There is a desire in almost any creative pursuit to push envelopes and break taboos. An audience’s interpretation of this can vary: some might see these works as important criticism, others might see it as attention-seeking shock value, and it’s unlikely that anyone but the creator will ever really know the original intent. Videogames have been no exception to this, though perhaps not always for the right reasons. The industry has always had somewhat of a Napoleon complex compared to other forms of entertainment, but can’t risk alienating anyone by running too fast or going too far. Thus, videogames sometimes find themselves in the awkward position of wanting to represent social taboos without actually calling them out directly, and this indirect compromise of vaguely pointing at a problem isn’t really helping.
I loved The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It ended up at the top of my game of the year list in 2015, despite the rocky start and many patches. I have great affection for this game, but even I laughed out loud at prerelease trailers meant to emphasize how realistic and gritty this fantasy world could be. “Even racism,” the narrator bellowed with a degree of marketing gravity that would form a firm smile on the face of even the most stoic viewer. Still, I tried to put my cynicism aside and hope for the best. Maybe, I thought, we’re finally going to have a game that handles racism well and isn’t just stand-ins of elves and dwarves being mistreated!
The Witcher 3 excelled at many things, but the way it handled race was not one of them.
The Witcher 3 isn’t alone in that respect, of course. It is a weakness shared by so many other videogames that it’s easy enough to not even see it as a weakness anymore and, to be honest, I doubt most people really care to do so. There’s lots of self-congratulatory back patting from within the industry and the community on how depictions of elves or aliens being treated as lesser by other species is actually brilliantly subversive, bringing racial issues to light to people that are rarely exposed to them. Pointing out racial oppression with sock puppets doesn’t parallel actual racial oppression, however, it distracts from it. In the worst case scenarios, it seems to even trivialize it.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: in the new blockbuster RPG, the player party requires aid from a marginalized fictional race. In working with them, the player realizes the in-game stereotypes were wrong, but there are always a few radicals to properly color shades of gray to the entire situation. Bonus points if you can tell whether I’m describing Mass Effect, Dragon Age, The Witcher or most other RPG series out there. Besides just being well-trodden territory, does this seemingly inevitable subplot actually get anyone thinking about their own views? Does it after the tenth occurrence, for that matter?
Videogames present race in a 2D fashion, where scratching the surface is considered enough depth to be satisfactory. This is not an intentional failing, as much as any failing in development is intentional. Narratives have almost always taken a backseat in development and, when combined with the idea of charting fairly tense and sensitive areas, it might make more sense in the moment to simplify a complicated topic than fully explore it. It follows, then, that videogames tend to analogize race and couch it in terms of the fantastical to shroud a complicated problem in a bite-sized wrapper.
Simplification comes at a cost, invisible though it may seem in isolated cases. We start wondering why everything is not solved so quickly and stop looking at the deeper complications inherent in dealings with actual people. It is easy to do a quest for some dwarves and suddenly be loved by their entire race; it’s harder to understand why years of tension can erupt into the streets. While no one can lay this entirely at the feet of any one videogame, or videogames in general, it is disappointing as a fan of the medium to see them still afraid to really push the envelope while still demanding credit for the effort. Doing so informs a worldview that demands abstraction over detail and videogames are capable of using interaction to have players think about ideas from different angles.
People who think videogames should stay away from being agents of social change are in an ever-shrinking minority and want to limit an entire area of artistic expression to fit inside a small, unchanging box. The bad news for them is that we are already there. Videogames are expressing a desire to take on different topics like terminal disease, same-sex relationships and, yes, race. The problem is that they are not going far enough and are content with lessons and morals as undemanding as “Systematic oppression is probably bad.” I would hope people could come to that conclusion on their own.
If videogames are going to try, try harder. If they’re going to do, do better. Claiming grandeur with your marketing on the audacity of racism, then managing to boil that down to elves and dwarves as racial vaudeville, betrays the original intention. The game then becomes a satire of racial strife, the window-shopping version of activism. We should be past the age where slapping a moral choice on an elf constitutes tackling racism as a social taboo, much less be touted so proudly in the marketing. I appreciate the effort, but I find myself increasingly tired of only being able to appreciate it all as just an effort.
Imran Khan is a San Francisco-based writer who tweets a lot @imranzomg.