Sunday, February 9, 2014

White Fantasies and Popular Culture: Should Non-Whites be Included in a "Realistic" Video Game About Medieval Europe?

We find meaning through popular culture. It is a space where identities are negotiated and a society's values and beliefs are reinforced--as well as being subverted and challenged. Ultimately, popular culture is a projection of a society's collective subconscious.

As I have discussed here and elsewhere on numerous occasions--and with no small amount of controversy on the part of those who disagree with a basic thesis--popular culture is a space where political values and dominant norms around race, class, gender, and sexual are both reinforced and reproduced.

Popular culture is not "just" a fun distraction. Its power lies in the ability of individuals to dismiss it as "harmless", when in fact, popular culture is one of the dominant means through which individuals are socialized into a set of cultural and social values.

For example, The Walking Dead, which returns to television on Sunday night, is not "just" about zombies. Rather, the zombie motif is a way of working through anxieties about gender, nationality, freedom, human nature, survival, race, consumerism, faith, and other issues.

The HBO mini-series True Detective is a meditation on the place of religion in a nihilistic world, and where the story is set against the crippling poverty of rural New Orleans. Of note, careful viewers of True Detective have likely noticed how African-Americans are both invisible and hyper-visible in the story through the use of flashbacks as a narrative device.

I am particularly fascinated by how questions of race and representation remain present even in those spaces where individuals are seeking escape through popular culture and finding pleasure in creating alternate lives through traditional pen and paper role-playing games, having adventures in video games, engaging in speculative exercises of the imagination through literature and other media, or attending events such as The World Science Fiction Convention.

Discussions of how race and gender still "matter" in those "fun" and ostensibly "neutral" spaces are very impassioned. Why? Those spaces are "their" spaces. And how dare "you" bring "your" issues into "their" world.

White Supremacy and white privilege are operative across every aspect of American society. Ironically, fantasy--what should be detached and separate from the "real world"--is one of the spaces where Whiteness is most entrenched as an ideological force.

The fantastical spaces of video games, comic books, role-playing games, conventions, and other mediums/venues are not racially unmarked: there are "White" fantasies, "male" fantasies, and "straight" fantasies which are not universal...although they gain their power through a pretense and appeal to normality.

When the particular nature of a given fantasy is identified, its owners and adherents can become very defensive.

This dynamic is even more pronounced among those who imagine themselves as "outsiders" and somehow separate, if not superior to others, because of their choice in hobbies and interests. Self-described progressives, visionaries, futurists, and free-thinkers can be the most reactionary when confronted about how they too participate in and support systems of white privilege, racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.

Relative invisibility is one of the most powerful and enduring aspects of white supremacy and Whiteness. This is accomplished through appeals to "common sense" and the language of "everyone" or "it's just normal".

If such assumptions are challenged, and the particular way that the white racial frame operates is exposed (as a myopic and narrow understanding of the world, and not one that is all encompassing and natural) an uncomfortable truth is made visible.

The roles for people of color (and the Other more generally) in White fantasies are limited and circumscribed. There is a defined script for non-whites as viewed through the White Gaze. Those roles are even more pronounced in the realm of fantasy and speculative fiction (both interactive and otherwise). The best works of speculative literature and art, both digital and traditional, subvert and challenge those norms by making them clear and present in the text. The common, those examples of popular culture that are the worst examples of what we can derisively term as "mass culture", simply take Whiteness and White fantasies as a given.

To point. There is a discussion over at Kotaku via the sites The Daily Dot and Medieval People of Color about the "historical accuracy" of an upcoming video game called "Kingdom Come: Deliverance" that would have non-white characters in Medieval and Renaissance era Europe.

