Black, Indigenous, people of color or racialized 

It should be noted first and foremost that it is impossible to adequately represent all issues related to Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) within this educational page. As with all other similar pages on the Diversity in Play website, we have included links to a wide variety of educational resources that will allow you to develop your understanding of these issues at your own pace. This page is a first step in answering some of the big questions about racialized folks in gaming culture. 

Racialized folks?

This term is still relatively unknown and is rarely used by the communities it refers to. This is not surprising since it actually highlights a rather difficult reality: too many people experience various forms of discrimination that are well documented at this point, for example in a hiring process, based on discernible ethnic or cultural aspects. Thus, “racialization” refers to and denounces the process of exclusion experienced by these people.

It is not only the skin color or the attire of an individual that can mark differences and lead to an unfair treatment: a name associated with an ethnocultural origin that does not correspond to French Canadian traditions might lead a recruiter to discard the application. People who discriminate often do so unconsciously. This page isn’t about pointing fingers but seeks to highlight that these unconscious processes are extremely common.

Doesn’t “affirmative action,” such as the Diversity in Play paid internship program, basically replicate this racialization process?

Diversity in Play doesn’t correspond to affirmative action in the sense of prioritizing people from underrepresented communities in a hiring process. It is about providing internships that would not exist without the contributions of committee members, game studios and funding partners. The idea is to create opportunities for people who have good reason to believe that this field is not open to them because they are not always well represented and often actively excluded by certain members of the group. This is especially true for people from racialized groups. 

That being said, it is not surprising that many organizations end up relying on a process of affirmative action for hiring. This process can be put in place when institutions take note of the homogeneous nature of their workforce, especially when this dynamic is well documented over time.  

Affirmative action may not be an ideal measure and can attract very negative reactions, especially on the right side of the political spectrum. It is important to understand that it is in fact a way to catch-up. When an organization has failed to attract people of color for some time, it is likely that the unconscious mechanisms discussed above are at play. Therefore, it may be necessary to add a gear to the system to restore a form of balance. 

Major video game franchises are incorporating more and more characters of color. Are they doing this cynically, to be “politically correct”?

It’s quite likely that some video game studios – like other major studios in film and television – are incorporating characters from underrepresented communities in order to clearly display their position on these issues. Many studios receive backlash on social media from fans when they introduce such characters, or when the ethnic identity of a well-known hero is changed. 

These reactions demonstrate the visceral nature of the attachment many fans experience with heroic figures such as video game avatars. If you are a white person, it may be hard for you to imagine the reality of someone struggling to find inspiring characters who look like them in major video game franchises or other cultural production. For a person of color or racialized person, this is a fairly common situation.

Do some studios include characters associated with marginalized cultural communities as tokens, trying to profit from the positive visibility such measures may attract? Most certainly. But it’s also for opportunistic reasons that young white men have been targeted for decades in countless popular video games in North America. If the targeting of people of color is of concern to you, why not question the practice of targeting straight white males also?

That being said, it is important to note that many studios are making ambitious and popular projects that attempt to represent Aboriginal people, Black people and people of color in a respectful way, not to force their way into the era of “political correctness”.

But if the creators are not from the community represented, is this a form of cultural appropriation?

The issue of cultural appropriation has been a hot topic in Quebec in recent years. Generally speaking, it refers to the fact of representing the reality of a group (racialized or otherwise) without the latter having been involved in the process. In the context of the large franchises mentioned above, where the creative teams are sometimes made up of hundreds of individuals, this is a complex issue. 

Much popular fiction does not set out to speak directly to the lived realities of people of color. From this perspective, the “diversity facade” may appear superficial to the people involved. On the other hand, it may normalize the presence of people of color in our culture, which can have beneficial effects (e.g., for young gamers, who will have an easier time finding avatars that reflect their identity, instead of the white avatar that too often appears to us as the “normal” reference point).

The most problematic form of appropriation occurs when we try to represent the history or experience of different groups who have suffered various forms of exclusion or oppression, without having directly involved them in the whole creative process. Context is always important. For example, wearing a traditional Aboriginal or Indian garment (such as the sari) anywhere and everywhere, without knowing the uses and meanings of these garments, could be perceived in a very negative way.

This is, in essence, exactly the same question that arose when writing these pages. If you want to talk about the realities of racialized people and you are not part of the group in question, it is imperative that you consult as many people as possible, in a respectful way (see the “first steps” page for some good tips on how to do this). This is the bare minimum. Sometimes this is not enough, as we saw in Quebec with the Slav and Kanata episode. Even though the famous director behind these projects is known in the art world for his openness to other cultures, and even though he embodies several marginalized identities on his own, some members of the audience strongly opposed these proposals. 

Here again, the temptation to debate major issues such as freedom of expression took over and provoked strong reactions fueled by media coverage. Everyone has the right to express their opinion on the subject. If we really care about this principle, we should at least make sure that we don’t encourage people who are hurt to stay silent. Moreover, when angry reactions have been triggered, it will be very difficult to discuss and resolve big issues like the limits of freedom of expression. Why not invest all that energy in trying to do better?

Can we really justify such strong reactions about a game character, a work of art or a word?

