UMBRAkinesis: The Anti-Black Imagery of Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad

I never expected to make a foray into the field of video games journalism, but stranger things have happened, namely 2020, a year littered with unexpected misfortune for mankind as a collective; especially marginalised folks who look like me. With the outpouring of anger right now, against the backdrop of a wicked pandemic that is disproportionately stealing the lives of Black and Indigenous folks, I should not have to write about Ubisoft’s idiotic decision to release the kind of interactive alt-right copaganda, that could only have been cooked up in some twenty-something white supremacist’s wet dream. Yet here we are.

For those who are unaware, I am referring to Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad, a “Turn Based Tactical-Shooter” for Android and iOS that places the player in the role of commander of the eponymous Special Forces-esque combat unit. Backed by the world’s governments, you must destroy a “generic” terrorist organisation the developers, Owlient, have dubbed “Umbra”. Nothing seems out of the ordinary, right? Wrong. For some reason known only to the largely monochromatic staff at Owlient, not only have they used what is clearly the Black Raised Fist symbol as the emblem for the game’s terrorist organisation—synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement—they also named the group “Umbra”, which is Latin for “shadow” or “darkness”. This speaks to something far more sinister. This isn’t so much a dog whistle designed to appeal to a gaming culture known for being deeply racist and misogynistic—it is a blaring anti-Black airhorn.

Comparing an organisation like Black Lives Matter to terrorists by using a fictional analogue which bares more than a passing resemblance, is not only dangerous and ahistorical, it is wilfully violent. It echoes a narrative that has been routinely pushed by prominent alt-right figures, known for their deep-seated anti-Blackness. Owlient’s decision to use this symbolism and messaging is way past the realms of faux-pas. It is too specific and deliberate to have been an oversight on their part. To make things even worse, in a statement posted to the game’s official Twitter account and on a Youtube upload of the game’s intro video, the developers gutlessly painted Umbra’s resemblance to Black Lives Matter as purely coincidental.

The fact that this was likely approved for release by folks further up the chain at Owlient’s parent company, Ubisoft, should come as no surprise. Ubisoft is a company widely known for having a toxic workplace culture, inhospitable to women and people of colour. However, Ubisoft is but one large cog in a gaming industry machine, plagued with the rust of caustic individuals in its upper echelons. They have utilised their power to create monochromatic workplaces littered with individuals who delight in predatory behaviour, misogyny and anti-Blackness, and create works which are direct reflections of their character.

Hopefully, there will be a time when video games with narratives as overtly anti-Black as “Elite Squad”, won’t be so much as a proposal. However, for that to happen, Ubisoft, Owlient, and the gaming industry as a whole need to take a long hard look at themselves and enact change to exorcise their problematic culture. They also need to ensure that those at all levels of the industry, from the boardroom to the dev floor, are representative of society as a whole. Until this change occurs, violent anti-Black fantasies like Elite Squad will continue to see the light of day.

Update: Ubisoft announced they would be removing the Black Fist per this tweet.

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