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A Conversation about Race in Video Games

by Sidney Fussell and Jed Pressgrove

Note: This conversation occurred via email and has been edited for clarity and grammar. Sidney Fussell’s writing on race, gender, and video games can be found here. Last but not least, a special thanks to Veerender Jubbal for providing the idea for this conversation.

BioShock Infinite, The Walking Dead, Post-Racial Climate

Jed Pressgrove: Video games tend to get off the hook a little easily when it comes to race. It’s difficult to compare the importance of race to that of gender since they are both connected to class, but it’s interesting that we tend to see more criticism of gender in games compared to criticism of race in games. Look at Grand Theft Auto V. It has a black protagonist, though I didn’t hear much at all about its handling of race. But GTA V not having a female protagonist made quite a few headlines and led to a lot of analysis about the game’s intentions.

Then again, many games don’t give people as much to examine when it comes to race. Just as a simple example, I could name several good or well-written female game characters off the top of my head because there are many female characters, good and bad, to consider. But I would have trouble naming good or well-written characters who aren’t white or Japanese — it wouldn’t take long to run out of potential examples. And the black character I created in Fallout 3 doesn’t seem much different than any other character I could create in the game. Games often come across to me as very post-racial and safe, which strikes me as a limitation.

Sidney Fussell: I think there’s a real fear in engaging with race/racism in games that leads to many developers either omitting them completely or hoping palette swap options will suffice. This is the bare minimum, post-racial climate we find ourselves in, and it’s one I wish more people questioned. In 2014, it’s absurd for racial awareness and a more evolved understanding of racism to be dismissed as “niche.”

Two big releases, BioShock Infinite and The Walking Dead, both had interesting takes on racism I’d like to explore. Jed and I may disagree about The Walking Dead (it’s excellent, he’s wrong), but a scene midway through “Starved for Help” winningly subverts the post-racial “safe zone” many games hide in. Protagonist Lee Everett, the rare Black everyman, and redneck Papa Bear Kenny attempt to break into a locked door in a barn. Kenny asks if Lee knows how to pick the lock because “You’re…you know…urban.” Lee responds with a frustrated “Come on, man!” before a guilty and embarrassed Kenny quickly apologizes and the two come up with a different plan for entering the room.

The brief exchange is played for laughs but does more to humanize the duo and characterize The Walking Dead’s world than the hours of hackneyed melodrama in BioShock Infinite. When I say I want a game that’s conscious or aware, I’m asking for a game where the characters are shown having a relationship with race and racism. Lee and Kenny like each other very much, but they still harbor assumptions about each other based on race. And that’s how it is in real life. We all have relationships with racism — we overcome it, capitulate to it, conceal it, etc. Kenny awkwardly tried to excuse and sanitize his own racism, but he’s no villain. He’s human — he makes mistakes and occasionally says stupid shit. The Walking Dead doesn’t trot out racism just to remind us that racism is bad; it uses racism to show how identities affect the dynamics of a relationship — identities that the game observes and engages and doesn’t colorblindly ignore.

I think The Walking Dead’s approach is a much better way of engaging with racism than BioShock Infinite’s. For all of Infinite’s allusions to miscegenation, lynching, genocide, eugenics, etc., Booker and Elizabeth have no relationship to the racism that surrounds them. Instead of exploring either character’s prejudices or privileges, Booker’s stoicism and Elizabeth’s naivety ensure they are never “colored” by racism. They recognize it as a moral wrong but have no relationship to it. Racism only touches the game’s villains, implying it as the unique attribute of the corrupt and monstrous, as opposed to something everyone deals with and has a relationship with their entire lives. It’s an archaic take on racism that privileges the isolationism the game reserves for Booker and Elizabeth. It’s especially frustrating since Booker begins mowing down black men Resident Evil 5 style in the game’s final act, (color)blindly deciding they were as bad as Comstock’s men.

A racially conscious game is one that recognizes relationships with race/racism aren’t voluntary and doesn’t use racism as a strawman to characterize the bad guys. That’s neither the identity of racists nor the function of racism. It’s a frankly pathetic way to mimic social evolution.  It’s time games stepped up and made the same commitment to narrative innovation and character exploration that they have to technical advancement.

