D. Fox Harrell, Sercan Şengün, and Danielle Olson
Colonial cartographers’ dreams of Africa have always been fraught. From nineteenth-century maps of “the dark continent” for pith-helmeted explorers and craven big game hunters to explore to militaristic maps for conquest, these cartographic visions are typically designed for the fantasies of others. Recently, a new type of cartographic Africa has emerged: maps of virtualized Africa. One of the most popular forms of these cultural imaginings exists in videogames—an industry that has now far outpaced the global film and music industries in revenue.1 Videogame players are a diverse group of users, with a relatively even split in terms of gender; about half of U.S. adults play videogames regardless of racial/ethnic background.2 Unfortunately, the virtual identities within these videogames are far less diverse, resulting in videogames often becoming sites of the enactment of fantastic dreams of the majority demographic categories of both developers in the industry and players: white and male.3
Such videogames are sites where a particular version of the avatar dream manifests.4 The avatar dream is a “culturally shared vision of a future in which, using the computer, we can become whomever or whatever we want to be.”5 Players cognitively blend aspects of themselves from the physical world with computationally implemented virtual identities in these videogames. From the physical world, users project notions often associated with identity such as race, ethnicity, gender, body type, age, style, and values, along with a host of other identity-related experiences informed by history, culture, and values that exist in the physical world and manifest in the ways people behave.6 These identity experiences have cognitive, material (e.g., resources), and social (e.g., power relationships) aspects. “Blended identities” are constructed when aspects of a player’s physical identity (e.g., preferences, control, appearance, understanding of social categories, etc.) are selectively mentally projected into the blend along with the features technically implemented by virtual identities such as avatars.7 For instance, when a player engages in a game by controlling a soldier avatar, making decisions about actions in the game world and expressing her own moral compass via simulated combat actions, she is mapping aspects of her physical-world identity, such as her control of the avatar and her values manifested by the choice she makes, into the blended identity.
In this chapter we broadly question the imaginings of Africa and the avatars of African characters within the videogame medium and the impacts of these representations on the phantasms held by gamers. Just as this volume of work on the digital Black Atlantic “insists on the import of race and racism, slavery, and colonialism in the experiences of African-descended people and in their engagement with technology,” our analysis also affirms that the discussions of Africa in videogaming regularly intersect and intertwine with issues of race, ethnicity, gender, power relations, violence, and the transatlantic European slave trade.8 The blended identities experienced through African game characters result in varied responses both from people who may feel aspects of their own heritages are being represented in these videogames and those who merely perform identity tourism.9
We mobilized a three-step approach to analyze the impact of these videogames on their players. First, we looked at the variety of videogame setting categories representing or inspired by the continent of Africa. Four of six of these game categories underscore the issues of power relations and violence above all as an entry point to African identities and cultures. The settings we found are (1) safari and hunting simulations, (2) sports (e.g., soccer and cricket), (3) exploration and “dark continent” narratives, (4) pan-African fantasy, (5) transatlantic slavery, and, most pervasively, (6) military conflict.10 Regarding (3), it is important to note that “dark continent” refers to a blend of a Manichean usage of the term “dark” and associated bleak or violent themes within the games.
Second, we selected a smaller representative set of five videogames for in-depth analysis. We chose these particular videogames because of the large number of reactions they elicited in the community on Steam, a very popular online gamer distribution platform that allows players who have purchased a game to leave comments on the game’s page.11 Our focus was on whether the comment contains any response to the issues of interest. The authors manually identified comments that included content about the representation of Africa, race, ethnicity, chattel slavery, and gender. We read and analyzed the selected comments in depth, coded them separately to uncover the communicative and social strategies in discussing these issues, and finally reintegrated these analyses after identifying the most significant commonalities in the coping strategies mobilized by the players. Finally, we thematically labeled these strategies as (1) sarcasm/irony; (2) trolling; (3) compromising; (4) intersections of race, ethnicity, and gender; (5) slavery as background; (6) the “authentic” Africa; (7) dangerous “dark continent”; and (8) comparing reactions. Although it was not possible to confirm the racial and ethnic identities of the commenters, we also took note when this information was self-reported.
Finally, we reexamined the coping strategies through the lens of the racial and ethnic socialization (R/ES) model that provides an integrative approach to empirically observed cross-generational patterns of sharing information and worldviews about being part of one’s racial/ethnic group.12 Our reasoning for this comparison was to foresee some of the potential impacts on African- or Black-identified players’ social and emotional well-being within the context of videogame culture.
In this section, we present a brief literature review relevant to the discussion of identity representations in videogames. D. Fox Harrell describes a recent convergence of research from a range of disciplines addressing the problem of identity in virtual worlds, videogames, social media, and related technologies.13 This section provides an updated recapitulation of that account. This convergence of research on virtual and blended identities reveals a set of challenges, problems, and new phenomena of computational identity. As computing infiltrates everyday life, work in anthropology and psychology has investigated the development of new “intersubjective relationships” between humans and machines, including machines serving as proxies for our identities. Ethnographers have explored topics ranging from individual users’ deployments of multiple avatars, including construction of gender and race, to interpersonal intimacy. Sociology and communication researchers have studied bias empirically, using virtual environments as test beds. The problematics of genomics and digital cultural sharing have also been explored.
