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“N****r” 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.

What do you think?

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Written by Marcus Garrett

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.

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