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Suggestions, Part II: Top Tier Strats For Talking About Race and Games

April 18, 2008

So the last installment covered general guidelines for those who are new to talking about race to keep in mind during the recent revival of the Resident Evil 5 discussion, and it seemed to get a good amount of link lovin’ across the Internet. However – somewhat predictably – most of the people who like this site enough to link to it are down with the talking about race thing. The hard part is, of course, talking about this to people who aren’t quite so down with this. If simply having them read Suggestions, Part I wasn’t enough, then read on for Suggestions, Part II: Top Tier Strats For Talking About Race and Games.

Take care of yourself.

No matter who you are, you probably have something better to do than spend your valuable time and emotional energy arguing with complete strangers over the Internet. Certainly, reading over dozens and dozens of garbage posts, especially about personally sensitive issues of race, is enough to ignite all-consuming burning fury in even the most timid forum peruser. However, just like any other discussion on the Internet, the deep satisfaction you’ll get from telling Mr. Colorblind off in the Joystiq comments will most likely be quickly replaced upon realizing that the hours you devoted to crafting exquisite, heart-wrenching prose have had no effect.

It probably won’t turn out like this.

Instead, Mr. Colorblind’s probably just going to either A) ignore what you said and go about their merry way recycling said ignorant comments or B) not even glance back at the forum thread or comments field ever again. Meanwhile, 90 other people are going to parrot the same excuses without even bothering to read whatever it was you wrote the first time. Alas, that’s life on the Internet. This happens to a degree even in the “good discussions” like the one at Select Button. Sigh. Does this mean that you shouldn’t even bother to participate? Not necessarily. Just keep your goals – and expectations – realistic, and remember that the law of diminishing returns applies in spades when it comes to the Internet.

Know your surroundings.

True story: I used to be a debater (Lincoln-Douglas, for anyone who cares) in high school, though I was generally known as the guy who showed up to all the national tournaments playing Street Fighter II on his laptop. Among other things, I learned that the content of any discussion is dependent on its format. The person who wins a debate round isn’t the smarter person, or even necessarily the most convincing person, but the person who plays the best within the timed speech lengths. Likewise, real-world conversations about race can have different outcomes depending on the shape that they take (panel discussions, Q&A sessions, meetings, debates, one-on-one discussions, etc.) as well as where they happen. Ultimately, the people best able to make their points are the people who take into account context as well as content.

Don’t get caught in this. (Fog, I mean. I don’t know what this book is about)

If the conversation you’re engaging in is going on in the comments section of a blog post, a few things are going to be different than if it occurs, say, in a web forum you frequent. First off, it’s a safe bet that most of the people who read the blog don’t fall too far from the writer’s take on things. Of course, there are exceptions – you’d be surprised where the latent progressive thinkers come out from when blogs about video games tackle race – but in general, if you like a blog enough to read it regularly and comment on it, it’s probably not because you’re virulently opposed to the ideas expressed within. Also, conversations tend to be less fleshed out because the audience comes by the blog to read the posts and comment, and not necessarily to engage with each other in any protracted manner. I probably read a couple dozen blog posts a day, and it’s rare that I read any of the comments pages once, let alone multiple times. So don’t get too attached – make your points and move on.

Forum discussions, on the other hand, are a completely different beast entirely. Forum discussions take place in established communities, with pre-existing relationships and social norms that any discussion will have to negotiate. Participants in forum communities (except, perhaps, anonymous communities like 4chan) come to create personal associations to certain people from previous conversations, positive and negative. Depending on the community, things like seniority, post count, join date, and “Premium Membership” can influence how people react to certain posts, as well. However, conversations generally can last much longer than they do in blog comments, and people tend to have a larger investment in forums that they “belong to” than a blog. 

As it stands now, there aren’t a whole lot of spaces out there that are particularly friendly to critical discussions of race. You’ll most likely feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle, and that most of the conversation will focus around explaining why it’s important to talk about race in general, and not what you really want to talk about, whatever that is. Unless you’re modding the forum or running the blog where these conversations are going on, you’re only going to be able to do so much about this. Don’t lose sleep over it. If the conversation isn’t going where you want it to go, there’s certainly no shame in dipping out. Hell, start your own blog to talk about what you want to talk about, and judiciously delete anyone who you don’t want showing up underneath what you’ve written. That’s what I do here, anyway.

Write for an audience.

I wondered for the longest time why “lurkers” existed on the Internet – people who spend hours of their time reading conversations that other people have without really jumping in themselves. Then I realized that if I can’t imagine a conversation happening without me dropping my two cents in, that makes me a total blowhard attention whore.

Er, anyway.

Suffice to say that there are plenty of people who drop by a blog or forum just to read, and not necessarily to contribute. (As evidenced by the average 300 hits every day lately, yet only, oh, three or four comments. 😦 ) To be perfectly honest, these kinds of people are probably the most awesome people on the Internet – they’re spending their time reading what people wrote, and not just so they could tear them down or anything but because they’re generally open-minded people who want to broaden their horizons. These are the kinds of people you want to be writing for, not the people who are arguing with you.

