Reflection

Published on June 8th, 2016 | by Marcus Garrett

35

“Nigger” and other words I learned while playing Overwatch

I’ve been hooked on Overwatch since the Open Beta a few weeks ago. Since launch I stumbled upon a group of people that I played with regularly. I never really played online games until recently so this was the first time I felt like I had a team of people who I could count on and who respected me. I loved playing with these guys, making jokes, and overcoming other teams together.

Last weekend, I signed on to play Overwatch and saw one of the guys I play with in a party chat. I joined the party and they invited me to their game. I only knew one person in the group from before, but everyone else was happy to have me join. The leader of the party was playing as my favorite character and we talked at length about why we liked her and he asked me for tips on how to use her better.

A Colorful Vocabulary

During the fourth match, one of my teammates killed one of our opponents and said, “I got that Nigger!” A few seconds later, he used the slur again. I chimed in.

“Hey man, you need to cut it out with that. That’s not okay.”

“What, you mean the N-word?” The rest of the chat went silent.

“Yeah.”

“Are you black or something?”

“I am.”

“Oh sorry, my bad.”

“Well regardless you shouldn’t be using that word anyway. It’s really offensive and hateful.”

“I think you’re taking this too seriously.”

“Actually no. It’s a big deal. Do you know the history of that word?”

“Yeah I do, but that was over a hundred years ago. Black people need to get over it.” Then he went on about how black people shouldn’t be able to claim that word anymore and how he isn’t referring to black people when he says it, but that it’s just used to describe someone he doesn’t like.

Is “Nigger” racist?

His first argument claimed that he didn’t use the word “nigger” as a slur toward people of color, but the first thing he asked after I called him out on it was if I was black. So we can put that argument to rest. The rest of his defenses require a little more unpacking. He asserts that he uses the term as a general insult and that it is not racially charged. Any negative connotations that word has against black people subsided “like a hundred years ago” when slavery ended. I searched the word “nigger” on Google. Here are three notes on the usage of the word from some of the first results.

Dictionary.com

The term nigger is now probably the most offensive word in English. Its degree of offensiveness has increased markedly in recent years, although it has been used in a derogatory manner since at least the Revolutionary War. The senses labeled Extremely Disparaging and Offensive represent meanings that are deeply insulting and are used when the speaker deliberately wishes to cause great offense. It is so profoundly offensive that a euphemism has developed for those occasions when the word itself must be discussed, as in court or in a newspaper editorial: “the n-word.”

Merriam-Webster.com

Nigger in senses 1 and 2 can be found in the works of such writers of the past as Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens, but it now ranks as perhaps the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English. Its use by and among blacks is not always intended or taken as offensive, but, except in sense 3, it is otherwise a word expressive of racial hatred and bigotry.

Wiktionary.org

The word “nigger” is one of the most offensive taboo words in the English language, especially in the United States. In a study by Kristy Beers Fägersten, Americans rated nigger the most offensive word, more offensive thancunt. A study by New Zealand’s Broadcasting Standards Authority found thatnigger was the second-most offensive word in New Zealand (after cunt), offending 66% of people, and a similar study by several British broadcasting organizations found that “nigger” offended 68% of Brits and was the fifth most offensive word in the UK (after cunt,motherfucker, fuck, and wanker). There have been efforts by those of African descent to reclaim the word (especially in the form nigga), but these efforts are controversial, and some people do not believe it is able to be reclaimed, due to its fraught history and continued derogatory usage. Usage by non-blacks is almost invariably highly offensive.

Alright so let’s recap: The word “nigger” is definitely racist and undeniably offensive.

Drawing a line in the LAN

Throughout the conversation, the leader of the chat kept laughing to himself saying “Okay thanks mom” and other unhelpful comments. That part didn’t bother me. What really shocked me was the fact that nobody else stepped up and spoke against their racist and immature colloquialisms. The rest of the group remained quiet. I have no way of knowing if the silent members of the team didn’t mind the use of that slur, or were offended but didn’t want to get into the fray. Either way, their inaction was problematic and indicative of a bystander culture that encourages unacceptable behavior.

The weird part was that this conversation was happening while we were still playing the game. There was an uncomfortable duality taking place where my on-screen character was supporting the character controlled by the guy I was currently arguing with. Then I was booted from the party chat, at which point I dropped out of the game.

message-to-party-leader

I messaged the party chat leader expressing my disappointment that he would boot me out of the game instead of the guy shouting racist slurs. He called me a fag in response. It seemed so backwards to me that I was ostracized for standing up for what’s right, while the bigot and the silent followers got to enjoy the game together. They deserve each other.