Racial and ethnic representations across web applications, menu-driven identities, and users’ negotiations of such complex emergent phenomena have created new types of peripheral membership or passing in ethnic groups. Other researchers have investigated real-world commerce and the virtual economies of massively multiplayer online (MMO) videogames and how they transform notions of fun, free commerce, affiliation, and power. In the humanities, interdisciplinary research blending feminist theory, biological sciences, anthropology, and more has addressed gender and race through numerous lenses.14 In the emerging field of game studies, scholars explore how game mechanics produce the experience of identity play and cite cultural analyses of physical-world issues of identity, ethics, stigma, and power, exploring how they are reproduced in videogames and the potential of videogames to effect real-world change.15 In computing research, human-centered computing and computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW) approaches have been applied to how social arrangements and meanings give structure to operators of networked information systems, users of virtual environments, and game players.
To create a list of Africa-specific videogames, we conducted comprehensive online searches, in addition to searches on the Steam platform.16 We then investigated these videogames in depth, producing a more fine-grained sample set that included videogames in fictionalized settings inspired by Africa. This step was necessary, because some of these videogames take place in specific African locations and others are situated in anonymous or fictional African countries and regions. This is a continuation of a similar trend in which underrepresented geographies and avatars from these locations are given generalized identities—likely for the purposes of easier marketing, lower required awareness among gamers about these locations, or disassociation from specific current global political conflicts. For example, in the popular fighting videogame series, Street Fighter, all playable characters are cited as having specific nationalities, except for the two Middle Eastern fighters, Pullum and Rashid, who are simply marked as Arab or Middle Eastern.17 We also investigated whether there were examples of simulations of African cultures that were treated as isolated from Africa itself. This was the case, for example, for Middle East and North Africa (particularly Egyptian) representations wherein cultures were either mixed into each other or rebuilt out of context (e.g., the region of Ahn’Qiraj in World of Warcraft).18 After coding the representation strategies of each game in terms of how they used the backdrop of Africa within their context, we observed six emergent categories.
As a next step, we looked at the comments on the Steam pages of each game (they are called reviews, regardless of their length).19 On the Steam platform, users cannot post reviews unless they own and play the game. We isolated the comments that dealt with the representations of Africa. We found that five videogames of our initial sample created the majority of these discussions, with a total of 102 reviews: Resident Evil 5, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag: Freedom Cry, Playing History 2: Slave Trade, and Democracy 3 Africa.20 We read and coded the reviews for themes (two independent codings), especially noting the strategies that players used to discuss these issues. This qualitative coding led to eight coping strategies. Finally, we used the model of racial or ethnic socialization (R/ES) strategies as summarized in Figure 16.1 to provide deeper insights into the uncovered coping strategies deployed by players.21
R/ES is a process by which families prepare their children for racial/ethnic identity negotiation through verbal and nonverbal communication and has since been studied across racial and ethnic groups worldwide.22 The R/ES concept was developed in the United States in the context of African American– or Black-identified families. Despite this concept’s specific national origin, we speculate in this chapter that these categories can productively be generalized when considering global media trends regarding the representation of Africa and avatars of the African diaspora. The way that the transmission and reception of R/ES messages moderate individuals’ racial coping self-efficacy has been well researched.23 Extensive research assessing the content of familial race socialization strategies has resulted in the emergence of four broad categories:
- Preparation for Bias / Cultural Coping with Antagonism: This strategy emphasizes increasing youth awareness of potential discrimination and providing messages that encourage youth to confront and grapple with bias. These messages may include extended family strategies for survival against racism, religious and spiritual themes, or both, with the goal of providing a protective outlook.
- Cultural Pride Reinforcement: This strategy emphasizes drawing from the legacy, culture, and history of one’s racial/ethnic group with the goal of strengthening cultural pride and knowledge.
- Cultural Endorsement of the (Colonizer’s) Mainstream: This strategy emphasizes developing youth assimilationist worldviews with the philosophy that adapting to a pro-white context (including colorblindness, egalitarianism, and silence about race) will result in the best life trajectory. Rather than increasing alertness to discrimination or focusing on personal identity historical ties, this strategy focuses on developing a sense of self that is rooted in characteristics encouraged by the colonizer’s culture.
- Promotion of Mistrust: This strategy emphasizes increasing youth wariness in interracial interactions, friendships, and relationships, promoting a message that highlights the mistrust that African- or Black-identified people should have toward white people. Unlike the R/ES strategy of alertness to discrimination or preparation for bias, this strategy does not emphasize providing advice or suggestions for managing discrimination and bias.
We closely examined responses to videogame representations of Africa from people who may feel personal connections to the issues presented in these videogames, building on research linking the R/ES model with social and psychological outcomes. Despite the fact that the data does not have any information about the racial or ethnic identities of the players, the literature suggests it is likely that there exists a diverse range of potential affective responses to virtual representations of Africa and the models of Blackness that they enable to be expressed within them.
Our analysis produced telling results in terms of both better understanding settings in these videogames and how users negotiate these settings, as summarized in this section.