This is the, uh, thing that you want to convince.

The same generally goes for real life, too. Think about the last time you got into a proper argument with someone. How often are they actually convinced of anything? Almost never, I’ll bet. There are all kinds of reasons you might be arguing with someone, but actually convincing someone probably rates pretty low on the scale. After all, if they were readily open to your point of view, they probably wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of going to bat against you. No, in all likelihood, you’ve gotten yourself sucked in an argument for some kind of external reason – maybe there’s a crowd of people you’re trying to persuade, or maybe you really don’t like the person, or maybe you’re simply standing up for your pride and your beliefs. Whatever your motivation may be, genuinely convincing the person you’re arguing with of your divine truth probably isn’t a very likely outcome.

Does this mean that talking on the Internet is pointless? Of course not. (It may very well be, but not for this reason.) All it means is that you ought to adjust your expectations accordingly. Don’t expect to convert a bastion of color-blind thinkers into radical-spoken-word-poet-revolutionaries overnight. Think about the personal changes and experiences you’ve undergone, the books you’ve read, the friends you’ve had who have caused you to become the person you are now – could that kind of incredible metamorphosis occur over a few blog posts? Probably not. People do, however, tend to remember a particularly poignant anecdote, or turn of phrase, if it strikes them in just the right way. If you’re going to bother to spend your time in these kinds of conversations, aim to be one of the people who wrote something that the audience will remember when they have their own life-defining experiences, read their own life-defining books, and meet their own life-defining friends. Certainly, I’m as guilty of incredible crankiness as the next wannabe intellectual, but really, bitching people out on the Internet is one of those things that feels really good until you realize that no one really cares. Which brings me to my last point.

Stay Positive.

And I don’t mean any of this pointlessly optimistic New Age crap. I mean in terms of the discussion.

All this RE5 business is another reminder that lots of people don’t like to talk about race – at least, not in any critical capacity. This is nothing new. However justified our outrage is – and trust me, it’s pretty well damn justified – the fact is that sitting around harping on about the general level of ignorance and apathy among people who play video games enough to read blogs and forums about them gets pretty old fast, especially if you’re not surrounded by a group of people who are also congratulating themselves on how amazingly anti-racist they are. STEP UP. If you really care about the medium, or the discussion, take the initiative to lead the discussion by example.

This is one of the first Google Image Search results for “positive”. Yellow skin, small eyes – this shit is racist.

Truth be told, this blog isn’t really that interesting or revolutionary – all I’m doing is playing games, and pointing out the racist shit that shows up in there. Lately I haven’t even been doing that – I’ve just been watching movies of games and pointing out the racist shit, and more recently, talking about people talking about watching movies of games and pointing out the racist shit. After a certain point, no one really wants to read this stuff except the people who want to agree with it so they can feel not-racist. Making you happy is not my job.

Chances are, if you read this blog, you’re probably also reading a lot of other interesting stuff about other media – media that have progressed far beyond the current maturity of the average video game. Much more interesting things are being said about those media. My girlfriend is writing her thesis on Blackness and Sport in the US. Did you know that the NBA didn’t really do too well until they brought black people in? That for some reason, white people love watching black people play sports – even if they’re beating white people? That’s seriously fascinating – well, a little bit creepy, too – and I have to say that I am truly in awe of the person who takes on a topic so deep that they need 70-80 pages to explain it all.

What you need to do is take the actual interesting conversations you’ve had – the ones that go far beyond “that’s racist!” and use them as a model for the conversations you’ve got going on. Talk about how RE5 or any other game could have made for a completely different experience in X context or Y setting. Design your own game that brings out racially evocative themes. Do something that lets you and everyone else talk about the games – because, really, that’s what you probably want to talk about, too.

Peace.

pat m.

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2 comments

  1. Huzzah, sir!


  2. Here’s something a lot of people fail to take into account when they’re in a forum.

    You’re still writing for an audience.

    In almost any posting environment, the lurking audience exceeds the posting audience. You still have that audience of lurkers, but you also have the feedback of responses. This allows you to focus your comments on what people find important and relevant.

    Sometimes this backfires. I make a lot of comments on age of consent. I think 14 is plenty old enough to make lots of decisions, including voting and driving and even serving in the military. But for some reason, the question always devolves into whether I think 50 year old men should be allowed to have sex with 14 year old girls, and since the integrity of my platform demands that I answer in the affirmative, the whole discussion goes to hell in a handbasket.

    I don’t have a solution to that. I used to make those comments on my blog and not discuss them in the forum environment, but search engines have made this division irrelevant. The moment you get someone cheesed off at you about something, and they can’t think of a good argument against what you just said, they hit Google and dig up the most vile out-of-context misquote they can find – which, for someone who’s spent 30 years online, may be something you said when you were much more radical and less PR-savvy – so they can slap it up for the entire community to read. (Privacy is a polite fiction. When people simply don’t bother to be polite, it unravels.)

    The only response that seems to work at all is to say what you want to say without regard to PR, and when people get up in arms with their responses, ignore them.



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