Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Racism in Games

I’m not terribly sure that I can actually say anything about this that isn’t going to be a retread, but two specific and recent events compel me to write a little about what is no doubt a touchy subject regardless of medium: racism.

The first and by far the lesser of the two incidents involves the recent release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The game has been notably praised for resurrecting the series, but a lot of people began to notice and point out one particular point in the game: a conversation with Letitia the Trash Lady now, the article that I’ve linked to has already come down on the side that this is undoubtedly a racist character. Personally, I reach the end of the line with a judgment that while the character is undoubtedly in extremely poor taste and should have been caught at some point along the development cycle, I’m loathe jump on the bandwagon saying that Eidos and Square Enix are racist pieces of garbage perpetuating an age old stereotype of minstrel type black character.

Should it be in the game? absolutely not, but the fact that it’s one random character that isn’t even important to the plot means that of all the black character portrayed in the game that Letitia is the exception - an egregious one surely, but still an exception nonetheless - to most characters that people have no problem with the portrayal of. It is true that you’re going to be hard pressed to find anyone that looks or talks like that in real life, and while video games generally constitute an acceptable break from reality they only generally remain so when the characters and environments that we are submerged in are either so out of touch with reality that they simply can’t trigger these kinds of responses, or if they are more realistic like in the case of Deus Ex simply avoiding triggering the responses in the first place.

I’m struggling to talk about this subject without seeming to come down on the “it’s not so bad” side, but really, honestly, I don’t believe it’s so bad when taken against the whole. The reaction honestly should have been expected, but part of me is screaming that it’s another one of those incidents where for the sake of political correctness people are suddenly willing to lambaste an entire game and companies by extension when, while the decision was made in poor judgment and ignorance, which are hardly excuses, they probably didn’t look at it at the time and go “Hey, I bet this will offend people and cause controversy, let’s keep it in!” Certainly I would hope that Eidos and Square Enix will take away lessons from this, but I can’t help but feel like this is an overreaction, if only by a slight margin.

Of course, some people do aim for controversy. At around the same time that the Deus Ex segment was being discussed, something came up that has seemingly slipped under the radar of most people. Perhaps people have dismissed it as an obvious forgery, or perhaps they are unsure of just how to react if what they are seeing is real. What I’m talking about is a trailer for a game: Slavery: The Game to be precise. The trailer was posted on you tube on September 2nd, and seems to promote an “Adults Only” rated RTS - it should be noted that The Creative Assembly is responsible for the Total War RTS series - which focuses on buying, abusing, and eventually rising to the top of the slave trade of the 17th century. The design firm, one “Javelins Red” is a nonexistent subsidiary of The Creative Assembly, which has publicly denounced any knowledge or involvement with the title.

The strange, and to me really confusing thing here is that some of the comments I’ve seen; specifically the ones on this thread have people saying that a game on the subject wouldn’t be so bad, or that while the topic is controversial, that it would be standard fair for RTS games that already push the boundaries in some cases (their words, not mine). So, I ask the question: what is the huge difference between a game that seems to revolve entirely around the subjugation of a race, and the other has one instance of a racial stereotype, that seems to invoke the opposite reactions than one might expect?

People aren’t rushing to defend “Slavery: The Game” but at the same time I’m not seeing the same backlash that there was against the inclusion of one minor non-essential character in Deus Ex, and to be honest it really confuses me. It cannot be primarily because people think it’s a fake game, some of the comments I’ve seen at least are ones that say that whether the game is real or not that it’s simply not a big deal.

Many, myself included, have been left wondering to what end the trailer was created for, because at this point it almost seems like if it aimed to create controversy that it has actually mostly failed to register on any front. Is it a case of something so straining the grounds of believably that our willing suspension of disbelief regarding even its said existence is shattered, causing us to shrug off something that should be outrageous and inflammatory while reacting like we do to something like what was presented in Deus Ex, or do I simply have this entire thing ass backwards?

I’d really like to know. And no, that isn’t a rhetorical question. If anyone has an answer, please tell me, because right now I’m just confused, because it seems to be a case of racism being wrong (which is good) until it sort of reaches a point of supersaturation, at which point instead of reacting with anger we react with confusion and/or apathy.

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