Of course, images taken out of context that appear in the media can seem difficult to understand. Once you learn about the experiences of Black, Aboriginal and racialized people, you can imagine what leads to this type of reaction more easily. 

Understanding all the violence endured by some communities in our recent history can be difficult. Confronted with this troubling legacy, some white people will have a strong defensive reaction. Another way to get around these painful facts is to engage in endless semantic debates, for example, about the meaning of the word “genocide” or the phrase “systemic racism”. From the perspective of people who have experienced racial violence, all of these reactions are incredibly frustrating: more effort seems to be invested collectively in these debates than in gestures of reparation and outreach to communities. 

In this context, some groups are taking a very strong stance about the representation of their reality in media such as video games: “nothing about us, without us”. Aboriginal nations are still facing the consequences of colonisation in many ways. The only respectful way to move forward is to bring them to the table and involve them in the whole process, from creation to trade agreements.

In this context, can you still be clumsy, or simply try to create a videogame, without getting cancelled?

The reality is that we are all clumsy in our interactions at one time or another. It’s pretty much inevitable and the majority of people who are hurt have learned to live with these imperfect interactions. Do you personally know people who faced undeserved repercussions in light of racist behavior? Is the intensity of the moral panic around “cancel culture” justified?

We do not seek to deny that conflicts and more ambiguous situations may emerge. If this kind of situation arises, it may indeed be wise to think a bit before “debating”. Whether you are right or wrong, an angry person may not really be receptive to your “infallible” arguments that seek to close the debate. You can call this restraint “self-censorship” if you like. You’ve adopted this type of restraint with a lot of people around you; you can likely fall back on these good manners in conflicts with racialized people too.

All of these identity politics were imported from the U.S., why are we being dominated by this American influence again?

We definitely import a lot from the United States, including mass culture, Florida oranges, an attitude that could be described as exceptionalism, trash talk radio, as well as right-wing ideas promoted by some politicians.

Exchange of people and ideas between regions often brings great things to host societies. Critical theories of racial discrimination, following the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, give us tools to better understand the tensions within our communities. This critical perspective, based on historical facts, allows us to build more inclusive and respectful communities. 

As you will see in the useful links sections below, there are also some really practical works and tools “made in Quebec” that can help us achieve these goals.

OK, you’ve convinced me, I want to do better. Where are you from?

From Quebec, and you?

No no, you don’t understand, why are you…?

We understand very well. You’re trying to do better by looking at the origins of Black people, Aboriginal people and people of color. The problem is that people from all of these backgrounds have been here for a really long time. At best, it will be seen as a really personal question on first contact; at worst, it will be received as a slap in the face that evokes all the times someone has been asked “why are you brown? 

Let’s not deny, however, that attitudes can vary with regard to these questions. For example, it is customary to ask a native person about his or her origins in the first few interactions. After having been erased from history in various ways, people of First Nations background may want to make themselves and their heritage more visible. In all cases, it is important to listen, not to impose a discussion on these topics if there is no perceived openness, and to avoid some language that demonstrates a complete ignorance of the issues. For example, we’ve known for a while that Indigenous nations don’t really come from India.

You have really nice hair you know, I can’t help but touch it!

But we’ve only just met, can we respect some minimal boundaries? 

(Seriously, many of the black women who contributed to this page have their hair tapped by complete strangers in the subway and other public places. This type of behavior is quite revealing!)

Keep on learning

In a few minutes:

For fun:

  • Suivez le développement des projets de jeunes studios comme Achimostawinan games et Awastoki
  • Enterre-moi, mon amour, un jeu documentaire sur la crise des réfugiés syriens créé par le studio français The Pixel Hunt, disponible sur les plateformes portables, Steam et Nintendo Switch
  • Kuessipan, un film de Myriam Verreault adapté librement du roman de Naomi Fontaine, 2019, disponible sur ICI.tou.tv extra
  • Never Alone / Kisima Inŋitchuŋa, un jeu créé par le studio Upper One Games, 2014, disponible sur la majorité des plateformes de jeu
  • Reservation Dogs, une série créée par Sterlin Harjo et Taika Waititi, disponible sur Disney+
  • Rutherford Falls, une série créee par Ed Helms, Michael Schur, Sierra Teller Ornelas, disponible sur Showcase.ca
  • Sorry to Bother you, un film de Boots Riley, 2018, disponible sur Netflix
  • When Rivers were Trails, un jeu créé par plus de 30 artistes autochtones (en collaboration avec Indian Land Tenure Foundation), 2019, disponible gratuitement sur le site du projet

Suggested readings:

  • Kuei, Je te salue. Conversation sur le racisme, un échange de lettres entre Deni Ellis Béchard et Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, Éditions Écosociété, 2020, 203 pages
  • The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America de Thomas King, éditions Doubleday Canada, 2012, 266 pages
  • De la réconciliation à l’appropriation : retour sur un dérapage annoncé, un article de Jea-Philippe Uzel, Histoire engagée, 2021
  • Racisme et jeu vidéo de Mehdi Derfoufi, Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 2021, 350 pages
  • Tiohtiáke de Michel Jean, Éditions Libre Expression, 2021, 240 pages
  • Videogames and Postcolonialism: Empire Plays Back de Souvik Mukherjee, éditions Palgrave, 2017, 127 pages