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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 3 of 3

If you read the coverage and conversations attached to the revelation of "sambo" in Scribblenauts, many players -- particularly those previously unfamiliar with the term -- suggest that the very idea of discussing the inclusion of this word in the game is ludicrous.

Some slough off the situation as an unfortunate but unimportant accident. Some deny the very existence of racial significance in the situation. Some suggest that the coverage itself enacts racial violence by reintroducing an "obscure" slur back into the common imagination.

Some even accuse the coverage itself of logocentrism, angry that the Spanish sense of a word might be subjugated to the English one.

In all these cases, a common attitude prevails: this is not a big deal. It is a distraction, and it deserves only of limited attention. "Sambo," this attitude holds, is just a word.

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.

This is not a politically questionable song accidentally included in a game's soundtrack (Little Big Planet), nor a fiction associated with a known anti-gay agitator (Shadow Complex), nor a weirdly blatant and misplaced representational gaffe (Resident Evil 5). In Scribblenauts, every word draws attention to itself, by necessity and by design.

We might conclude that Scribblenauts is a game whose very goal is to make us think about the words people utter, and responses we expect. In this sense, and in direct opposition to the responses Kotaku's coverage has procured, the discourse Scribblenauts' "sambo" produces is precisely the purpose of the game. It is a game meant to make us think and rethink our words, their uses, and their implicit behavior. And the outcry and confusion shows that it is successful.

What sense, then, might we make of "sambo?" The idea that this slur has lost much of its sense startles me. I am in my early thirties. I remember reading Little Black Sambo. I remember going to the Sambo's restaurant. I remember being both charmed and disturbed by both. When I consider that the idea might have fallen so far into disuse as to disappear, two feelings well up in me.

On the one hand, it is tempting to celebrate this new ignorance. 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.

But on the other hand, this very neglect points to a social ill even worse than racism itself: disavowal. We must strive for more than the destruction of stereotype, slur, and other visible signs of bigotry, as if eliminating the symptoms also cures the cause.

Barack Obama's now-famous speech on racism during the 2008 election was smart and moving not because it resolved anything about race in America, but because it acknowledged the thorny tangle that arises when we think and talk about race -- and when we don't.

Anger and resentment and fear on both sides -- on all sides. Obama called it a stalemate, a deadlock that can only be overcome by trying something new, rather than issuing new helpings of blame and praise, opportunity and concession.

Here in the land of video games, our battles are usually much more lowly. They are fictional, and fantastic, and ultimately unimportant. Often we have to work very hard to find meaning in such works and our experiences of them, struggling to shout above the din of conversations about politics and literature and economics and film and art to make our work appear to have even a trifle of relevance.

Yet, when such matters are thrust upon us by happenstance, what do we do? We resist. We repudiate. "It's just a game," we say. "Don't ruin my experience." But I say, what if this is the experience? What if messy quandaries about the ambiguity of "sambo" is precisely the sort of thing that Scribblenauts was meant to bring us? Then we'd have to face the uncomfortable and fantastic muddle that a game helped us discover by accident.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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