The global pandemic presented a special set of challenges for parents. We were suddenly expected to manage our work days, if we still had work, alongside our kids’ remote schooling schedules. Some of us managed with grace and most of us struggled based on age groups, attention spans, school district support, access to technology, resistance to change, and the general traumatization of all involved parties. Enter online games––the digital babysitter.
Parenting in the Digital Age
Even parents with more strict household tech usage rules (like myself) found ourselves slipping further and further out of our screen time comfort zones as the pandemic pressed on. Many children were forced into more screen time by virtue of classroom relocation to online formats. Some of us rationalized giving the kids more gaming time after school and over the summer to protect their mental health, when perhaps, it was our own sanity we actually preserved. We needed the kids to stay busy while we managed our own workloads and intensified household responsibilities. American children ages 9–12 spent 3 billion hours on the popular tween game, Roblox, in July 2020. That’s double the hours spent on the game 5 months earlier, according to the company.
Since diversity and antiracism are my life’s work, I was mortified when I learned about the rampant racism my child was experiencing every single day online. From being called the n-word, jigaboo, and big-lipped, to being told to go back to where her slave masters bought her from (see screenshots below), the elementary and middle-school bullying has found a new digital home. Unfortunately, there aren’t any adults supervising as children model the worst adult behavior in a largely unaccountable format.
Racism in Gaming Isn’t New
My eldest child graduated college with a computer science degree during the summer of the 2020 pandemic. He was among the first generations who had access to a computer and cell phone throughout both his primary and secondary educational journey. My parenting-versus-technology battle began with him in the early oughts. I went to near paranoid lengths to shield him from age inappropriate content, video game violence, gaming forums with adults, and a world of variables I could scarcely comprehend. I knew I didn’t want him to befriend or communicate live with gamers who weren’t already his friends when he was a child. No sharing addresses, personal info, etc. I was the parent who had monitoring software on all of my kids devices before native parental restriction settings were standardized. I learned from my son how racist, sexist, xenophobic, and ableist the gamer world was — and I was not pleased.
Multiplayer Games are the Worst Offenders
Today’s multiplayer games still provide unmoderated, anonymous, access for kids to spew hate just because they can. Everything from vulgar sexism, objectification of women, transphobic slurs and overt racism run rampant online. Interestingly, some gaming platforms have created better moderation tools than even Facebook and Twitter. Take Twitch for instance. Twitch is a family friendly live-streaming platform that allows users to broadcast their gameplay. Advertisers don’t want to be tied to brands that are streaming vulgarities and hate. People can flag things, report bad behavior, and the systems can demonetize individual players’ channels. This is not the case with games that aren’t broadcasted and recorded.
There Are White Supremacist Recruiters in These Games
Yes, you read that correctly. Extremist group recruiting has migrated into your youngest kids’ online games. Hate groups have used online tools and internet platforms to recruit for about as long as the internet has been widely available to the masses. That said, wouldn’t we all rather pretend that it won’t reach our kids? It’s one if those categories that we want to file away under ‘far-fetched and paranoid’ in the mental models of parenting paradigms. That’s all well and good until it’s your kid on the news as an angsty, maladjusted teen or twenty-something who just shot up a school or community in a hate-filled rampage. No one expects it to be their kid. The parents who talk to their kids about hate and road test their Antiracism and inclusion skills are far less likely to dissolve into despair after disaster strikes. This scenario seems far-fetched until it’s your kid. The good news is, you can prevent it.
If Your Kid Plays Roblox, They’ve Been Exposed
With over 100 million monthly users worldwide, Roblox is the game where I have seen the worst of this phenomenon play out with elementary and middle-school aged kids. The worst of the culturally inept underage gamer community has created a subculture within a platform with no advertisement and sponsors for accountability–– a hermetically sealed underworld where anything goes. Unfortunately, being nice is not required nor rewarded. For Roblox’ part, they have a reporting mechanism for bad behavior, but the gamers I interviewed seen little evidence of punitive impact after reporting bullies’ profiles.
The offenders’ accounts are rarely suspended despite repeated violations and reporting. The kids are communicating via chat and the speech bubbles that appear above their avatars. Foul and inappropriate speech is filtered out with a string of hashtags (#####), but clever kiddos just change one or two letters to get around this as shown in these images. You’d think Roblox would flag the one letter variants of the n-word, for instance. Particularly as it is used so often, on a daily basis, across all servers.