Jed Pressgrove: You’re right about that scene between Lee and Kenny in The Walking Dead; it goes beyond humorous intentions and serves as a great example of commentary on race. But Telltale’s The Walking Dead could have gone further like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The black protagonist in Romero’s film ultimately struggles against the social construction of race. Lee Everett (and everyone else in The Walking Dead) is ultimately at odds with fictional zombies, not race. The majority of the game tries to manipulate our emotions about survival rather than compel us to consider social reality.

Dark Souls, Life vs. Death, Gamifying Personal Experiences

Jed Pressgrove: I think part of the reason games in general lack narrative innovation and character exploration in terms of race is that games are too concerned with death. A fixation on death tends to center on the self. How do I stay alive? What would I do in this life-or-death situation? These questions distract us from other questions, such as: how do different people live? This brings me to an interesting thing I recently saw in Dark Souls, a game obsessed with death. When you’re creating a character in Dark Souls, you can change the skin color/ethnicity of your character. While this option might satisfy some, I think the game leaves a lot to the imagination. For example, if you choose the Great Swamp color/ethnicity, the game tells you that the character faces prejudice — the character is darker than white. Yet there is another character with darker skin who comes with no such description of prejudice. All of this suggests that race is merely a play thing in Dark Souls. In the game’s eyes, all protagonists/players are made equal through death, but such a mentality distracts us from questions about life. I’m not trying to say that Dark Souls is irresponsible so much as illustrative of how games often encourage us to think of death as the main obstacle in life. Meanwhile, social constructions like race are simple background characteristics.

What’s interesting to me is that we do see many games breaking away from the “do or die” mold of classics like Space Invaders and Donkey Kong. Games like Actual Sunlight and Dys4ia clearly encourage us to consider the lives of different people. And we’re even seeing some games stay true to the old-school survival mentality while incorporating truths about social reality — Grand Titons’ combination of trans woman identity and shooting is a fascinating case. At some point I expect to see some very personal accounts about race in games. The question is when?

Sidney Fussell: “How do different people live?” is a great starting point for exploring identity in games. I think zombie media is an especially apt space for this question, because characters are stripped of the institutions that mask their prejudices. Kenny’s misconceptions about black criminality would’ve gone largely unquestioned in his native Florida, and Lee’s elitism is, if anything, encouraged among academics. Their partnership is great because it’s so implausible in the “real” world, where these institutions function to segregate us. But as much as I liked Walking Dead, it was only passingly concerned with how people live; the game is about how they die. Or un-die, I guess.

Dying is as ubiquitous a mechanic in games as pressing Start. It usually means failure — if the player avatar dies, it means you’ve screwed something up. I think a game like Dark Souls is interesting because dying isn’t the Ultimate Failure, it’s part of learning how to play the game.  It’s pointless to tell the player “don’t die” — it’s unavoidable. I think this is an acknowledgment of how similarly pointless it is to tell players “don’t fail.” Just make dying/failure part of the play process, and its meaning changes from “you’ve failed” to “you need to learn something.” It’s an interesting way to become comfortable with death/failing and is really the only aspect of Dark Souls (“Dark Soils” as I besmirch it on Twitter) I’d like to see more games adapt. If dying wasn’t the only way to communicate certain meanings to players, we might see life explored in more interesting ways.

I haven’t died yet, so if I wanted to make a game about some aspect of my life, I’d need some other way to convey failure/miscalculation/error.  I think indies exploring people’s lives are expanding our vocabulary of game mechanics, “breaking away from the ‘do or die’ mold” like you said and encouraging different ways of communicating success, failure, winning, etc. Speaking personally, my friends and I once joked about gamifying (that’s a thing, right?) a racial aspect of my job. I talk to people on the phone a lot, who then come into the office with some line akin to “Oh, I didn’t expect you to be Black!” which I’ve never managed to inure myself to. We imagined a Guitar Hero style quick-time event where the player inputs commands to alter my voice to sound more typically Black. On reflection, I realized “winning” meant I’m avoiding the awkwardness, but capitulating to a problematic definition of Black voices. And “losing” meant I’d have to endure the awkwardness but get to screw with (white) people’s ideas about what Black people sound like, talk like, etc.

