I was 10 when we got the internet. Online gaming immediately became my favorite part about the family computer. Represented by a brown-skinned girl avatar who sported a red hat, I spent hours playing games like Literati and Pool! via Yahoo, against live strangers from all over the country.
It didn’t take long for me to become a world-beating whiz. It also didn’t take long for me to discover the chat box, and engage with my opponents.
“A/S/L,” the conversations usually began, short for “age, sex, location.”
“FUCKING LITTLE NIGGER BITCH,” they far too frequently ended.
Plays on the N-word became an everyday experience, tethered to every win and sometimes even a defeat. The phrase followed me to various online gaming platforms and even well into adulthood. It was my opponent’s way of reminding me that I could never really win. I may beat them on the internet, but I would always be a nigger. So, ultimately, I would always be the loser.
This month YouTube star Felix Kjellberg (PewDiePie), who garnered the largest following on YouTube by posting videos of himself playing and commenting about video games, hurled the N-word at an opponent while playing on a livestream. I was immediately reminded of my adolescence. While I was simultaneously in school learning that Martin Luther King Jr. ended racism, and about judging others by the content of their character, I was degraded and abused online merely for using a cartoon avatar with brown skin.
Kjellberg offered an apology in a 95-second YouTube video claiming that the slur “just sort of slipped out” in the heat of the moment.
He added, “Whenever I go online and I hear other players use the same kind of language that I did, I always find it extremely immature and stupid and I hate how I now personally fed into that part of gaming as well… I said the worst word I could possibly think of and it just sort of slipped out. I’m not going to make any excuses why it did because there are no excuses.”
But such hateful language does not simply “slip out” of an abuser’s mouth.
“Why do they keep calling me the N-word?” I would ask my mother as a kid.
“Because they think it will hurt you and there’s nothing you can do about it,” she responded with a sigh and a shrug, “Just pick another character that doesn’t have a race.”
Some days I took her advice. I chose an orange flower with a happy grin, or even played as a white character to avoid the abuse. On other days, I felt more defiant and reverted back to playing as a Black character.
A part of me wanted to be the “little nigger” beating all of these white people who felt I was inferior. A part of me felt hurt, angered, and betrayed by the lie of “equality” being sold in my history book. Another part of me hoped that in time the name-calling would end and I could go back to believing in a colorblind world. And yet another part of me knew that I couldn’t simply “pick another character” in real life, so I should confront this online.
This early experience with racism shattered me into all of those parts, and I have yet to be made whole because racism endures, even on the most inconsequential and recreational corners of the internet.
Kjellberg’s slip of the tongue was felt by the more than 57 million viewers who subscribe to his channel, some of whom are surely gamers of color like myself who have already been scarred by a lifetime of being confronted with racism in the online gaming community.
This was the second time he was publicly hateful, by the way. Kjellberg posted a now-deleted video on Jan. 11 that showed him laughing while two Indian men held up a sign that read “death to all Jews.”
His apology simply does not suffice. Not this time.
In response to Kjellberg’s slur, Sean Vanaman of Campo Santo studios threatened to file a claim to have any gaming material related to Campo Santo removed from Kjellberg’s YouTube channel, and he called on other developers to act with them. But gamers spammed the developer with negative reviews, and made it about “censorship.”
Meanwhile YouTube ended production of an original series it once had high hopes for and featured Kjellberg. The YouTuber was also removed from Google Preferred, a select ad network for brands to appear only in the most desirable positions.But while the gaming industry and online platforms try to individually dole out necessary punishments to curtail the use of offensive language and the propagation of offensive material, the reality is that Kjellberg has millions of undeterred fans. Unless drastic measures are taken by these industries in tandem, he will continue to find a means to profit from his massive following. After all, the gaming community has come out in droves in support of Kjellberg, creating hashtags like #Pewdiepiedidnothingwrong.
This outpouring of support should come as no surprise, considering the fact that casual and flippant racism is normal in gaming. A 2011 study found that “many black gamers have normalized racist experiences and have accepted the label of deviant placed upon their bodies.” In turn, this means many white players have normalized outward displays of racism. That gamers are often young and impressionable, and prone to using offensive language as a coming-of-age fit of pointless rebellion, is no excuse.
Developers and industry leaders must stand together to ensure that people of color are empowered enough to actually do something about it when they become victims of racialized bullying and abuse on their platforms. It’s time for people of color to finally win in the online gaming world—we won’t as long as losers like Kjellberg continue to get a slap on the wrist.