When Watch Dogs, Ubisoft's fastest selling video game ever, was released in 2014, it captured the hacking spirit of the times. The game's hacker hero, Aidan Pearce, takes advantage of the connected nature of today's smart cities to wreak havoc in Chicago while hunting down the organization that killed his niece. The game was so spot-on that a U.S. cyber alert went out warning that it would inspire players to hack street lights and road signs.
This month, Ubisoft revealed the sequel, Watch Dogs 2, would be set in San Francisco and that its protagonist will be Marcus Holloway, a young black hacker from Oakland who was wrongfully jailed by a crime prediction algorithm. As my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore noted, some of the game's fan were taken aback at this news:
Over on the forums for Steam, a streaming service through which people will be able to play the game this fall, 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….
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.
Some of the comments were so outrageous that they had to be examples of trolling, people trying to rile others up for the sake of riling. "Black people don't know how to use technology," was one such comment. But other commenters seemed more sincere in their offense at having to identify with a non-white character that they saw as unreflective of 'reality':
“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.”
This of course is ridiculous. While there is a Silicon Valley stereotype of the hacker as a white guy in a hoodie, the hacker community has had diverse members since its early days. In 1994, a black hacker named John Lee graced Wired's cover after two hacker gangs had an online turf war.
After reading the comments, I turned to one of my favorite hackers, Morgan Marquis-Boire, who has a history of making life difficult for surveillance companies who sell spyware to repressive regimes and who currently works at First Look Media on digital security for its journalists. (You may have spotted him in the Real Future and Vice documentaries on hacking.) Marquis-Boire lives in San Francisco and is black. By the reasoning of the Watch Dog 2 commenters, he can't possibly exist.
I asked what he thought of the fans' reactions.
"I was bewildered by their reaction. It bothers me," he said. "Part of me is amused, because they don't know anything about the hacker scene. They are complaining about a scene they have no firsthand knowledge of. We've been here all along."
Carl Vincent, a long-time hacker who is now an information security professional in Seattle (and who is also black) said via phone, "Any real hacker would say it's probably one of the most diverse groups of people on the planet."
The thing about hackers is that they are behind screens, using online handles that mask their identities (often required because what they're up to online can enter legal gray zones). The assumption may be that the people behind those handles fit the default white male narrative, but that assumption is flawed.
Marquis-Boire points out that two of the most infamous hackers of recent years, Lulzsec's Sabu (a.k.a. Hector Monsegur) and Tflow (a.k.a. Mustafa Al-Bassam), are latino and Iraqi, respectively. "The most famous blackhat action in the last yeigh many years and two of these guys aren't white," he said.
Vincent was surprised that video game players expect any particular character traits at all. "Looking at a character in a game and expecting it to look like anything is a mentality I don't understand," he said. "It's weak to need a character to look a certain way to identify with the character."
Character diversity is important though, both in fiction and in nonfiction. Marquis-Boire thinks Silicon Valley's much publicized diversity problem may have to "do with the fact that the idols that are held up, there's a certain homogeneity to them."
Representations of technologists in pop culture are growing more diverse in places beyond Watch Dogs 2. F-Society, the fictional group of hackers in USA's Mr. Robot, was as diverse a crew as you'll find on television:
"When I grew up, reading about hackers, it was mostly white dudes and I think it's important for people who are not white to have people in technology they can identify with," said Marquis-Boire.
One of the developers of the game, which doesn't actually come out until November, said on Twitter that Marcus Holloway's character being black was "one of the first things that was 'nailed' down in the dev process."
Lucien Soulban, a senior writer on the Watch Dogs 2 production team, said via email that in crafting the character of Marcus, the team wanted someone "shaped by circumstances that few can control" who could be comfortable in San Francisco, Oakland and Silicon Valley, and who had a believable, relevant and relatable cause.
My colleague Pulliam-Moore points out that Aiden Pearce, the protagonist in the first game, was really a "non-entity." "He wasn’t just another white guy, he was the cypher to end all cyphers in terms of personality," said Pulliam-Moore via Slack.
Pearce, in other words, was boring. Holloway has a much more nuanced backstory that should make his mission more compelling and relatable.
As to fans being upset about Marcus being black, Soulban said, "no character is developed without some detractors and we knew Marcus would be no different."
"The fact is that we have an international team of talented individuals on Watch_Dogs 2, and we can’t claim to be a true open world experience if our cast of characters isn’t a reflection of that same broad spectrum of humanity," he said. "The reaction towards Marcus from our play tests has been wildly positive and we’re thrilled that people seem ready to embrace a hero like Marcus."
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