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Persuasive Games: Little Black Sambo
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Persuasive Games: Little Black Sambo

September 21, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Give its century of racial baggage, one can see why it would be surprising to discover that Scribblenauts recognizes "sambo" at all. But the game does much more than just recognize terms: it translates each typed word into an object with different properties and behaviors.

Entering the word "sambo" produces what appears to be a watermelon. And as Brian Ashcraft, Brian Crecente, and Stephen Totilo observed in their coverage of the game at Kotaku, the watermelon too has a long history of African-American stereotyping, making the inclusion of "sambo" seem even more racially motivated.

Yet, it wasn't intended to be. In his interview with Kotaku, Scribblenauts creative director Jeremiah Slaczka insisted that neither his game nor his company are racist. And I believe him, partly because he also admitted that he had no idea what "sambo" meant, let alone that it had a history.

According to 5th Cell, they included "sambo" because it is also a Spanish term for a type of gourd that grows on the chilacayote plant, one that rather resembles a watermelon. Apparently the watermelon-like graphic was simply reused for the sambo, a necessary strategy when one must literalize tens of thousands of different terms.

The most interesting feature of the Scribblenauts sambo fiasco is not that it offers evidence that 5th Cell (or some rogue agent within it) wishes to make negative racial comments about African-Americans by sneaking a slur into a game, nor that the term didn’t get vetted and removed before launch, nor that 5th Cell didn’t issue an earnest apology, even if their publisher Warner Bros. Interactive eventually did.

No, the interesting part is that Slaczka didn't know what "sambo" meant in the first place. Or more precisely, what that ignorance signifies.

It turns out this is a common unfamiliarity. Reading the comments on the Kotaku post, or the weirdly apologetic Joystiq follow-up, or the many forum discussions like the lively and often idiotic one at NeoGAF, it becomes clear that many people aren't familiar with Sambo at all.

While cartoons like the animation above would never reach the airwaves today, the figure of Sambo did last far beyond the 1930s. Perhaps most notably, Sambo's was the name of a chain of family restaurants, similar to Denny's, which thrived from 1957 to 1982.

The name started innocuously enough: Sam Battistone and Newell Bohnett founded the original restaurant in Santa Barbara (the only one that remains), and combined parts of their names (Sam + Bohnett) to create Sambo's.

They quickly realized the association with Little Black Sambo, and given the popularity of the book and the character they decorated the restaurants with scenes from its pages. The restaurant was well-known, popular, and everywhere, boasting 1,200 locations in 47 states by the late 1970s. The chain even makes an appearance on the cover of well-known photographer Stephen Shore's complete works.

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