Discussing “The Cat in the Hijab” after the Portland MAX stabbings.

Games can give us lenses to better understand the world through. Sometimes reality steps in to show us just how blurry those lenses are.

UPDATE: After receiving feedback from Intelligame readers, and wanting to direct our readers towards supporting the campaigns of the original targets of the attacks, we’re updating our funding links accordingly. If you’re considering donating, please think of donating to the YouCaring campaign for the two girls and their families; their campaign is drastically underfunded by comparison, and they’ll need community support to take on this trauma. Thanks. 

On Friday afternoon on a light-rail train in Portland, a known extremist and white supremacist harassed Destinee Mangum, a black teenage girl, and her friend, a Muslim girl wearing a hijab. Three men stepped in to intervene; the supremacist pulled out a knife and stabbed the three men. Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche died in the attack. Micah David-Cole Fletcher was injured and hospitalized. This says nothing of the trauma the two girls experienced, fleeing the train for their lives.

Nearly at the same time, we streamed a game about experiencing harassment on public transit. In the wake of Friday’s attack, interpreting “The Cat in the Hijab” comes with additional weight.

 

Finding intersections in The Cat in the Hijab

When people ask me about Intelligame, I tell them that the site “highlights the intersections between gaming and the real world.” Another project I work on, ALTcade, does much of the same. Alongside Yori Kvitchko of SleepNinja Games and artist/game creator Hannah Piper Burns, we curate shorter, artistic games for a regular showcase.

Our upcoming event’s theme is “Resistance,” where we’ll showcase alt-games making statements of resistance. On Friday afternoon, we streamed a few titles being considered for the next event, having no idea what was happening across town. It wasn’t until later that night when I got a message from a friend in St. Louis asking if I was okay that I heard the news.

Andrew Wang created “The Cat in the Hijab” for #ResistJam, a virtual game jam where people around the world created alt-games to fight against the rise of authoritarianism. You play an anthropomorphized cat wearing a hijab on a subway car. In an enclosed, crowded space, another cat tells you to get out of their country. (The game randomly generates genders and looks of cats with each playthrough.) Another tells you that you can take the hijab off because you’re in America and don’t have to wear a “symbol of repression.” You’re given the option of engaging in some after-school-special like explanation of the garb. Both encounters come with dialog options that produce the kinds of results you’d expect: outright vitriol, appreciation for hand-holding, etc.

 

Virtual intervention

The third encounter is an intervention. A cat verbally harasses another one that they claim is a man in drag. You can choose to say something to the harassed cat, confront the harasser, pull out your phone to record, or do nothing. And though the “right answer” is obvious, that the game ends essentially the same way regardless of choice feels even worse after Friday.

No matter what you choose, at the end you simply walk off the subway car with the other harassed cat. Tell someone to “Fuzz off” and they’ll come back with a MAGA threat and then leave you alone. The worst possible ending the game offers comes from doing nothing to intervene in the third encounter: the attack becomes physical, and the end narration says the other cat runs out the door sobbing, and “[This is your stop too. Awkward!]” Because the worst possible consequence in this situation is obviously a few moments of discomfort and personal shame.

 

Authenticity carries weight and makes a difference

During the livestream, Hannah, Yori, and I talked about the dialog in The Cat in the Hijab feeling inauthentic. It missed nuance, a sense of gravity. In earnest, it felt like it lacked an understanding of the effects of the trauma inflicted even without physical violence. In my experience, handling these events comes with a mix of emotions and reactions, some passive, some active. More often than not, replied to harassment isn’t directly confrontational like the game, for fear of consequences.

In the real world, intervening killed two white men and sent a third to the hospital. It’s hard to imagine the assailant acting more peacefully towards anyone with a different background. Questioning the tangible risks of intervention, of even just standing up for yourself or existing is a part of marginalized life, though now everyone holds a deeper understanding of those risks.

 

Small decisions can have big impacts

Games don’t always need to channel the darkest outcome, but they should accurately portray the experiences they aim for. A game made for a jam about resisting discrimination as a marginalized person should carry the gravity of that experience. Without that weight, it essentially becomes marginalization porn, a tool used to get quick satisfaction. Even though The Cat in the Hijab  is “just a game jam game,” media highlighted it due to its subject matter and art style. Standing out comes with the chance to spread a message, a message that could change lives.

Though the stabbings are a tragedy, there’s a lesson to be learned in the the actions of those who stood up to hate. In both virtual worlds and the real one, there are opportunities to defend those who are being attacked. Though those efforts may come with consequences, they can make a world of difference. Hopefully we’ll all learn from those who stand up for good and defend others.

Our thoughts go out to Destinee Mangum, the unidentified Muslim teenager, Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, Micah David-Cole Fletcher, as well as their families and friends.

