The city of Wichita, Kansas has finally agreed to settle with the family of murdered father, Andrew Finch, for $5 million, five years after he was shot by police as a result of a swatting hoax call, intended for a separate Call of Duty player entrenched in an online wager.
An incredibly low point for gaming, this tragic affair not only sheds light on the dangers present in the online world, but also the systematic faults that lay in US police force, where an unarmed man can be shot outside of his home, simply because a stranger had his address.
The incident took place on 28 december 2017, when two Call of Duty: WWII players, Casey Viner and Shane Gaskill, got into a fight after wagering the incredible, life-changing sum of… $1.50. A feud over the bet led Gaskill to contact renowned serial swatter Tyler Barriss—who is now serving 20 years in prison as a result of the shooting.
Swatting refers to when a fake threat is called to the address of either someone streaming games online or an individual you may be playing with. If you’re able to get ahold of their address, one quick call to the local police department claiming to be involved in a public safety situation will send authorities running straight to the home of the victim, more often than not in a terrifying and disruptive manner.
The hoax caller, who is now known for calling in fake calls threatening the public’s safety was purposefully provided a wrong address, with court records showing that Gaskill had egged on Barriss to “please try some shit.”
The challenge was enough for Barriss, and that same night, an innocent victim was shot when police officers surrounded his house as a result of the prank call, which suggested a hostage situation was taking place at the Finches’ home.
Thankfully, the city has finally agreed to settle with the family of the murdered 28-year-old, who was a father to two children, after a federal court allowed the case to move forward against the officer who pulled the trigger, Justin Rapp. The $5 million dollar settlement is one of the largest payouts in the state’s history, and comes amid the country’s first-ever lethal swatting incident.
While the city is now being held accountable for the murder, Rapp wasn’t charged, and as reported by The Wichita Eagle, was instead promoted in 2022. The report went on to reveal that the officer had told supervisors within the police department that if he ever ran into Finch’s family, he’d tell them:“I had to shoot your son. I’m over it, and you need to get over it too.” Really inspiring stuff from the people who allegedly vow to protect and serve, am I right?
A press release from the MacArthur Justice Center, an organisation which helped bring the family’s lawsuit against the city about, stated: “Mr Finch’s killing was one of 23 police shootings in the city of Wichita over the preceding five years—none of which were meaningfully investigated or resulted in meaningful discipline for the officers involved.”
This sort of police shootings are endemic in the US, and it should come as no surprise that the Wichita police department, which included some SWAT team members involved in the shooting of Finch, had also been found to be sharing racist memes pertaining to the killing of George Floyd in a group chat.
While the prank call ultimately led to the tragic event, America’s trigger-happy police force are widely to blame for Finch’s demise. Police brutality is a constant battle for the country and the murder of Finch is just another symptom of this highly devastating sickness. With the proper training, ethics and structures in place, the tragic event may not have transpired as it did.
Swatting has always been part of the dangers of being active in the online world, but never has it led to such fatal consequences. Twitch streamers and YouTubers have constantly had to battle with the possibility of police showing up at their homes unannounced mid-stream as a result of phoney prank calls.
While some may naively view it as a fun spectacle for those watching the stream, these situations are terrifying to be in, and can lead to horrific consequences. Many streamers feel they need to go to tremendous lengths to protect themselves against this, with some even relocating out of genuine fear.
An article from the Washington Post revealed that a trans gamer and activist on Twitch had been subject to four instances of swatting in a period of just one week. Growing concerns over online safety led the US Congress to pass a bi-partisan bill in 2015 making hoax emergency calls a federal crime and therefore subject to sterner punishments.
Kotaku pointed out, however, that while awareness needs to be spread, the bill should also not take accountability away from “police departments that have disturbing track records of shooting people.”
While Finch’s family are finally receiving some closure over the unjust killing, there is still a long road ahead for those online who still need to be made aware of the consequences of exploiting the police system, as well as said system in regard to acting within the boundaries of its duty and care.
On 7 December 2022, Elden Ring—the hit title from Japanese developer FromSoftware—released a free update, complete with a colosseum arena for players to battle in and a series of small balance changes. The update was well received, but fans have pointed out a glaring flaw in the release of new hairstyles: its sole emphasis on euro-centric cuts. This oversight by FromSoftware and publisher Bandai Namco Entertainment is indicative of a wider issue in gaming, one that needs meticulous unpacking.
Following the Elden Ring update, a number of publications, notably The Verge, began highlighting the severe lack of diverse hairstyles in the game. Not having enough options in a video game where you customise your character is always annoying, and missing diverse hairstyles is not only frustrating but irresponsible.
Though Elden Ring features an extensive create-your-own-character system, one which is infamous for giving players the ability to make their characters look silly and outrageous if they wanted, it continues to be heavily lacking in options for ethnic minorities.
These omissions—whether intentional or not—reflect a systemic issue that the gaming industry needs to rectify. On top of being a thoughtless and insensitive move, it also overlooks the growing diversity of today’s gamers. Gaming is a medium that has absolutely skyrocketed in the last decade, and shows no signs of slowing down.
A 2015 study found that, while 72 per cent of white children play games, that number was higher in black, non-hispanic children at 83 per cent and slightly lower in hispanic children at 69 per cent. Another study from the same year outlined that the amount of adult gamers across all ethnicities is growing, with over half of black and hispanic adults stating that they play video games. These numbers show just how much the industry is expanding and how important it is to make sure that games are accessible to all.
