In the latest in his ongoing Gamasutra feature column
Persuasive Games, writer and designer Ian Bogost examines the response to the word "sambo" appearing in 5th Cell's linguistically-driven Nintendo DS game Scribblenauts
Bogost delves into the history of the racially-charged word, which ended up in Scribblenauts
without the game's developers being aware of its tangled history (more benignly, it also refers to a plant called the chilacayote). Rather than condemn or defend the game itself, Bogost defends the right to consider the word's inclusion -- after all, Scribblenauts
is a game about words:
"If you read the coverage and conversations attached to the revelation of "sambo" in Scribblenauts, many players -- particularly those previously unfamiliar with the term -- suggest that the very idea of discussing the inclusion of this word in the game is ludicrous.
"Some slough off the situation as an unfortunate but unimportant accident. Some deny the very existence of racial significance in the situation. Some suggest that the coverage itself enacts racial violence by reintroducing an "obscure" slur back into the common imagination.
"Some even accuse the coverage itself of logocentrism, angry that the Spanish sense of a word might be subjugated to the English one.
"In all these cases, a common attitude prevails: this is not a big deal. It is a distraction, and it deserves only of limited attention. "Sambo," this attitude holds, is just a word.
"But here's the problem: Scribblenauts is a game about words. That's its payload. Indeed, it is a game about a very many words and their relative uniqueness. It is a game about what words mean and do when mustered in particular situations. Its puzzles are mundane and uninteresting, until new terms alight upon them.
"This is not a politically questionable song accidentally included in a game's soundtrack (Little Big Planet), nor a fiction associated with a known anti-gay agitator (Shadow Complex), nor a weirdly blatant and misplaced representational gaffe (Resident Evil 5). In Scribblenauts, every word draws attention to itself, by necessity and by design."
The full feature
, which includes well-researched backstory into the evolution and historical usage of the word "sambo," as well as a consideration of its appearance in a modern video game, is now available to read on Gamasutra.