It is a recurring ambition for games writers, particularly those working on narrative-heavy RPG(-like) games with fantasy or sci-fi settings, to want to tackle racism and discrimination as an underlying or major theme in their stories. In principle, this is a noble pursuit, assuming that the writer’s aim is to dissect real-world racism and teach us something about it through fiction. In practice, what often happens is a peculiar displacement of racism that obscures the point a writer might be trying to make by incorporating the theme, and that raises questions about the worlds they are portraying.
The core characteristic of this displacement is that fictional racism occurs not between the groups where we find it in the real world, but along fictional divides, most often fantasy races or species. Let’s start with elves in the Dragon Age series as an example. The world the trilogy is set in is called Thedas, and it is a rather traditional fantasy setting: Western and ultimately Tolkienesque. Since this is a traditional fantasy setting, there are also non-human ‘races’ — they are humanoid, but distinct. The elves represent a ‘lost civilisation’ and they are generally either enslaved by humans, marginalised ghetto-dwellers, servants, or diasporic nomads.
Now, such depictions of fictional racism are not inherently problematic — at least as far as I can see. The problem is that they almost always go together with some form of erasure of real-world racism that one might expect in the setting of the story. The Dragon Age elves are systematically discriminated against by humans, particularly Orlesians and Tevinter. Amongst humans, however, there is no trace of racism. That is to say, humans do not discriminate on the basis of skin colour or other physical markers of ethnicity. Yes, there is classism, clashes based on national and feudal loyalty, and — central to the story — discrimination and oppression based on magical ability. But racism or anti-blackness? It just does not appear to be an issue in Thedas. People of colour are relatively rare in the games (as described by Tanya D for Offworld), and originate from particular nations (Rivain, Antiva, and Nevarra), but nothing prevents them from reaching positions of power, nor are they confronted with racist prejudice in the games. This is all the more surprising, considering that between elves, there is recurrent evidence of Dalish elves looking down on city-dwelling elves, referring to them with the pejorative ‘flat ear’, and so forth.
Roughly same applies to that other major BioWare series: Mass Effect. In the games, there are a few themes of ‘space racism’: the Krogan were manipulated and brought to the brink of extinction by the Salarians and the Turians; Quarians created and subsequently tried to eradicate the (robotic and intelligent) Geth; the Quarians themselves are often treated as vagabonds and scoundrels by other races due to their nomadic lifestyle; humans are distrusted by other races, and the feeling is mostly mutual. What we do not see, however, is humans of colour being discriminated against by their fellow humans. Apparently, the Alliance solved that problem somewhere in the next century and a half. In short, the games offer up a scala of fictional analogues for real-world cases of racism and genocide, while simultaneously acquitting ‘us’ (the human Alliance) from being implicated in that racism.
The final example that I wish to draw upon right now is Fallout 4. The game has a strong underlying theme of racism and suppression of synthetic humans, complete with motifs of slavery and an underground railroad dedicated to helping escaped synths and smuggling them to safer areas. What the game does not have, as pointed out by Yussef Cole here, is any interaction with the very real racism of 1950s America, the period that is so central to the Fallout series’ retrofuturist aesthetic. The protagonist of the game is a married woman or man, and that couple is free to be interracial — in that case, their son Shaun will be of mixed race. None of this is commented on in the game, while in the 50s, such a thing would not be white picket fence material.
