How We Accidentally Made a Racist Videogame

By Kotaku on at

By Andy Trowers

It was 2007 and a brand-new, casual world had dawned. The Nintendo Wii destroyed the hardcore competition in an orgy of motion controls and adverts with ‘normal people’. Casual gamers were in, core gamers were out.

Sony offered the tech-heavy PS3 but it was expensive and didn’t appeal to grannies - in the early years it lagged badly behind. Microsoft? The Xbox 360 had released late in 2005 and, after seeing the success of the Wii, wanted a share of this newly-discovered audience. This story is about how that desire led to the worst two moments of my career, and the unintentional creation of my first and only racist computer game.

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I worked for a studio taking full advantage of the casual explosion. We had near-unrivalled expertise in the field having made a number of SingStar and EyeToy games for Sony.  Despite sniggers from the wider gaming world we were proud and flaunted our social gaming credentials by boldly rebranding the studio with a girl’s name: Zoë Mode was born.

The new name quickly paid dividends, and we signed a game. Originally pitched as MovieStar, the pithily-titled ‘You’re in the Movies’ was an innovative idea featuring camera-based mini-games with a twist. We recorded footage of players contorting their bodies during play and edited it into short movie trailers at the end. It was fun for all the family, as long as your family consisted entirely of eight year-olds.

Partnering with Codemasters, the game was an Xbox 360 exclusive. Though it might not have seemed it we were pushing the technology pretty hard – a lot of memory and technical jiggery-pokery was required for the video side of the game. Furthermore, the Xbox Live Vision camera was pretty basic. Our coders performed true wizardry to somehow cut players out of whatever background they were in front of.

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We were right on the edge of our technical limitations. And by ‘right on the edge’ I really mean ‘plummeting into the abyss’. Despite the challenges, the team mined the full depth of their experience and created a game that sort of worked as it was supposed to. It was definitely flaky round the edges, but under the right lighting conditions, whilst wearing a different colour outfit to the background, you could play. It worked.

Having produced our alpha and ‘proven’ the tech, Microsoft got on-board. The Xbox 360 may have had a head start against the PS3 but it too was being blown out of the water by the all-conquering Wii. Xbox wanted a piece of that casual games market and also had a bunch of cameras gathering dust on the shelves. We were a perfect fit. Microsoft signed a deal with Codemasters to co-promote the game, and bundle it with the hitherto redundant cameras.

Which is how I ended up in a Microsoft Exec’s LA hotel room, preparing a last-minute build for the E3 keynote speech. It had broken at the worst possible moment, of course, and so I desperately liaised with coders back home trying to fix it before the next morning’s show. Little did I know this would only be the second-worst moment of my career. With a lot of back and forth, we finally found a solution around 4AM. I bundled up the equipment and jumped in a taxi back to my hotel. As we drove off, the taxi driver turned to me.

“Were you at that party in the hotel bar?”

I shook my head.

“Y’know, the Playboy Bunnies party. I just dropped that Lindsay Lohan off there.”

I had been upstairs playing with computers while the bunny party took over the bar. Shell-shocked and exhausted, I got back and grabbed an entire hour of sleep before waking up again to prep for the Keynote.

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It’s fair to say our E3 reception was lukewarm, but the build held up and Microsoft seemed unconcerned by the relative lack of interest - after all, this title was never going to appeal to the hardcore. We set about finishing the game and they charged full steam ahead with promotion. Burt Reynolds appeared in the adverts, and MS had an awesome idea for the launch party. They hired Virgin Megastore in Times Square so people could play and then see the resulting footage displayed on the big Jumbotron screens outside. Genius! I was selected as spokesperson for the game and Microsoft booked me a ticket to New York. Amazing!

The worst moment of my career was imminent. Just before the launch event, we were fixing bugs and going through Xbox certification when one of our artists dropped a bombshell.

“Dude, how come the game doesn’t work?”

I looked at him blankly.

“What do you mean? I played it this morning and it worked fine.”

He stood in front of the camera and showed me. It didn’t work. Puzzled, I stood in front of the camera and it did work. After a few moments of bemused frustration, the penny dropped. His skin was dark, mine was not. The camera relied on reflected light to detect motion. He didn’t reflect anywhere near as much as me.

We had made a racist computer game.

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Panic mode. We patched it up as best we could, but there was only so much we could do with the available tech and almost no time. I arrived at the Virgin Megastore with a sense of trepidation that only grew as journalists arrived with cameras and enquiring minds. Then the public started to arrive. Showtime. I stood in front of the assembled crowd, explained how the game worked, and asked for a volunteer to demo it. An African-American man at the front of the crowd raised his hand.

“I’ll play.”

I began to sweat. Avoiding looking in his direction I posed the question once more.

“Does anybody want to try this new game?"

He replied again, waving his hand for emphasis.

“I’ll play!”

People around the guy started to point at him and wave, so there was no avoiding it. I called him onstage. In front of the assembled press and public, he jumped about energetically in front of a game that had real trouble seeing black people. Each time the camera failed to pick up his motion, and he lost mini-game after mini-game through no fault of his own, I died a little more inside. Incredibly, the crowd didn’t seem to notice - they just assumed he was playing badly. I knew the truth, though, and in photos from the event my face is red with shame.

Crushing embarrassment aside, there are serious lessons to be learned from this story. It shows the lack of diversity in the industry that no-one noticed the game struggled to work with black people until the very end, and I take my share of responsibility for that. Google’s recent troubles with facial recognition are another embarrassing example of the problems this can cause. As the games industry moves into a bright future of VR and high-tech cameras, much more needs to be done to broaden the diversity of the workforce, and avoid mistakes like this in the future.

Andy Trowers is a game design consultant, freelance ne’er do well and staff writer for www.for-sale.co.uk