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: