Somewhere in the thousands of words in Scribblenauts‘ massive dictionary, there is one that, whether developer 5th Cell intended it or not, comes off as more than a little racist.
The word in question is “sambo,” which is, yes, a particularly lethal form of martial arts practiced in Russia, but also a racial slur for black people with quite a history. Go ahead, it’s in your copy of Scribblenauts, too (if you’re in the States, that is). Type the word in, and what you get seems particularly inappropriate considering the connotations of the word: a watermelon.
Yikes. This couldn’t have been on purpose, right? Developer 5th Cell doesn’t have some sort of horrible hidden message they’re sending here, right? Of course not. According to creative director Jeremiah Slaczka, the whole thing’s just an unfortunate accident brought on by his team’s ridiculous commitment to cramming every single word in the world into Scribblenauts.
Apparently, as Slaczka told Joystiq, “sambo” in the game functions as an alternative term for the phrase “fig leaf gourd,” which is used in an Ecuadorian dish called fanesca. In Ecuador, the word for “fig leaf gourd” is sambo. So the team was just trying to make it an absolute possibility that somebody in Ecuador or with a knowledge of Ecuadorian cuisine would be able to flex their knowledge in the most authentic way in this game.
Fig leaf gourds do look like watermelons, which would account for the appearance. Indeed, the object that shows up when you summon a watermelon in Scribblenauts is the same one that shows up when you summon sambo. It’s the same art. “We reuse art,” Slaczka said. “Fig leaf gourd looks a lot like a watermelon. It’s just an alternative name in a giant list of tens of thousands of names.”
Slaczka, who said he didn’t even know what “sambo” meant as a slur until now, went on to explain that his company is far from racist by citing the fact that many of the characters in Scribblenauts and previous 5th Cell games are black. That’s kind of a flimsy defense, and an unnecessary one. This just seems like a random and unfortunate accident. Someone probably should have red flagged this during development, but when you’re dealing with 22,000 words or whatever, I suppose it could get hard to spot the trouble ones.
And yeah, somebody already did a riff on the Kanye West meme with this. So just don’t even fire up MS Paint guys.