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Persuasive Games: Little Black Sambo

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Persuasive Games: Little Black Sambo

September 21, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

[Scribblenauts' vast dictionary accidentally includes an archaic racial slur. In this opinion piece, game designer and writer Ian Bogost analyzes the ethical quandary -- and, more importantly, the ensuing response.]

The distinctive feature of 5th Cell's critically-acclaimed Nintendo DS game Scribblenauts is its enormous dictionary of terms, any of which can be written to summon objects to solve puzzles in the game. Just about anything you might want to write, from "acai berry" to "zygote," gets transformed into a functional object.

With well over twenty thousand words represented, some are bound to be surprising. And indeed, shortly after its release, a player found and reported an unusual term in the game's dictionary: "sambo."

"Sambo" is a racial slur that originated in eighteenth century British and American English. It was, and remains, a derogatory way to refer to a black man.

While its origins remain somewhat mysterious, the term is best known today thanks to the 1894 children's book Little Black Sambo, which tells the story of a boy named Sambo who outwits a series of tigers who threaten to eat him.

The cultural context for Little Black Sambo is complex. Its author, Helen Bannerman, was a Scot living in Madras during the period of British colonization. This explains both the tigers and the "blackness" of the boy, since the British often referred to Indians as black.

Yet, the name she chose for the boy referred primarily to a largely American term for African slaves. While the original edition caricatured Southern Indian appearances, later editions, including those published in the U.S., depicted Sambo as a "darky" or a minstrel golliwogg, further cementing its association with the negative racial stereotype of a negro simpleton.

By the 1930s, the Little Black Sambo character appeared regularly in popular culture, including a variety of animation adaptations of Bannerman's story. In this 1935 cartoon, the characters are clearly meant to refer to African American blackness, as the addition of the black mammy and stereotypical speech suggest.

But by this time, negative reactions to the story and figure of black Sambo were already beginning to appear. As the years passed, many began criticizing the book as offensive to black children, and it gradually fell out of favor in libraries and schools, even as other editions appeared that attempted to rescue the story from its racist roots.

(Among these is the 1996 The Story of Little Babaji, a direct copy of Bannerman's original text with new illustrations by Fred Marcellino. This edition became a best-seller, and Marcellino was credited with rescuing the tale from its accidental fate as a symbol of American racism.)


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Comments


Jeremy Miller
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The stir that is being caused over all of this is what I find disturbing. Everyone is on a witch hunt these days, and they are the ones causing the most harm.



First off, I'm not sure of what your sources are, but several point to the word not taking on racist meaning until circa World War II. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/sambo for example.



Secondly, I don't appreciate being presumed ignorant. There is no way any of us could or would want to catalog every racist term throughout the ages. Instead of having classes and education on what words we shouldn't use, why don't we focus on the harmony of the attitudes and feelings.



The only reason this whole "sambo" issue has come up is because someone probably took a list of every harmful and slurring word and started typing them into the game to see what resulted. So we praise him and make him notable for doing so? Then we harp on the creators of this masterpiece assuming their intentions, guilty until proven innocent.



Words these days can easily be taken out of context, used for something other than their intent. Should I get offended that when you type "cracker" a saltine appears? Every one seems to want to get offended, and frankly it's getting old.



I am well-educated, not even close to being racist, and I have several friends that are the same. We are all around the 30 year old range and none of us were aware of the existence of this word or its implications. If it's a dead term, let it die. Just like this issue should.

John Hahn
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Kirk Battle
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Well, it didn't take long for the knees to start jerking. Do try and read the article before you start spewing that Bogost was, "suggesting that we should protest or boycott the developers software?" or "being presumed ignorant."



A game about words has generated a discussion about a racial slur that most people who live in the American South are thoroughly aware of and actively censor to the point that many people don't know it exists anymore. In the vast sea of AAA games playing it safe in 2009, it's refreshing to have a game do something besides just be fun.

John Hahn
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Kirk Battle
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Well, you obviously missed out on this one. I was born and raised in South Carolina where it was used all the time along with the library keeping copies on the shelf. As people grew to protest the term, stores, books, and films all began to refrain from using it because the black community rightly found it offensive.

John Hahn
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Simon Ferrari
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Victrix causa diis placuit sed victa Catoni

Edward Kuehnel
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Oddly enough, there was a chain of pancake houses named after the book. They had the story written on their menus and everything. The one I remember was in Lincoln City, Oregon where I would go a lot as a kid. It's still there, but it's been renamed "Sambo's" instead of "Little Black Sambo's" and there's no sign of Sambo or the story, except there's still the tiger with a crimson umbrella.



