Over the weekend, an argument/discussion broke out on Twitter between Anthony Burch, lead writer for Borderlands 2, and Mike Sacco, a (now former) game designer at Cryptozoic, about Borderlands 2’s Tiny Tina, a character that Sacco felt was “problematic”. Kotaku has the run-down, but, as always, don’t read the comments section unless you feel like bleaching out your brain afterwards. Sacco wasn’t fired for starting the discussion, but when Cryptozoic asked him to disassociate himself from the company online and stop talking about Tiny Tina, he didn’t think the second requirement was appropriate, so he quit.
Sacco’s main concern was that Tiny Tina is white but uses what he considers “urban” slang. When I heard that, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it, especially because Sacco insists that the character is “actively racist” for using slang terms like “crunk” and “badonkadonk” that have been common in pop culture for decades. Now, it’s obviously true that there are slang terms that are off-limits to white people; for example, one of my favorite songs by A Tribe Called Quest has a chorus I can’t sing along with. However, while it’s completely understandable why a loaded slur would be off-limits, it’s think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that goofy slang terms without negative connotations should also be off-limits.
Also, from what I remember of my play-through, Tiny Tina never really scanned as an “urban” or “ghetto” character. I just re-watched a video of her scenes, and she comes off more like a cultural magpie, pulling influences from anywhere and everywhere. She jumps back and forth between childish sing-song, outdated slang and the occasional bellow as punctuation. At worst she’s a poseur like most thirteen-year-olds. At best she’s latched on to a bunch of slang terms and made them part of her identity.
I know that was my experience as a kid. I remember watching The Sandlot several dozen times and getting in the habit of saying “yeah yeah” after the character of the same name. I know it wasn’t the only time, too. After watching Pulp Fiction I started swearing just a bit too often for my own good. Pop culture isn’t the only place that slang comes from, of course. For example, if you grew up in the American South you probably say “y’all”, and if you’re a New Englander you say “ayuh”. Burch points out that Tina is based on several people he knows in real life, so clearly there is more than one precedent for Tina’s use of slang.
Along those lines, I’m not sure how Tiny Tina’s way of speaking qualifies as active racism. It seems much stranger to decide that a certain way of speaking is “too black” for white characters. That probably says more about Sacco than it does about the game. However, I do think there is value in taking a closer look at videogame storytelling tropes. Sacco just read into things a bit too much. If nothing else, the discussion will hopefully help Burch and other writers be mindful of these kinds of issues in the future.
Also, if you really want to talk about problematic story elements, Far Cry 3 makes a much more questionable choice by having a white kid run around saving an island full of people of other races who treat him like the chosen one, and I say that as someone who is definitely enjoying the game.
How about you? Do you think Tiny Tina’s dialogue is problematic? Can you think of other examples of recent games with questionable or problematic story elements? Let us know in the comments!