Enlightened Racism in MMORPG’s

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG), like World of Warcraft (WOW) and Modern Warfare 2, are becoming more popular than ever before. Accurate statistics are difficult to come by, but the top game (World of Warcraft) reportedly has over 10 million subscribers.  These numbers reflect a global ‘audience’ of participants because players are not just located in the U.S., but are located throughout the world.  While the fantasy and the disappearing of race in online gaming has been the focus of some scholarship, until now no one has taken up the practice of “griefing.”  Griefing – or pranking – is a practice of disrupting online games that dominates MMORPG’s.   In another context like a basketball court of a baseball field, this is known as “trash talking.”  It’s a way to distract other players and disrupt the game to one’s own advantage.   What seems to be unique about the online games is the way that griefing has become thoroughly racialized.

Here, in a talk delivered recently at the Berkman Center at Harvard University, Lisa Nakamura recaps the history of racist griefing online and links the current crisis in racial discourse in the US with this practice, exploring the implications for digital games as a public sphere.  Nakamura is the Director of the Asian American Studies Program, Professor in the Institute of Communication Research and Media Studies Program, and Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, and the author of the book, Digitizing Race.

A few words of context is necessary for this video, especially if you’re new to, or unfamiliar with, Internet culture.  In the first part of the talk, Nakamura spends some time referring to ‘ROFLcon’ which is a biennial convention of Internet memes that takes place at MIT.  Throughout, she also refers to 4Chan4chan users have been responsible for the formation or popularization of Internet memes such as lolcats (and the endless variety of ‘I can haz cheezeburger’ images) and Rickrolling, in which Internet destination was hijacked for a prank, so that images of Rick Astley singing “Never Gonna Give You Up” appeared instead of the page that was searched for.  She spends all this time talking about these humorous Internet memes because two of her main points in this discussion are that “racism is a meme” and that “being funny is the real currency of the popular Internet.” Here’s the talk, which is on the long side (1:10), but worth it:

To explain racist griefing, Nakamura poses the concept of “enlightened racism.” For this concept, she draws on the work of Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism, which Douglas defines as a response, deliberate or not, to the perceived threat of a new gender regime. It insists that full equality has now been achieved so it’s now ok, even amusing to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women. Quoting Douglas, Nakamura says, “Enlightened sexism takes the gains of the women’s movement as a given and uses them as permission to resurrect retrograde images of girls and women as sex objects, bimbos and hoochie mamas still defined by their appearance and biological destiny.”

Similarly, then, she argues that “Enlightened racism is a form of racist behavior and speech only available to those who are known, or assumed known, not to be racist.” In many ways, I think this concept is part of what is going on with the “ghetto parties” at college campuses and the young people painting themselves with blackface for Facebook photos, that we’ve talked about here, and the “hipster” racism some have mentioned elsewhere online. The racist griefing that she is addressing in online gaming often makes explicit use of racist epithets, which she explains this way: “The n-word is funny because it is so extreme that no one could really mean it. And humor is all about ‘not meaning it.’ If you take humor and the n-word, you get enlightened racism online and attention.”

Nakamura goes on to argue that paradoxically, “the worse the racism and sexism are, the more extreme and cartoonish it is, the harder it is to take seriously, and the harder it is to call it out.” She points out, quite astutely I think, that for those within gaming culture, calling out racism in this context signals you as someone “not of the gaming culture” and thus, as someone who is taking racism “too seriously” and doesn’t have a good sense of humor. Yet, this sort of
humor is a “confusing discursive mode for young people,” she observes, because they are “unable to separate enlightened racism from regular racism.” And, indeed, I think this is a real problem here. As Nakamura notes, the image of the “humorless feminist” is now joined with the image of a “humorless” old(er) person who takes race too seriously.

As usual, I find Nakamura’s work compelling and provocative, although I do have a couple of points of criticism. While I realize this was just a luncheon talk and as such is work that’s in a formative stage, I was surprised that she didn’t mention the work of Doug Thomas who has written on racism in MMORPG’s. Of course, I’m also not convinced that everyone in our society has moved on to “enlightened” racism, as I point out at some length in Cyber Racism. But, I get the appeal of studying this form of racism and acknowledge that this is certainly the more popularized form of racism.

I’m also a bit surprised that she would use the term ‘enlightened racism’ and not make reference to the book by this same name, written by Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis (about audiences watching the Cosby Show). Although Jhally & Lewis’ work is 18 years old now, I think there are some relevant insights from this work that might inform our understanding of racist expressions in a supposedly post-racial era. Much like people today look to the election of President Barack Obama as a marker of the ‘end of racism,’ so too did many people took the success of the Huxtables, the fictional family on The Cosby Show, as evidence of racial progress. In their research, Jhally & Lewis interviewed racially diverse audiences to find out how they viewed and interpreted The Cosby Show. Part of their purpose was to see if watching the show diminished racist attitudes, which was an explicit goal of the show’s producers. Instead, what they found was that the show actually confirmed people’s racist attitudes because they took the Huxtable/Cosby’s success as evidence that there were no barriers to blacks’ success in this society, so any failing must be due to individual characteristics. While what constitutes ‘an audience’ is certainly changing in the digital era, I think this kind of research with people who are actually involved in MMORPG’s would be a useful way to explore the latest iteration of ‘enlightened racism.’


