In his first TikTok video of the Civil War game War of Rights, Andrew Norris quietly pulls aside a Confederate peer, ready to reveal a secret. In the shadows of a ramshackle shed, Norris looks the flag-bearer in the eyes as musket fire rings out in the background. “Now look ‘ere. I’ll tell ya a lil’ secret. Alright, look man… I’m Black,” Norris says.
Before he can say another word, he hears another Confederate soldier opening the door, rifle raised.
“Eyyy, eyy, what’s u…” Norris says, before a gunshot rings out and the screen goes dark.
“Holy shit!” the flag-bearer cries over his dead body.
“You heard the man,” the shooter intones.
Norris, 28, has been grinding as a video game streamer on Twitch through the pandemic, uploading clips from a variety of genres to his YouTube channel and TikTok. But nothing has gotten him attention quite like his exploits and travails on the massive War of Rights, a first-person shooter in which players embody a soldier on the dawn of the Maryland campaign and the bloodiest day in the Civil War, the Battle of Antietam. Released by Danish developer Campfire Games in 2018, the indie PC game never hit mass mainstream success, but maintains a dedicated following thanks to its beautiful aesthetic, simple gameplay and its ability to host up to 300 players in a single battle.
Inspired by clips of soldiers going “behind enemy lines” for laughs on War of Rights, Norris wondered how far he could stretch the gag. “With the history of the game’s subject, and it literally being about the Civil War, I thought it was going to be something of an experience to come out as a Black dude on the Confederate side,” Norris tells me. “I was right.”
At its very best, War of Rights can be two things: An immersive historical experience in which players can role-play with the speech, tactics and discipline of a real Civil War reenactment unit… or an utter shitshow marked by laugh-out-loud bayonet charges, comical accents and general tomfoolery. Norris has won fans since August by diving deep into the latter world, capturing not just the hilarity but the pure, uncut toxicity of a game world in which impressionable kids and grown men alike embody America’s racist origins by “role-playing” as Southern bigots.
Much of Norris’ most common bits revolve around the awkward moment in which his Confederate peers realize he’s a Black man — “You sound a little, uhh, pigmented,” as one soldier notes — and the (usually violent) consequences of being outed. The clips on TikTok play up Norris’ internal monologue for laughs, especially as he tries to convince other players that he’s not their enemy.
It’s obvious in so many of these moments that Norris is in on the joke, cackling over racially charged situations that he purposefully incites. Some of his best clips come from moments when he’s gently trying to calm Confederate bloodlust down, including when a random private mentions that their commanding officer “said he was Black.”
“I-I think we should rethink killin’ Black people, boys,” Norris stammers, smirking. “They… cook some good feeeewd!”
“Who said that? Who said that??” come the replies.
“They do cook good fewd, but afterwerd they’re just there!” yells another private, before the small mob corners Norris and stabs him to death.
But what’s perhaps most fascinating about this social experiment isn’t the (somewhat) good-natured highlights that Norris posts online — it’s all the moments Norris has to grit his teeth through and eventually edit out, wondering how much hate the anonymous person on the other side of the screen actually harbors. “All the time, almost every Thursday or whenever I get on the game, there is at least one actual racist on there. The person who is there to offend you, knows who you are and just wants to disrupt you and be rude,” Norris says. “It is uncomfortable. There is a difference between role-players and the big cringelords in there, but to hear actual racists, it’s always uncomfortable.”
The world of online multiplayer gaming has been infamous for serving as the liminal space between fringe, irony-laced, Extremely Online® lulz and literal hate speech designed to oppress and dominate others. There’s been story after story about the tangible harms of these platforms, where being called slurs, getting harassed in-game or stalked by obsessive haters is normalized as something you just have to deal with — especially if you’re a woman or LGBT.
But there’s also been a confluence of streamers who want to out this gross behavior, mock it openly and use their own platforms to defuse the power of hate speech — all while still flexing their own game skills, comedic timing and personalities. It’s a fine line between encouraging toxicity to make for a viral clip, versus just allowing people to spew hate to your face, Norris tells me.
Sometimes it gets so bad that he worries about streaming live, in case he gets flagged for offensive content. Other times, you can just tell Norris isn’t quite laughing at the premise, like in a clip from February where multiple people drop the N-word while calling for the killing of Black people and their allies.
It’s not just a quirk of playing as a Confederate — Norris notes that he’s run into serious racists and harassers while playing for the Union forces, too. And by nature of his growing popularity since he started streaming War of Rights, sometimes people already know who he is, attracting more over-the-top antics and racist role-play in a way that can hijack the gaming experience. “I’ve heard criticism before, on both sides. Black people have called me a sellout and all that stuff, saying I should be ashamed to platform this. There have been white people who are offended by me pretending to be a Southern person, and stuff like that,” he says. “But man, I’m like, the essence of it is comedy. I kind of feel bad for offending anyone, but they don’t understand the purpose of role-play and dark comedy. I look back at The Dave Chappelle Show and the [satire] Chappelle was trying to do, that’s inspiring.”
Nonetheless, Norris does wish that War of Rights and its development team could regulate hate speech more. The task is made more complicated by the use of live “proximity chat” (in which players can only hear and speak with other players within a certain virtual distance from their avatar). But the streamer suggests that censoring certain phrases on the text-based chat, and creating ways to report repeat offenders, could go a long way in reducing racist harassment — a point that other critical players have brought up on forums like Reddit.
“These experiences do make me think about the big issues in America. There is no doubt that there’s rampant racism in America today. I don’t think it’ll ever go away because of the strong ties we hold to the past,” Norris says. “That hatred we have for each other is sad and blatant. Sometimes, when I play this game, it makes me think more about the hate in the world than the goodness, you know? If someone is so comfortable dropping slurs online for a game, it makes me wonder what hatred they’re spewing into the world. It takes a toll on people, including them.”
Such is the nature of humor, trolling and bad-faith “role-play” in the gaming world, in which young edgelords and genuinely angry men roam and rub shoulders, finding community in violent speech. Anyone who’s spent time in public servers is resigned to the fact that this is apparently the price we must pay for the joy of mass multiplayer gameplay. But there’s nothing quite like a literal existential war over slavery, Black humanity and national identity to stoke the worst tropes and slurs in gamers today — and in War of Rights, the hateful pleasure of targeting a Black man lingers on. Maybe, one day, the Culture® and game developers alike will agree such toxicity is off-the-table.
Until then, Norris will keep streaming through the bullshit anyway — even if it means pretending to be a white racist himself once in a while, just for a laugh.