African Settings in Videogames
Close examination of African settings in videogames revealed six themes as shown in Figure 16.1.
Safari & Hunting
Afrika, Cabela’s African Safari, Cabela’s Big Game Hunter Series, My Animal Centre in Africa, Sim Safari, and Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa
Africa Trail, Cricket 07, Sega Rally Revo, Tiger Woods PGA Tour Series, Top Spin 3, V-Rally, and Virtual Tennis: World Tour
Exploration & “Dark Continent” Adventures
Barbie: Explorer, Heart of Africa, Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, Jack Keane, Lost Horizon, Tomb Raider: Legend, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, and Resident Evil 5
Pan-African (often North African) Fantasy Roleplaying
“Elona” in Guild Wars: Nightfall, “Hammerfell” in The Elder Scrolls Series, and “Odus” in EverQuest
Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag—Freedom Cry
Call of Duty: Black Ops Series, CTU: Marine Sharpshooter, Delta Force Series, SOCOM U.S. Navy SEALs Series, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Series, and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Series
Safari and hunting-themed videogames put their players in the roles of photojournalists, tourists, hunters, and naturalists seeking (or hunting) the natural and wildlife wonders of Africa, as well as experiencing the dangers posed by wild animals, fires, locusts, tornados, and so on. A small subset of games includes strategy components such as building and running local zoos, wildlife parks, or “authentic African villages.” This is in line with previous research that defines the construction of the wild and natural dream of Africa (e.g., national parks in colonial zones) as an “ideological formation” or through the lens of “environmental colonialism.”24
Sports themes have always been predominant in the videogame genre. Previous research, especially by Garry Crawford, underlines the importance of sports simulations in the construction and rise of the industry and the gamer identities within it. In this sense, sports videogames contribute heavily to everyday social patterns and narratives, including identity narratives and construction.25 Sports games in Africa often focus on racing (off-road rallies and motorcycling). Golf, cricket, soccer, rugby, and tennis are also prominent sports categories that appear associated with the continent—with golf specifically employing large and “exotic” courses.
Exploration and “dark continent” adventure games are a prominent genre of videogames in which “the player assumes the role of a fantasy character to pursue an adventure.”26 Such videogames (both those that fully focus on the continent or in which Africa is only a part of the overall scenario) often put the players in the roles of archaeologists, adventurers, or treasure seekers. Examples of such videogames are Barbie: Explorer in which players (as a player character version of the notorious Barbie doll clad in an explorer outfit) visit anonymous locations that they only know are in Egypt and Africa; Jack Keane in which players play as a British agent attempting to uncover his past in Cape Town and an anonymous African island; and Lost Horizon in which players play as a British pilot visiting “exotic” (non-European) locations, for instance, Marrakesh. Some other examples, such as Resident Evil 5, portray Africa as the stereotypical dangerous “dark continent” while conveying a white privilege-based outlook.
Pan-African fantasy role-playing videogames form another important genre of the medium. They often focus on epic narratives, character development represented by attribute points and levels, artifact acquisition, and related features. Some such videogames implement settings inspired by African landscapes and artifacts (such as weapons and armor) and populated by people inspired by African cultures in past time periods. These settings could be considered “Africanized” equivalents of fantasy worlds such as J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The existence of these settings, although few in number, is important, because earlier studies highlight that African or Black identity in the majority of role-playing games is only limited to skin color as a cosmetic choice and might be there “simply to add visual variety.”27 Although there are characters of African descent in these videogames, they typically only exist within the civilizations inspired by elements from European mythoi (e.g., knights, dragons, and sorcery). The three exceptions are the regions of “Elona” in Guild Wars: Nightfall (also featuring an extensively designed set of hairstyles from Africa and the African diaspora), “Hammerfell” in The Elder Scrolls series, and “Odus” in EverQuest.
Transatlantic slavery has recently been addressed in the very popular Assassin’s Creed franchise.28 Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag—Freedom Cry “challenges the stereotypical image of enslaved people in the African Diaspora as victims without agency.”29 Assassin’s Creed: Liberation has been cited as an important tool in digital humanities to understand literature and culture of the Black Atlantic through phenomena such as “passing” as a member of another race.30 On the one hand, some research has criticized the capacity and limitations of these videogames in addressing social issues and as constructing inadequate critiques of colonial powers.31 Sarah Juliet Lauro, on the other hand, suggests that, although “these games misrepresent history . . . they tacitly preserve a distinction between history and play: even with a game controller in hand, the history of slave resistance remains out of reach.”32 Souvik Mukherjee compares the effects of Assassin’s Creed: Liberation and Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag: Freedom Cry on players with Black identity with the effects of videogames like Empire: Total War and East India Company on Indian players.33 In this comparison, Mukherjee underscores that the characters in these videogames remain in hybrid existences, which can be read as failures to definitively side with political or moral viewpoints.