The Aftermath

Overwatch has quickly become one of my favorite games and my go-to after a long day of work or when I’m feeling lonely and want to connect with people. It is comfort food for me. I use it to escape and it allows me to exist in my own introverted bubble without completely disconnecting with the world. After what happened, I have trouble seeing it as that safe space.

Since then I haven’t even tried to play with anybody associated with that group of people, even those who weren’t there that day. As someone who never really played games online with people, I’ve never experienced this before, but I know that my story is mild compared to what other players are subjected to.

I’ve been reluctant to join chats and even when I stay off, I get paranoid of the things people are saying. It is striking that a game about heroism and fighting for what’s is right can be filled with cowardice and ignorance.

What can we do?

There’s a big problem in the gaming community. This kind of behavior is tolerated to the point of full-acceptance, and worse, a passive disregard. There exists a defeatist mindset of “That’s just the way it is” as well as a misconception that prepubescent boys are the only ones engaging in this obscene harassment of other players. Both of these ideas are just not true.

Online gaming communities, forums, and social media were not always so hostile. It happened over time as people began to realize what they could get away with behind the anonymity of the internet and from the safety of their own homes. Like any community, it is shaped over time and is altered as conventions are both questioned and challenged. That’s how a term like “nigger” can go from a something white people used often in regular speech to one of the most offensive words in existence.

tracer saluteIt isn’t about policing language or telling people what they can or cannot do. However, video games are for everybody and we all have a responsibility to help create the community we want to play in. It just requires that more people step up in courage every once in a while and let people know that hateful rhetoric is not acceptable.

If there is anything Overwatch has taught me, it’s that heroes comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Heroism exists in all of us even if we can’t manifest it or even recognize it right away. But just like the angsty teen from the Announcement Trailer, a true hero is born when a normal person has the opportunity to do the right thing and then does it regardless of their perceived or actual qualifications. It’s not always the person with the training, the authority, or the witty one-liner. More often than not, a real hero is an everyday person like you. And you know, the world could always use more heroes.


About the Author

Marcus created Top Shelf Gaming to celebrate the awesome things about the video game industry while challenging the areas of the video game community that could be improved. He loves playing guitar and eating tacos, but never at the same time.



  • Solryn

    It takes a tremendous amount of (emotional) energy to confront racism the way that you did. You have to really love a community to set yourself up for the kind of predictable outcome you faced.

    Good form!

    • Thank you. I really love video game communities as a whole. That’s why I created this site! 🙂

  • Kim Pittman

    As a guild leader in WoW, I get to talk to – interact with people before I let them join my guild. On more than a few occasions I have had them ask if I was a lesbian because I flat out tell them that hate speak, even saying “gay”, when they mean something was stupid will get them kicked from the guild. The conversation always goes:

    “You can’t use hate speech or derogatory words, even the ‘gentle’ ones like gay. We want our guild to be a safe and inclusive space.”

    “Oh. So is that because you are a lesbian or something?”

    “No. But someone in the guild *might* be and I don’t want people leaving because someone was being a dick ‘accidentally’.”

    “Why did you put accidentally in quotes?”

    “Because even if no one in your current listening group is gay that you know of, it’s still a shitty behavior. And we prefer to not have people with shitty behavior.”

    “What if I slip up?”

    “I will correct you, publicly. You then have about 30 seconds to apologize, and a real apology, not a ‘I’m sorry you were offended’ apology – a good one – or you get booted.”

    “That’s really strict. It’s just a game, it seems like there shouldn’t be so many rules.”

    “Then our guild isn’t for you.”

    Though to be fair, every time the conversation gets this far, the join rate is about 50/50 and I have only ever had to boot one guy because he just couldn’t stop saying rape.

    • Lateef Martin

      that’s a great system for weeding out internet bullies. Great job!

    • That’s awesome!

    • Won Word

      “That’s really strict. It’s just a game, it seems like there shouldn’t be so many rules.”

      Translation: I should get to be a dick to whomever I want without consequence, because my feels might be hurt otherwise.

  • Lateef Martin

    Thank you for sharing your experience. It totally blows that gaming isn’t a safe space for everyone. I gotta say, using the gorilla to go with this article is a little weird.

  • Saren

    This is why I stick to voice chat with friends and partners really. At the most, if it comes to a community, it’ll usually be a feminist, queer, trans, or “SJW” gaming community, where that sort of stuff *isn’t* tolerated at all anyways. I don’t voice chat or anything like that, with randos.

    • It’s sad that a lot of people feel uncomfortable being on chat. :/

      • Saren

        Yeah it is, but… as a trans woman, with a deep-ish voice, it saves me the constant hassle of being constantly misgendered, and then also dealing with the bull crap of people being racist, or shitty.

