Playing video games was a large part of my childhood. Not being able to leave the house often and having terrible financial struggles didn’t afford me the opportunity to explore the world much. Whether I was surfing on a Wailord to Team Aqua’s Cove or inevitably perishing at the hands of King Koopa’s fleet of, video games provided me with a unique lens to learn about the world. Games offered players — such as myself — the ability to evaluate, explore and analyze social identities and cultures. At the time, I was not aware that many of the titles I played were created by white people, implicitly perpetuating racial stereotypes and limiting player parameters to preconceived racial biases.
According to a 2018 Pew report, the video game industry is one of the largest hubs in American entertainment: A whopping 90 percent of teens, along with 43 percent of adults, stated that their days moderately or largely consisted of video game playing. Given the magnitude of attention video games have received nationwide, it is now more important than ever to analyze peoples’ behavior behind their screens.
Over the course of my indefinite quarantine period at home, I developed ties to newly formed habitual activities, one of which became streaming my gameplay. Streaming convinced me that my engagement with video games was productive; and it was. As spring semester classes came to a close, I decided to purchase Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, a franchise that I had built familiarity with over the past decade alongside my brother. However, I did not prepare myself for the toxicity, misogyny and racism that would ultimately cloud my gaming experience.
In mid-June, I decided to hop on a game of Search and Destroy with a fellow colleague, where we encountered a group of white students — supposedly attending the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School — who became rapidly toxic teammates, constantly spewing hate speech with every passing second.
During our first round, one of my teammates exclaimed “You dumb n*****, I was right in front of you!” When playing with others, I have encountered rather derogatory diction being used against teammates and opponents alike. Yes, the video gaming community is competitive, and it can be fun to engage in trash talk. However, these conversations were not merely trash talk — bigotry, racial disparity and insensitivity all stained his words. More surprisingly, hearing this come from fellow Ivy League students, who are looked at as our nation’s brightest, disheartened me.
In the wake of the death of George Floyd, many video gaming companies took aim to combat racial discrimination, mainly through their online servers, where players have the liberty to get away with virulent discourse. On June 3rd, Infinity Ward took to twitter stating that they’ve “launched an effort” to crack down on racist content, including ID names and in-game banter. Most of these would be met with bans that would last from a few hours to a full day. But why have racist, derogatory terms still trickled in unchecked?
The phenomenon of racism in online gaming isn’t new. The rapid evolution of the gaming industry has seen many of these issues over the past decade. In 2019, a group of players came together to “reenact slavery-era behavior by targeting, rounding up and killing black characters” in the massively acclaimed game Red Dead Redemption 2. They were banned — temporarily.
Although these online experiences don’t perfectly illustrate how society functions in-person, I do believe that this behavior — built into the game and the players themselves —reflects real-world interactions as well. Back in 2017, Cornell’s Psi Upsilon fraternity came under scrutiny for severe racial allegations consequently leading to their expulsion off-campus. Whether behind a screen or fraternity doors, people seem to demonstrate their true colors when ever-so-slightly aggravated, almost always towards marginalized groups.
Cornell President Martha E. Pollack and Activision have come out with emails and in-game mantras (as separate institutions) condemning racism and the implications it has on society, but more often than not, those impacted communities are left with little detail for resolution.
But still, there is more we can do. No matter where you are — whether playing video games, on campus or elsewhere — you’ll encounter racist incidents like this. It starts with us calling them out and no longer tolerating racist remarks wherever we come upon them, whether behind screens or to your face.
Canaan Delgado is a senior in the College of Engineering. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ¿Que pasa? runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.