I wasn’t surprised by PewDiePie’s latest racist slip of the tongue. I was surprised at the number of people who were shocked by it.
We had the same conversation about the Face of YouTube and the limits of “jokes” half a year ago. We’re still pretending “outbursts” like his are a momentary lapse of judgment and not an accepted use of slurs in online voice chat.
Kjellberg’s mistake wasn’t his language, it was the fact he accidentally showed his audience the reality of online games. The ease with which Felix Kjellberg dropped a racial slur, mixed with the exasperated “I shouldn’t swear in front of my parents” way he quickly apologized for it, made perfect sense. That’s how a large number of people act online; they just learn to hide it while streaming.
That word, that very particular and targeted racial slur, has been thrown at me in online games since I was 12 years old. It has never left my side.
You never forget your first
Diablo 2 was the first game I ever played online. I chose to play as a Paladin because he had dark skin, like me, and Thorns seemed like an effective ability. I was soon heading off to fight Blood Sparrow with a player-controlled Barbarian leaping at my side. Things were good. Playing online was both more thrilling and less predictable than the couch multiplayer I had enjoyed through my consoles.
I wandered off from my partner and left them to fight and struggle on their own during the fight with Blood Sparrow. I was new to PC gaming, and kind of spooked by the gothic violence of Diablo. My chat box was suddenly filled with strange symbols from the Barbarian. I didn’t know what it meant, but they kept coming.
“hey @#%%^&” “dumb @#%%^&”
It was honestly kind of funny and strange at first. I didn’t have much online experience at 12 years old. Eventually, either out of rage-filled creativity or because he knew about Blizzard’s profanity filter, the other player threw this at me:
I finally understood what was happening. I knew the word he was reaching for, and I knew that somewhere in the world, someone wanted to make me feel less than human. I logged off shortly after, and never had a strong desire to play games online for years.
Looking back, this seemed like the healthy response. We all have our first contact with the horrific things people casually say to each other online. But then so many of us come back. Imagine a restaurant where the staff talked to their customers like that; would you eat there again? (Hell, imagine the Yelp reviews.)
But online gaming will show you how ugly it can be very quickly, and our reaction is usually to return to it, again and again. I’m not surprised I left for so long, but these days I’m always a bit rattled by how many people stay.
Sticks and stones
I rarely, if ever, thought about the link between my lack of interest in online games with voice chat and my race. I knew that I preferred single-player games, and that I had amazing memories playing couch co-op games with my brother. But the same thing happened every time I tried the latest genre-defining online game.
Playing Halo 2 on launch weekend? Someone called me a “dirty nigger” within my first few games.
Finding all of the secret animals in Castle Crashers with the help of a player who couldn’t have hit puberty yet? I was told to “shut your mouth, nigger” after I plugged in my headset to thank them for the help.
Attempting to play the Vault of Glass in Destiny for the first time after searching subreddits for hours to find the ideal group? The group leader, after quickly explaining our group strategy, threw in a final rule: “Don’t be a nigger.”
And so on and so on, until it doesn’t feel worth it for me to play online. I solo’d all of Destiny’s content in the main game and the Taken King expansion, but I never experienced any of the apparently life-affirming wonder of its raids after that exchange. I uninstalled the game and moved on with my life. My experiences with racial slurs online often seem to be the rule, not the exception.
This is how Kjellberg can drop the slur casually, and be completely unchallenged by his friend on the stream. The toxic soup of general voice chat is self-selecting. It’s the default state of gamer chat at the most accessible level: Only those willing to share or accept a base level of hateful language remain. Everyone else elects to leave. Can you blame us?
Also, did you even notice our collective absence? Or did you just accept the mutually agreed-upon level of conversation as the cost of doing business? If you heard this language and said nothing, how much responsibility do you take for how bad things have become?
The problem isn’t even the people saying these things; not entirely. The bigger problem is that the systems and general audience for these games are taught to tolerate it. And soon they’re not just tolerating it, they find it normal. And once it’s normal, it’s OK to take part, and anyone who is rightfully upset or opposed to it is accused of upsetting the status quo. So here we are.
The general state of online chat is intolerable for so many people, and would cause incredible controversy if the full extent of player toxicity was acted out in any other venue.
I value myself and my time too much to try speaking reason to someone who drops racial slurs on someone who (maybe) sounds Black to them. I have better things to do.
Thick skin and self-respect
To exist as a minority online is to have your resilience constantly called into question. As if communicating on social media and wanting to play games with friends and strangers should require deep reservoirs of endurance and strength.
I’m told I need to toughen up when I “complain” about the unending hate speech in online gaming. It’s the internet, what did I expect? We are always being asked to accept racial abuse by people who have no intention of changing the status quo.
I would absolutely love to play Destiny 2. It sounds fun, I love how Bungie shooters feel, and I had a blast during my solo Warlock run of the first game. But if my choice is between paying the better part of $100 to have slurs yelled at me by strangers or enjoying one of my many other entertainment options, I’ll choose the latter. And I’m not alone, and this isn’t just a gaming issue.
Supporting small businesses is important, but Amazon won’t ask you if you’re buying X-Men for your boyfriend every week. I’ve lost count of the women I know who stopped going to comics shops after being hit on or patronized too many times.
This is how fandoms and hobbies lose cultural momentum. This is a market-driven medium; more games sold means more players to play with, as well as more revenue going to the developers of the art you enjoy. Everyone wins, and all you have to do is play nice with others. But the attitude seems to be that the right to abuse others is more important than the health of our hobby.
My little brother, who had never played an online shooter before Overwatch, became such a good Sombra player that his account was repeatedly hit with cheating accusations, as well as creatively spelled slurs sent alongside friend requests.
There are no comforting words in this situation. How do you tell someone that this is going to continue no matter what game they play? How do you argue that they should stay in that environment? Why would someone want to?
Gamers, for their professed love of underdogs and an outsider mentality, have a hell of a time making small concessions for the sake of making anyone who doesn’t look like them feel comfortable online. Why should they have to change to make the community less of a toxic mess? Why doesn’t every else just learn to deal with it? They can always leave, after all.
And we do. So many of us do.
People who want to share your hobby but are repelled by your culture will find ways to do the former while avoiding the latter. This is why comics bought through bookstores are accounting for a growing amount of annual market share. The workers at Barnes & Noble can sell you a product without making you feel like you don’t belong, while your local specialty comic shop may struggle with this basic level of human decency.
Not all of them do, of course. But this is a common enough problem that it’s an issue, and those stores turn what should be sanctuaries for fantasy and escape into hostile, even threatening, environments for anyone who may seem like they don’t belong. And that often means anyone who isn’t a straight white guy.
The industry has to decide whether pushing so many people offline is a loss it can accept. It has to look at how many people may not feel welcome online at all, and whether it’s worth trying to get those people back as customers.
I’m not holding my breath.
Mike Sholars has been writing professionally for a decade as a journalist, copywriter, screenwriter and everything in between. He eagerly awaits an ActRaiser reboot.