home Commentary, Essays, North America, Racism, Video Games A game aims to simulate the experience of everyday racism. Does it work?

A game aims to simulate the experience of everyday racism. Does it work?

Mondays are Killer Queen League Night in Portland. I wrap up my work mid-evening and take a train down to the arcade to play a 5v5 competitive multiplayer game. It gets my blood pumping, and the people I’ve been playing with for months have become friends. It’s a welcome start to the work week. This week I planned to leave somewhat early, but the competition starts late due to a private party at the arcade. I stay later and catch a train back home around midnight.

Fluorescent lights beam down from above as I step on-board the train and lean up against a plexiglass barrier near the door. My black leather jacket fits comfortably over my gray zip-front hoodie; it’s a look I like to sport on cool fall evenings. I don’t need to find a seat; it’s just a couple of stops between here and my transfer point. I pull my phone out to read comics to pass the few idle minutes, loading the first chapter of what I think was a fantasy mag. At this point now, I don’t really remember.

The time that I spent thumbing through the comic was actually time I spent listening to the drunk standing twenty feet away from me. He wore a black coat with white on it, wobbled back and forth with the movement of the train. His friend wore a red sweater, black glasses.

“Used to be no fucking black people in Oregon,” the jacket drunk says as he walks towards me. “It was the fucking law.” The red sweater man whispers to him. “What, I’m sorry I just know my fucking history,” jacket man says. “18-something to 18-something else, couldn’t have no fucking black people.” Red sweater whispers to him again. “What? They fucking mugged me right over there! Back then used to be no FUCKING black people in Ore-GONE.”

I’ve been thumbing my phone this whole time, scrolling through comics I’m not reading in the least. I check the reflection in the glass and I know he’s seen me, I know he’s talking about me. I look up at him. He looks at me. I stare him dead in the eyes. He stares back.

Indiecade 2016 took place in Los Angeles, California two weekends ago, relocated from its original home in Culver City. I was excited about this convention for multiple reasons:

  1. I love indie games and this functions as a large-scale gathering point for independent developers.
  2. This is my first time attending Indiecade.
  3. This is one of the first conventions I’ve applied and attended representing Intelligame instead of another outlet.

At the beginning of the convention, the USC School of Cinematic Arts feels like a ghost town: many developers are just setting up their games, and no signs guide the way towards anything in particular. I wander around the area until I see Anita, a friend I met at a convention we’d both been invited to the week prior. We say hi and hug, then check out some of the morning sights. A friend of mine from Portland stands under an umbrella on a sidewalk near the lawn, so we walk over to see what she’s up to.

The table holds a binder and a black hoodie. Laura tells me she’s here running a game for her friend, Akira Thompson. On the binder I see “&maybetheywon’tkillyou” printed on the front. She tells me the game simulates being a black man walking to the store to get a drink, and some of the things that can happen on the way. I tell her I don’t need to play the game because I already own the home version. We all laugh, sadly, awkwardly, realistically.

I ask Anita if she’d be willing to play the game and have me film it, because I’m intrigued to see what the game will play out like for someone who isn’t black. She volunteers, puts on the black hoodie, and waits for her first instructions.

The player takes on the role of the black man, while the person with the binder represents “The System,” like the Dungeon Master for the game. The black man walks forward towards the “grocery store,” and with each step is confronted with a scenario: A woman clutches her purse as you walk by, or the police drive by and slow down, looking you over as they drive, etc. With each encounter you can choose to speak or remain silent. Speak, and you roll a six-sided die to determine your fate. Remain silent, and you click up another notch on your handheld frustration counter. Should you decide to speak later, your frustration may play a role in the outcome of the die roll.

During Anita’s first couple of encounters, she spoke out. Once, the person she talked to understood her viewpoint and her heart was changed. More often than not, Anita was antagonized for her decision, with the cops frequently intervening. At one point, she was stopped and frisked: she had to stand for 25 seconds in place and wait before continuing forward. Anita’s last four encounters were all the same: regardless of the situation, she’d say nothing: the only sound was the “CLICK” of the frustration meter. She made it home, imaginary drink in hand, voice silent. Click, click, click, click.