You can support the victims by following the links below:

 

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Intelligame. Lover of story-centric games of all kinds, arcade games, and mobile titles. Mac and Cheese connoisseur.

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Comments 4

  1. Andrew Wang

    I am the creator of The Cat In The Hijab. Thanks for the article. I agree that long lasting post-event emotional trauma wasn’t forced upon the player. Nor do I think it needed to be.

    I tried especially hard to create non-didactic gameplay, allowing the player to explore the space and draw their own conclusions and feelings about the discrimination experience, and also to allow them to see what happens when they are a bystander, and explore what they might do as a bystander. The game intentionally does not try to force a viewpoint upon the player.

    Going with a more didactic approach (telling the player what they should be feeling and thinking) would be far more likely to cause players to instantly put up walls and reinforce their own preexisting views rather than to open them up to other views.

    See this talk on Subversive Game Design that was given at the start of #ResistJam, the game jam that this game was a part of:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0ZgMILKdk8

    The game pulls from very real-life experiences shared by hundreds of people online, of discrimination they have received, and was made before the horrible Portland murders.

    Keep in mind that the Portland stabbing is one highly publicized and horrible case out of thousands that occurred without violence. The Portland murders were horrible, but statistically are a very very rare exception to what happens.

    If I were to have made the game after the Portland murders, would it have been wise to include a stabbing in it? I don’t think so. That would force a very very rare narrative upon the players. Given the frequency of the Portland train stabbings, I might as well have a train crash or lightning strike the train happen at random during any given interaction.

    Changing the game to include a stabbing outcome would have made it fall victim to the cognitive bias called the Availability Heuristic. Wikipedia:

    “The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision. The availability heuristic operates on the notion that if something can be recalled, it must be important, or at least more important than alternative solutions which are not as readily recalled. Subsequently, under the availability heuristic, people tend to heavily weigh their judgments toward more recent information, making new opinions biased toward that latest news.”

    • Josh Boykin

      Thanks for commenting, Andrew! It’s great to see the thought process you went through while creating the game.

      The specific act of violence as an outcome wouldn’t be what I’d suggest, but more understanding the fear of violence and the impact that has on the choices someone may make while placed in that position. I certainly agree that thousands of occurrences of harassment end without violence, but in my experience, navigating those interactions rarely comes without the fear or possibility of being attacked more than verbally. And yes, it’s rare that three white men are stabbed in defense of a black and a Muslim girl, but it doesn’t take that level of violence to instill fear or trauma, and we shouldn’t rule situations that don’t escalate to this level as acceptable.

      This article uses the Portland attack as a context for discussion, but our discussion about lack of nuance in the dialog existed before we even knew about that incident. To me, the idea that yelling “Fuzz off” (or its real-world equivalent) to a racist/otherwise -phobic harasser would end with essentially “My President’s gonna make you pay for that!” and then suddenly both people walking their separate ways without consequence rings a bit hollow; we have decades of history to show that.

      This isn’t about “forcing a viewpoint;” it’s about representing an experience, an experience where emotional labor and personal safety are factors. A game inevitably takes stances through its design choices; for example, the game never provides the option to take the hijab off or physically assault the attacker. Exploring the space and drawing conclusions is still an experience curated by the game and its design; the game’s design seems to convey the idea that direct confrontation prevents more violence. Through the many playthroughs I traveled, the only time I saw escalated violence occur was when I did nothing about the third harasser, who then physically attacked the cat next to me (who I’m assuming is a trans person from the player’s usage of “she” over the attacker’s “man in drag” statement).

      Sidestepping the impact of even the threat of physical violence sidesteps many of the power dynamics involved in these attacks and the risks that come with direct confrontation and the realities of these interactions. Solutions that could potentially work within scope include: resolutions of the third encounter where the attacker follows the two cats off of the car (without additional discussion or a cutscene), dialog options that are blocked but still visible throughout the game based on an amount of “threat” received, having the first cat not leave the train after a specifically tense encounter, but just silently follow the player character. All of these options are from very real-life experiences as well, and stretch far beyond last Friday’s attack. That’s not to say these are the only potential solutions or the best ones, just ones off the top of my head.

      Again, I appreciate you taking the time to comment (as well as the discussion we had on Twitter). My criticism isn’t a condemnation of the work, but rather calling attention to individual aspects I noticed in my time with it. I hope this helps clarify!

  2. Your Dad

    You wrote, “A game made for a jam about resisting discrimination as a marginalized person should carry the gravity of that experience.” What is a “jam”? I’m unfamiliar with that term. Thank you.

    • Josh Boykin

      Thanks for asking! A game jam is an event where people get together for a set, small amount of time and make a game based around a certain theme. In this case, #ResistJam was a week-long jam where people created games around the theme of “resistance.”

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