The quest for a "historically accurate video game" is an oxymoron. This does not limit predictably racist responses such as the following:

Idiots Fight To Keep A Medieval Game White

The following comment is very revealing as well. While it strives for a reasonable reading of history, it too is steeped in a type of unconscious and taken for granted white privilege that does the work of White Supremacy:
Well, as a historian, a gamer, and a decent human being, I'm torn on this (although not at all torn on the reaction of the "Death to SJW" fellow, which was despicable and rude).
There were quite a few people of black or Arabic decent in medieval Europe, especially after the early Crusading era, due to trade and the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem operating as a "cultural portal" between various peoples (and if any of you bring up Assassin's Creed as valid history, I'll find out where you live and . . . um . . . tie you up, and make you play only the Abstergo parts).
Also Spain's Christians and Muslims were, while technically at war for over 750 years, living through long periods of relative peace, trade, and even intermarriage in some places. Despite what some (poorly researched) modern histories might indicate, the Spanish Inquisition did not remove the Muslims or Arabic-decent Christians from Spain in any significant amounts (although there were periods of deportment for some Jews and Muslims, while others left voluntarily; it wasn't a very friendly period to say the least).
So, yeah, there could have been a decent amount of colored people in Bohemia, from a variety of sources.
The problem is, they wouldn't be knights, nobles, or anyone else you're likely to encounter or care about in a video game where you play an action hero. They were usually monks or servants (or both), almost always second-class citizens (except in Spain), and sometimes isolated to their own communities. 
Moreover, it wouldn't be accurate to say they were a "common sight" in late medieval Northern Europe; while there are records of black and Arabic people mixing in society with white people, and being accepted as warriors, merchants, or any number of other professions, they were always the exception rather than the rule.
So while it might be historically accurate to portray them as townspeople or religious brothers or sisters, being able to play as a black character or finding one sitting on a local throne or something isn't where I'd go if the goal were historical accuracy.
But that said, there's more than enough leeway and historical "blind spots" in our knowledge to integrate people of African descents subtly into a game like Kingdom Come (Asians, Native Americans, and Subcontinent Indians, not so much).
The problem here is simple. Most white Europeans would not have been knights, nobles, or other social elites. White players will not be limited by such a fact. The fantasy of being high-born and a "hero" trumps how such circumstances were outliers. Why should black and brown players be limited by historical veracity and "accuracy" in a video game?

The public's cultivated ignorance about the interracial and cross-cultural contacts that typify human history is not surprising. There are Americans who still believe that Gone with the Wind is a documentary film. Undoubtedly, there are likely many more people who think that Rome was a "white" society, that Europeans were the only people to explore the world, and that anyone who was not "white" was sitting around waiting to be "discovered".

Eurocentrism has a crippling effect on a person's cognitive and intellectual abilities. It magnifies one's sense of security and importance. Eurocentrism does this through compelling lies that distort reality and the historical record.

Video games are not immune from the alluring intoxication of Eurocentrism. Video games are a powerful tool for political socialization. Those mediated fantastical realities are sites for teaching about history. There are "technologies" of race. Historically, these have included the printing press, "science", radio, and other types of mass media. Digital media is part of that trajectory: video games will reflect the complex tensions within a multiracial democracy, one that is very racially and class segregated on a day-to-day basis, with a self-consciously "integrated" popular culture, in a neoliberal moment, and where globalization is the norm.

Video games and other online digital media will be spaces for the macro and micro level aggressions known as cyber-racism. This is a mirror for America's (and the West's) public anti-racist turn after the civil rights moment and the end of World War 2. In the United States, formal White supremacy retreated to private spaces, and now hides behind "colorblindness" while marching under the banner of movement conservatism and the White Right in the United States. Anti-racism is a public norm. Yet, American society remains steeped in systems which sustain and support white race and class privilege.

The Age of Obama is a mixed, dynamic, and contradictory space for matters of racial justice and progress. Video games are reflections of that fact.

My hope is that the fantasies and adventures which we can live out through video games and other digital media can be more hopeful, forward, thinking, and radical than the present day "real world". Speculative texts should be a place for dreaming. The challenge for those who are racially privileged is to divorce themselves from a taken for granted assumption that their fantasies, and the worlds they inhabit, are necessarily those of others.


lioness said...

How timely. I was wondering what you would think of this week's Oglaf cartoon, "Audition": Oglaf is a sex farce. The images are not safe for work or your funny bone.

Yastreblyansky said...

That's such a great insight. There should be an all-white medieval village game where there's only one person who knows where his breakfast is coming from, a priest who never in fact shows up.

kokanee said...