  • I don’t know you, and as much as I’ve enjoyed Overwatch from a distance (can’t play it personally, but literally Everyone Else I know Does), I just have to say:

    I swear there are way more awesome people than not, the crappy ones are just the loudest, and if you are okay with it I would like to give you a hug, cause I’m sorry you meet a plethora of crappy people all in one go.

    • I believe it. The vocal minority is not representative of the whole community. Thank you!

  • Rebecca Oliver

    Marcus, I’m sorry that you experienced something so horrendously ugly. Thank you for vulnerably writing this article and raising awareness about this very, very important topic. Racism is not dead, though I deeply wish it was. May those with privilege (myself included) take your words in and absorb them down to our very souls. You shouldn’t ever have to live with that.

  • David K Anderson

    You handled that with grace. And being the better person and doing what’s right is a satisfying reward… I’d be proud to team with ya any time.

  • Garden Pheenix

    How utterly disappointing – the way they handled it :/

    Ive always stayed away from online gaming because of that and the sexism. I WANTED to play online with Mass Effect and I was like… naaaaah because everything you said in this article.

    The only community I have found online where this doesn’t exist is our Minecraft server, which is a family server. Thats a sad turn out.

    Loved some of the comments below about how they weed these people out of their guilds 🙂

  • Kikko

    “Fag” was thrown at me by the kids who used to beat the shit out of me every day in high school once they knew I was gay. I wish I could play games to get away from that. Thanks for speaking up.

    • Yeah. I hear the argument a lot that “fag” is a general term for anyone they don’t like, and that it’s not a gay thing but that’s really just not true. The implication will always be tied to the homophobic slur.

      • PantsCommander

        First time I heard that theory was an old George Carlin bit about his childhood in 1930/40s New York. The etymology of slurs and slang is really interesting, but arguing “that’s not what it means, it really means this” in response to someone complaining is a supreme case of “ok you’re not wrong, you’re just an asshole”.

  • Jinx 01

    I’m sorry you had this awful experience 🙁 You’re right, more people need to stand up for what’s right.

  • raptur

    Come play Descent: Underground! It’s still in early access on Steam, but has a lot of great multiplayer action already, with co-op coming in the next production release. I’ve been involved with the community for almost a year, and haven’t seen any of the bigotry that plagues other game communities in that time.

    • I’ll check it out

      • raptur

        Ugh, I feel responsible to report that I’ve learned that one reasonably frequent commenter on the forums and occasional player is a gamer gater, so…

  • Alan Chambers

    Hey Marcus, a friend shared your article on fb, and after reading I felt the need to post. That is absolutely not cool that anyone playing has to hear crap like racial slurs or homophobia while playing something that’s supposed to be fun. IMO it takes the fun right out of the experience. It also pisses me off that what you experienced is more or less how the rest of the world views the gaming community.
    Anyways, thanks for speaking up; we need more people to do that!

  • Sherrie Ricketts

    What I hear him saying: “What? Sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of my privilege!”

  • RespectMyGenius

    This describes nearly every group of white friends I’ve made online. It actually made me give up Destiny on PS4 and switch to Xbox where I had more friends black and white that I knew personally and trusted. It’s either outright terrible words like nigger or fag or something like that or it’s other terms like homie but said in a derogatory fashion. What I also dislike are the white girls that have a black boyfriend or whatever and think they can’t be checked for saying it. I hate that this happened to you.

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  • Lawson Harris Douvier

    Overwatch is the first game I’ve played online with any regularity, but the first thing I did was turn the chat off. I’ve seen videos and heard tales of people saying heinous things in an off hand manner.
    I’m a white, straight male, and it disgusts me to hear that people can be so ignorant when it comes to treating other people like human beings. Whether it’s the n word, the f word (the derogatory term for homosexuals), retard, using girl pejoratively…it’s all just another way of keeping people you are uncomfortable with lumped into one big homogeneous mass.

    You’ve inspired me to turn the chat on and call people out for saying horrible things. It’ll just continue if we don’t force a change, and I want to be a part of that. Thanks, Marcus.

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  • johnboy7822

    How about stop whining you sensitive cunts

  • master shake

    get over it, nigger

  • Carl Robbins

    I had a really similar experience with the game. Someone called me a “son of a bitch”, which is something I do not take lightly. My mother has done everything for me, and is easily the nicest person I have ever met. She puts up with all my shit, even though she doesn’t have to. Yet people still believe that they can throw around this hateful speech. It has honestly made me quit the game, and its one of the reasons why I don’t play multiplayer games any more. People just can’t understand that their words affect other people. The saying “Sticks and stone will break my bones, but words will never hurt me” couldn’t be more wrong. It is really the opposite.

    • Yeah that should never happen. Games should be a good place for everybody. No one should ever feel like they have to quit because the community is so terrible. Luckily Blizzard is super serious about hate speech. Way more than other companies.

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