Military conflict represents the theme most represented in videogame representations of Africa, in franchises such as Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Delta Force, and Tom Clancy—along with many other lesser-known war games. Some franchises like Medal of Honor are oriented toward the past, focusing on the world wars. When African- and African diaspora–based military videogame settings are mapped out on the continent, a pattern emerges in which the majority of the continent is set out as a constant conflict and war zone. Earlier research underscores similar patterns for how the Middle East is represented in videogames through a lens of “war on terror.”34
Using short and impactful sarcastic comments, instead of articulating longer opinions and arguments
Making disruptive remarks to engender backlash
Underscoring viewpoints that aim to take a neutral stance while superficially recognizing the criticisms regarding the issues at hand
Intersections of race, ethnicity, and gender
Talking about race, ethnicity, and gender as interrelated; often these discussions highlight power relationships (e.g., oppressor/oppressed, colonizer/colonized, and punisher/offender, etc.)
Slavery as background
Discussing slavery in a way that reduces it to a historical narrative backdrop instead of addressing the injustice and horrors of slavery
The “authentic” Africa
Arguing that the only “authentic” representation of Africa is the one with violence, harsh conditions, and corruption
Dangerous “dark continent”
Painting the continent of Africa as inherently unsafe and as a developmentally and culturally inferior place
Minimizing by comparing reactions
Trying to shut down the arguments and criticism by referencing other injustices where the arguers supposedly did not react
Discussion, Coping, and Negotiation Strategies
Close examination of coping strategies in videogame comments and reviews revealed eight, non-mutually exclusive strategies that players mobilized while discussing the issues of representation of Africa, race, ethnicity, and gender (see Figure 16.2).
The importance and complexity of sarcasm and irony in human communication and cognitive experience have been underscored in many earlier studies.35 In the age of online communication, sarcasm and irony are often prevalent and deployed for the rapid transmission of viewpoints, self-aggrandizement, and undermining others. Usages of memes and emoticons often convey sarcasm and irony to achieve a quick impact.36 Our research into the communities of 4chan and Reddit illustrates how dominant memes and ironic messages are when discussing the issues of gender and race online and concludes that, although they “facilitated old inequalities . . . the social dynamics hacked by that logic could be hacked to diverse ends.”37 In other words, sarcasm and irony are not limited to any political perspective.
In our examples, players regularly mobilized sarcastic remarks to draw attention to the racist content of the videogames or to other problems in the way the videogames handle serious issues. For example, when referencing Resident Evil 5, a game in which a white soldier protagonist is fighting against zombies of African descent, the player P-04 saw this as a racist situation from the perspective of someone of African descent, writing, “White people will attack you if they see you walking around . . . logic of racism 10/10.”38 Player P-05 wrote, “The story takes place in [A]frica with lots of Black people . . . basically the goal is to kill as many of them as possible . . . all in all I can recommend this game because the tragic story reminded me a lot of my own tragic life in poverty.” These two users (among others) seem to be mapping their lived experiences of racism with the treatment that Black zombies receive from a white protagonist. Although they play the white avatar during the game, ironically, they both identify with the “enemy” zombies while talking about their experiences.
Other players use sarcasm to underscore the allegorical potential of the same game for the relationship between Africa and colonialism. Player P-06 wrote, “White man visits Africa and gets culturally enriched by dindus . . . in the end he finds out an evil white man is behind all the dindunery . . . too accurate.” Player P-07 wrote, “The game really picks up around act five where our glorious white hero takes the battle to a native village and blasts his way through wave after wave of semi naked screaming spear armed [A]frican ‘natives’ . . . they really should have just called this British Empire: the game.” Instead of using sarcasm on a personal level, these players use it on a societal level to address a greater issue, while still displaying their personal convictions.
In almost all cases, despite the comments being sarcastic in nature, they are also marked as a positive comment (“Recommended”) for the game. This leads to the conclusion that players are able to distance themselves from the content of a game in order to access the gameplay that they enjoy and appreciate. In earlier studies, distancing strategies were discussed in terms of individuals who tried to avoid facing racism, but in this case, the players are aware of the racist content yet choose to play the game anyway to access the engagement and fun they can acquire from just gameplay.39 Dyer-Witheford and De Peuter similarly discussed players who distance themselves from the content of military simulations and just focused on the mechanics, gameplay, and social play capabilities.40
Trolling is defined as “deliberate, deceptive, and mischievous” behavior in social networks that mobilizes shock value to facilitate aggressive feedback.41 Recent studies posit that trolling is not confined to a limited “antisocial” minority but can be adopted by all kinds of users depending on the mood and the discussion environment.42 In our analysis, we found that some reviews mobilize sarcasm or irony to such an extreme that they might as well be thinly veiled racist comments. These comments need to be distinguished from the previous category because of their underscored trolling intent.