Even as a sheltered upper middle class child I could tell that place was a bit out of bounds.

Theo Tanaka
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"It is a game meant to make us think and rethink our words, their uses, and their implicit behavior." I think that's all Bogost is suggesting we should do about this game, he is not suggesting to boycott the game at any moment.

One word can mean a lot of things to many people, and they can be offensive to some, and meaningless to others. We should reflect about this, taking the place of the other, and not just shout so called solutions to everyone.

"It's just a game" is one of the responses we get. To me, if it's a game, it's a big deal. Games is my medium of choice, it's the medium that amazes me the most, it's the medium that I try to present to everyone in my life. Games can be seen as pure entertainment, but we, as gamers and game developers, can't we see it as much more?



I'm from Brazil, and never heard this word before (at first I was thinking it was something related to samba!). But I'm glad that now I know what sambo could mean, besides the spanish meaning (I didn't know the spanish meaning too, remember that we speak portuguese in Brazil), and I know I should never use it inappropriately.

Jeremy Miller
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Uh... L.B. Did you read the article? "On the one hand, it is tempting to celebrate this new ignorance."

Jamie Mann
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"But here's the problem: Scribblenauts is a game about words. That's its payload. Indeed, it is a game about a very many words and their relative uniqueness. It is a game about what words mean and do when mustered in particular situations. Its puzzles are mundane and uninteresting, until new terms alight upon them."



Personally, I think this entire thing is a storm in a teacup. However, the article seems to have missed one side of the argument altogether: Scribblenauts is effectively allowing the word "sambo" to be reclaimed and used in a non-derogatory sense. Admittedly, since Scribblenauts doesn't extend player vocabulary, the effect of this is likely to be minimal.



It's something of a shame that more words and symbols can't be reclaimed - faggots and swastikas being two prime examples.

Jeremy Miller
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And Theo, I agree. I just hate the way these things are discovered and brought about. That everyone thinks people have racist intentions. As in my original post, guilty until proven innocent. This game should be continued to be lifted up for its educational merits. In its puzzle-solving and its vocabulary lessons.

Kirk Battle
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Gosh Jeremy, that would probably explain why the sentence after that is: "If a more accepting and less bigoted society is one we want to live in, then there is some sign of cultural success when a racial slur obsolesces."

John Hahn
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Jeremy Miller
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L.B. I'm not sure of your point. Regardless of the outcome of said ignorance, it is presumed nonetheless.

John Hahn
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Alan Au
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This reminds me of the uproar surrounding the Wingdings font back in 1992, which is to say that people will continue to search for patterns and meaning where none exist.

Theo Tanaka
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@John Hahn: At first I felt that I had lost what was suggested by mr. Bogost. But as I re-read some parts, I think he is not trying to conclude anything, he is asking us to have some perspective on the subject, to come to our own conclusions about the subject, and not run for the "It's just a game" solution.

Theo Tanaka
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@Jeremy Miller: It's true that it seems a witch hunt, and I also wonder how someone got to the sambo word in Scribblenauts. But I think that both articles by Kotaku and mr. Bogost are cleverly written, they present the facts and what is the position from 5th Cell and Warner, and give us space to think about the subject. The ones who are attacking the game developers, making the witch hunt, are some posts and comments. Those are the ones making the storm in a glass of water.

Ian Bogost
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@Theo

Yes!

Edward Kuehnel
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Re: the pancake houses. I Just realized there's more to the article than what's on the first page. Sorry. 1200 locations, huh? That's bizarre. I thought there was a handful hidden safely away in white trash areas of the country like in Oregon.



Incidentally, my first concept of racism came about because of that restaurant. I remember as a small child eating a meal with my parents and younger sister at another restaurant and I said, "Why can't we eat at Sambo's?" My parents immediately hushed me. I had no idea why. It was a simple (if not bratty) question. They pointed out a black family seated close by. I still didn't make the connection, so my Mom had to explain it to me.



Incidentally, if you want to have a nosebleed about a game that's intentionally racist, go get a copy of Desperados:



http://pc.ign.com/objects/015/015315.html



I've never seen so many racial stereotypes in one game. The black character runs around yelling, "Zippity Doo!" every time you move him. Mexican bandits can be ambushed by leaving out bottles of tequila and waiting until they zero in on it like a fly to honey.



The playable Mexican can take a "siesta" by curling up under his sombrero and basically make himself "invisible" by being part of the landscape.