I’ve looked Red Sweater in the eye a couple of times before this. He’s whispering in Jacket Drunk’s ear, constantly looking up at me. He’s nervous, scared, trying to keep his mouthy drunk friend from getting him into trouble. I’m trying to warn him off, and he seems to be getting it. When I hear “Used to be no fucking black people in Ore-GONE,” I’m no longer interested in warnings. I look at Jacket Drunk and catch his eye because something inside me wants something to happen, wants him to say something else, wants him to walk around the plexiglass barrier and get in my face. I stare at him, and he stares back.

The train car pulls to a stop, and the doors open to the station. His friend takes his arm and pulls him off of the car slowly. This stop is also my stop; I disembark and walk behind them, hands in my pockets. I constantly wonder if people who see me at night with my hands in my pockets are wondering if I have a knife, if I have a gun, or if they “know” I have a gun and are just wondering if they’ll make it home safely. Part of me hopes that we’re both about to get on the same train home. They walk north, Red Sweater looking back my direction briefly. I walk west.

After watching Anita finish her playthrough of &maybetheywontkillyou, I told my friend that I appreciated the game, but I almost wished there were an additional die you would roll with each encounter, a 20-sided one where if you rolled a one, the cops showed up and shot you regardless of your frustration or peaceful resolution.

As a black man, knowing the game was designed by a black man, I somehow inherently know while I’m standing there at the USC campus that the game was created before the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, or Terence Crutcher. Regardless of what data says or doesn’t say, the feeling that there’s a direct correlation between a black man’s “frustration” and their odds of being shot by the police in 2016 feels inauthentic, a place where the nature of creating a “game” runs headlong into a wall. Then again, there were many moments this year where dying at the hands of police felt like a matter of chance: just happen to be at the wrong place in the wrong time, and someone could be getting paid leave from work while my parents arranged my funeral.

The train I take home is older than the last one; I walk high, narrow steps to get on-board. I stand again, and Akira’s game comes to mind. I remember someone telling me that they thought it was possible to die in the game, and I think back to Jacket Drunk. I wanted to walk over to him and stare him right in the face, then punch him in it. I wanted to shoulder check him into the door, watch him tumble to the ground. I wanted to hurt him. I wanted to hurt him because I already lived in a world where a combination of alcohol and depression left me feeling lonely and abandoned and unloved as I took that train home by myself in the middle of the night, and then, from out of the blue, came that stark reminder: “On top of all that, you’re black. You’re not wanted here.” I wanted to cry and scream and melt and explode.

I suppose I should just be thankful he said “black people.” Had he said “nigger,” I wonder if I’d be writing this essay.

Akira Thompson’s &maybetheywontkillyou is a critically-important game, one that delivers a powerful message in a short space. As great as it is, its biggest flaw is its predictability. Every step walking to the grocery store and back is loaded with an aggression, micro or otherwise. The player knows that every step in the journey will come with a hardship, and learns the best way to deal with that consistent threat.

The reality of being black in America, though, is that these kinds of events are predictable, yet random: it’s working at a grocery store for months in high school, then having a customer tell you she didn’t think you looked “clean-cut” enough to be named “Josh.” It’s going to a friend’s wedding and already being conscious of being the only black person there, then getting called out on the dance floor: “Well, come on, Josh, dance: you’re black.” It’s spending a whole night at the arcade, your sacred space, then getting verbally attacked without even looking at someone first.

I made it home. Click, click, click, click.

Learn more about Akira Thompson and his development studio, Rainbros, at the Rainbros website. A digital version of &maybetheywontkillyou is available online. This doesn’t work with Google Chrome.

Photo: Satish Krishnamurthy/Creative Commons


Josh Boykin

I’m Josh Boykin, founder of Intelligame, and jack of many, many trades. I’ve been a “game journalist” since 2009, and since this profession generally doesn’t pay the bills, I’ve done a whole host of other things in my day: I’ve worked for a high-power IT company, driven submarines at Disneyland, pulled espresso shots (like every good English major), even sold insurance for all of a couple days. But I’ve always kept an eye on gaming, and I even worked at a pretty well-known video game retailer for about a year just so I could be around games (which did nothing for my bank account; it sometimes felt like being an alcoholic working at a liquor store). Follow me on Twitter: @wallstormer.

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