For example, in two positive reviews of Resident Evil V, player P-08 wrote, “Great ethnic cleansing simulator,” and player P-09 wrote, “You get to kill virus-infected [A]frican as a white guy, and isn’t it what life is about?” Although an initial instinct might be to mark these examples as sarcasm or irony, on closer examination, it is possible to see that, instead of contributing to a critical framework about discussing the issues of representation and racism, these reviews instead operate to normalize or even strengthen these issues. Phillips describes trolling as a cultural practice that has now become mainstream.43 From this viewpoint it is possible to assume that the sarcasm/irony category could be considered to be “positive” trolling that generates creative allegories that contribute to wider critical outlooks, whereas the trolling category just works to cement the inequalities. In another example from Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, player P-10 wrote, “[In the game] slaves are in no short supply,” and player P-11 wrote, “[Main character Aveline] looks more like a hippie college pagan than a slave.” These examples seem to be on the borderline between provocative insensitivity (that may or may not be trolling) and covert or everyday racism.44
We found that topics such as Africa, race, ethnicity, and gender, as well as slavery in particular, are tackled in nonconfrontational and low-key manners by some videogames. For example, in response to Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag: Freedom Cry, player P-12 wrote, “After playing as a pirate who did everything for the money, we go to a character who is just the opposite, does his assassinations for principle and the well being of the slaves”; for Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, player P-13 wrote, “If you appreciate history from a marginalized point of view . . . you should enjoy this game.” The first comment approaches the game from the assassin mythos of the series by focusing on the virtues of the main character Adewale, who in the game’s story is an ex-slave. The comment softens Adewale’s complicated relationship with slavery by stating that he fights for the “well-being of slaves” instead of for justice, liberation, or even retribution. The second comment disassociates the historical legacy of chattel slavery from “normal” history and negotiates with it by marking it as a marginalized point of view (while in reality slavery is neither marginal nor a point of view). In both cases, the comments mobilize chastened or reduced language to avoid or to not excessively address the injustices of the issues they are talking about.
In another example, talking about Resident Evil 5, player P-14 wrote, “I don’t think there was an intentional bid to be offensive, this is pulp story/action-adventure cliche territory, but it’s definitely not a comfortable thing and I don’t fault people who find it offensive,” and player P-15 wrote, “An American, white, male shooting the, albeit infected, Black natives . . . there seemed no way around this . . . someone would get offended.” These comments are trying to construct a middle-way while still keeping up the appearances of being “sensitive to both sides.”
Intersections of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender
It is hard to investigate identity representations while avoiding comparisons, contrasts, and conflations with gender issues.45 Looking at the discussions about the representations of Africa, it is possible to see them portrayed by dichotomies of oppressor/oppressed, colonizer/colonized, and punisher/offender through the lens of gendered allegories. Typically, colonizer, oppressor, and punisher are offered as male. Consider the comments from players P-16 to P-19, respectively, who wrote the following as they talk about Resident Evil 5’s protagonist Chris Redfield and his relationship to Africa or to his female and African military partner, Sheva:
- • “Chris Redfield contains his genitals as he looks for the cure to [AIDS] inside the deepest darkest depths in Africa”
- • “A Dashing Young Man With an extremely small♥♥♥♥♥♥♥take on an adventure through worm ridden somalia with his spunky Black sex slave.”
- • “Play as a muscular white guy, killing hundreds of Black zombies in Africa. Not racist at all”
- • “Be Chris Redfield . . . steroid fueled chris redfield . . . in africa . . . shooting Blacks . . .”
In some of these examples, the relationship of Chris and Sheva mirrors a gendered colonial perspective as the colonizer/colonized, which can also be observed in the relationship between Chris and the zombies he fights.
In another example, Adewale from Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag: Freedom Cry may be portrayed as revengeful in a virile way (P-20: “Sweet Jaysus [Adewale] swings his machete around as if the soul of every angry slave that ever lived existed”), whereas Aveline from Assassin’s Creed: Liberation may be mentioned as more docile (P-21: “Aveline is lovely and the exchange between the 3 costume modes . . . is quite fun,” P-13: “Aveline is a likeable”). In these examples, the relationship of Adewale and slavers is gendered as oppressor/oppressed or punisher/offender. However, the female assassin Aveline does not enjoy the same privilege as Adewale.
While comparing previous male assassin characters like Adewale and Aveline who both have missions to fight against slavers and to free slaves, player P-23 wrote, “As men we muscle our way through most situations with brute force, and mayhem in games and in life . . . but women tend to strategize more, and use image and looks to make up for not being able to run rough-shod through a situation.” Seemingly for this player, the intersection of racial relationships with gender dominantly operates directly and powerfully for males, but not for females who are relegated to taking compensatory actions.
Slavery as Background
Regularly, the issues of representations of Africa, along with the portrayal of slaves and slavery, remain a complementary or cosmetic component to the discussions of game mechanics or storyline. Especially in Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, in which Aveline can choose to wear a “slave outfit” or adopt a “slave persona” to move around without attracting attention, players often talk about this game mechanic while totally disassociating it from what actually being enslaved means, even when discussing the backstory of Aveline’s heritage. For example, players P-24 and P-25, respectively, wrote, “[The slave persona] is kind of in the middle: not best at fighting, not best at climbing, but can be 0% suspicious,” and “As the slave, Aveline loses her combat strength but gains the ability to incite riots and blend in with other slaves.” Here, the meaning and consequences of being a “slave” are torn out of historical and ethical context and reduced to a discussion of a game mechanic. Although it should be recognized that these examples are from a game review message board and players naturally discuss videogames from a gameplay perspective, this blindness becomes identifiable as a strategy when it is observed as prevalently as is the case here.
