Taking aim at video game racism

Who: Melanin Gamers, with Leo Burnett Toronto for strategy and creative, Married to Giants for editing, Vapor for music, Apex Exchange, Starcom and Publicis Media for media, and Pomp & Circumstance for PR.

What: “The Watch,” a new social media-based effort to eliminate racism from online gaming by pushing developers to adopt an improved mechanism for reporting racist and toxic behaviour, starting with Call of Duty. It was developed by Leo Burnett Toronto, which took the idea to Melanin Gamers—a four-year-old British group that is promoting diversity and inclusion in the video game industry.

When & Where: The Watch is live now on social at @HelpKeepWatch, with efforts supported by an online video and PR. Melanin Gamers also ran a campaign outside of Twitch’s recent TwitchCon conference in Amsterdam.

Why: Racism remains commonplace in online gaming, with a 2020 study by the Anti-Defamation League finding that 81% of online gamers have experienced some form of harassment—with more than half (52%) being targeted based on their race, religion, ability, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

In an anti-toxicity progress report issued last year, Activision said it had banned 350,000 Call of Duty accounts for racist names or toxic behaviour based on player-submitted reports and what it called an “extensive review” of its player-name database.

But Annabel Ashalley-Anthony, who was inspired to launch Melanin Games after her brother Alan was the victim of racist attacks while playing a Call of Duty title as a young teen, said these efforts don’t go far enough to stamp out racism. “It’s a minimalist effort at best, because it’s been going on for so long,” she said. “It’s crazy how long it’s taken Activision Blizzard to even do something about it. It’s a band-aid at best.”

People are being invited to join the movement by following @HelpKeepWatch on Twitter, sharing the campaign video, and submitting any racist language they hear players using on Twitch by using the built-in clip function to capture video and send it directly to the group. Ashalley-Anthony said that The Watch has already received more than 50 clips documenting racist incidents since going live last week.

How: The accompanying 40-second video ad features clips taken from actual gameplay within Call of Duty, with racial slurs being hurled at players. It ends with the super “Heard enough? Get racism out of gaming,” before urging people to capture the slurs while watching gameplay on Twitch and DM the evidence to The Watch.

“It’s really just showing what’s happening in these games,” said Leo Burnett creative director Kohl Forsberg. “We didn’t have to be overly tricky with it—just be honest, bring it into the spotlight and show people and let them actually hear what’s happening. It was really just as simple as cutting together these real moments that gamers have to deal with all the time.”

The goal is to amass enough evidence of online racism to earn a meeting with large game developers, beginning with Activision Blizzard, to discuss the issue and work together to develop solutions.

To support a presentation by Ashalley-Anthony at TwitchCon last week, Leo Burnett also used billboard trucks bearing messages including “Don’t let racism hide behind a headset” and “Make it your duty to get racism out of gaming” outside the venue.

And we quote: “As storytellers, we recognize that we can be an ally for the BIPOC gaming community by offering our resources to help make real change. We know that racism in gaming isn’t going to go away overnight, and know there is a significant amount of work that we all can commit to in order to create the world Melanin Gamers envisions and that we should all hope to be a part of.” — Lisa Greenberg, co-chief creative officer, Leo Burnett Toronto

Chris Powell