Blinded by the Light

So, there’s a new hashtag out that’s making some of the rounds of some of the usual places, and that is another battle, perhaps, in the ongoing gaming culture wars. Really, I have no idea how to refer to any of this stuff anymore without ticking someone off, and to be honest I’ve lost interest in trying to avoid ticking people off. I’m far more interested in trying to express things accurately, but since that seems impossible …

Ahem. Anyway, the hashtag is #IStandWithTauriq, aimed at defending someone who wrote an article about race in gaming, faced at times harsh criticism from people on Twitter with some comments that were unacceptable but were, well, pretty much what you commonly see from the Internet (unfortunately) and decided to leave Twitter, with this hashtag being used for people to decry this and fight against this and other sorts of unacceptable harassment that you see there.

I’m not going to talk about that part. For one, I think that excessive harassment is wrong and have said it on many occasions, so I don’t need to say it now. For another, after digging into it a bit how much of the response was harassing, how much was simple criticism — even if harsh — and how much was even directed at him is debatable, and so I can’t even tell what the story is accurately enough to write a good article about it. So I’m not going to. What I am going to do is talk about the original article. Tauriq Moosa wants reasonable criticism, discussion and debate … and I’m going to give it to him in spades.

The article starts by commenting on the recent Rust issue, which is essentially this: When the post-apocalyptic (I think) survival game was launched, the only avatars you could have were white bald men. Recently, they added the ability to have more customizable avatars, including being able to have different races … well, if you wanted your race to be white or black. That “have different races” is important, because you don’t get to choose your race; instead, it is randomly generated for you and cannot be changed. The player doesn’t get to see the avatar in-game, but other players do. And as it’s based on your Steam Id — which is what you always use to play the game — there is no way to change what race you are no matter how many times you delete and restart the game. This garnered many complaints from people who wanted to play the game, from people who didn’t want to play as a black character when they were white to people who griped about being unable to choose what race the avatar was (as I’ll explain later, these groups are not identical). At the same time, people who were interested in pushing for diversity hailed this as a wonderful social experiment, which the designers, at least publicly, embraced as the reason to do this, causing more backlash. And there was much fighting.

Moosa here summarizes this the way most of those on the “diversity” side summarized it: when people had to play as a white avatar, then that was fine, but when they’re forced to play as a black avatar, then that’s terrible. So this simply reflects how whiteness (and also maleness) is seen as the default, and how that isn’t political but that pushes for blackness or, more generally, for minority representation is seen as political when the status quo of majority representation isn’t. Thus, it’s just another reflection of racism in video games.

The problem is that Rust is a really, really bad example to hang your hat on for this. For most of the games where Moosa says that he has to play as a white male character, there is, in fact, an actual defined character. If a game is going to force me to play as Miku Hinasaki — Japanese teenaged female — I’m going to accept that, because they will define a character and then make the definition of that character matter to the story. I accept Miku just as much as I accept Yuri Hyuga as a default and don’t care about the details (note that Yuri, one of my favourite male characters and favourite characters ever, is in fact half-German half-Japanese). This is because I’m not really trying to be them, but am instead trying to guide them through their story. This is not, of course, the way I approach a game like The Old Republic, where I get to create my character. Even though the game guides them through a linear story, to a large extent I want them to be like the character I want them to be, and not just some defined character that I follow.

In Rust, you don’t get a defined character with a defined story and a defined personality. Instead, you get a blank slate. From the start, people almost certainly complained about not being able to customize the appearance of the avatar — even though they couldn’t see it themselves — and so when the designers allowed for there to be more variety in appearances players almost certainly expected to be able to choose their appearance as far as the engine would allow them to. After all, what other reason could they have for introducing it? So discovering that not only was that not the case, but that the reason for not allowing that ended up being some kind of social experiment aiming at supporting strong social justice arguments was definitely going to ruffle feathers. After all, the argument isn’t that it makes the game more fun, but that it either promotes a specific social agenda or that it’s something that lets the designers have more fun at the expense of their players. I was also shocked that this could be seen as supporting social justice when one of their big concerns is about letting players of colour play as the race they actually are … and this game introduced the ability to play as that race but then, at random, would say “No soup for you!”. Only the intense schadenfreude of forcing white players to play as black avatars could get them thinking that this was in any way a good idea.

