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The darker the skin, the harder the game: How South Park pretended to care about race

Don’t worry, they were just joking

Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s South Park is no stranger to social commentary, and Ubisoft’s upcoming RPG South Park: The Fractured But Whole wants to be an interactive version of the show that uses video game tropes as another way to help the jokes land.

The game’s difficulty slider changes the color of your skin, for instance. The lighter the complexion, the easier the game. The darker the complexion, the harder the game. If you want a greater challenge, you have to play as a black character.

South Park: The Fractured But Whole’s difficulty slider
South Park: The Fractured But Whole’s difficulty slider

“This doesn't affect combat,” Cartman tells you. “Just every other aspect of your whole life." The difficulty slider will affect how much money you earn and how you’re spoken to during the course of the game, according to Eurogamer.

Or at least that was the story.

“We reached out to the game's publisher, Ubisoft, who had no official statement but confirmed that it's just a joke,” GamesRadar reported. “It doesn't affect combat difficulty or any other aspect of gameplay difficulty. The slider changes skin tone, but it's purely cosmetic.”

They came so close to saying something.

This could have been interesting

Race is almost never addressed by video games in a serious manner, but this difficulty slider feels like a step in the right direction, and the rare piece of commentary in a game that feels realistic. If first impressions are important, I’m keenly aware that my darker skin is a large part of how people perceive me at first glance. And it does make everything harder.

Simple things like walking around a supermarket or ordering at McDonald’s are met with whispered accusations of gangbanging and thuggery, and many people — white adults especially — will try to avoid me.

White parents will often grip their child’s hand and move away once they’ve spotted me. This works out when I don’t want to talk or I’m trying to get something done, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that I don’t belong, or that I’m not supposed to be doing whatever mundane tasks make up my day. These are heavy thoughts for the cereal aisle.

South Park’s difficulty slider could have been seen as a way for others to experience life while black, an accurate representation of the heightened adversity people of color face. Too often blacks are othered because of their darker skin, but Ubisoft could have presented you with an active, in-the-moment confrontation with discrimination, racism and stereotyping. The idea that the game would never let you forget you’re black was an intriguing one, because that’s how life works when you’re black.

I remember when a professor split us into groups of three to discuss global issues in a college course. I was grouped with two other people, Anna and Mindy. Mindy was Chinese. Anna was Latina, and wanted to lead the talk before asking for our opinions on the issue.

I spoke for two or three minutes. Then there was silence. Anna broke the quiet by saying she hadn’t expected that.

“Expect what?” I asked.

“I didn’t expect you to be so intelligent.”

“What does that even mean?”

“Well, based on the way you look, I didn’t think you were that smart,” she explained, as if that was a reasonable thing to say.

I felt dejected. “I guess black people are full of surprises,” I said.

This wasn’t my first rodeo. Other people will offer an incessant, nagging reminder that you’re black. They will feel the need to point it out. As if I don’t see myself in the mirror every day. Someone is going to remind you of your race in the course of your day, and often it is going to be that blatant and discriminatory.

I’m a young black male who knows The Man — meaning corporate frameworks, racial stereotypes and societal stigma — is out to get me, hindering me from advancing in life in some capacity as a means to initiate and maintain control over me. This is the slider in real life. Systems work against you. As a person of color, you have to operate at a higher level to get the same rewards. This isn’t something I believe, this is something that life shows me daily. Responding to this situation with anger is what led to the Angry Black Man trope in pop culture.

I can imagine South Park: The Fractured But Whole barring black characters from entering certain stores at certains times, because we always intend to rob convenience stores. Or maybe black characters will engage in the game’s combat more often, due to black men being so instinctively hyper-aggressive. Since the game deals with superheroes, maybe black characters will be able to jump higher or run faster. We are, everyone tells us, excellent at physical activities.

Ubisoft may have allowed you to “live while black,” by limiting the amount of money you make in the game and changing the conversations other characters have with you. I can imagine characters looking at you with fear, unsure of what you’ll do next. I could imagine friends making black jokes, telling you to “smile because you’re so damn dark your white ass teeth are lights.”

I could imagine people assuming, claiming and even demanding you play or have played basketball or football, regardless of your interest level in sports. I could imagine police pulling you over or stopping you on the street because “you look like a threat.” I could imagine all of this happening in South Park: The Fractured But Whole because this all has happened — and continues to happen — to me.

And though you’d like to believe it's not due to your skin tone but the social stigma and stereotypes associated with it that you're actively trying to disprove, it definitely is and forever will be your skin tone. It is because I’m black that parents grip their child’s hands.

It is because I’m black that people poke fun at my darker skin. It is because I’m black that people assume I play or have played basketball or football. It is because I’m black that police see me as a “threat,” prepared to shoot first and ask questions never.

It is because you’re black, and everything is because you’re black.

Many people reading this will likely be doubtful that these situations are as common as I’m making them out to be in real life. I’m doubtful a game would ever been willing to show these things as a way of describing life while black in America.

Never mind, it was all just a cheap joke

This all makes how the slider will actually be used even more of a betrayal.

The possibility of experiencing a life of hardship because of one unchangeable aspect of yourself doesn’t actually exist in the game, even in a humorous way. Implementing a difficulty slider that not only changes your character’s skin color but also changes how the world reacts to you would have been a brilliant and unexpected way to teach empathy to players.

Rather than introduce a conversation regarding discrimination, racism and stereotyping, South Park: The Fractured But Whole uses the discrimination blacks and people of color face every day for a quick laugh in the character creation screen.

Even in our escapism, there’s no escape from it. Someone is going to remind you that you’re black. It happens every day. Ubisoft wants to make sure it’s responsible for that reminder on at least one of those days.

Well done.

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