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Getting Racism Out of Gaming with ‘The Watch’



Melanin Gamers and Leo Burnett Toronto speak to LBB’s Ben Conway about the campaign that presents a call of duty for game developers to address online abuse

Getting Racism Out of Gaming with ‘The Watch’

Melanin Gamers is a community that promotes diversity and inclusion in the video game industry and aims to provide safe spaces for gamers. Alongside creative agency Leo Burnett Toronto, the organisation launched ‘The Watch’, a digital ‘neighbourhood watch’ - if you will - designed to eliminate discrimination and hate in online gaming communities.

Arising from the personal instances of bullying, racism, xenophobia and other discriminatory behaviour that the teams at Melanin Gamers and Leo Burnett Toronto have experienced, as gamers themselves, the campaign is just the beginning of efforts to persuade game developers to take this well-known issue more seriously.

The Watch allows gamers to clip racism and other online abuse in the gaming lobbies of their favourite Twitch streams, and send those clips as evidence to The Watch’s Twitter account. The account then forwards these videos onto the appropriate game developers, applying pressure on the developers and the game’s community to start taking some responsibility for the toxic and abusive environments that they have fostered.

LBB’s Ben Conway caught up with Annabel Ashalley-Anthony, founder, and Alan Ashalley-Anthony, chief researcher, of Melanin Gamers, as well as Leo Burnett Toronto's co-CCO, Lisa Greenberg, to discuss how the project came about and the challenges of changing behaviour that is engrained so deeply in some online communities.

LBB> What was the creative spark behind this campaign? How did it come about?

Annabel & Alan (MG)> ‘The Watch’ was sparked by personal and collective experiences as victims or bystanders to racial injustice in gaming. The campaign came about as Leo Burnett Toronto and Melanin Gamers connected on a shared goal to create The Watch, a digital community campaign designed to eliminate racism in video games - because racism is not a game. Leo Burnett Toronto, Melanin Gamers and The Watch believe no gamer should be subject to racism while trying to enjoy video games, and that it is time to end the harassment and bullying that is widespread across so many video games. 

LBB> How did you capture the footage for the ‘The Watch’ video? What was your reaction to seeing these horrific instances of abuse? Have you experienced anything similar personally?

Lisa> The footage for the video we posted on Twitter was sourced from real Call of Duty gameplay we found on YouTube. Although these instances of abuse are horrific and shocking, if you’ve spent any time playing games online, it’s not a surprise. This language happens all the time during online play. There are a number of gamers on the core team working on the project at Leo Burnett. Some of them started playing online a lot more during the pandemic and were taken aback that the games they played years ago were just as full of racist language as they had ever been. This experience has informed our approach to the campaign every step of the way.

Annabel & Alan (MG)> We have both experienced hate in online gaming communities first-hand. Alan experienced his first instance of racism in-game when he was 14 years old while playing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. There are millions of Black players across hundreds of video games, yet somehow harassment towards Black and BIPOC communities is so widespread. Annabel has also personally experienced racism while gaming, as well as sexism, causing her to avoid video games that she enjoys playing for up to a year.



LBB> What research did you undertake regarding hateful discourse, attitudes and language in online gaming communities? What interesting discoveries came from this and influenced the campaign?


Annabel & Alan (MG)> We undertake significant amounts of research in regards to hateful discourse, attitudes and language in online gaming communities when preparing for various workshops and panel discussions, such as our session at TwitchCon 2022 in Amsterdam. Interesting discoveries include bullying and harassment disproportionately affecting Black and BIPOC communities, not to mention women and the many more intersectionalities of gamers that exist. Various statistics illustrating the impact of racism in gaming influenced the campaign by providing proof points for key messaging. 

Lisa> Apart from the qualitative research informed by our own lived experiences, we reviewed studies conducted by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Preply. These reports were full of eye-opening stats like: ‘over 80% of gamers experience harassment playing online’ and ‘7/10 of gamers think of quitting because of it’. This helped highlight the widespread nature of this issue and showed us that racism in gaming is a problem that affects gamers everywhere.

Annabel & Alan (MG)> Aside from the numbers, anyone who plays video games regularly knows that there is rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and so much more in the many chatrooms. Furthermore, for video games that have minimal to no reporting [systems] in place for racism, users can get creative with their insults by using numbers in place of letters to spell out racial slurs. 


LBB> Where did the idea to use Twitch’s clip feature come from? And what is the process after a clip is sent to @Helpkeepwatch on Twitter?


Lisa> We wanted to use an existing consumer behaviour that gamers were already familiar with in order to reduce the barrier of entry to participating in the campaign. Streamers already ask their viewers to clip highlights that occur during their stream, so using the built-in Twitch functionality to capture racist language was a natural evolution of this behaviour. Once clips are sent to @HelpKeepWatch, we forward them to Call of Duty on Twitter and create a running tally of all the racist clips we’ve received to show game developers like Activision how widespread of an issue racism is in their games. 

