The displacement of racism in speculative game fictions

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.

An interracial protagonist couple is no problem in Fallout 4.

An inter­ra­cial pro­tag­o­nist cou­ple is no prob­lem in Fallout 4.

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.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided's Golem Ghetto

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s Golem Ghetto

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.
  1. 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. []

Odile Strik

About Odile Strik

Odile A. O. Strik is editor-in-chief of The Ontological Geek. She is also a linguist from the Netherlands. She occasionally writes in other places, such as her own blog Sub Specie. You can read her innermost secrets on Twitter @oaostrik.