The company seems more focused on identifying hate groups, that hateful users. Both are important as parents neither want their kids recruited in to white supremacist groups nor harassed by children engaging in racist behavior. Deleting groups protects white children from recruitment, but the lack of attention on addressing hate-spewing individual users leaves Black children exposed to verbal and emotional abuse. It also teaches white children that hate speech is a normal part of game play and by extension, replicable in real life. I hope that pointing out how harmful individual haters are to children of all races will instigate action from Roblox to protect all of our children. According to an NBC report, vice president of communications Teresa Brewer stated:
“We strive to do everything we can to prevent and detect behavior that violates our Terms of Service and took immediate action to delete these groups.”
Neither Roblox’s CEO and founder David Baszucki nor Teresa Brewer, the VP of Communications, have responded to my requests for comments regarding unchecked racism against children on their platform.
Why Gaming While Racist is a Problem
As a parent, my concern is multifaceted. Of course I don’t want my child subjected to racist hate speech. I’m proud of her for having the self confidence to have a dark-skinned, Black avatar with long braids like her own. Many kids of color circumvent online racist attacks by creating white avatars. Choosing white avatars to obscure their BIPOC identities teaches our children that assimilation is the best way to avoid racially motivated abuse.
My biggest concern with the racism in my kid’s games is the fact that the incessant barrage of racist remarks has desensitized my child to verbal abuse in the form of hate speech. “It doesn’t really bother me anymore.” When my daughter uttered those words, my heart broke. It absolutely should bother her when someone calls her the n-word. My daughter’s friend, Leyla (name changed for privacy), suggests to white children playing Roblox,
“If you see someone saying something mean towards a Person of Color, you should stand up for them and reprimand the bully for their behavior. Don’t just sit there and pretend like it’s not real.”
These kids invest a lot of time, and sometimes money, into these games. My daughter has built houses, stores, bought cars, attended hours of training to qualify for virtual jobs, and created jobs for others in the mini-games built within the main game. While on her jobs both as a counselor and a barista, she has fielded racist comments and orders from customers asking for “black tea like the slaves picking cotton.” Based on my career in workplace antiracism, I can’t help but realize that the more racism is normalized for her now, the less energy and motivation she will have to address it in real life.
Choosing white avatars to obscure their BIPOC identities teaches our children that assimilation is the best way to avoid racially motivated abuse.
Make This a Teachable Moment for Your Kids
Nothing is sacred in these virtual games. The screenshots above are from a church-based mini-game within the Roblox community. This is where that particular day’s abuses were captured. The primary offender dressed his avatar in a Trump 2020 t-shirt and cowboy hat and came to church to spew hatred. I have these screenshots because my child is particularly well versed on race and racism and we discuss these topics often. All parents need to discuss antiracsim with their kids––at an age appropriate level. My daughter has most recently read The Hate You Give, On the Come Up, and Stamped. She chose the first two and I insisted she read Ibram X Kendi’s young adult version of his original antiracist tomb Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Between our discussions and the books she reads, my daughter has the cultural fluency to name what she sees and stand up for herself and her friends in the face of abuse. I want her to report it and move on. My daughter declares,
I fight back most of the time, whether it’s me or someone else I’m playing with who they’re trying to intimidate. I tell them this isn’t the first time someone has been racist to me and honestly, I don’t really care. I fight back because I want them to know it’s not okay for them to be racist to me or my brothers and sisters.
Of course I am proud of her. I am also devastated that she has to form these words at all.
Teach your children to screenshot bad behavior when they see it so that you can discuss it together.
Ask your children about their online gaming experiences. Find out whether they have seen people say and do racist things. You need to know what your children are exposed to and what they are experiencing as normal. Ask whether they have made racist statements and use your parental Spidey-senses to gauge the veracity of their response. Communicate how terribly serious the matter is and that in the real world, they could get kicked out of school, lose their scholarship, lose their job, and be cancelled if words like that are ever made public. We wouldn’t be in the racial crisis we are in if we learned these lessons as children. Now we have adults all over the globe scrambling to access the racial education they were never given in school or at home.
The digital veil is not an acceptable cover for bad behavior.
Don’t leave your kids exposed the same way we were. When I told my daughter I wanted to write this story, initially she rolled her eyes and said, “Mom, it’s really not a big deal.” I responded by asking if those same children were in our home and they said those things to her, would she still expect me to do nothing? And that’s the point. The digital veil is not an acceptable cover for bad behavior. Everything leaves a digital footprint. Teach your children to screenshot bad behavior when they see it so that you can discuss it together. Go through the process of reporting those accounts together. Send emails to the game’s customer service, CEO, or VP of Communications requesting accountability. A child taking a screenshot on social media or in a multiplayer game is the analog behavior for adults learning to recognize a racist actions or microaggressions and knowing when and how to respond appropriately. This is how we teach our kids to become allies, by holding bullies accountable.