Sunday, March 11, 2012

I Love EG

I am applying later this month for a grant to go to South Korea and conduct research on Starcraft 2 and issues of race and ethnicity in this international esport. Starcraft 2 like Starcraft: Brood War is something played around the world, by people of every ethnicity, and as a result there become competitions and narratives that are nationalist in scope and also racial. For example, there is a strong discourse in the sports world, that those who are black, have a natural ability to perform better in sports. Similarly, in the world of Starcraft it is South Koreans who seem to have an uncanny ability to play the game at much higher levels than everyone else.

I have always found it interesting what the political effects are of such narratives of innate dominance. In the case of African Americans, their physical prowess is something that was once used to justify their enslavement (since to so many Europeans it seemed that God had created them for slavery), but then later used to justify not doing anything to make up for the inter-generational long-lasting impacts of slavery. There is alot of sort of casual rationalization which goes on here, and you need not be a card carrying racist or an active member of a eugenics cult in order to enjoy their "privileges." For everyone who doesn't want to address the issue of redress for slavery, aren't African Americans who are successful athletes a perfect example of why they aren't necessary? They have achieved so much because of their natural skills, in ways that any of their former slave owners and their descendants could never match. In this way, what is a simple thing, a simple conversational node, becomes a political argument, something that feeds into to pot of elixir known as nationalism.

A case in point is a statement that Barrack Obama made regularly throughout his campaign for President in 2008, in particular in his "A More Perfect Union" speech, which is known as basically his master treatise on race. He stated that in no other country is his story, to go from being a poor black kid in Hawai'i, to a Senator, to possibly President, in no other country is this even possible. Only America has the ability to create this sort of opportunity. Only America is loving, forgiving, and giving enough to take a chance on a skinny black kid with a funny name, and allow it to be the leader of the free world. Only in America can a race of people once enslaved and deprived of every right or privilege, rise up to be the leaders of entertainment and sport industries.

This is of course not true at all. Sen ti magahet este. But the point of nationalism, is that it is the magical stuff that Renan marveled about. It has the ability to conjure up both a grand past of events that so many people, even those whose ancestors weren't there, can try to claim to be a part of it, and at the same time, a grand future, in which they, and only they will do great things. But as Renan also points out, this requires forgetting, it requires a great deal of amnesia, in order to arrange the chaos and the systems of injustice and silencing that exist as part of the nation in order to create that powerful force. This nationalist core can do great things, but it is also something which blinds you to much as well. Nationalism is the ego of the nation, and I don't only mean that in the sense of being something that makes you feel like you're the best, but allows you to defend yourself, from even your own critiques. Nationalism is not only pride in yourself, but it is also the ability to have blind faith, the ability to erase things from your memory and attempt to rearrange history in a way to help you forget the things you'd rather not remember.

Video games are supposed to be a place where race does not matter. The internet was supposed to be a similar phenomena, where the body, the mere, weak, and patricularized flesh would be surpassed, and a new form of being could be enjoyed. In truth, the internet, the virtual experience holds the power to perpetuate issues of the flesh or the body, such as race or ethnicity in even more concrete way, despite the entire experience supposedly being abstract or disconnected. One of the things we find in gaming for example is the gleeful use of terms such as "nigger" or "faggot" and rampant expressions of homophobia and sexism. The question is always why we should see these things in the virtual world? If the virtual world is so detached from this world and offers freedom from it, why would what most people think of as the worst of this world, make it into the next?

Could it be that since the virtual world is supposed to disconnect you from your body and this world, that you can enjoy more eagerly the racist or sexist or homophobic fantasies that you aren't supposed to be able to discuss or invoke in real life? You can call someone a word filled with all the hate of centuries of oppression and not feel like those you who use it on get the chains of history slapped on them, while you escape completely free. They are meant to feel the sting of being a slave, of being owned and denigrated and have an entire society build its wealth off of your back and labor, but while you were supposed to feel the sting of being a bad person for both invoking that history and possibly profiting directly as a descendant of that oppression, the screen of virtuality is supposed to protect your identity. In a sense the internet is supposed to be an identity theft program in the sense that it can keep your identity from being hijacked by the truth. It is a way of keeping it from being stolen by reality.

