[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
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
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
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.)