However, this exponential growth has unfortunately uncovered persistent inequality within video games—particularly in a lack of options for gamers who aren’t from a white background, and a growing issue with toxic and racist gamers in voice chats.
SCREENSHOT reached out to publisher Bandai Namco Entertainment for a comment on the aforementioned issues regarding the game’s update. In response, the company stated that it would pass on the feedback to the developers. Whether or not we’ll actually witness an addition of new hairstyles any time soon remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Bandai Namco also suggested that we share our feelings on social media to “generate some traction.”
Although I believed the comment had a tinge of sarcasm to it at first, it’s not exactly easy to digest the fact that this was the publisher’s official comment. After thinking about it for a moment, it’s clear this response is directly emblematic of the issue at hand. Weak and noncommittal.
Looking back, this is not the first time the gaming industry has faced accusations regarding a lack of diversity. In November 2022, Final Fantasy XIV director Naoki Yoshida addressed the lack of representation in the game, stating: “Ultimately, we felt that while incorporating ethnic diversity into Valisthea [the setting of the game] was important, an over-incorporation into this single corner of a much larger world could end up causing a violation of those narrative boundaries we originally set for ourselves. The story we are telling is fantasy, yes, but it is also rooted in reality.”
Final Fantasy XIV is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG or more commonly MMO) for those that don’t know. It’s a combat-filled, fantastical sort of take on Second Life. MMOs are arguably the most important genre to represent people in, given that you are self-inserting your own created character into a virtual world. So, while Yoshida’s statement may seem earnest, it quickly crumbles when placed under any scrutiny or context.
In Yoshida’s game, you’re telling me that the line between mediaeval fantasy and reality only needs firm boundaries when it comes to race. The game features playable bunny characters and giant chickens you ride around on, but decent black and diverse representation crosses a line for the team? Make it make sense. Fans and critics on Twitter clapped back with scathing yet hilarious responses to the Final Fantasy news.
It should be noted that the games which come out of Japan aren’t often the bastions of diversity, given that the country is very ethnically homogenous, but when so many of their games reach such a global audience, it’s frustrating to see that these issues still get overlooked. The Pokémon Company for example—another team from Japan—does an excellent job at showcasing a diverse and varied cast of characters, often to widespread acclaim.
And the problem doesn’t stop at Elden Ring and Final Fantasy XIV either. A lack of diverse hairstyles can also be seen in other titles like Monster Hunter: World (which only got more POC options after its second expansion), and in 2021’s flop title Outriders, which only had four options for black gamers. The notoriously expensive Star Citizen also makes the list—you’d think some of that budget could have been spent on a few more hairstyles…
While Japan may have been slow on progress, the West has done a lot for diversity in gaming during our roaring 20s. Larian Studios’ Baldur’s Gate III and CD Projekt RED’s Cyberpunk 2077 were examples that showcased an excellent and varied representation in their customisation and character cast, allowing the player a myriad of options when it came to POC hairstyles specifically.
EA’s The Sims 4 is another great example with a slew of options, especially from its modding community. A special shoutout also to Nintendo’s 2020 pandemic saviour Animal Crossing: New Horizons, yet another game with inclusive and diverse options for users. It even had wonderfully progressive attitudes to gender expression and identity.
Let’s give you a little bit of a deeper dive into the options some of these games offer when making your character. In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, you’re met with a plethora of options, from a balanced variety of hairstyles and accurate skin tones to a positive and free expression of gender identity—no ageism either. In a step up from previous titles, the game lets you change your appearance whenever you want too, really honing in on its aims to allow users to freely express themselves.
The Sims 4 has similarly excellent character creation options, a system that EA has continually supported long since the game’s initial release. There are endless skin tone options and pages upon pages of hairstyles and inclusive features to choose from. And if that isn’t enough for you, you can easily mod The Sims 4, a system which allows you to import player-made creations into your own game.
Although some of these next titles don’t include options for creating your own character, it’s worth highlighting how much the industry has worked on improving its representation as a whole. Arkane Studios’ POC-led Deathloop and Respawn Entertainment’s Apex Legends are great examples of developers that get it right, with the latter being the most diverse game on the market right now, as highlighted by a study from DiamondLobby.
Riot Games’ Valorant has excellent representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds too. And of course, Blizzard’s Overwatch 2 continues to push a diverse cast of characters from all over the world.
All that being said, for me, the highlight in the industry has to be Supergiant Games’ Hades—a roguelike game steeped in a rich tapestry of Greek mythology. The indie hit effortlessly represents a wide range of ethnicities and orientations through its vibrant and engaging visuals, making it a treat and a must-play for anyone with an itch for mythology.
Gaming appears to fail the most when it comes to options in titles where you’re customising the character. A big issue in games is also the actual quality of the black hairstyles offered. It’s been such a persistent problem that you have independent creators setting up libraries to help teach and educate, like the amazing Open Source Afro Hair Library which is full of references and tutorials on how to improve the quality of black hair modelled for games.
Although the gaming industry is moving forward to be as progressive as it can be, other facets of society are beginning to slug behind, with recent news that the CROWN act—a US bill aiming to stop black hair discrimination—failed to clear the senate in the American courts on 14 December.
The blocking, although shocking, should come as no surprise and reminds us that no matter how many steps forward we take, someone will always try to gatekeep progress. I’m just glad things are looking a bit brighter for the future of inclusivity in the gaming industry and hope we’ll see it continue to spill over into the rest of our lives.