Starcraft 2 is known for having a more mature gaming base, and so playing it can be more pleasant than others such as Counter-Strike, WoW or Call of Duty, because there is less more openly racist and sexist profanity. But at the same time, that doesn't mean that these issues are not there.

Recently a scandal in the SC2 community developed over the actions of a caster named Orb, who used racist statements most importantly the word "nigger" while streaming (publicly broadcasting his games online), and attacking other players. SC2 players produced screenshots and went through replays of his looking for any evidence and found several examples of him taunting or attacking other players using clearly racist terms. He denied this at first saying another player had used his account without him knowing it, but eventually it was determined that he had indeed been using such language on his stream. He had just been picked up as a caster by a major esports company, Evil Geniuses or EG recently and so this was a very big deal as it could cost him quite a bit. Going through the threads for Team Liquid, the most prominent SC and SC2 forum site, I saw alot of division over how to handle this. Many said, as expected that it simply didn't matter. That things aren't that racist now, people should let things go, and that it isn't worth him being fired over. Others said it was a big deal and that he should be castigated in someway since, that sort of behavior isn't appropriate for someone who wants to be a celebrity in esports.

It was determined that Orb had indeed made the comments that he was accused of, and as a result he was fired from EG with a warning that he would never be hired back by them. I read the message from the EG CEO Alex Garfield, and was amazed at it. I had heard of Garfield before, but didn't know that he had taken classes during college in Ethnic Studies and Social Justice and had graduated with a degree in Black Studies. I was expecting some corporate statement on this is not acceptable and because of sponsors and so on. Instead I read the letter below, which invokes so many concepts central to critical studies of race. It makes a distinction between racism as something only an individual chooses to express and as a system that assigns value to one person over another. He even breaks down why using racist language, even if racism isn't supposed to be an issue anymore is wrong. It was a joy to read, and I hope it educated a few nerds out there, who think of esports as being a place where these things don't exist or shouldn't be addressed. I've pasted it below, and I'm sure I'll be using it somewhere in my research.

But for now, because of the critique yan teimemtom of their CEO, Hu guaiya EG. I love EG. I think I may go order a t-shirt from them later today.


Back in 2003, a group of well-known Counter-Strike players (mostly White and Asian) decided that it would be fun to masquerade as an African-American Counter-Strike team. They created fake names, used fake profile pictures, and proceeded to compete in an entire season of league play while pretending to be African-American. When the players were finally exposed, the Counter-Strike community reacted to the incident with more amusement than anything else, and I - an avid member of the CS community at that time - was shocked and offended. I expressed my shock and disappointment in an op-ed, which was received somewhat controversially. While I was disappointed enough in the community's initial reaction to the incident, I was even more disappointed at its reaction to my comments. It was extremely disheartening to witness the cultural values, or lack thereof, being displayed by my peers.

Almost ten years later, I am a proud member of the StarCraft community, a culture which I find to be far more intelligent, conscious, and respectful than the Counter-Strike community was in 2003. And, while what I'm about to say may be odd to hear, given that EG's sponsors have been bombarded with complaints from StarCraft fans and players over the past 24 hours, I can say with complete honesty and sincerity that I have never been prouder to call myself a member of the StarCraft community than I am at this moment. I'll explain why further down in this write-up, but first, bear with me as I offer some context.

My undergraduate degree is in Black Studies, Sociology, and Social Justice. And, while I'll never claim to understand what life is like from the perspective of anyone other than a straight, White guy, I'd like to think that I have a pretty solid academic understanding of how race and racism function in contemporary society. My own credentials aside, I think it's really important to point out that racism today is not what it once was; not in the sense that it is any less widespread, or that it has any less of an impact on people's lives, but rather, in the sense that it functions very differently today compared to how it functioned twenty, thirty, forty, or more, years ago.