The Chinese girl has a bad accent and a pet monkey. I think she has some kind of laundry-based ability but honesty I can't remember now, it's been a while since I played it.

Jason Taylor
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I saw this article on twitter and one person tweeted: "Regarding the racial slur kerfuffle with Scribblenauts: All this attention is just giving these Xbox Live kids a new word to use in Halo."



I think that best sums up my thoughts on the issue.



No one over the age of 10 in America is uneducated, nor flippant towards racism, slavery or civil rights. Is there really a need to get on a soapbox and debate whether or not it's shameful younger people donít have this word in their vocabulary as well? I, for one, think its great children and young adults have no idea what this termís history holds.



I do agree, however, that just because someone has never heard of the word doesn't make it any less horrendous. But I donít think thatís the point here.



I just think the only thing this discussion has done is taught people a new racial epitaph which will now, inevitably, go on forums, chat rooms and Xbox Live as a joke to others of the same age where the term holds no gravity to either side; thus the term will be used very haphazardly.



I think the media needs to be more self-aware of its own impact of itís own reporting. The incident seems completely innocuous while the reporting has done more damage to the actual issue than the game itself.



Case in point, have you seen the Destructoid.com image regarding this controversy on their front page? http://bulk2.destructoid.com/ul/148940-148940-scribble-t.jpg



Is that acceptable journalism? Thatís far worse than what the game created. Itís completely offensive and a very crude joke. But as I said the term holds no gravity to the younger generation, so this is what will happen.

Tim Stellmach
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John Hahn, the reason you've never heard of the slur is not because it was all that obscure, but because you're 24. Before you speculated "maybe it just faded into obscurity the way some words do," did you stop to think that people *in this conversation* would be old enough to remember the facts of the matter? It's not like this was back during the Civil War or anything.

Bruno Dion
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@Jason Taylor

"Is that acceptable journalism?" It's Destructoid, of course it ain't. Aside from a few staff member that I respect (Chad Concelmo, Ashley Davis, Anthony Burch) it's not a great place of intelligent discourse.



Back on topic, I am a 21 years old Canadian (worse, Quebecer), so the word sambo is light years away from me, and I'm kind of on the edge about the whole issue. I don't want to go to the "It's just a game" defence because it's simply the easy and cowardly way out of an issue but I wouldn't go as far as saying "In the vast sea of AAA games playing it safe in 2009, it's refreshing to have a game do something besides just be fun. " like Mr. Jeffries said. I think it is giving a bit too much credit to the guys at 5th Cell. I don't think they sat around the table and asked themselves "Are we being bold and putting this controversial word in". I am inclined to believe them. They did not know what sambo meant. Someone dropped the ball, it's not a bold statement about something.

John Hahn
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edited

MaurŪcio Gomes
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What is this racismphobia again?



Can please you all stop it? Seriously, I am tired of seeing that racismphobia generating more racism than actual racist people...

Thomas Grove
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Wait, so it means a watermelon-like-gourde in Spanish? So then what's the issue? That's about as racist as writing the word "fried chicken" and then having a fried chicken appear. I get the larger ironies that Ian is pointing to, which is cool, but seems like The New Yorker would be a better venue.

Boon Cotter
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If writing "sambo" produces a graphical representation of the fruit known as a sambo, instead of a racial caricature, then it's not some deep, multi-layered appeal for discourse on racial disharmony. Suggesting it is says a lot more about you than "sambo" says about Scribblenauts.



Thomas Grove raises a good point. Next time I go to KFC I'll be sure to order a bucket of "poultry submerged in a vat of boiling oil until cooked to an acceptible standard", incase asking for "fried chicken" offends one of the non-minority moral brigade whose insistence on waving a banner on behalf of a minority group for every pedantic, pathetic little thing results in the real issues being lost amongst the self righteous garbage.

Dan Robinson
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I don't think there is a hidden agenda here. I'm pretty sure that they saw a way to increase the word count without having to create a new graphic. Personally I would have liked to see two characters wrestling as sambo is also a russian martial art. Would it have prevented the controversy? I can't say.

Dave Blanpied
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A picture vaguely watermelon-y can be seen as a racial caricature - something that some level of review at Scribblenauts should have caught. That it didn't says at least something about the tech community. Dan Robinson may well be right, the original design decision may have been to save 600 bytes in ignorance of the social nuances. Still, what of his boss? And his boss?