I think exploring race and identity is a great way to complicate meanings and mechanics in games because life is complicated. I think translating that fluidity in gaming would make for more interesting, inclusive games. We all win and lose in various hazily defined ways that don’t involve rag-doll physics or torture gorn. I’d love to see games tackle messy notions of identity because I think it allows for new aspirations for the medium beyond simply being profitable.

Jed Pressgrove: Your idea about gamifying someone’s “racial” voice might also apply to certain white people. I only say this from my experience as a Mississippian, but there’s this idea of some poor Southern white people “trying to be black,” including the use of pronunciations and expressions that people associate with “blackness.” But are all of these poor whites really “trying” anything? I think the game idea you mentioned could tackle that tricky question that often gets overlooked in favor of simple stereotyping: why does anyone sound the way they do? It could be a learning experience about background and politics.

Preaching to the Choir, Racial Utopia, Progress?

Jed Pressgrove: Of course, there’s a fine line between a learning experience and something seemingly noble that confirms our expectations. Since our last exchange, I played through Always Sometimes Monsters, which touts the innovation of your racial/gender/orientation status affecting events in the game. I played as a black gay man. Interestingly, I felt the game reminded me that my character was gay more than anything else. There were only two instances where I felt the game commented on my character’s racial status in an honest way, and in both cases it was to show how uncaring a nonplayable character was. In the abstract, this game seems to say that race is an outmoded notion bought into by assholes, as opposed to a deeply ingrained idea that we should overcome as individuals and a society. I can say that Always Sometimes Monsters is a little more ambitious than fantasy games with elves, but its commentary amounts to a few “preaching to the choir” moments.

Then again, the appearance of racial harmony in a story isn’t necessarily indicative of a colorblind fantasy. I guess the question is whether the harmony feels odd or authentic.

Sidney Fussell: As a player, I’m not interested in either extreme. I don’t want a utopic Captain Planet kumbaya setting, nor do I want pure racial tribalism. I’m interested in empathy and exploration. I’m interested in game mechanics, settings, and characters designs that are diverse, insightful, and entertaining. I think one-off micro games — how speech affects racial perception, for example — that are specific experiences can handle this a bit better. I mostly play RPGs, and while fantasy epics routinely tackle racism through metaphor, I find it has a sanitizing effect.

I once wrote about the problematic racial attribute system in older Elder Scrolls games. Specifically, how Redguards (ostensibly Sub Saharan Africans) having bonuses to Strength and penalties to Intelligence is problematic. The popular counter was that Nords had a similar attribute dynamic, so it “wasn’t racist.” Of course, the difference is history — the expectation for people within the African diaspora to be athletic and unintelligent has been backed by everything from science to religion to academia to literature for centuries. I find players aren’t necessarily adept at translating these metaphors into concrete ways of understanding race or racism.

I also think the Grand Conversation on Race in Games needs to talk about the metric by which we measure progress. I’m certainly thrilled to see more brown folks on the covers of games as well as discussing and critiquing them, but with this new generation that I’m paying hundreds of dollars to be a part of, I think it’s critical that we set goals. Utopia isn’t anyone’s goal, but it’d be nice to at least start chipping away at the culture of contrasting backlashes we slip backwards into whenever something/someone is deemed racist, homophobic, etc.

If games can make players feel like they’re the world’s greatest heroes, strongest marines, most cunning thieves and secret agents, they’re more than capable of changing a few minds and making a few players go, “Huh. I don’t think that way, but I can see that.” I think it’s time developers aimed higher for themselves and for players and let go of the “oh no this is too political” fears that have stuck in the past hardware cycle. And contrary to popular belief, I think a Conversation may be what starts that process.

