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Ubisoft stood with Black lives … then portrayed them as terrorists

In June, gaming companies fell over themselves to voice support for the Black Lives Matter movement and other social justice reforms affecting the Black community.

But months later, there’s little evidence to suggest that those are more than empty words. And Ubisoft made itself the first example.

So, uh, Ubisoft… this is really how you decided to portray the the evil, anti-establishment, "violent and morally dubious" organization in Elite Squad? And you didn't see anything wrong with that?

— Elena Christensen (@elenalovesgames) August 26, 2020

The gaming publisher just released Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad mobile game, which features a terrorist organization called UMBRA. The problem was in the game’s opening sequence, which introduces UMBRA with a black raised fist that looks eerily similar to the Black Lives Matter logo. Raised fists have also long been used by the Black civil rights movement.

Elite Squad also describes UMBRA as a group that claims “to promote an egalitarian utopia to gain popular support; while behind the scenes UMBRA organizes deadly terrorist attacks to generate even more chaos and weaken governments.” The group operates underground and recruits criminals into its organization. This sentiment strongly mirrors far-right conspiracies suggesting that Black Lives Matter uses equality as a front-facing message while supporting more radical and violent action — an idea without evidence behind it.

An update regarding Tom Clancy's Elite Squad:

— Ubisoft (@Ubisoft) August 29, 2020

Ubisoft said this week that it would remove the fist imagery, but it’s unclear if any other changes will be made to the depiction of UMBRA or the opening sequence. The change also came after a wave of criticism aimed at Ubisoft. Listening to the problem and correcting it is a start, but ultimately we’re left wondering what to believe.

In June, Ubisoft voiced its support for the Black community, and Black Lives Matter specifically. The company said it would donate $100,000 to the NAACP and Black Lives Matter, though it did not distinguish how it would divide those funds between the two organizations. How can Ubisoft stand by its “Black team members, players and the Black community” and co-opt Black rights imagery for a terrorist organization?

We stand in solidarity with Black team members, players, and the Black community. We are making a $100,000 contribution to the NAACP and Black Lives Matter and encourage those who are able to, to donate. #BlackLivesMatter

— Ubisoft (@Ubisoft) June 2, 2020

If you aren’t creating meaningful change, you’re part of the problem.

We can’t ignore the immense responsibility that all forms of media, including games, have in not only providing representation, but also in not perpetuating problems we already see in society — in this case, unsubstantiated fears about Black Lives Matter.

The angle also took many by surprise. At least two people who worked on the game also spoke out about the story line.

“They told us *nothing* about this framing,” Bertine van Hövel, a contract writer for Elite Squad, tweeted.

(Oh, these were the tweets. Yeah, I don't regret sending them, I just noticed they served their purpose. They were now doing little else than harvesting likes and engagement.)

— Bertine van Hövell ⛓ Home (@lostagainb) August 30, 2020

She added that the promotional materials did not include any of the UMBRA imagery.

It was also noticeably absent from the company’s Ubisoft Forward event held in June, where Elite Squad was announced. There will be another Ubisoft Forward event on September 10, but it’s unclear whether the UMBRA issue will be mentioned. For instance, the July event did not mention the company’s sexual harassment scandals, which played out publicly at the time.

But talking about it would actually be a smart move for Ubisoft. I’ve seen some people say that those taking umbrage with the UMBRA characterization are people who want to call Ubisoft out and not gamers. But gamers are people with all kinds of backgrounds. I’m not Black, so while I may be angry about the issue, my feelings aren’t the same as Black gamers. But I can’t imagine the frustration of seeing companies voice support for Black Lives Matter, but failing to make any meaningful changes.

Ubisoft isn’t alone either. The Sims, for example, pledged to improve darker skin tones and add natural hairstyles to a game released in 2014. Video games aren’t made overnight, which means change is inherently slow — but showing that Black lives matter goes beyond a Tweet. It means owning the responsibility for what your product puts out in the world. It means prioritizing Black lives and representation over the money or time lost to make a necessary change. It means listening to Black people and getting their input before something is released.

Fans of all backgrounds are watching. It’s up to Ubisoft, and every other company, to make sure saying Black lives matter is not just a show.

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