By Natasha Thrale
"It’s bizarre that a society which aesthetically and culturally didn’t develop too far past the 1950s was able to shake off racism, and provide little to no explanation. It's a glaring plot hole."
A well known search engine produces 1,820,000 results in 0.69 seconds for the keywords ‘racism’ ‘video’ ‘games’ . People write extensively about this. We know it's a problem.
Many games have attempted to sidestep this by avoiding race altogether. Particularly in games set in the future, characters ‘just happen’ to be Asian, or Black, and there is nothing intrinsically racialised about their identity.
I can appreciate this ‘race-blind’ approach, to an extent, but in today’s society, people who have been grouped into the same race usually face similar experiences. Race is a weird, outdated, concept that still pervades how these people are perceived every day. However, on a more biological level, there are no set rules as to what constitutes a racial group. For example, in recent history, ‘white’ has expanded to include Italians and Slavs, and mixed race people continue to confound millions. So why brush over it so completely?
This absence is particularly striking in post-apocalyptic games. Horizon: Zero Dawn is a post-post apocalyptic open world RPG set 1000 years after humanity is destroyed by its own technological creations in the 22nd century. For months after playing, I would tell anyone who listened that it was one of the best games ever made. Well-developed characters with clear motives. Good pacing, exceptional sound design, and one of the most creative and thoughtful plots I’ve seen in a long time. But there were some potential areas for exploration that left me wanting more.
BOW BEFORE THE SUN KING: Clan and caste in Horizon: Zero Dawn
H:ZD goes a long way to make a lot of points about a lot of things. War; mishandling of technology; power; eugenics; climate change; gender roles; social exclusion. They even worked in a character who almost certainly would have been a transgender man today. They tackle these issues head on. So why ignore race? How does this silence address anything?
In H:ZD, your biggest cultural signifier is your tribe. It defines how you dress, where you live, how you build your society. In the time of the 'Old Ones', cultures and cultural hierarchies are typically linked to an ethnic and/or national identity. Supposedly, Horizon's humans have no collective memory of oppression. And yet, patriarchal societies (i.e. the Oseram nominally, and the Carja, acutely) still developed. The Nora are a matriarchal group, and the nature of that matriarchy creates its own problems, but is a generally an egalitarian society. Sexism exists here too, though, and we explore this mainly through the experiences and interactions of the main character, Aloy.
Class is most obvious in the Carja civilisation and the Nora outcasts. Monarchy and religion both saw a revival. You can see examples of old-world institutions everywhere. We have class, sexism, religion, borders, kings and early capitalism. It would have been interesting to see how a new racism might have developed within the story.
Back to the 50s
A lot of studios skirt around racism. Purportedly this is for fear of being branded racists for daring to explore it. Take Bethesda’s Fallout series. There are some strong allegories to race drawn throughout the series; primarily the treatment of ghouls and synths - but it’s bizarre that a society which aesthetically and culturally didn’t develop too far past the 1950s was able to shake off racism, and provide little to no explanation. It's a glaring plot hole.
In videogames and other media, we’ve been using heavy-handed metaphors for years as a way to tiptoe around racism. We over-simplify and over-generalise issues to avoid complexity, and this is no longer enough.
The usual explanation given boils down to diversity in development teams. Generally, people who do not experience racism are uncomfortable writing about it. Narratives can only be as diverse as the people telling them, and there are not enough writers or consultants of colour in game development. Having said that, hiring some extra black guys and expecting them to handle all the ‘race stuff’ isn’t enough either, and shoehorns people into roles they may not even want. White writers engaging and thinking about how they construct these ‘race-neutral’ stories is necessary too.
This diversity angle, although a start, does not explain everything. According to a 2015 report, approximately 22% of those working in video games are women plus another 1-2% who are trans and/or non-binary. 24-33% are not white. People of colour outnumber women and gender minorities. Yet, I’ve seen fewer games exploring race than gender, and far more female protagonists than protagonists of colour. I can count on one hand protagonists I know of who are both.
There’s something else at play here. But I can’t quite work out what.
Horizon: Zero Dawn and Fallout 4 are available in any remaining retail outlets on this nuclear husk