Black Gamers Find Community—and Racism—Online

As gaming platforms have become more social-friendly through additions like Twitch and Discord, they've also become more dangerous for Black players.

Teenage boy and girl gaming on computers

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Video gaming is a multi-billion dollar industry, growing in profit and diversity every day. Black gamers, although a minority, aren't a monolith as they participate in all genres of play and are among some of the most elite and skilled players.

Gaming provides a form of escapism and adventure for players, not to mention the cognitive benefits associated with playing. 

A study published earlier this year in JAMA Network Open found that children who play video games for three hours or more per day performed better on cognitive skills tests that involved response inhibition and working memory than children who don’t.

For gamers like Earon James, witnessing the evolution of video games from Atari or Gamecube in the '80s and '90s to PC or console games with elaborate storylines and graphics is a sight to behold.

One of the largest innovations in video games over the years is its social capabilities. Gamers from all over the world can connect through chat services like Discord and live streaming platforms like Twitch, which both saw large boosts in users in the last two years when the pandemic made in-person socialization improbable. Unfortunately, the communication features can be a double-edged sword as they are very often misused to promote hate and harassment.

James, who mostly plays action and first-person shooter games like Modern Warfare II and Tom Clancy’s The Division II and world-building games like Minecraft, enjoys using the hobby as an opportunity to bond with his 16-year-old son. He says the likelihood of hearing the N-word every time you play with chat features is high but he has been very strategic in making sure there are safety measures in place to protect his son from harassment and bullying.

“For him especially his consciousness and his identity as a young Black man and being someone who was born and raised in the Deep South and who has come face to face with blatant violent racism in my lifetime, not to mention microaggressions and the subtle things that can happen as well. I really wanted to do everything that I could to guard him,” says James.

In addition to Discord and Twitch, Call of Duty has its own chat features through Activision which usually incorporate a level of anonymity, often shielding players from any real consequences for using hate speech. 

“People are making a lot of money and there are a lot of people involved, so I know that the resources exist to do a better job of monitoring these things. There was a time where Call of Duty did a Black Lives Matter screen but it felt hollow. I knew what they were doing because I knew at that point a lot of corporative writing, kind of like this wave to feign solidarity without actually investing the resources, the time, the heart, and the emotions into actually being a part of the solution. So I know the resources are there,” says James. 

Gamers with multi-marginalized identities like Teona Studemire and Lala Shanks, who are both Black, queer, and have disabilities, can experience microaggressive comments and harassment at compounded rates.

The high levels of anonymous attacks commonly referred to as “hate raids” by users earlier this year prompted Twitch’s VP of Global Trust and Safety, Angela Hession to release an open letter.

“No one should have to experience that kind of treatment on Twitch, or anywhere for that matter,” Hession said. “Bot attacks are rampant across the internet and don’t have an easy fix. We’ll likely never be able to eliminate them entirely, but several updates this year—including back-end sitewide tech and Creator tools like phone-verified chat—have cut down on their numbers significantly.”

The industry is projected to make $197 billion in revenue this year. Black gamers and other gamers from marginalized communities would like to see more of that profit dedicated to creating solutions for harassment. Studemire, who plays roleplaying and sandbox style games like the Sims on their self-built PC and Nintendo Switch, would like to see stricter authentication measures for instance to reduce the frequency of bots.

“Users will say things that don't appear on the surface like they're racist or whatnot or they don't trigger any system awareness for what's going on but they still do it a lot,” Studemire said. “Be more proactive with safety and rather than trying to rely completely on things to be automated because unfortunately, bias is inescapable when it comes to automation. If a human being can be biased, then that same bias can be put in the systems that we use to monitor hate and harassment.”

As someone with limited hand and vision mobility, Studemire would also like to see video game designers consider accessibility issues not often implemented in game design.

“I'm of the belief that games should have a variety of options and easier modes in the game and it does not take away from the different length and difficulty of the game. A lot of people feel as though that is taking away from the game developers' vision for the game but honestly I just think that's a cop-out because they don't like the idea that they can't continue to gatekeep games,” says Studemire.

Studemire says although they haven’t faced more violent forms of harassment that they’ve witnessed others face, they do often experience microaggressions about their ability to play as someone cognitively impaired and is often assumed to be female resulting in gender-based harassment.

But the communication isn’t all bad. Gaming has allowed the 25-year-old to build relationships with other Black and disabled gamers although they say searching for other gamers was difficult because Twitch doesn’t represent these demographics well.

Shanks, who plays worldbuilding games on PC, Nintendo Switch and Nintendo 3DS, calls herself a dedicated fan of The Legend of Zelda, Breath of the Wild, and more indie games such as Night in the Woods and Undertale. Because of the pandemic, she hasn’t been able to connect with as many of her Black gamer friends in real life, but she has volunteered at PAX events the last several years allowing her to earn money working the video game convention and play at the events on their off days.

In the last four months, she has taken a break from streaming on Twitch, partly due to moving but also because of the targeted harassment.

“I've been very open about being a multiple-disabled person,” Shanks said. “I have a chronic illness, I'm autistic and I have psychiatric diagnoses. I'm very outspoken about those things. And I'm also very outspoken about my political values. I have just a very strong political analysis as it pertains to Black and queer liberation and I do think that that made me the target of things like hate raids, and people just popping up in my chat and saying awful things.”

Shanks has also been vocal about the appropriation of Black culture by white players that use Black hairstyles and skin tones for their avatars and mockingly use AAVE in their chats. Despite the racism, ableism, and homophobia she has experienced, she has discovered many accepting communities and is currently building her own Discord server. She expressed her gratitude for Black gamer ChiChi who has made intersectionality a priority on gaming platforms.

“They're really like BIPOC-forward and trying to make sure that Black and Indigenous and racialized voices are being centered in this group because a lot of Twitch teams that are mostly queer or disabled folks, it's usually still just a bunch of white folks in a team and there are no Black voices being centered and then they ended up perpetuating anti-blackness.”

Video game designers and services owe it to Black, queer and disabled gamers to create more equitable playing spaces for them, as they’ve been steadfast in buying their games and using their platforms despite the harassment they’ve faced. 

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