Does Scribblenauts include the word "geek"? Does it produce a picture of a "a carnival performer who performs sensationally morbid or disgusting acts, as biting off the head of a live chicken" - "geek." Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 22 Sep. 2009. . I think not.

Theo Tanaka
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@John Hahn: That's the disavowal problem that mr. Bogost talked about. Just because you don't know doesn't mean that you shouldn't care.

The focus of this article is to think about the words, and the meanings they have beyond our own understanding. It's just a discussion, a chance for reflexion. Nobody is calling names here. But then maybe it's just me that thinks it's like this.

John Hahn
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[User Banned]
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Ross Mapes
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"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."



I am sure this statement stands quite well for wars and tragic events. It causes us to avoid similar situations in the future. This of course includes acts of racism.



But in terms of words it simply doesn't work the same. Words that portray slanderous meaning and hate towards a specific people should not be remembered. It sounds drastic in some ways but think about it, what good comes from it?



The word will simply be something people should not say, a taboo, a forbidden fruit (a gourd wasn't it?). And once a word is forbidden it has an allure, which you will surely be aware of if you have children. And these words stick, and people remember that the word is for someone different to you and the whole thing perpetuates racism.



So what is the harm in letting some words fade away? Let Sambo be a little gourd in Spain, and if someone wants to say something nasty, they will just have to use a word that applies to all of us instead.

Eric Carr
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The DS only has 256 X 192 pixels on the screen. The "watermelon" can't be that big, probably little more than a green smudge. I wonder if this is a case of seeing what we want to see, or expect to. Consider it a tiny green Rorschach test.

Having said that, I, like Dan Robinson, thought it was Russian Judo until I read the article. Either way, it seems quaint now, and not worth the supposed controversy.

Boon Cotter
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Belonging to a minority, I find it is more often than not people from the majority who stir up these shit storms on my behalf. And then any real issues I face get drowned in this kind of hyperbole, and if I dare defend myself I become just another guy with a placard.

John Hahn
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John Hahn
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Adam Piotuch
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This game is awesome, it's not racist. These guys went to every extent to avoid it, and so a fruit comes up when you type in a word that the majority of people never even knew it was racist, or to an extent even heard of the word before. Can't we argue about something else? Like what to add in the sequel?

John Hahn
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That's a good idea. In fact, I'm going to remove all of my previous posts as I feel like this discussion is pointless and I shouldn't have said anything in the first place.

John Mason
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Articles like this really make me question at times what the *media*-not the creators-are up to intention-wise. I'm not saying they're outright racist themselves, but rather they seem to be trying to cull up it's "power" to generate action and-by association-money. It's pretty sad that-in our society at least (dominantly here in the United States)-putting a racial slant on *anything* can garauntee big bucks, and while on one end it's acceptable to blame the douches that report this stuff in this fashion, the people that actually fall for the bait-n-switch and turn out to be the sheep (doing exactly what the people putting the product out there wanted) are just as much to blame.



In fact, if I go on any further I might be one of those sheep as well, so I'll say this; everyone here's made some good points, but the best way to actually do anything about these sort of issues is to....live. And talk. And hang out. And interact w/ each other. It'll take time but the climate and mental conditionings in place today didn't happen overnight either. I'll leave you folks to it. Later.

Ben Delacour
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Boon Cotter is edging on what I think is notable about this. It's a reflection of the the idea that having anything that could remotely be considered racist should be avoided at all times. This results in ignoring real problems while people feel better about themselves for doing it. The original Zelda had a swastika as one of the dungeon designs. There was nothing racist about it. Censoring this is just hiding the far larger meanings of the symbol from westerners who think it means Nazi. Doing this sort of thing is white washing history. We shouldn't just let history fall to the wayside and we shouldn't just ignore all differences. There are large racial divides, especially economic and criminal prosecution, in America right now. I think this article is pretty good for bringing in history and meta-examination.

Yuhang Lou
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Why i see lots of edited?

Velma Robinson
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I am astonished by reading these posts and hearing comment on the obscurity of the word sambo as a racist term. It still is one, not it shouldn't be used in any forum regardless. To me, it is like saying a racist term for someone Jewish, or any other race or nationality is accepted merely because it fell out of favor in the current terminology. If we are a truly a community, then the rights and beliefs of others should be respected. You, as an individual, don't have accept as what you believe, but you should respect others. This discussion reminds me of the pivotal moment in "A Time to Kill" when the lawyer explained what happened to the little girl( who had been beaten, reaped and left by dead by 2 racists), then finished by saying "What if she were white?" No one seems to understand unless you put yourself in someone else's shoes.


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