LBB> Do you have any data/information about engagement with this account or campaign results yet?


Lisa> The original tweet that launched the campaign has received over two million impressions, with the video being watched over 310,000 times. To date, there have been over 50 clips of racist language on CoD reported to The Watch, with more coming in as the campaign continues. 

LBB> Unfortunately in many corners of the internet, especially in gaming communities, hateful attitudes and language are quite ingrained in its culture. How do you change attitudes that are so ingrained and normalised on a large scale?


Annabel & Alan (MG)> Racism in gaming is a byproduct of widespread racism in society, which is a systematic problem that cannot be addressed and eliminated overnight. Changing racist attitudes that are so ingrained and normalised on a large scale is no small feat, but we are determined to start somewhere and in a tangible way through the creation of The Watch. Changing attitudes starts by raising awareness about the issue of racism in gaming. Next, changing behaviours, on the side of bullies and gaming developers, are required to enforce appropriate punishment and to make real and lasting change. 

LBB> Equally, how do you convince games companies that this is their problem too? How do you convince them to take responsibility for removing the discrimination that is spread in their games? Why is it such a difficult task to eradicate this long-known issue?


Lisa> Gamers can do their part, but developers must also take a more active role to combat racism in their games. We will push for change until developers put their money where they promised their mouths were during every Black History Month. 

Annabel & Alan (MG)> Games companies must acknowledge the rampant racism so widespread in their online communities, take accountability for it, and be transparent on their next steps to work toward a safe gaming space for everyone. While the racist behaviour is from gamers, real change sits with the gaming developers, like Activision Blizzard, who host these racist communities found in games like Call of Duty, to create real accountability in-game for players by improving the reporting mechanism for the racist and toxic behaviour that has gone unchecked for far too long. It is such a difficult task to eradicate racism in gaming due to its long history in society and prevalence in recent years. Being anti-racist takes learning and unlearning, and real action beyond performance activism, like a black square on Instagram. 

In the gaming community, there is a lot of problematic discourse in regards to The Watch, such as:

  • Categorising racist comments as trash talk.
  • Encouraging users to protect themselves by using a gender-neutral gamer tag, staying off-camera, or muting their microphones.
  • Explaining that racism is just a part of the Call of Duty and is never going away.
  • Band-aid solutions that involve action on the side of the victim, and not the aggressor.
  • Ultimately, silence is compliance, and not calling out racist behaviour where and when you see it, only hurts the victim and empowers the abuser that much more. 



LBB> What do you hope comes from this campaign?


Annabel & Alan (MG)> Melanin Gamers welcomes a meeting with Activision Blizzard to discuss the longstanding racism prevalent in games like CoD and discuss how to make a much-needed change. Melanin Gamers has a checklist for game developers, like Activision Blizzard, to work towards anti-racism in-game, including:

  • Have Activision Blizzard meet with Melanin Gamers to discuss the rampant racism in CoD and discuss solutions for real change.
  • Restore faith in the reporting system by providing transparent updates for each user report.
  • Enforce appropriate punishments for racist in-game abuse.
  • Engage with the BIPOC gamer community regularly to identify emerging issues and work together towards effective solutions.
  • Increase accountability for game developers and create an obligation to share tangible goals, targets, and a roadmap to combat in-game racism.

LBB> What was the hardest challenge you faced on this campaign - and how did you overcome it?


Annabel & Alan (MG)> The hardest challenge that we faced during The Watch campaign has been the onslaught of racist messages on various platforms. It has been overwhelming to receive significant pushback on The Watch and to read terrible and problematic discourse around why it is not needed. Melanin Gamers has overcome these racist messages, whether they are Tweets, DMs, emails and more, by taking care of their mental health and leaning into their supportive communities to reinforce that The Watch’s mission is on the right side of history and will make gaming more inclusive for gamers of all walks of life to play.

Lisa> The hardest challenge we faced on this campaign was the ingrained nature of racism within the gaming community. Racist behaviour is so ubiquitous in gaming, that many gamers just accept abuse as a normal part of the culture. By connecting with people who share our values, we have been able to fight back against this attitude and show that change is possible with the right community behind it. 



LBB> Anything else you would like to add?

Annabel & Alan (MG)> People can join the movement by following @HelpKeepWatch on Twitter, sharing the censored campaign video, and submitting the racist language they hear on Twitch using the built-in clip function to capture video and send it directly to @HelpKeepWatch. 

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Leo Burnett Toronto, Tue, 02 Aug 2022 16:59:00 GMT