We definitely need more novels about gaming, and not just about logging into an RPG or finding the latest model on Steam sales. No, seeing a YA book with coding and avatars makes a person feels hopeful. If a seventeen-year-old can do it, then so can we jaded adults. At least, I know I should be working on certain projects.
First, let me say that I am not black, and this book was not written for me. While I am interested in games and working on one, I have fortunately not been a victim of the larger controversies that are mired in white supremacy and misogyny.
Slay By Brittney Morris
Slay is a story about finding your values in a complicated, grey area world and learning to stand up for them. Kiera is our protagonist, who can see all the grey. No one knows that two girls are running the hottest MMORPG Slay, which requires an active user to give a new one a passcode so that it’s friends vouching for friends to create a safe space from racism. Also, the girls don’t know each other; while the two exchange messages on private chat, neither one shares details that would be identifying until things get serious.
The book varies between several POVs; there is Kiera the game developer of SLAY, her remote second-in-command Cicada, and a few one-shot chapters from people who play the game. We never get the voice of Anubis, aka Jamal, a teenager who gets killed over digital Slay coins. That’s because Kiera doesn’t even know he’s dead until she sees the news, and her heart sinks.
This turn of events makes one think of when a random father got hit by a SWAT team thanks to two players feuding online, taking advantage of our broken police system to make a phony phone call. Thankfully, we don’t see a SWAT happening in action, and the narrative makes it ambiguous as to if Jamal was swatted or if he was shot or beaten up. Such narratives are already traumatic, and for this story, it’s not necessary to see a black kid die on-camera. What’s more, we don’t need to turn it into a spectacle; the media in the book is already doing that.
Kiera is sad that one innocent gamer was killed over his inventory, but the sadness mixes with panic when a new user threatens the game. Dred blames her for Jamal’s death and wants to take over the entire enterprise. She’s not reassured when one of her classmates, a white boy named Wyatt, talks about suing the game over its “exclusionary policy”. Hiring a lawyer is the first step for Kiera, but there’s also the worry of the negative press and what a safe space being called racist is doing to her.
Talking about race in literature can be complicated, especially when there are so many outsiders who will not do the research and embarrass themselves when the reviews arrive. You know exactly which book I’m discussing, which is the subject of another article. It’s why Own Voices are so important, to give a voice to the nuances that outsiders cannot see, articulate, or even have the power to analyze. Ownvoices by itself can be complicated, because not every marginalized author can speak for a group. I, for example, can’t say I represent black people because that would be a big lie; in regards to Slay, I am an outsider.
Spoilers Beyond This Point
There are two guys in the story who are important to moving the plot forward: Malcolm and Wyatt. We’ve discussed Wyatt, who is a bit of a tool. Malcolm is much worse.
Wyatt and his sister Harper represent white cluelessness. They are Kiera’s classmates and the closest thing she has to friends at their prep school. Harper always asks for help or doesn’t realize how she’s insulting others. Wyatt seems very comfortable in having Kiera for a token black friend and using her as a source of reference. She calls him out, for example, for asking if white people can wear dreadlocks because no matter her answer, he’s either going to get offended or use her as a shield against criticism.
My personal preference would have been to see what happened with Wyatt after he found out who the creator of Slay was. It turns out that he couldn’t have moved a lawsuit forward, as even Harper and their parents were smart enough to realize it would be petty. Despite that, he owes Kiera an apology, though it will be hard to say if their friendship survives this. When someone is that petty, they have to work to earn back trust. Wyatt may not be willing to put in the work.
Malcolm is another case altogether. He claims that videogames hold black people back and that excellence only exists in certain fields. Kiera didn’t tell him about the game for those reasons, only to find out that Malcolm was playing Slay anyway, hacked her webcam, and made death threats to her on Twitter. Her younger sister Steph, who never liked Malcolm, calls the cops after talking sense into Kiera and ensures that the latter gets a proper restraining order on the guy. Kiera muses that for all of Malcolm’s talks about equality and self-improvement, he systematically destroyed the person he claimed to love best in the world and practiced textbook abuse. How exactly were they going to move to Georgia for college after he said he was going to kill her?
The sad thing about this is that Kiera’s instincts about not sharing her secret with Malcolm end up being right. She wants to start a future with him but realizes that she doesn’t know him at all, as Steph gently points out. Someone you love won’t destroy you when they discover your secret passions and skills. We see the contrast with Kiera’s parents, who are proud of her for standing tall and are more understanding when she explains she didn’t tell them because of how they don’t want her and her sister to look “tacky” or speak in AAVE (African American vernacular) and that they wouldn’t approve.
Meanwhile, there is a question about if making video games is a waste of time or not. I will maintain that coding is a viable skill that translates to many industries, and society has changed that we can learn from games on how to be better people or forgive ourselves. While Slay wouldn’t be my cup of tea because I prefer single-player games with stories and low learning curves, I applaud Kiera for doing a great job in rolling with the punches and rising to the occasion when people start scapegoating her MMORPG.
I’m eager to see where Brittney Morriss goes next with her writing. This is a stellar debut that strikes home with recent gaming controversies — Malcolm feels like a jab at the jerk who started Gamergate to harass his ex — and shows a way of handling the obstacles and gatekeeping that comes with a passion.