What it’s like to be Black in Toronto, told through pixels.
You’re on your way to work when you see him—a cop, leaning against his cruiser. He eyes you warily, head swivelling to follow your movements. Before you can pass him by, he stops you, for no reason other than to “speak with you for a minute.”
Getting carded is your first interaction in An/Other1, a video game released by Toronto multimedia artist and designer Jordan Sparks. His game simulates a single day in the life of a Black man and shows how racism in Canadian society actually works—sometimes systemic and obvious, mostly mundane and insidious.
Sparks, 23, was born and raised in Toronto. Growing up, he noticed people were treating him differently than his friends and classmates. It was in the small ways, like when people stared as he walked into a room. Such small gestures snowballed into a life-long burden Sparks carries, knowing that people assume he is violent because he is Black. He does what he can to disprove that.
“I often feel like I have to fight for my own identity in the eyes of others so I’m not automatically discounted as any given Black stereotype, while paradoxically suppressing myself and my feelings for the same reasons,” he says.
In 2015, carding policies disproportionately targeting Black individuals were at an all-time high in media coverage. It was the same year Sparks entered his final term of media production at Ryerson University. For his thesis project, he found himself wrestling with one question: could he make a video game for social change?
At first, Sparks was skeptical people would want to play a game about race. But he experienced several racist incidents in a week, and longed to illustrate the way it made him feel. With encouragement from professors and peers, he began developing An/Other.
Video games aren’t known for nuanced Black representation, let alone complex depictions of anti-Black racism. Little more than 10 per cent of characters in games are Black, according to a 2009 University of Southern California study [PDF], with most of that representation visible in sports games and characters in street gangs. So why would Sparks choose games to convey anti-Blackness?
For one thing, games worked as perfect simulators of inconvenient truths.
“An/Other addresses different forms of subtle and systemic racism that people often won’t admit exists and makes them feel its oppressive aura, if only for a few minutes,” Sparks says. “No matter how people react, it teaches them more about themselves, how they understand others, and how they feel in these uncomfortable situations.”
Set in the first-person perspective, An/Other allows players to navigate the city with no ability to see themselves. Thanks to this, many often don’t know they’re Black. And it stays that way for some, though Sparks says most people figure it out after they’re carded in-game.
“The first carding moment was interesting because, for some people, they said it gave their identity away instantly,” Sparks said. “White players tend to take varying degrees of time to figure out their identity, but many that I spoke to knew or at least suspected…[many] seemed confused by the encounter and pieced together their identity at some point later.”
Black players, however, always recognized immediately carding for what it is: reality reflected in pixels.
But race isn’t a monolith: Sparks himself has not been carded. In researching his thesis, he instead drew from statistics and news reports on carding, deciphering what was and wasn’t being told. Journalist and former Torontoist writer Desmond Cole’s “The Skin I’m In” resonated deeply with Sparks, who called the story one that conveyed common social struggles.
Soon after you’re carded in An/Other, a woman spots you on the sidewalk. As you walk by her, she clutches her purse against her chest a little tighter, breaking out into a sprint as soon as she’s behind you.
There are no negative consequences for your character in-game, but watching the interaction has an emotional toil.
“I wanted these scenarios to reflect that subtle racism, which can hurt just as much as the overt kind and build to a mediated experience of frustration,” Sparks says. “I wanted to show players that people who they may think of as ‘the Other’ even unconsciously, are no different from them.”
An/Other is probably the only game you’ll play with an 80-page research paper [PDF] attached to it, but Sparks hopes it isn’t the only game that attempts to change narratives—both of what games can depict and what gamers can expect.
“I want players of An/Other to begin to understand the social challenges and frustrations we face and discuss these issues instead of staying silent and enabling them,” he says. “Instead of asking ‘Why make a game about a social issue?’ I want people to instead ask, ‘Why not?’”
- Full disclosure: the author works with the Hand Eye Society, a non-profit that runs a program the author co-facilitates that showcases themed arcades for people new to video games. The author first played An/Other during an arcade themed around identity. An/Other will be next exhibited at Comics vs. Games, an event held by the Hand Eye Society that the author had no part in planning.