Take, for example, the term "racist," which I think is a rather antiquated word, and one that's been injected with so much hyperbolic meaning and stigma over the years that it is now almost entirely devoid of any actual, useful meaning. Traditionally, using the term "racist" in describing a person, action, or statement implies intent, or belief in a racial hierarchy, or belief in the superiority of one race over another. These are the objective criteria standardly utilized in labeling something or someone as being "racist."

But at this point in time, in contemporary society, there are relatively few people (especially compared to how things were in the mid-to-late 20th century) who actually believe in the aforementioned kinds of objectively-racist systems of thought. Aside from White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis (who still very much exist, don't get me wrong), and other extreme examples, most people in our age group just don't believe in that kind of racism. I'd say it's a pretty safe bet that most of the people reading this post were taught that racism is bad, that racial equality is good, and that you shouldn't be racist. The fact is that these days, most people don't think they're racists, and don't want to be identified as being, or doing something racist. And yet, racism still occurs, and we all still say and do things to perpetuate it, whether consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally. There's a great book about this sociological issue called "Racism without Racists," and if this kind of subject matter interests you, you'd be wise to check it out.

Anyway, the bottom line is that, despite this change in how we view racism, it's still everywhere. It's still incredibly powerful, and it pervades most - if not all - aspects of our society. It's just, for the most part, much more covert than it was fifty years ago. Nowadays, it usually takes the form of stereotypes and institutional policies, rather than racial slurs and violence. And correspondingly, in my opinion, it has become far too complex to be accurately described by the term "racist." We've all witnessed arguments about whether a particular joke someone made was "racist," or "offensive," or "insensitive." The question I always ask is, are any of these adjectives really accurate or appropriate? I don't think we've developed a functional verbal toolset to appropriately discuss contemporary, covert racism. With this in mind, I try to entirely avoid labeling people as "racist," and I define something as being "racist" only if it plays a functional role in perpetuating racism (for example, I'll call a joke a "racist" joke if it plays on stereotypes, because stereotypes function as the foundational pillars of race and racism).

Now, moving on to points more relevant to the happenings of the past several days, let me be clear: it is my personal opinion that n----- is the ugliest, most repulsive word in the American-English vocabulary. I have never said it, typed it, or written it. If it's used in my presence, I immediately speak up and demand that it not be used again in my presence, regardless of context or circumstances (and for the record, I am equally sensitive about who can and can't say n---a, but that's a different discussion entirely). There are many valid reasons to find the word n----- offensive and repulsive, but for me, the overarching reason is that there is no other word that so efficiently and effectively captures such extreme human injustice and inequality. There is an inherent power dynamic/discrepancy contained within the act of saying the word n-----, and its use sets its subject apart from its object to a greater extent than any other word we have is able to. As such, if you prescribe to my contemporary definition of racism outlined above, there is no more racist word in existence than n-----. By its very nature, it is the essence of absolute racism, in its most extreme form, encapsulated in a noun. In my opinion, with few exceptions, it doesn't matter who says it, to whom, in what context. It's a racist word. If it has a subject and an object, I find its use to be inexcusable - again, with very few exceptions.

In line with this, earlier today, Orb, who had been contracted by EG to anchor our Master's Cup broadcasts, was informed that he has been dismissed of his position and will not be invited back. I apologize to those of you who feel that we took too long to make this decision, but we wanted to make sure the allegations were true before acting, and as recently as 24 hours ago, their validity was still in question (as Scott explained on Live on 3 last night). While Orb's inexcusable comments occurred before he was contracted by EG, and they (of course) did not occur on an EG-affiliated broadcast, neither of these points accounted for our delay in dismissing him. We were never looking for a loophole, here. It didn't matter to us where or when these actions took place. We just wanted to make sure the allegations were true before moving to act and formally parting ways. And, it should go without saying that if we'd ever known that Orb had used such language in the past, or was prone to using such language, we wouldn't have contracted him in the first place.

