This post was inspired by a couple of recent things: A Most Agreeable Pastime’s post on the impact of the decline of the Japanese gaming industry discusses the heightened prominence of Anglo-American narratives in games. On Nine to Five Gamer too was a post on race in videogames which discusses the lack of non-stereotypical representations of black people in videogames. I’ve noticed though that the question of representation often gets bogged down in the issue of character attributes, so in this post I don’t want to focus on characters at all but instead common narratives, settings and themes which are pervasive in Western culture. These narratives are often Eurocentric in their repetition and emphasis of certain historical events to the exclusion of countless others.
A focus on character and character attributes also misses how players relate to games. Games are always concerned with providing consumers a particular fantasy, whether that is flight (Star Fox, Nights into Dreams, Ace Combat etc), stretchy limbs (Rayman, Dynamite Headdy), adventure (Zelda, any RPG) or even a meaningful career (Phoenix Wright, Trauma Center). That’s not the same as me wanting to be a character, or me identifying with a character. In a sense, first person shooters sell us all a fantasy of white male power, dominance and historical coherence that other subjects cannot achieve. That is a separate issue from the avatar we use in the game. In a WWII FPS, for example, changing the skin colour of the protagonist in a D-Day landing scenario from white to black doesn’t make a meaningful difference. Despite the fact there were black Caribbean and Asian soldiers fighting in WWII, who were they fighting for? Why?
So, how can videogames engage with history accurately, in a way which doesn’t exclude all people of colour? The first thing to say is that race isn’t simple. Arguably, the only thing which all Third World countries and peoples share to some extent is the concept and experience of whiteness, and hand-in-hand with it racism and a history of colonial oppression. Yet videogames are guilty, rather like Hollywood war movies, of scarcely engaging with these experiences at all. Instead, these fantasies recreate certain wars or battles in service of white and male fantasies.
What I am arguing for is for different narratives. A common (racist) argument may be that there are no other narratives to explore: “history began when white people began documenting it”. One of the biggest aspects of racism is the exclusion of history. How about a videogame that focuses on a black narrative, or a black history?
There are already games which deal with what I’d consider black/racial themes – discrimination, exclusion, enslavement, etc. Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssey and Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance come to mind immediately – fun games with plenty of depth, both deal with racism, environmentalism, all of these dark and heavy themes. But race is a bit of an abstract notion in games in which you rescue other turquoise-skinned creatures from giant greenish wasps, or in which you help repair relations between beorc and laguz. It’s maybe a little ambiguous, in other words. If we come back to the idea of historical war games, it is interesting to think about other historical settings which better reflect human history.
The obvious historical setting in my opinion is the Haitian revolution in the late 1700s. We’ve all seen the Caribbean – in games, films and books – through the perspective of white, pirate eyes. How about an FPS, or a third person adventure, or a strategy game in which you, yes, YOU, lead the Haitian revolution against France in the quest for independence and the abolition of slavery? The Haitian Revolution has already been the source of literary inspiration, with Toussaint L’Ouverture as its masterful strategist and leader, plus it already has a brilliantly dramatic narrative. This scenario would see players tackle Napoleon’s forces, European colonialists and slave drivers head-on.
And if all this whole concept sounds downright bizarre, strange, hard to imagine, unusual, niche and so on, then it proves just how effectively the dream of a Euro-American protagonist shooting Nazis has been manufactured and sold to us. It’s to the point that it seems totally natural and normal, and shooting anyone else in a historical setting instead, after so long with Nazis, is weird. One need only look at the recent case of Gaza Man, a traditional run’n’gun game which was removed from the Google Play store to realise how controversial it is to challenge the status quo with videogames.
The Haitian revolution is just one setting, one example of how race could be handled in videogames. It’s an activist’s take, really, because it targets the sort of ignorance, forgetfulness and exclusion that racism fosters. To write a game based on the history of the Caribbean which reflects the revolutionary spirit of its people is something I would like to see. While the Caribbean clearly represents a history of pirates and colonization from a white perspective, another angle (a historically accurate one, I might add) reveals a history of marronage, maroons, stealth and survival against the evil of the slave masters.
When we begin narrating history, it doesn’t matter what medium we use: what matters are the stories we tell, and how well the story is told.