Slay by Brittney Morris Book Review

You know, as much as racism is no longer seen as a normal and acceptable act in general society, sometimes we forget just how much is out there begging to be unleashed beneath the surface. Reminders emerge all the time, and we stand united against them, but then there are places where it just won’t go away. That’s the biggest thing Slay reminds us of, how in some cases, just participating in certain activities when you are of a minority sparks hollering from those who don’t want those “like you” in what they think is only their habitat. Apparently for some people, having a black gamer in your multiplayer stews discomfort, and they will treat that discomfort like something that needs to be burnt to the ground.

SLAY is the name of a virtual reality video game designed by one girl from Bellevue, Washington. Anonymously, at that, even from her family. You gotta give Kiera Johnson props. She truly commits to her projects and causes. She has a develop partner who goes by Cicada, though they’ve never met in real life. Kiera is known as the main creator and leader of the game and goes by Emerald. Her avatar is male, for whatever reason. So what’s the virtual reality game about? It involves a mixture of Star Wars and Yu-Gi-Oh, playing cards and then depending on what you use or end up with, duel the opponent with magic and swords. But most of all, it’s a game where the only people who can sign on are black, and the game’s cards and Easter Eggs are all about black culture and history.

Where’d the idea of this come from? Well, Kiera has played other multiplayer games, and all of those are dominated by trolls who don’t want people of colour playing with them, let alone beating them. They’d feel inferiority complexes they don’t want to find out they really have. With millions of chats going on every second in gaming, it’s impossible for any of it to be regulated, and since gamers can hide behind masks of profiles and avatars, they are allowed to say whatever they want. Slay is supposed to be different. And it’s been a huge success. Half a million people worldwide play her game now, show up to be spectators for huge duels, and players even have some codewords for fellow Slayers in reality. But one day a player is murdered, over a confrontation that stemmed from the game, and now Kiera is facing media scrutiny and the threats of being sued for racism over how her game works. She doesn’t know what to do to fight back, but this is her game. She’s not going to let it be taken over by fools and bigots.

Put simply, Morris’ book is quite fun and has insightful and important messages about video game communities. To be honest with you all, I love video games because of how you can enter into a world where you can do things you only dreamed possible, a fact that gets ever more present with the rise of virtual reality lately. But I don’t really do many multiplayer events, because most of them involve people who play religiously, who cheat, and who may be threatening. When the scandal erupts, Kiera feels how I feel in worst-case-scenario dreamland. The book also has occasional chapters of people who play the game from all over the world. We don’t know what to make of this at first, and it occasionally drags the story, but it was fascinating hearing about the impact the game had on various individuals. It sends a message that something someone cares about can do wonders for people around the world, and that’s a good thing to tell people.

When aggression goes towards Kiera and her game, a lot of it rang strong and true. The most memorable parts were when someone was interviewed who made assumptions about the type of game Slay was, and as someone who has seen politicians who want to go against the interest of giant companies get slandered by certain media, I was happy to see this issue acknowledged. I also loved a moment where Kiera talks with someone I never expected to be a player of the game, nor did she. It showed the importance, and amazements that may come, of keeping an open mind.

But the book also has a strange lacking of explanation what the process for making the game was like. Kiera describes video game development as something anyone can do with the power of Google and boredom, and she does mention how it was a project that took three years to develop, which is believable. So it’s not all omitted. But it doesn’t talk about how it was developed, such as how much code she made up on her own, how much she used from other coders, how much of her money she’s used on it, and to what extent she used modelling and social media softwares to create the game. And some of the dialogue and commentary about the subject matter feel more scripted than natural. The characters talk about their Blackness a lot, and I’m obviously not the expert on how people of colour are treated differently, whether it’s through microaggressions or legitimate violence. But the discussions feel algorithmic and matter-of-fact rather than truly emotional. I feel most teenagers discussing these issues would dive into more stories of how they’ve personally dealt with dilemmas rather than just the rest of the world. As someone homosexual and autistic, I feel if something erupted like this with me, how I would talk about it would be more subtle.

So even though I don’t think Slay is perfect, the thought of an exclusive game like this, wholeheartedly celebrating the culture of people of colour and being allowed to be one’s self without the fear of the trolling that exists in other mainstream games, is a premise as fascinating as it is fresh and timely. Plus, there’s a twist in the end, and even though I knew something felt wrong about the situation, I never guessed what it ended up being. She sure fooled me there.

If you like this, I’d try Warcross by Marie Lu, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and This Is My America by Kim Johnson

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