In order to get to the point Moosa et al want to get to, you have to ask: what would the reaction be if the characters in Rust or in any game started with a black or female character and didn’t give the choice? And my answer is this: if the game doesn’t tout it as a way to introduce diversity, there likely won’t be much at all. I don’t recall much controversy over Miku in Fatal Frame, or Heather in Silent Hill 3, because what they did was put out a game that had a female protagonist, but didn’t try to express that as some great leap forward in diversity or for feminism or whatever. Thus, we believe that they did it because they thought it made the game better (with Silent Hill 3, it let them return to the story of the first game and explore the consequences from a unique and important angle). Gamers will, rightly, be at least concerned if not annoyed and maybe even outraged if they perceive that game elements are not being chosen not for what they add to the fun of the game, but for what boxes they check off on some social justice checkbox.

Or think about it this way: if the designers had started with all of the characters being green — which could be a wonderful send-up of a post-apocalyptic, radiation-drenched future — and then decided to make it so that you could have avatars of white, black or green but that you couldn’t choose which, do you really think that there wouldn’t be similar criticisms? “Why can’t I play as Hulkling anymore?” would come the cries. In fact, when I first heard about this story, one of my thoughts was “Hmmm. Post-apocalyptic world where only the strong can survive. I want to play as The Sisko. Except, I can’t, unless the random number generator code happens to come up on that race for me. When I couldn’t choose my race, I could do it because the outward appearance said nothing about the character. When the outward appearance can be changed, then it does seem to suggest, hint at, and limit what characters I can play as. And that’s a serious problem.

(As an aside, I’m now very tempted to put “The Sisko” into the Trooper slot in TOR. I originally had Jag Fel there, but thought the bounty hunter path suited him better, but that meant bumping Logan out of there, who I had there originally because of the role and the link with Mako, but I think that The Sisko works better for the Trooper anyway.)

The next thing Moosa talks about is “The Witcher 3”, where the game doesn’t contain a single human person of colour. He gives a reason for why this isn’t highlighted strongly enough to his satisfaction:

Let’s look at a few uncomfortable facts. Almost every Witcher 3 review I came across was written by a white man — excellent writers and all of whom I respect. But games media itself is, like the tech world, a very white-male dominated area. This is why we got a hundred articles confronting the Witcher 3 devs about less pretty grass physics, but not a single article asking them about no people of color.

Of course, he is actually corrected by the editor of Polygon pointing out that their article actually did that. Did he not read the review done by the site that he was writing the article for. But another reason is probably that given the setting — Slavic/European middle-age — the fact that you only see white characters is more believable. But Moosa has a reply to this:

But this misses a crucial point: Things are not equal. We are not in a medium that features predominantly Indian men, Chinese women, or focuses on stories from Africa. We’re part of an industry that frequently tells the stories of white people and stars white people.

Thus, wanting more people of color in stories that focus on mythology for a predominantly white culture doesn’t work the other way. Wanting white people in spaces dedicated to people of color ignores that stories of white people already dominate this and other creative industries.

The problem here is that, essentially, the creators of this game are from Poland and wanted to write a game that expressed things from their perspective. If you read through the comments, you’d see the quotes that say that Poland is well over 90% white, and that at the time the ratio was at least as bad. So essentially here he’d be criticizing a minority culture for wanting to express things as seen from their culture. And it’s not like the Polish were ever discriminated against for being Polish, right? Oh, wait, they were. So much for intersectionality, then. We can allow you to express things from your own minority perspective and respect diversity right up until the point that it clashes with some artificial quota of representation, at which point you can’t do that anymore.

Look, the obvious solution here is not to push representation into places where it doesn’t fit, but instead to make more diverse games. Creating new fantasy worlds based on Indian, Chinese or African history and mythology will help to break out of the same-old, same-old rut that these fantasy worlds often have, allowing for some new and fresh takes and help to extend the diversity of games. For example, the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” series is based on Chinese history/folklore, and was certainly successful, and was a series of games that I, personally, loved. We need to do more like that, and build new worlds where a diverse cast isn’t a problem, not try to shove it into a world and game just to have it.

