Scribblenauts caught in 'sambo' racism controversy

8:00 AM on 09.17.2009

Jim Sterling

Former Reviews Editor

It had to happen, really. With over 22,000 words in its vocabulary, it was only a matter of time before someone managed to find a racist angle with Scribblenauts, and that racism came in the form of the word "sambo." The word, commonly regarded as a derogatory term for black people, is in the game. Even worse, it conjures up a watermelon when used -- a fruit classically portrayed as the favorite food of a stereotypical black man. 

According to 5th Cell, this racially charged imagery occurred totally by accident. Creative director Jeremiah Slaczka told Joystiq that "sambo" is an Ecuadorian name for "fig leaf gourd." The gourd looks like a watermelon because 5th Cell reuses art for a number of in-game items.

"Fig leaf gourd looks a lot like a watermelon," he said. "It's just an alternative name in a giant list of tens of thousands of names."

Slaczka then pulled the classic, "we're not racist, look at all our not-racist stuff" card, detailing a number of black characters in the game, and going so far as to talk about 5th Cell's previous title, Lock's Quest, and pointing out that one of the characters in it was black. In addition, Slaczka also claims he had no idea that "sambo" was a racist term.

Did 5th Cell do this on purpose? I sincerely doubt it, since everybody's so terrified of looking like a racist that I can't imagine this was intentional, even as a joke. Nevertheless, I am amazed that nobody within 5th Cell knew any better and figured that using the word "sambo" was perhaps a bad idea. Anybody with a shred of social intuition should have seen this mini-controversy coming a mile away, no matter how silly it is.

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