of depicting the disenfranchised beyond established stereotypes. They will put women in sexually suggestive poses on their box covers, but not give a player the options of playing them in any story capacity. Rockstar is very capable of giving you an almost turn-by-turn realized virtual reality of Los Angeles in Los Santos. They can enthrall you with the many mechanics of violent outcomes of characters they’ve established as anti-heroes. They are not interested in showing these anti-heroes beyond a stereotype in a world they’ve so meticulously mimicked.
This fosters an audience of people who think things like this are funny. This makes me think that the language, the depictions, that word [THAT word] that Rockstar is so eager to display for hundreds of millions of dollars is merely just for that. And the glaring omission of anything meaningful, of women -- of their conversations? Is purposeful and that makes me upset. Nigger is not an edgy dialogue device to be encouraged in a game that isn’t interested in showing that word’s cause and effect.
I’m not a punch line to your joke.
1Apologies for the serial commas, but I really needed them.
2The character who plays Lamar is a comedian named Gerald “Slink” Johnson that I find funny [and problematic] and I’m happy he landed a pretty big role in one of this generation’s biggest games.
3By “us” I mean the royal “us.” The poor, LGBT and disabled. All forms of the intersectional society that remains the punch line of jokes and a plot-point to move an edgy story forward.