Yesterday, game developer Ubisoft released the first full-length trailer for its upcoming game Watch_Dogs 2, an open-world, action-adventure shooter set in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The original Watch_Dogs followed a (purposefully) nondescript white man named Aiden Pearce as he hacked and hunted down members of the organization that killed his niece. Watch_Dogs 2, on the other hand, focuses on Marcus Holloway, a young black man originally from Oakland who becomes a legendary hacker after being wrongfully jailed by a crime prediction algorithm.
In the hours after Ubisoft's initial announcement, and over one million views on YouTube, fans of the franchise began to dissect the game ahead of Ubisoft's official press conference at the Electronic Entertainment Expo next week. Many expressed concern about whether the game's graphics would be up to snuff, while others noted some of the narrative elements the game seemed to have in common with the USA series Mr. Robot.
Over on the forums for Steam, a streaming service through which people will be able to play the game this fall, though, nearly every single conversation about Watch_Dogs 2 was about Marcus' race. In the now-closed thread titled "Shoehorned black character why can't we be Aiden?" hundreds of disgruntled fans vented their frustrations about how "implausible" it would be for a black person to live in San Francisco.
"Look at the demographics of San Fran it would be more plausible if I played as a homo or an asian than some random black dude," user MentholFox complained. "Considering they make up 6% of the population in SanFran fam."
Most of the 45 page-long thread is chock full of different spins on the idea that black people somehow don't make sense as protagonists in general, let alone tech-savvy heroes in the Bay Area. Even though the initial thread was locked down by Steam's moderators, a number of other, slightly less explicitly racist threads sprang up over night.
A discussion about the necessity of character customization began with a call to give players the ability to change Marcus' race. Another thread—that insisted that it wasn't trying to be racist—called for the death of "social justice warriors" fighting to make games politically correct. A handful of commenters made the very valid counterpoint that traditionally, gamers of color haven't had the option to play as anything but white male characters and that Watch_Dogs 2 was a breath of fresh air.
"Sooooooo why is it that black people don't care what character they're playing, as long as the game is good and white people makes it seems like it the end of the world if the character is black," user bigd, a black gamer, posted. "All this talk about gang bangers, don't know how to use technology, thugs, and we are the problem."
It's true that San Francisco's black population has been on a steady decline for the better part of the past 30 years. In 1970, black people accounted for just over 13% of the city's residents. As of 2015, that number had dropped to just under 6%. But that's part of what makes Marcus' story so interesting.
Aiden Pearce was supposed to be the generic, cookie-cutter faceless white man we typically associate with expert hackers. That was his storyline and it's done now. Marcus, by contrast, is the sort of social activist who seems tailor made for the age of #BlackLivesMatter.
It rings true that a black family living in the Bay Area might have been priced out of San Francisco and driven to settle down in Oakland and the idea of a young black man being profiled by a police pre-crime algorithm has very solid roots in reality. Racist gamers might not be on board with the story Marcus has to tell, but it's exactly the sort story that more big-name game houses should be focusing more on.
Update: MentholFox has since contacted us to say their statement on the Steam forum was taken out of context and that they are not racist.