In Ian Bogosts’ How to Talk About Video Games, the author spent a chapter focusing on a controversy that came from a game that deals with words. Scribblenauts allows the player to simply write a word, and a functional object appears on the screen that can be used to conquer the games’ challenges. When typed in the game, the word “Sambo,” often referring to “blackness” and the 1930s character in The Little Black Sambo, produces a watermelon-looking fruit. This clearly created generated some outrage.
Ironically, the word “sambo” actually has Spanish roots and represents a watermelon-looking plant. Interestingly enough, the maker of Scribblenauts didn’t even know what the word meant, yet, somehow this seemingly stereotypical slur made its way into the game.
What I like about Bogosts’ chapter is that he does not draw a simple conclusion from these findings. It’d be easy to say: “the game-maker was ignorant, and this term shouldn’t have even been used.” But Bogost argues that this controversy was the whole point of Scribblenauts; it’s a game designed to make us question what we already know or don’t know about words, and subsequently, we can draw new conclusions or alter the way we use them in our writing and our speech. Confusion like this opens doors to new conversations and uncomfortable, but necessary, dialogue that will help us try to make progress. In this sense, Bogost argues that the game was a complete success.
Bogost makes reference to a speech by Barack Obama in 2008 that was successful not because it solved anything about racial issues, but because it simply recognized the mess that exists and demonstrated the need to try something new rather than continuing to place blame and become separate. This takes us far out of context in terms of Scribblenauts, but it also shows how a silly little game can have such powerful undertones. Bogost takes what we know about Scribblenauts and challenges us to think about the game in a new light: it is not solely about words and their meanings, but also about questioning what we know and striving to rethink their uses in different contexts.