The Sweet and Sour Week of an African American College Student: Sweetxheart, A Game to Begin Conversations on Racial and Sexual Harassment


David Seelow, PhD©

                In an earlier blog I suggested the short mobile game The Amazing adventures of Samantha Browne (Lemonsucker Games, 2016) would be an excellent resource for student orientation or First Year Experience courses. Samantha Browne raises awareness of how debilitating social anxiety can be for a college student struggling to leave her dorm room for a late night snack. First Year Experience courses provide a unique opportunity (they did not exist in my day) to help students navigate the nonacademic stress that will impact their academic success.  These are stresses like text anxiety, social anxiety, depression, time management, dating, parties, and substances, licit or illicit, discrimination, and more. Recent events surrounding Black Lives Matter as well as the Me Too# movement have brought race discrimination and sexual harassment to national attention. College is a place where young adults need to learn how to both prevent discrimination and sexual abuse and how to cope with it effectively.

                A recently released game by Catt Small, Sweetxheart playable on a tablet, offers an excellent way to begin talking about class, race and gender. Sweetxheart is a short narrative game about a week in the life of Kara, a female African American college student, who attends college in Manhattan and lives in the Bronx.1 Your goal in playing Kara is simply to get through a 5 day week successfully, meaning with your sense of self intact. Your positive or negative emotional state is measured by a meter in the top left corner of the screen. The designer explains her purpose as,

          The goal behind “Sweetxheart” was to convey what it’s       like to be someone like me in the United States, a black woman who works in technology. As you day, Kara [the main character] has a lot of different interactions that she experiences and depending on those experiences she either feels more positively or she starts to feel  really negative, and at the end of the week the hope is that you can have a positive week which requires five good days. It’s really challenging to get five positive days in a row which is honestly quite accurate for me in real life.”

A good week at college should be relatively easily to achieve, but not, so, at least for an African American female, the game suggests.

                After Kara wakes to her smartphone’s alarm, and pets her kitten, your first task is to dress her for the day. As a male player, dressing a female character can be weirdly unsettling. Aside from the fact I rarely give any consideration to clothes, you are put into a kind of masculine bind. College ages males might be tempted to dress a female in the kind of sexy, revealing outfits they like to see women wear. However, in a classroom environment males will probably be less forthright, but that too becomes a critical point of discussion about gender. For a female, you must negotiate with yourself what to wear and how what you wear will be perceived by all those outside your home. This dilemma is evident in the screen shot below.  What makes Kara comfortable might elicit, unintended approaches by males, which will make her uncomfortable. This simple dress up or doll like mechanic creates these basic, but complex double binds, whether you are a male or female player.

Screen Shot of Kara before she leaves her apartment

                The urban atmosphere contributes in important way to the narrative. First, to get to the subway must navigate the Bronx streets, Second, as a student living in an outer borough, Kara does encounter some unstated class discrimination. The Bronx is often characterized as New York City’s tough borough and it has received a negative portrayal in most media (Yankee Stadium and the Bronx Zoo aside).2  The class aspect, subtle and possibly invisible to many players, manifests itself when Kara interacts with her friends Renaud, Iyanna and Jordan. Kara’s first slight comes when she meets her friends in June & Bronco’s arcade to play Dance Extreme, a version of Dance Dance Revolution. Renaud immediately announces, “‘I want to go first. Iyanna will you play with me?’” It turns out Kara is never chosen first. As a player you need to decide whether you want to make your hurt feelings and discomfort known to your friends and possibly jeopardizing the friendship you do share with them. After leaving the arcade you ask your friends if they want to grab something to eat and they all turn you down with safe excuses. The excuses make sense “I have food at home,” “I don’t have money,” but such excuses indicate a subtext of ‘we really don’t want to spend any more time with you’.  On the game’s final day, you go over to Renaud’s house in Queens to discover your other friends are already there. You surmise that they have slept over and enjoyed a night of fun while you were home sleeping. “They did sleep over without you,” the game’s narrative voice states. At the end of this Friday night they all decide to stay another night while you go back home. “They stay over again. Friday-night-you feel not welcome.” Iyanna, the other girl, is white, so the slights against you may be racial or they may be class based. Sorting out the two is not easy, and either way you are the outsider, in obvious, but subtle way that keep you on edge, enjoying the friendship for what it is, but resenting your secondary status.

                Twice in the game Kara must decide who to speak with at college- Jesse, So-yeon or Angelica. I chose So-yeon thinking another minority girl might be receptive to me, but she appears only interested in polite, trivial exchanges. Days you are not in class you have other people choices to make. Kara interns at Nimble BEE LLC, a tech company.  When you finish a project, you need to ask an employee to review it before submitting the work to your boss, Mr. Ruiz. After creating a design for a website, I decided to ask the female employee Nita for help. She offers a so so review while also making clear the website needs more work and she would handle it. Your second project a programming task meets with outright scorn. It is a tough task, so you ask the programmer Bobby to review it. His response cruelly shuts you down.