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Irrationally Buried at Sea: How Infinite Flunks Philosophy

by Paul Schumann

I have fond memories of BioShock and its good story, stunning graphics, and fun gameplay. I played Ken Levine’s last game, BioShock: Infinite, hoping it would live up to the original. After finishing Infinite and its Burial at Sea DLC, I considered how the philosophies of Levine’s games differ — and why Infinite is an intellectually unsatisfying experience.

The fictional cities in BioShock and BioShock: Infinite are extensions of the philosophies of their founders. In the original BioShock, Andrew Ryan’s underwater city Rapture recalled the objectivism of Ayn Rand, only this paradise of the individual had fallen — the one place on Earth with “no gods or kings, only man,” but man’s failings had not been checked at the door. A classic utopia scenario, Rapture’s flaw was assuming that an economic system based on glorifying the individual could overcome the baser instincts of human nature. Ryan would have done well to read Jefferson and Madison, who saw the virtue of the populace as essential to the preservation of liberty in society. The difference between the Founding Fathers and Ryan lies in the former’s belief that liberty and license are not the same thing. In Rapture, the supermen and superwomen of tomorrow succumbed to a madness born of envy and license. Genetic experimentation led to addiction to the supposed wonder drug ADAM. As a result, unwanted children were pressed into service as “Little Sisters” to harvest and recycle ADAM from the dead bodies scattered in Rapture.

BioShock: Infinite appears to start the same way as its predecessor. A man enters a lighthouse that takes him to a mysterious city. The city is not Rapture under the ocean in the 1960s but rather Columbia, high above the clouds in 1912. Nevermind how a city floats; “science” is the answer that’s given, but it’s quite a cheerful sight. No blood or corpses like in Rapture — Columbia appears to be another happy city in America at the turn of the century. Yet there is more than meets the eye about both this place and your character, private detective Booker DeWitt. The city’s shiny exterior hides a rotten core, built on the excesses of industrialism, violent racism, and a cult-like devotion to the city’s founder, Zachary Comstock. The “protagonist” Booker turns out to be the alter ego of Comstock, your nemesis for most of the game. Your mission in Infinite is to right a wrong you did many moons ago — to save your daughter from Comstock’s clutches — a situation that came to pass due to your pride as well as guilt and despair over past transgressions. What could have been an incredible tale of redemption becomes a depressing exercise in condemning a man to death for his sins.

Gameplay shows how BioShock and BioShock: Infinite part ways. In order to escape Rapture in BioShock, your silent protagonist first has to survive, and that means using the drug that helped drive the city mad. The edge ADAM grants you in combat requires you to constantly obtain more from the Little Sisters. Here, choice plays a role, for the player could either rescue or kill the zombie-like carriers for a lesser or greater amount of ADAM. As your enemies grow more numerous and more dangerous, it could be tempting to rationalize the deaths of Little Sisters. (Though truth be told, on the lower difficulty levels it didn’t really matter what you decided. You just thought it did.) In any case, the more “good” or “bad” you are in relation to Little Sisters determines whether you flee the city or attempt to become its new master. The philosophy of BioShock is clear: doing good may not yield instant gratification, but the alternative can lead to a worse place than before.

In contrast, everything about Infinite’s gameplay is a case of serious deja-vu for the doomed protagonist Booker, who killed many Indians during the American frontier wars and violently broke factory strikes as a Pinkerton agent. Booker’s past is brought back to haunt him by acquaintances old and new. Even his drinking habit gets revisited by a new dependence on a wonder drug known as “salts,” which grant Booker powerful combat abilities. The deeper into the story one goes, the more it feels like a bad dream, as Elizabeth, the woman you rescue, can open portals to alternate realities, known as “tears.” In order to survive this dream, you have to gun down countless police and militia who are merely trying to keep their city safe. When you get mixed up in a revolution and start shooting Irish and black freedom fighters, there seems to be something off about the whole situation.