My fantasy, my character. Duh!


"Please select the character that you would like to be for your fantasy from our huge selection of white male characters."

Myshkin the Idiot said...

Is it too much to ask? Someone with the knowledge even drops by to highlight there may have been people of color in positions like that so it's not actually off the mark in gaming.

I wonder how these people would feel if 90% of their video game characters were always people of color with no white option... they would probably lose their minds.

kokanee said...

Or limit them.

Scopedog said...

Well said...

Scopedog said...

A great post...and one that was sorely needed.

When it comes to video games, yes, the players can be found all over the spectrum and can be found in both genders, but that does not mean that we should clam up when it comes to the issues that you discussed here, Chauncey.

And let's not forget--the world of video game production (at least here in the US) is still predominantly White and male.

One more thing...for some reason, while reading this, I thought of Kentaro Miura's dark fantasy manga BERSERK (still going strong after twenty years!), which takes place in a setting inspired by Medieval Europe. One of the main characters is a female soldier, Casca, who is dark-skinned and the _only_ female soldier.

(And I do recommend BERSERK--it is not for the faint of heart--hell, it would've made Tolkien run for the hills--but it is a well-written manga with excellent art.)

yarpyarp said...

Mr. DeVega,

What if the gamers openly and without remorse acknowledge that they wish to game in an alternate reality where there are only whites? What if an equally remorseless video game provider creates and openly markets a game specifically for those who want to be white characters in an all white virtual world? What course of action if any do you suggest?

kokanee said...

I wonder how these people would feel if one was able to choose a a character that was a person of interest color and go around killing an all-white cast of characters... they would probably lose their minds.

chauncey devega said...

I would applaud the honesty. The market would decide with the appropriate boycotts and press if the issue resonated.

KissedByTheSun said...

Funny I should come across this article after selling the last amount of violent video games I owned. One of the things that brought me to abandoning this form of media is the rampant white supremacy inherent in these games. I just got tired of playing "white guy saves the world by violently destroying everyone and everything" time after time. I can find better things to spend my money on. And yes CDV, Bioshock Infinite played a huge part in pushing me away from gaming.

kokanee said...

If you're looking for racist video games, they're not too hard to find. Google racist video games.

Scopedog said...

Hmm...I'm curious, how did BIOSHOCK INFINITE push you away from gaming? I've played the game (hell, played all the BIOSHOCK games), and I'd just like to hear your story.

Veri1138 said...

Machete might be the movie you are looking for.

kokanee said...

Never heard of it. Good movie?

Myshkin the Idiot said...

When will white America stand up to white power music in country, rock, pop, and heavy metal ;) promoting a culture of hate and degeneracy :)

KissedByTheSun said...

I would probably have to write a blog post myself to fully explain my conclusions. Prior to Infinite I felt like Bioshock was (and in some ways still is) a thinking mans game. Ken Levine and Irrational were brilliant designers who would elevate gaming unlike those pretentious game makers (cough...Kojima...cough) that pander to white male teenagers with faux intellectualism. Infinite however shattered that outlook for me. It would be unfair to say that BI alone pushed me from gaming. In fact I don't really consider myself being pushed from gaming per se, just a certain segment of it. I won't get into all the details as to why in case there are some here who are interested in playing and want to remain spoiler free. This blog post pretty much sums up my feelings on BI
Booker DeWitt and the Case of the Young White Lady Feels: a Bioshock Infinite review | Super Opinionated!

Although there are many factors that led me to giving up violent gaming (some religious, some financial, some practical), BI revealed that I'm tired of living out white male power fantasies.

Scopedog said...

I'll check out the blog post--thanks for the link.
(A quick note about Kojima, though...don't forget he's Japanese, so I don't think he's pandering to white male teen power fantasies! :) )
Funny enough, I guess one of my favorite games is the MASS EFFECT series, because you can choose to craft your character, and you are not limited to a white male template--you can make your character male or female and choose everything from skin color to hairstyle to eye distance.

Veri1138 said...

How about a religion-based video game featuring Christians killing off unbelievers?

Left Behind.

kokanee said...

Funny. But not for me.