Screen Shot. The programmer’s response to Kara’s asking for help

                All told, your time at the School of Fine and Digital Arts is okay, but not exactly what one wants from college. The internship brings the cold shoulder or hostility from employees and patronizing pet names from your boss. You have friendships outside school, but they seem tenuous and leave you feeling half left out or secondary- not quite an afterthought, but close enough. Home is good. Your single mom is supportive. On the other hand, dad complains incessantly about mom when you meet him for diner, so home life is stressful too. The only stress free interaction is with kitty!

                Most taxing of all your interactions belong to walking to and from the 212th Street subway station. When Kara leaves her house for the subway, she is approached by random men on the street every day. This is common for women living in large urban centers like New York or Chicago, but also in a different settings for other female students walking to class, sitting in the library, or eating in the dining hall.3 How a female negotiates these unwanted to greetings to strange men presents the games key decision points. The greeting- “Good morning sweetheart” or “Beautiful” might just be a polite hello, and you do not want to be rude. However, the greeting might be the first step of a stranger “hitting on you” or looking to initiate more of an interaction than you want. You do not want to encourage such approaches, another double bind, but one most men generally do not face.  Journalist Chris Aiken writing for Black Nerd Problem makes the same point as I am, “…when the game was over, so was the experience. Then it clicked. Just how much of an advantage I had to be able just to walk away from it all. It’s a privilege I had that many women like my wife, Catt, and others don’t. They don’t get to walk away; this is how they exist in the real world – in a state of discomfort from the way people harass and treat them. These are things that I don’t even have to think about dealing with whenever I walk out of the door.”

                The last walk home brings the “Nice tits!” verbal assault, but even such blatant aggression requires thoughtful responses. Earlier in the week Kara’s lack of friendliness with a random stranger ended up with him throwing a bottle at her. However, most of the game presents the player with frequent microaggressions. Confronting anyone might leave you isolated, depressed and angry, but unacknowledged “micro aggressions” can also snowball into a major conflagration.

                Catt Small publishers this game amid escalating racial tension and violence that threatens to repeat the violence of the mid-1960s.  Consequently, Sweetxheart allows for rich classroom conversations around Black Lives Matters as well as MeToo#. A game that helps others experience the subtle daily aggressions against black women begins at the point where change can realistically happen, at the local level, in daily interactions between people who are different from each other. Talk more, understand better and act differently. This small game helps in a small, but important way, to bring about more positive interpersonal relationships.

Notes

1. Although a game like Sweetxheart is often classified as a visual novel, a genre made popular in Japan, I find such a classification both silly and unhelpful.  If someone can find me a novel that I can read in 30 minutes you will be mistaking a short story for a novel, and that is quite a big misclassification.

2. According to the most recent census, The Bronx and Manhattan have approximately the same population of around 1 ½ million people, but Manhattan residents have 3 times the median income. The black population of the Bronx is 43.6% compared to 18.7% in Manhattan. The Hispanic population in the Bronx is 56. 5 versus Manhattan’s 25.6, retrieved from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/newyorkcitynewyork,bronxcountybronxboroughnewyork,kingscountybrooklynboroughnewyork,newyorkcountymanhattanboroughnewyork,queenscountyqueensboroughnewyork,richmondcountystatenislandboroughnewyork/PST045219, 8/28/2020.

3.  A prototype by students at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) called Gamer Girl: A Harassment Simulator gets at similar microaggressions of campus life experienced by females. The game follows the sole female in computer programming class on her daily journey through the harassment masquerading as friendliness perpetrated by male college students. You can play test the game at: http://www.gamergirl.games/game/playtest.

Works Cited

Aiken, Chris. “Game Devs of Color 2019: Learning Social Anxieties, Frustrations, and Perspective in Catt Small’s Sweetxheart.” Black Nerd Problems, July 2019, retrieved from https://blacknerdproblems.com/game-devs-of-color-2019-learning-social-anxieties-frustrations-and-perspective-in-catt-smalls-sweetxheart/, 8/26/2020. Web.

McHenry, Sean.  “Making a video game about your life.” Marketplace, March 7, 2019, retrieved from      

https://www.marketplace.org/2019/03/07/making-video-game-about-your-life/, 8/26/2020. Web.

Sweetxheart, Designer Catt Small, 2019, playable at https://cattsmall.itch.io/sweetxheart. Video game.

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