Perhaps that is because choice is mere window dressing in BioShock: Infinite. The grand twist in the first BioShock was that your most significant choices up to the reveal were not your own. Even so, BioShock was about our choices defining us. Infinite’s twist is that all the choices that matter were made before the game began. Booker has made bad choices throughout his life, bringing pain and suffering to all in his path. His attempts at “redemption” are a lie he keeps telling himself. In the first BioShock, there are different endings based on the morality of your in-game actions. Infinite, however, declares there is only one way the game can end. The Burial at Sea DLC attempts to tie Columbia  and Rapture together but does little to change Infinite’s nihilistic tone. Elizabeth, the Burial at Sea protagonist, must die before the story’s done, not knowing the results her actions will yield.

Levine has said he doesn’t set out to write a story for any particular agenda. Levine deserves credit for writing characters who are interesting rather than seeking to please whichever interest groups are in vogue. He certainly achieves that — there’s no question that the Lutece twins, Booker, and Elizabeth are beloved by fans. But what is BioShock: Infinite trying to say if choice is meaningless? Through Infinite’s tale of amnesia, madness, death, and despair, the player learns that attempting to do good is folly. Death for the protagonist is the only way peace can be secured; you can’t see Booker and Elizabeth ride off into the sunset. I almost wonder if Infinite’s nihilistic ending is a sly statement about the huge amounts of time gamers spend with their favorite pastime. In a way, the only way to stop the madness of Infinite is to stop playing the game. As much as “player choice” may be a tired or poorly executed game mechanic, the fact does not change that we are human beings who can and must choose.

At best, Infinite warns the player not to be Booker. According to Thomas Aquinas, Natural Law can be discerned by reason, so one’s path shouldn’t be regarded as entirely a result of chance, environment, or fate. If anyone is doomed, it is the person living an unexamined life. Booker DeWitt would seem to fit the bill. He’s not concerned with good or bad — he’s the guy with the gun. In light of that, the takeaway from BioShock: Infinite is simple (forget trying to explain the rabbit holes of different dimensions). Booker’s unexamined life makes him a slave to his passions, and refusing to face his faults leads him to use religion as yet another excuse for his bad behavior.

There is perhaps a bigger puzzle than the meaning of Booker and Elizabeth’s tale: what caused critics to fall in love with BioShock: Infinite in the first place? The combat mechanics are similar to those in the first game, but the enemies in Columbia are a far cry from the mutated freaks of Rapture. Wreaking mayhem in the form of bloody head shots on the poor schlubs in Columbia gets tiresome after a while. It’s quite ironic that some critics who look down on Call of Duty players were satisfied when Infinite ramped up the shooter elements to provide countless enemies to mow down along with weapons, shields, and powers with which to do so. Is Infinite a great game because it tells a postmodern fairy tale, where there are no heroes and no truth, only a cruel universe? Is it a great game because it’s packaged as a gung-ho jingoistic shooter but is, in reality, a deconstruction of the dark side of American history seen through one troubled man’s eyes? While some might see such ideas as claims to fame, I think it was the quasi-philosophical feel of Infinite that captivated many critics. Much like the thought coming out of most modern liberal-arts philosophy departments, Infinite tends to confuse rather than enlighten. In the game’s second act after multiple “tears” are opened and entered, the story’s logic of worlds within worlds is reminiscent of Inception, a movie many loved but couldn’t understand. Since philosophy literally means “love of wisdom,” an “intelligent” game should give us something tangible to take away from the experience. The first BioShock possessed a clarity of vision that accomplished this, but Infinite ultimately wasted excellent characters by embracing muddled storytelling.

In interviews promoting Infinite, Levine was very clear about the message of both BioShocks. He said the games are a warning against extremism or “true believers,” such as Andrew Ryan of Rapture and Zachary Comstock of Columbia. It’s an understandable idea when one considers the death that extreme ideology has brought to the world. Infinite is ultimately weakened by its rejection of absolutes, however. With Infinite, Levine proposes an absolute commitment to “questioning everything” (a contradiction in terms), but there is more to the world than mere constants and variables. Indeed, there is a danger that Infinite’s commitment to open-mindedness can lead to a denial of absolute truth and, following that, denial of good and evil. My basic issue with Infinite can be summed up by this quip from GK Chesterton: “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”