He moves on to try to talk about how having fantasy races and dealing with racism issues through that is problematic:

It should be mentioned that The Witcher 3 deals with “racism,” but other “races” literally refers to different species: Elves, dwarves and other non-humans face bigotry.

Indeed, it shows again that humans are white humans and everyone else is non-human and oppressed. I’m not against racism being depicted; the game actually portrays racism and bigotry as bad. But even elves have the opportunity to exist. People of color don’t.

Again: This is literal dehumanizing of people of color. We are relegated to non-human species, whose treatment is supposed to mimic real-world racist policies. This sci-fi/fantasy trope of dealing with racism by showing inter-species treatment could work — if all the humans weren’t white.

Which also ties in with his previous comment on how with fantasy races and monsters the idea of being “historically accurate” goes out the window. Except it doesn’t, because as is pointed out in the comments the story is based on that time and that place, with some minor folklore elements inserted into it. Given that it is supposed to reflect in at least some way a historical time and place, what should we do if we insert PoC into that setting? Do we reflect the racism that they would experience in that setting in the game, which means that in general even our main character either should be or at least should be given the opportunity to act racist? Or do we leave human-human racism out completely, thus sanitizing the setting and thus leaving out all race issues as somehow being miraculously solved? From what I can see, either will be criticized by the same people who want to see diversity. If you do the former, then the game will be criticized for including incidents of racism. If you do the latter, then it will be criticized for sanitizing an era and showing it as being equal when it wasn’t (see The Sisko’s argument against Vic’s in DS9 for how that argument would go). The designers, then, simply cannot win.

Besides, the best way to approach racial issues through games is to cast the discussion into a metaphor that bypasses our ingrained and conditioned responses. If we can see why it is wrong to discriminate against the elves, then we ought to be able to see how it is wrong to discriminate against people who are, in fact, less different from us than the elves are from the humans in that setting. It’s not eliminating PoC to take their issues and cast them in a light that allegorizes it in order to avoid knee jerk and conditioned reactions, so this criticism seems to be way out of place … so much so that it becomes insulting to people who really aren’t trying to do — and aren’t actually doing — anything like what he assert they’re doing.

We also need to note the anger and hostility to minority concerns from those who are always catered to. We should recognize that such hostility is precisely what we do not want in a culture.

Tolerance, not toxicity, is what we should aim for. That such hostility exists at all is the problem,and it perpetuates the silencing of our concerns — leading to marginalized people leaving white-male-dominated industries altogether.

But it’s not like your approach can be called “non-hostile” itself. In Rust, you badly denigrate people who want to play as the race they are just as PoC want to play as the race they are … or so they say. You denigrate people for simply producing a game based on their own minority viewpoint, and accuse them of dehumanizing you because they wanted to avoid the hassle of trying to deal with the issues that people on your side will raise if they try to include races into that setting. You insist that the objections come from a perspective of being catered to as opposed to legitimate complaints about how this isn’t actually done in service of a fun game. While the reactions may well be more hostile than deserved, you do have to take some responsibility for taking an aggressive line with people and silencing their concerns while complaining that others are silencing yours. If you want a discussion, discuss, don’t dictate. And if you say that your opponents are dictating and not discussing, find the ones who are discussing. They exist, and you might benefit from listening to them specifically.

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3 Responses to “Blinded by the Light”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    Outstanding job. Kudos.

  2. Andrew Says:

    In Portal, your avatar is female, as you’ll discover if you manage to look at yourself through a portal or pick up on some very subtle bits in the mood dialogue. I don’t recall much outrage or comment.

    Now imagine if you got randomly assigned a character, and it was online, and you couldn’t change it…

    Few people care much if there is only one way to express yourself. People object *strongly* if there are “options” but the game forces one of them on you, not letting you choose.

  3. Social Justice Vs Games: Rust | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] so, to start with, let me use as my first example a game that I’ve talked about tangentially before, “Rust”. Essentially, this game is being lauded in the media as a grand social experiment, in what […]

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