When taken to the extreme, the whole perception of the source material as “just” game mechanics can work against the aims of the game itself, as in the example of Playing History 2: Slave Trade. In its official explanation, the game states that it aims for the player to “travel back in time and witness the horrors of slave trade firsthand.”46 Yet player P-26 wrote about the game in a way that only emphasized his achievements: “I bargained with a village chief to buy as many slaves as I could, I dumped 25 of them into the ocean, I told one of the slaves that it’s OK to commit suicide and I got the platinum rank at the end.” According to an executive from the company who made the game, the game mechanics were intentionally made insensitive and gruesome “in order to teach about slavery effectively.”47 However, this strategy did not seem to resonate with players. As player P-27 puts it, “This isn’t a very good way to portray the harsh realities of middle passage.” Another criticism comes from reviews of Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag: Freedom Cry in which Adewale’s skills can be updated by a fictional currency that is earned by freeing slaves. About this example, player P-3 points out that the “game contains strong statement against slavery [but] uses slaves as currency for upgrades.”
The “Authentic” Africa
Occasionally some comments underscore the harsh conditions of life in Africa as the only true representation of the reality of Africa. In this viewpoint, any representation that does not adhere to these harsh “truths” may be considered inauthentic or a poor representation. For example, about Democracy 3 Africa, player P-28 wrote, “You can only be the good guy, helping woman, eliminate criminal [sic], improving education, etc. That’s very not Africa. The country where I come from is famous for corruption, money laundering, bribe. etc. Which you can’t do in this game.”
A similar trend is also visible in the discussions of Resident Evil 5. With short and sarcastic review opening or closing sentences, players characterize the conditions of the shooter game as being the realistic African situation: “Still the most realistic depiction of Africa in video gaming” (P-29), “Africa simulation” (P-30), “Great Africa simulator” (P-31), and “Just another day in Africa!” (P-32).
Dangerous “Dark Continent”
Related to the previous strategy but distinct from it, some comments underscore Africa as a bleak, underdeveloped, and unsafe place. These approaches do not debate the authenticity of any representation; instead they portray figurative and literal “darkness” and danger as inherent characteristics of Africa that may also permeate the people and cultures within it.
For example, about Resident Evil 5, players P-33 and P-34 wrote, respectively, “This game predicted the ebola outbreak in Africa,” and “The franchise takes us to somewhere far less developed, a dusty, desolate Africa.” In an outburst of negativity, player P-35 exclaims, “i [sic] hate playing in Africa [sic].”
Interestingly, other comments presume this darkness as being visually devoid of color, washed out, or gray, and they also construct an inherent African “feel.” For example, player P-36 wrote, “The pallet [sic] [of the game is] yellow and gray—thus quite nicely giving the African feel.” Another player, P-37, wrote, “It feels washed out and grey . . . with an inexplicable filter applied to exacerbate the issue, while RE4 had more colors.” These subconscious definitions are in line with the myth of the “dark continent” enduring from Victorian times, during which “[European] explorers, missionaries, and scientists flooded it with light.”48
Minimizing by Comparing Reactions
This strategy is used to shut down arguments by positing that other players lack the authority or even right to criticize something because they have not criticized or reacted to something else before. This reaction is similar to the tu quoque fallacy in argumentative discourse in which one side of the argument is trying to portray the other side as a hypocrite.49 For example, about Resident Evil 5, player P-38 wrote, “You can kill Blacks but it’s not racist because you can kill mexicans [sic].” Player P-39 wrote, “That was until the whiny people at the time complained how there was indeed Black people in a game set in Africa. Nobody still doesn’t care about the Spanish in RE4. Double standards much?” These comments assume that advocators of antiracism are not practicing what they preach because they ignore (or did not react to) other examples of racism or bias.
To explore potential distinctions between affective responses of players to racially perceived stimuli, we applied the R/ES model to analyze the themes of discussion emerging from 102 reviews of five videogames: Resident Evil 5, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag: Freedom Cry, Playing History 2: Slave Trade, and Democracy 3 Africa (see Figure 16.3). Expanding from the potential intersections between these four R/ES strategies and eight discussion strategies, we theorize in this section about the potential impacts of three of the Africa-related videogame setting categories on African- or Black-identified players across diverse R/ES experiences.
Preparation for Bias / Cultural Coping with Antagonism
Cultural Pride Reinforcement
Cultural Endorsement of the Mainstream
Promotion of Mistrust
Intersections of race, ethnicity, and gender
Slavery as background
The “authentic” Africa
Dangerous “dark continent”
✓Strategy may be adopted by players who have received messages associated with this R/ES strategy.
✘ Strategy may be rejected by players who have received messages associated with this R/ES strategy.
No mark indicates that this strategy was neither actively adopted nor rejected.
Exploration and “Dark Continent” Adventures
Our case studies included Resident Evil V, which takes place in an exploration and “dark continent” adventures type of setting. Players who have been exposed to preparation for bias/cultural coping with antagonism messages and cultural pride and legacy reinforcement messages may feel aggrieved or (at best) ambivalent about stereotyped African settings. Such players may avoid the genre or may play such videogames critically, for instance, attempting to subvert genre limitations when possible. Alternately, they might challenge “dark continent” narratives through modding or creating critical content in ancillary venues (e.g., in online discussions). In contrast, players with a primary R/ES strategy of cultural endorsement of the mainstream are likely to accept such videogames and the lack of diverse player characters within them; conversely, players exposed to the promotion of mistrust messages may reject these videogames altogether in favor of settings where their racialized identities are more numerously represented in ways that are positive or at least correspond with players’ perceptions of their racial/ethnic categories.
Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry, and Playing History 2: Slave Trade all take place in the transatlantic slavery setting. Players who have been exposed to preparation for bias/cultural coping with antagonism messages may appreciate game mechanics that reflect how they negotiate such biases in the physical world. Cultural pride and legacy reinforcement messages may be associated with the experiences of players who appreciate the ability to move beyond the role of the enslaved person and to act as a resistor or liberator. These players may feel frustrated by limited standard game mechanics that mostly involve combat. Players who grew up receiving promotion of mistrust messages may appreciate game mechanics that enable them to play as characters that incorporate valued aspects of their physical-world identities. Finally, players who grew up with cultural endorsement of mainstream messages may experience cognitive dissonance between their physical-world identities and their blended identities in these videogames, especially those representing concepts such as rebellion or marronage. Frankly, they may reject such videogames because their self-perception as “the good ones” may be challenged when playing revolutionary roles.
Democracy 3 Africa takes place in a military conflict setting. Promotion of mistrust messages may result in players who may prefer only videogames in this genre that provide possibilities for player characters aligned with the historical political goals and values that they deem to be associated with their racial/ethnic group. In contrast, players who grew up with cultural endorsement of the mainstream messages may play roles within these videogames that support imperialist or colonial aims. They may also prefer non-African settings altogether rather than African settings because of factors such as shame. Preparation for bias/cultural coping with antagonism messages may have made players acutely aware of the clichéd African military setting and appreciative of the aspects of the game that rely on historical research rather than on racial stereotypes regarding African military conflict. Finally, players who were exposed to messages of cultural pride and legacy reinforcement messages may reject these videogames if they had been socialized with anticolonial/antiwar perspectives. Nationalistic, prowar players may appreciate videogames that honor military events involving Black-identified combatants.
Videogame players and developers alike are caught up in a complex loop of recapitulating and negotiating old and new stereotypes grounded in colonial visions that were used to justify heinous ills ranging from chattel slavery to war in postcolonial settings. We can see now that it is not only colonial cartographers whose dreams of Africa are fraught with misrepresentation and depraved fantasies. Given the prevalence of videogames that maintain and reinforce existing stereotypes, it is important to consider the wide range of potential impacts of Africa-/African diaspora–related videogames on players. Existing research on racial/ethnic socialization strategies for negotiating everyday life in a society rife with racism sheds light on how players navigate virtualized African settings in videogames. We have seen that players’ negotiations bear an emotional weight as well, ranging from pathos laden to joyous. There is an opportunity for evolution in videogames toward representations that enact the diverse lives and dreams of those within the African diaspora. The result would be a new map of possibilities, limited not only to virtual worlds, generated by creative, historically and critically informed conceptions of diverse locales in Africa and the African diaspora. By enabling intersectional identity representation at the level of game mechanics, the potential to catalyze critical awareness, even to abet positive social change, can be cultivated in ways that more artfully deploy the power of the medium.
Superdata, “Unity and SuperData Launch Major Mobile Games and VR Report”; Nath, “Investing in Video Games.”
A 2015 Pew Research Center study of households in the United States found that 48% of women, 50% of men, 53% of “Black, non-Hispanic,” 51% of “Hispanic,” and 48% of “White, non-Hispanic” adults “play video games on a computer, TV, game console, or portable device like a cellphone” (Duggan). According to the 2016 report of the Entertainment Software Association, 63% of households in the United States have at least one person who plays video games regularly, and 48% of households own a dedicated videogame console. The report also portrays an almost matching distribution of gamers across gender (59% male, 41% female) and age groups (27% under 18 years, 29% 18–35 years, 18% 36–49 years, and 26% 50+ years) (ESA). The Kaiser Family Foundation published two reports at 2002 and 2010 for children aged between 8 and 18, both of which assert that across all platforms, Hispanic and African American youth spend more time playing video games than white youth (“Children and Video Games”; “Generation M2”).
The terms “avatars” and “player characters” have slightly different definitions. “Avatar” is used as the more general word. Also, here the term “virtual identity” is even more general, including social media profiles, e-commerce accounts, and other computational representations of users. See Leonard “Live in Your World, Play in Ours”; Šisler, “Digital Arabs”; Williams et al., “The Virtual Census”; Fron et al., “The Hegemony of Play.”
Harrell and Lim, “Reimagining the Avatar Dream.”
Harrell and Lim, “Reimagining the Avatar Dream,” 1.
Harrell, Phantasmal Media.
Harrell, “Toward a Theory of Critical Computing”; Harrell and Lim, “Reimagining the Avatar Dream”; Şengün, “Why Do I Fall for the Elf.”
Josephs and Risam, introduction to this volume.
Nakamura, “Race in/for Cyberspace.”
This category includes heterotopic “African” locales that do not correspond to real physical world locations and fantastic North African representations that are treated as separate from the continent.
