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What does it mean for brands to say Black Lives Matter? | Opinion

Even if companies aren't committed to the movement, their statements can still do some good

"Black Lives Matter."

It's become a suddenly popular rallying cry in the games industry. Sony said it. Riot Games said it. Ubisoft said it. Naughty Dog said it. Astro Gaming said it.

Quantic Dream co-CEO Guillaume Fondaumiere said it, even though his company has come under fire for a racist studio culture, and the studio mined the very real anguish and suffering of the Civil Rights Movement for a game while insisting it didn't have anything political to say.

Activision Blizzard said it, even though last October the company bans the people who play its esports if they talk about real-world issues instead of games.

EA Sports didn't say it, but delayed its Madden NFL 21 reveal because it wanted to focus on "actions we can take to drive change against the unjust treatment and systemic bias that is plaguing the nation and our world." It said that even though it edited Colin Kaepernick's name out of a song it used on Madden 19 after the San Francisco 49ers quarterback protested police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem. (Shortly after being called out on the edit, EA Sports apologized and restored Kaepernick's name to the song, saying it was cut because of a licensing misunderstanding.)

YouTube likewise tip-toed around saying it, instead pledging: "We stand in solidarity against racism and violence." It's also donating $1 million in support of efforts to address social injustice, which is a drop in the bucket toward undoing the damage caused by its ongoing efforts to point people toward videos of overtly racist hatemongers.

We said it, along with the collected Gamer Network sites, even though the paucity of Black voices on our own staff rolls has been a valid criticism levied against us for years.

"These are 'just words,' and the simple act of saying them doesn't mean these companies are committed to the ideas behind them in any significant way"

Those last few examples are an acknowledgement that these are "just words," and the simple act of saying them doesn't mean these companies are committed to the ideas behind them in any significant way. They are largely hollow words until they are paired with actions and long-term commitments.

YouTube needs to stop tuning its algorithm to push people toward extremist content and launch the racist conspiracy theory corner of the site into the sun. Game publishers need to consistently apply the values espoused by their statements this week to their own actions as well as the communities they run. We need to hire and give our platform to more Black voices.

I hope all of us follow through on these, and I can even employ the benefit of the doubt (or suspension of disbelief) and presume that these statements were made with every intention of following through. But that doesn't mean I'm holding my breath for it all to happen.

So clearly, we can't give The Brands (including us) credit for doing anything just yet. But even in my most cynical interpretation of these statements, I still welcome them nonetheless.

Because when Black Lives Matter rose to prominence, brands were not so eager to embrace the term. It was seen by many as divisive. Counter-calls of "All Lives Matter" and "Blue Lives Matter" were common on the right side of the political spectrum, so these same brands largely sat by and silently watched what happened to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and too many more men and women, boys and girls.

Brands just didn't want to weigh in on something that could alienate potential customers, particularly in the video games industry. Because as Michael Jordan is often quoted as saying, "Republicans buy sneakers too."

After all, this is the same industry that spent years saying how committed it was to diversity and starting programs to encourage women to join the field, but was famously, frustratingly, embarrassingly unwilling to pick a side when a deeply misogynistic sliver of its customer base tried to harass those same women out of the industry.

But then George Floyd was killed, Breonna Taylor was killed, and a whole lot more people decided they had seen enough police brutality. Now brands aren't just embracing Black Lives Matter but acknowledging "systemic racism faced by the Black community" (Ubisoft). They are "outraged by the unnecessary and brutal police killings of George Floyd as well as far too many others" (Astro Gaming).

"Even if the executives running these companies don't mean the words, they're still normalizing the ideas"

This is different and new, in my eyes, because the existence of systemic racism and its presence in the United States (and everywhere else these brands operate) has not been a universally agreed upon concept. And as anyone who reads the news regularly knows, "police killings" isn't a phrase you see often because police almost never kill people. There may be an officer-involved shooting, or a bullet from an officer's gun might fatally strike a person, but the press typically employs verbal gymnastics to avoid making "police" the subject of a sentence where "killed" is the verb.

Having brands talk about these things and use this phrasing normalizes them. It saps the statements of controversy and brings them into the Overton window. It makes them safer for others to say, which makes it safer for people who actually do believe in these statements to build on them and push the window further.

Words are powerful, particularly when used repeatedly. It's why President Trump calls COVID-19 "the Chinese virus," why people don't refer to themselves as "anti-life" or "anti-choice," and why a press obsessed with faux impartiality so frequently soft-peddles racist actions as "racially charged."

This is why I welcome these brands clearly saying "Black Lives Matter," and acknowledging some of the concepts of the movement. Even if the executives running these companies don't mean the words, they're still normalizing the ideas. And I think we need widespread agreement on the tragically contentious idea that Black Lives Matter if we're ever going to fix the root problem of white supremacy.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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