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Racism in Watch Dogs 2 is subtle, and that's how it won me over

This is the scene that made me fall in love with the game


Watch Dogs 2 surprised me with how it handled the microaggressions that black folks in the tech sector often encounter. Considering the way the first game served up an unlikeable stereotype of a misanthropic hacker, the sequel is a breath of fresh air. The hero of the game is Marcus Holloway, a sympathetic young black hacker, and my favorite scene includes Horatio Carlin, the other black hacker we get to know in DedSec.

There are characters I could identify with, and who spoke to my experiences. That’s all too rare in gaming for many players. Consider the ridiculous argument that Battlefield 1 is “blackwashing World War I.” The creators of Remember Me likewise had a hard time selling their game with a black female lead until Capcom picked it up. I hadn’t expected to like, let alone find a soft spot for, the characters in Watch Dogs 2, but I don’t mind this sort of pleasant surprise in my gaming.

In fact, I was bored with the game at first. Since I turned away from the first Watch Dogs, I had no clue as to why protagonist Marcus Holloway might be so amped to join DedSec, an elite group of hackers. In the introductory mission, we are directed to delete Marcus’ profile from the CTOS servers, but we have no idea why he’s doing this, just that it needs to be done for him to complete his initiation into DedSec. Even a bit of explanation would have gotten me more involved, but all wasn’t lost after those first few hours.

The game grew on me slowly. The first thing that thawed my not-so-great first impression was a mission that happens just a couple hours into the game, where Marcus and the rest of the DedSec crew plot to steal a Knight Rider-style car and script.

Why? Because that script is of a movie that would depict a group of hackers a little too close to DedSec for their liking. Stealing that car and fleeing for my digital life on the streets of San Francisco was my turning point with the game.

The car’s AI tells Marcus it can’t recognize him because his skin is too dark, and in that instant I had two thoughts. One was that they went there — they actually went there. The other was to recall the real-world incident where cameras by HP could not recognize black users. There is a long history of racial bias in photography, down to how film was manufactured, and facial-recognition technology struggling with black faces isn’t a new problem.

That wasn’t my first surprise in terms of how Watch Dogs 2 tackled race. The true turning point that made me love this game was the following conversation between Marcus and Horatio, the only other brother on the team with a legit day job where he’s also doubling up as a source of info for DedSec.

When they are walking around the Nudle campus — Nudle being the game’s satirical version of a huge technology company — there’s a moment between them that many of us have had when working in corporate life.

Marcus says to Horatio as they arrive at the campus, "Hey, Horatio man. I'm scared, bro."

Horatio questions that with, “Scared? Of what?”

For anyone who’s been the only or one of a few black folks in a tech office, Marcus’ answer is obvious. "Nobody looks like us,” he says.

Sometimes humor is our only option to keep cool in this situation, and that’s how Horatio responds.

Horatio: "Ha, man, welcome to Silicon Valley. Hey, what do you call a black man surrounded by thousands of white people?"

Marcus: "What?"

Horatio: "Mr. President."

The moment passes between them as they enter the cafeteria, and Horatio gets his daily dose of microaggression from a white colleague who’s sure Horatio’s up to no good. This coworker gives them both a suspicious once over before casually threatening to take his “concerns” to HR.

Any person of color with a white colleague who’s been convinced they don’t belong has had that same experience; the same sense of being guilty until proven innocent … and then still maybe being called guilty.

This shouldn’t be so rare

It’s pleasing to see another game tackle race and blackness besides Mafia 3 this year. Where Mafia 3 took us back to 1968 with slurs, blatant racism and worse put upon that game’s Lincoln Clay, Watch Dogs 2 is set in the present day, showing us Marcus Holloway dealing with the covert racism that now comes part and parcel with being black in the U.S.

That’s something that was thought about during production, and the creative team seemed to wrestle a bit with how to discuss race.

“By choosing Marcus Holloway (a black man from Oakland) as our hero, we knew this would create some interesting challenges as he worked his way through the tech industry, especially Silicon Valley,” Dominic Guay, senior producer of Watch Dogs 2, told us via email, when we asked about this aspect of the game.

“Our primary goal with the narrative was to try to reflect the truth behind the various stories in the Bay Area,” he continued. “With the second goal of our narrative team [being] — to keep things light and fun, even when tackling serious subjects. Because Marcus and Horatio are so charismatic, we’re able to easily walk in their shoes. We hear them ‘code shifting’ their words as they greet the local workers.”

What’s code-shifting, or code-switching? It’s a term that refers to how people shift how they act or speak, their cultural identity, when dealing with different groups of people. President Obama demonstrated this skill a number of times while he was in office.

It was important to make sure the player wasn’t always comfortable during these situations.

“Even though Horatio is a part of their community and he does enjoy his job, we feel like outsiders as we walk with him towards the campus,” Guay said. “It stings, but they’re joking about it together. It should feel awkward for the player, but Marcus and Horatio are giving the player permission to laugh along with our heroes as the problem sinks in.”

That interaction hits too close to home to have been written by someone who’s never experienced that. I’ve been that person; I’ve been the singular black folk, or only one of a few, who has to deal with the subtle racism, the ways in which colleagues who aren’t people of color treat you differently.

Seeing this happen in-game is both infuriating and validating. Too many times you’re doubted as a black person, when you say things like that happen to you in an office setting.

It gives me hope that if a team of mostly white devs in Montreal can do the work and get it right, then others will follow their lead and have good representation of non-white characters. They will acknowledge the microaggressions that people of color experience in our lives and integrate the experiences into the games we play. But it doesn’t always turn out so well.

A recent game that comes to mind is Virginia, an adventure game set in the ’90s with two black women lead characters. It falls really short on exploring the nuance of what it would mean to be female and black in their line of work. I played Virginia, the whole time feeling … wrong. It felt off-kilter, as if something was missing the whole time.

The feeling of “these aren’t my people” hit pretty hard.

That’s the tricky part, though. There’s a kind of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” trap for developers. If you attempt to tackle representation and fail, people will let you know how you messed up, and hold it against you. If you do the work, and you produce a game where you have good representation, then your audience will expect you to do uphold that standard, possibly exceeding it in future work.

You may also raise the ire of white players who simply refuse to believe that office scenes like the one in Watch Dogs 2 happen in real life, or think that addressing race is somehow more “political” than the rest of the game.

Watch Dogs 2, Mafia 3 and other games that bring race and racism into the plot and the medium are a welcome change to the standard fare we’ve been served over and over.

Watch Dogs 2 handles race in a way that feels both real and vital. It shows a life experience that will be familiar to some members of the audience or surprising to others, but the game is improved for everyone due to its inclusion.

Tanya DePass is a lifelong Chicagoan who loves everything about gaming, #INeedDiverseGames spawn point, and wants to make it better and more inclusive for everyone. She’s the Founder and EIC of @OutofTokensCast, the Diversity Liaison for GaymerX and often speaks on issues of diversity, feminism, race, intersectionality and other topics at conventions.