All the sessions from Transform 2021 are available on-demand now. Watch now.
The tradition of staying out of politics got tossed out the window in the past week, as so many people who professionally stayed on the sidelines ended their silence and spoke up about the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The same is true for me, even though game journalists would normally do well to stay out of politics.
It is wrong to stay silent in this extraordinary time and keep talking like nothing else is happening. I cannot help but speak about the shame and anger of living in a country where racist murder and racist demagoguery are tolerated and sometimes even openly celebrated. That compelled me to march in the streets of my suburban California town and listen to black people talk about what it was like to live in a community where just a handful of black students attend the one high school.
Yes, even in laid-back Silicon Valley, the speakers shared their horror stories of being called the N-word in stores or classrooms, being followed for being black in stores, being refused service, and having nothing happen after they voiced complaints with school and government administrators. It felt like a small thing to join a protest with hundreds of others, but I felt like my friend James Zhang, the CEO of Concept Art House, which makes the art that you see in popular video games. Like Zhang, I felt pushed over the edge. So I joined a march with my wife and daughter and carried a sign that said #BlackLivesMatter.
Zhang is an artist and not so much a wordsmith. He created this haunting image of Trump sitting on the neck of the Statue of Liberty, an echo of the searing image of police officer Derek Chauvin resting his knee on the neck of Floyd. It haunts me. And it came from a game artist far away from the scene. Zhang found a way to make a contribution to a cause that seemed very distant. And so I consider his to be a voice worth amplifying.
Three top investment pros open up about what it takes to get your video game funded.
For Zhang, creating that image was a complicated matter. As an Asian American, he did not want to appropriate the Black Lives Matter cause and appear to be drawing attention to himself. He never felt like a political activist, and he never even voted in a presidential election until he cast his vote against Donald Trump. He didn’t know if speaking out would cost him business. Yet this had been building up inside Zhang, and he saw others take risks, like when Insomniac Games CEO Ted Price spoke out against Trump’s immigration ban in January 2017.
Zhang also lost his brother to suicide. He began sharing that sad story on Facebook, and he joined nonprofits such as SF Suicide prevention and Asian Health Services. He wanted people to get help for their mental illnesses. A part of what Asian Health Services does is advocate against xenophobia, and Zhang was highly offended at how Trump played a racist card in blaming China for the coronavirus.
“When this whole George Floyd thing happened, it just took it to a whole different level,” Zhang told me. “Divisiveness starts at the top. Trump’s comments and actions have allowed people to be openly racist.”
During the unrest, the storefronts near the apartment building of Zhang’s mother were attacked. When he saw the aftermath and the graffiti on the wall, he got mad, not only at those who destroyed the place but those who incited it. To express himself, Zhang returned to art, not to say that he knew what it was like to be black and oppressed in America, but to express his own form of anger and frustration, which was boiling over.
“Somewhere along the way there is weariness, you know,” Zhang said, and it inspired him to create an image that he called, “We can’t breathe.”
As people of color, we do not pretend to understand the black experience. But it is human to empathize and say that we see your pain, and that pains all of us.
I happen to be playing a review copy of The Last of Us Part II, a video game set in a postapocalyptic world, with zombies. In the real world, it also feels like I am in the apocalypse, where the zombies are the people who don’t care. I do care about our world, and the world that we will leave behind for our children.
During the recent days, it was heartbreaking to see broken glass and buildings on fire. It is enraging to see journalists arrested — and to see CNN’s headquarters attacked. It is maddening to see black people mistreated and murdered, and to see racists emboldened to do worse under our prejudiced president.
It was unforgivable to see an old man with a cane pushed down by a SWAT squad. It was so sad to see stores being looted. The communities that were burned were already hard hit by the pandemic, and they will suffer more because of this.