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My son fears seeming like a racist gamer. Must he stay woke at the joystick?
And other questions for Persuasion's advice columnist
My preteen son is afraid of seeming like a racist when he plays online videogames. In the game platform Roblox, most kids model their avatars after themselves, including skin color. In some games, players blow each other up, have each other kidnapped by clowns, and other such shenanigans. My son told me that he avoids such moves on players with dark-skinned avatars so that they don’t think he’s racist. It shocked me that he was treating someone differently based on skin color. It is really sad for me because I still hope for a colorblind world for him. Do I address this? Or should I just endure my discomfort so he can function in today’s world?
I know this seems like a case of White Fragility woke-ism run amok, but I think it has much more to do with peer pressure and what that looks like at this cultural moment. You remember what it was like to be that age, right? It’s all about jockeying for social capital, making calculated choices about when and how to conform for the sake of fitting in, eating an earthworm raw because you’ve got a reputation for bravery to maintain (or maybe that was just me). It’s about signaling your compliance with the social norms of your peer group so that you don’t end up with a target on your back, which is totally what’s going on with your son. Right? He said it himself: This isn’t about what he personally thinks or believes; it’s about keeping other people from thinking something damaging about him.
What I think you should do is ask him: Why would people think he was racist for treating dark-skinned avatars the way he’d treat anyone else? Does that happen frequently on this gaming platform? If so, what does he think about it? Does he agree that this is an example of racism, or does he define that word differently?
The ultimate goal here is not to push your son to change his behavior. If what he gets out of this game makes it worth adhering to its community conventions, that’s a valid choice. What really matters is that he’s making that choice thoughtfully. If the conversation leaves you with concerns on that front, then you have a perfect opening to offer a little guidance that it’s your job as Mom to provide—telling him that you trust him to make his own choices about how to behave in Roblox-world, but that outside the game, you really hope he won’t make a habit of treating people differently based on the color of their skin.
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Gaming communities can get overrun by intolerant politics. How do I keep mine free from that? I’m planning on using Discord [the group-chat app popularized by videogamers] to promote a small independent videogame. For reasons unclear to me, the game attracts an unusually woke crowd. I’m worried that the community could get out of hand if we don’t take the appropriate precautions. Do you have any advice on how to encourage a more liberal and tolerant online space?
This is a difficult question to answer, and not just because getting into the issue of wokeness in gaming is the internet-discourse equivalent of kicking a beehive while naked. Online community-wrangling is incredibly hard, and can succeed only with the consent of the governed (or in this case, the moderated). Your commitment to creating a tolerant environment won’t mean much if a majority want something else.
That said, most communities don’t tip over into All Social Justice, All The Time because people like it. It happens because a handful of aggressive commenters (it can be as few as two) begin to push every conversation in that direction. Those in the exhausted majority don’t want this, but they also don’t want to be rude. This gives the aggressors the appearance of power, which attracts sycophants. Suddenly, your community is in thrall to a little cohort of tyrants who wield the threat of social death to control the conversation.
If you’ve ever seen this happen (and if you’ve spent much time in left-leaning spaces online, you probably have), you know that it’s very hard to pull out of this spiral once it begins. On the other hand, if you set boundaries early, and if your community is amenable, you may be able to keep it from starting. Did you follow the recent controversy around Coinbase? When the company set a policy of political neutrality, it gave objecting employees a severance option—if you didn’t like it, you could leave. But those who stayed (and almost everyone did) were the majority who prefer an apolitical workplace.
I’m not suggesting you pay strident commentators to quit your Discord server. But if you state your policy upfront and stick to it, the tyrants will flee to a community that lets them do their thing…after they finish kicking and screaming and accusing you of taking the side of the privileged oppressor, that is. But that part won’t last very long, and if you can weather it, you’ll keep far more people than you lose.
There are a million places on the internet where you can yell at people about politics—and if you can create just one that isn’t like that, it would be pretty nice.