For the record, I do want to point out that I don't think Orb is "a racist." As mentioned above, I think that to make such a claim would be to misunderstand the nature of contemporary racism. This, of course, does not lessen the severity of his actions, or the extent to which they are unacceptable and inexcusable, but it's still an important distinction to make. As also mentioned above, I think that it's possible to make a racist comment without being a card-carrying Neo-Nazi - the latter is not a necessary condition for the former - and I hope that all of you will consider - whenever it is that you're done expressing your very justifiable outrage - forgiving Orb, if he apologizes sufficiently. While no amount of penance will land him back at the EG broadcast desk, he's a very talented caster, and I hope that he learns from this experience and eventually rebounds from the trouble he's gotten himself into.

In many ways, a culture's icons reflect its core set of values. Being granted celebrity status, and being allowed to represent an entire community, or a portion of a community - these are privileges only given to individuals with whom said community identifies and whose perceived values said community respects. I mentioned at the beginning of this post how disappointed I was in the Counter-Strike community back in 2003, because the community still allowed that team of players to retain its celebrity/icon status, even after their true identities and transgressions were exposed. Their actions violated my core values, and as such, I felt that they should be publicly condemned, and have their celebrity status revoked. The majority of the community, however, felt the exact opposite, and further celebrated the team for their behavior. Based on this, I came to the conclusion that the community's cultural values were not in line with mine, and that was a disheartening realization for me.

However, almost ten years later, as I also mentioned at the beginning of this (very long) post, I've never been prouder to be a part of the StarCraft community (or of any gaming community) than I am at this very moment. And I feel this way because, despite the fact that you guys have been peppering my sponsors with complaints*, your outrage shows me that we do have a set of core values (one of which is that racism isn't acceptable), and we expect our icons and celebrities to share those values; otherwise, they won't be our icons and celebrities any longer.

The eSports industry, and especially some of its respective communities, still have a lot growing up to do before they're truly ready to become mainstream. Just a few weeks ago, we saw the fighting game community at the heart of some major controversy because its culture seemed to condone overt sexism and sexual harassment; these forms of discrimination, in fact, were cited by many members of the FGC as part of what makes fighting game culture what it is. In that regard, the FGC revealed the immaturity of its cultural values, and showed that it still has a lot of growing up to do.

I think we all already knew, prior to this incident, that the StarCraft community was one of the more mature gaming communities out there, but it's still refreshing and encouraging to see that maturity reinforced by how (most of) you guys have reacted over the past few days. I urge you to continue to stand up for what you think is right, and help make this community a safe, comfortable space for everyone.

I can say, with unwavering certainty, on behalf of everyone at EG, that we are absolutely, 100% committed to doing our part to achieve those goals.

...Now, I just wish you guys would also get this upset when people use the word f----t, so that we could start fighting homophobia, too, and show people that it, like racism, also doesn't belong in our community .


Alexander Garfield
CEO, Evil Geniuses
@ottersareneat on Twitter

*For those of you who complained to our sponsors: if you're satisfied with what I've written here, please re-contact them to let them know you're happy with us - really, please do it.

For those of you who didn't initially complain, but are satisfied with this post nonetheless, I'd also ask that you contact our sponsors to let them know you support us.

I would also ask that, in the future, if you're unhappy with something that happens in eSports, you guys give the offending party a chance to respond and/or act before seeking vigilante justice via contacting said party's sponsors.

In this case, I promptly informed everyone that we'd be issuing a statement and were taking the matter seriously, but some of you still decided to contact out sponsors before hearing me out. I don't think that's fair. Please try to be more patient in the future. It's hard enough to bring sponsors into eSports as it is - we as an industry don't need angry, pitchfork-wielding mobs making that task any more difficult .

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