  1. Joe

    Thanks, Jessie, for the very important post. What is of course missing in Nakamura and other research like this is that it is trapped in the white-crafted social ideas and terms like prejudice, racist language, and stereotyping and does not go deeper into the white racist frame that lies behind all this gaming and “ghetto party” type behavior. Those engaging in it are thinking and acting out of that very old white racist framing of society — which have always seen whites as virtuous and civilized no matter what they do on racial matters (white slaveholders usually thought they were virtuous and that NO ONE could really believe they were evil; contemporary whites see themselves as “not racist” and virtuous too even as they think and act out of obviously racist framing, such as in griefing). And that white racist framing is carried by anyone , anywhere — and most certainly young whites — who uses the N-word because racialized (and racial in origin) words like that are more than words, they importantly carry and implement racist frames. There is no way in the brain to separate that old racist language from the deeper images, ideas, narratives, stereotypes, and ACTION inclinations that are part of the deep, deep white racist framing. There is nothing especially new or enlightened about these performances out of the white racial frame. Thomas Jefferson did much the same thing in his racist chapter 14 of his great book, Notes on the State of Virginia about 1780! He would be appalled if anyone thought he was a racist oppressor, not virtous, uncivilized because of this antiblack oppression and enslavement of hundreds.

  2. A few years ago I watched a crowd of White American Males in a primarily Japanese MMORPG ostracize a Kuwaiti group through racially motivated language and behaviors. The white american males felt justified in pursuing this course of action because they felt that the Kuwaiti players were cheaters and would purchase in-game currency using their superior out-of-game resources. It was a very the embodiment of a racist frame. Unbeknownst to the white american males, the Kuwaiti players had planned an uprising against their dominance and used every means necessary, including making allies with Japanese, French, and other groups in order to outnumber and usurp them. This group obliterated the white american male power. Having been outmatched and out-maneuvered in game, the white american males declared the current game boring and droll and moved on to World of Warcraft where they began their behavior anew and still do to this day due to WoW having strictly American servers. Things like this happen around the net with growing frequency creating a void through which game companies wanting to cut down bandwidth cost and the need for international customer service, create servers for separate continents. I wish I saw more work looking at that issue enter academia.

    While I agree that Nakamura’s stuff could go deeper, she is one of the only folks that really explores game crowds and the situations they create. Most work on video games simply explores industry trends and the nature of human computer interaction. Things like what Nakamura discusses are interesting because it is and has often been a world issue as opposed to a strictly American act. White males from multiple cultures (not always part of the romance language culture set) acting to grief someone or a group of someones.

  3. No1KState

    I’m not into the gaming scene. The term “griefing” is kinda lame – unless it’s a sort of patois.

    But anyway . . .

    ““Enlightened sexism takes the gains of the women’s movement as a given and uses them as permission to resurrect retrograde images of girls and women as sex objects, bimbos and hoochie mamas still defined by their appearance and biological destiny.” . . . Enlightened racism is a form of racist behavior and speech only available to those who are known, or assumed known, not to be racist.”

    Some red flags games should, if they cared to, immediately notice:

    1 – Who’s determined that racism is over? None of the major black institutions I know of. None of the Latina/o rights groups I’ve heard of. So it’s essentially white Americans, right? How can it be acceptable that the primary beneficiaries of racism get to declare it’s over?

    2 – How does a person come to be known as “not racist?” Do they have a black friend verify their “not racist” credentials and clear the use of the n-word?

    Then . . .

    “The n-word is funny because it is so extreme that no one could really mean it. And humor is all about ‘not meaning it.’ If you take humor and the n-word, you get enlightened racism online and attention.”

    3 – They’re obviously not worried about saying this to a black person. I mean seriously, sometimes I wonder if some white folks wanna use the word so badly, they come up with any lame excuse.

    4 – I suppose logically that the n-word loses its meaning when applied to a white person or, at least, someone who can’t be absolutely sure isn’t black. But that’s only because white people, what with their cultured-selves and all as Joe pointed out, can’t be n*ggers, right? And so that only reinforces that the n-word applies to black people or, rather, n-people, who are the propagators of the uncouth behaviors associated with it.

    This last “flag” is more about how you treat people, any person, not just race in particular – but:

    5 – The “I didn’t mean to,” excuse kinda loses its credibility by the first or second grade. It’s the explanation of the 3-year-old who’s accidently spilled juice on the carper. But for people who no longer need sippy cups, it’s usually the case that the degree of offense isn’t determined by the “intention/meaning” of the offender but by the loss or hurt incured by the offended. Though it is true that this general rule and sign of maturity is dismissed in the case of race as we’ve seen with recent Court decisions, forget an important date, ie anniversary, birthday, and see how far you get with, “I didn’t mean to.”

  4. cordoba blue

    Cruel racist names are just that, cruel. So we’ve now come full circle? I just don’t believe so. Propagators of uncouth behavior, like the above person suggested, should be monitored and barred from these games. Once upon a time, a long time ago, I would join chat rooms occasionally. I was so sickened, I quit. The horrible low-class name-calling was beyond my ability to stomach. It’s all done in the anonymity of the net. Sooner or later this anonymity must be addressed if people misuse it.


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