As I said, the depiction of discrimination and bigotry along fictional demographic divides isn’t necessarily problematic, but what bothers me is that these stories never seem to explicitly explore connections with real-world racism, particularly in sci-fi and future settings that are set on Earth. Did it never occur to humans in Thedas to discriminate each other based on skin colour? Did they somehow agree that racism was not a good thing? Did the people in Fallout 4’s Commonwealth collectively decide that racism was pointless after the nuclear apocalypse? Did humans in Mass Effect decide on setting aside their internal differences when they made contact with intelligent alien species? If so, some of them better show up soon, because I assume we’d want some of that enlightenment here right now. I presume the only reason why that would work is because we’re so scared of outside threats that we simply have to band together as one humankind, only to go on being racist against non-humans. But hey, the aliens themselves are doing it too; just look what happened to the Krogan…
Besides being unsatisfying, such answers ring false because there is racism in these games, just not where you might expect it. There’s the nagging sense that these stories are letting real-world perpetrators and systems of racism off the hook. The ones who display racism and bigotry in these fictional settings are either aliens, other fantasy races, or (a diverse subgroup of) a version of humankind that somehow does not ‘do’ colour-based discrimination. It’s perhaps not too hard to come up with reasons why a writer would opt for this approach. Large-scale games like those mentioned here generally do not have racism as their main theme; rather, it is used as a means to flesh out their fictional worlds and make them seem believable. At the same time, they increasingly want to be able to present a diverse cast, without those characters constantly having to deal with discrimination rather than, say, adventuring and kicking monstrous aliens in the butt. The solution is then often to deflect the experience of racism away from groups which the major characters in a story are part of, and have it play out between ‘others’.
As Sidney Fussell argues for Offworld, this positioning of racism as somehow ‘out there’ also serves to let the player–protagonist off the hook: “while there are many clear real-world parallels for both oppressors and the oppressed, [the player] spends most of the game engaging with prejudice from a position of comfortable neutrality”.1 If we want to be less charitable, we can see this as an attempt — whether conscious or unconscious — to not confront players with or even implicate them in real-world racism on a personal level.
Later this year, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is coming out. In a gameplay trailer, one of the developers boasts about the setting and story, the way it focuses on “mechanical apartheid”. It’s clear that in the game’s 2029, people who have cybernetic augmentations are being segregated into ghettos, some of them have committed acts of terrorism, and in general, the world is turning into a paranoid place. At the same time, the game sports a racially diverse cast of main characters, people who may be on different sides of a conflict, but not because of their ethnicity. Are we to believe that with the advent of advanced body augmentation, discrimination based on, say, ethnic or religious markers will fade away?
If the writers of Mankind Divided want to create a conceptual distance between the discrimination in the game’s story and that in the real world, they aren’t succeeding very well at the moment. The use of phrases like “mechanical apartheid” certainly invite real-world comparisons, as do some other choices in their presentation thus far. On the Deus Ex Facebook page, a piece of concept art was presented last week, depicting “Golem City, a ghetto where augmented people are segregated from society and oppressed”. In the comments on that photo, fans of the game were quick to interpret such a piece through the lens of real-world politics. A few quotes will illustrate this:
“its like Palestine, with israell pushing them into the west bank”
“Geez. So it’s going to be a conundrum, eh? They really had to go for that lame solution of mimicking real-world events in the game’s story. And the “good ending” is going to be protecting the “innocent immigrants”, eh? Seriously Eidos? Siding with the international conspiracy this time? [half sarcasm].”
“Make sure the ghettos dont feature black people, you dont want the SJWs calling you guys racist again.”
“Segragation is very predictable when it comes to mass intercultural socializing, it makes sense they would include this in the storyline. I kind of liked that they salted the game with issues that typically happen in real life and applying it to the DEHR universe (i.e. that couple arguing through the wall, dogmentation, etc.). However, i never wanted the game to heavily rely on a blueprinting real life. I would like to see some deviation and unexplored topics and events”
This highlights that real-life comparisons are high on players’ minds, and that simply displacing fictional racism is not sufficient for situating depictions of racism purely in the fictional realm.
2029 is only thirteen years from now, and it’s honestly a bit hard to imagine that racism as it now exists will be gone from the world at that time. I hope the writers of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided — and other games that want to tackle similar topics — will have the insight to not simply displace that real racism onto a possible new human divide. Instead, they might try to incorporate the two into a more complex and challenging depiction of what makes people distrust, hate, and oppress each other.
I’d like to thank Christopher Melkus, Yussef Cole, Amsel von Spreckelsen, Tanya D, and Deedee for commenting on a draft version of this piece. I am of course solely responsible for the opinions expressed here.
- Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age: Inquisition are arguably exceptions to this, since they allow you to play non-human races, who do occasionally experience racism, though not as a major theme. [↩]