The games are Afrika, 2008, Sony Online Entertainment; Africa Trail, 1997, MECC; Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, 2012, Ubisoft; Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, 2013, Ubisoft; Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag—Freedom Cry, 2013, Ubisoft; Barbie: Explorer, 2001, Mattel; Cabela’s African Safari, 2006, Activision; Cabela’s Big Game Hunter Series, 2007–2012, Activision; Call of Duty: Black Ops Series, 2015, Activision; Cricket 07, 2006, EA; CTU: Marine Sharpshooter, 2003, Jarhead; Delta Force Series, 2000–2005, NovaLogic; Democracy 3 Africa, 2016, Positech Games; The Elder Scrolls Series, “Hammerfell” region, 1994, Bethesda; EverQuest, “Odus” region, 1999, Sony Online Entertainment; Guild Wars: Nightfall, “Elona” Region, 2006, NCSOFT; Heart of Africa, 1985, EA; Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, 1999, LucasArts; Jack Keane, 2007, Deck13 Interactive; Lost Horizon, 2010, Deep Silver; My Animal Centre in Africa, 2006, Europress; Playing the History 2: Slave Trade, 2013, Serious Games Interactive; Resident Evil 5, 2009, Capcom; Sega Rally Revo, 2007, Sega Sim Safari, 1998, Maxis; SOCOM U.S. Navy SEALs Series, 2002–2005, Sony Online Entertainment; Tiger Woods PGA Tour Series, 2005–2011, EA; Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell Series, 1998–2006, Red Storm and Ubisoft; Tomb Raider: Legend, 2006, Eidos; Top Spin 3, 2008, 2K Sports; Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, 2016, Sony Online Entertainment; V-Rally, 1997, EA; Virtual Tennis: World Tour, 2005, Sega; Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa, 2005, Pocketwatch Games.
Hughes et al., “Parents’ Ethnic–Racial Socialization Practices,” 748.
Harrell, “Toward a Theory of Critical Computing.”
See chapters in Malkowski and Russworm, Gaming Representation.
Gray, “Intersecting Oppressions and Online Communities”; “Deviant Bodies, Stigmatized Identities, and Racist Acts”; Şengün et al., “Exploring the Relationship Between Game Content and Culture-based Toxicity.”
An additional key early citation was the “video games set in Africa” page from Wikipedia (Wikipedia, “Video Games Set in Africa”).
Hussain, “Street Fighter 5.”
Reichmuth and Werning, “Pixel Pashas, Digital Djinns,” 47; Bernauer, “‘Elune Be Praised!’”
We selected a corpus of comments made during September and October 2017.
Steam page URLs of Resident Evil 5, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag: Freedom Cry, Playing History 2: Slave Trade, and Democracy 3 Africa are
Hughes et al., “Parents’ Ethnic–Racial Socialization Practices,” 748.
Lesane-Brown, “A Review of Race Socialization within Black Families.”
Riana E. Anderson and Howard C. Stevenson, “RECASTing Racial Stress and Trauma: Theorizing the Healing Potential of Racial Socialization in Families,” American Psychologist 74, no. 1 (2019): 63–75.
Neumann, “Ways of Seeing Africa”; Neumann, “Africa’s ‘Last Wilderness’”; Said, Culture and Imperialism, 8; Nelson, “Environmental Colonialism,” 1.
Crawford, “Digital Gaming”; Crawford, “The Cult of Champ Man”; Crawford, “‘It’s in the Game’”; Crawford and Gosling, “More than a Game’”; Leonard, “High Tech Blackface.”
Ju and Wagner, “Personal Computer Adventure Games,” 78.
Higgin, “Blackless Fantasy”; Nakamura, Cybertypes; Adams, “Not Just Rappers and Athletes.”
Assassin’s Creed games have also deployed settings in neighboring regions too, such as Damascus, and Constantinople, in aggregate sampling from a range of locales from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA region).
Harrell, “Digital Soul.”
Parham, “Fall 2017.”
Shaw, “The Tyranny of Realism.”
Lauro, “Digital Saint-Domingue.”
Mukherjee, “Playing Subaltern.”
Robinson, “Videogames, Persuasion and the War on Terror”; Mantello, “Playing Discreet War in the U.S.”
Although we recognize the linguistic differences between sarcasm and irony, for the purposes of this study, we flatten these concepts into a single category by accepting sarcasm as “an overtly aggressive type of irony, with clearer markers/cues and a clear target.” See Attardo, “Irony as Relevant Inappropriateness,” 795; Gibbs and Colston, Irony in Language and Thought; Kreuz and Glucksberg, How to Be Sarcastic; Muecke, The Compass of Irony.
Thompson and Filik, “Sarcasm in Written Communication”; Jarzewicz, “Meme as a Cultural Equivalent of Gene?”
Milner, “FCJ-156 Hacking the Social.”
All players’ names are anonymized as short codes.
Case and Hemmings, “Distancing Strategies.”
Dyer-Witheford and De Peuter, Games of Empire.
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Cheng et al., “Anyone Can Become a Troll.”
Phillips, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.
Essed, Understanding Everyday Racism.
Essed, Understanding Everyday Racism.
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