Eater of Trees

Invocations of Realism to Defend Bigoted Fantasy

Posted on: January 6, 2011

(I’m focusing mostly on video games and fantasy here, but the general ideas definitely appear elsewhere in speculative fiction, and moreso in other media.  I’m just focusing on that combination because that’s where I’ve seen it the most lately, and also because fantasy video games seem to have not gotten passed making clones of Dungeons & Dragons, and by proxy, Tolkien.  And Tolkien had racefails all over the place, which later works sometimes uncritically copy. And Dungeons & Dragons brought a whole bunch of its own to the table, too)

(Disclaimer: I am white, and discuss racism a lot here.  It is possible I may miss things due to privilege.)

This is one of those things I’ve heard people say a lot without any actual thought into how accurate it actually is: “Oh, no, our product can’t be inclusive because it wouldn’t be realistic if it were.” …or similar statements, like “This product is great because they finally have the courage to make a realistic product unfettered by political correctness” or “This product shouldn’t be as inclusive as it is, that’s not realistic!” (I’ve heard specific examples of these comments referring to Dragon Age, The Witcher, and Echo Bazaar, coming of the top of my head.  And those aren’t the only times)

And for an amusing juxtaposition, these arguments are often found along with the reverse “We don’t have to/can’t be inclusive because our world isn’t the real and including real things would be unrealistic.”  This is also full of holes and really doesn’t actually work, either.

Obviously, these are problematic, as anyone with any awareness of privilege will quickly realize.  Ignoring or insulting large portions of potential players because their identities aren’t normative is a really cruel thing to do, made moreso by the fact that many people in positions of privilege tend to just assume that they are the only group that matters, and thus finding works when you aren’t privileged becomes nearly impossible (like, video games with informed, positive representations of transgender people? I have yet to even prove they exist.  Echo Bazaar comes close by making unspecified/nonbinary gender a fully developed option, though I haven’t seen any NPC’s who are explicitly ungendered, and besides, my gender is pretty clearly specified, so we’re not there yet.)

So people invoke these ridiculous arguments about realism when they do screw up and make bigoted fantasy.  When people say “But inclusion is unrealistic!” the problems are that completely erasing minorities usually actually isn’t, their portrayal of the culture that they are supposedly being realistic to is generally not actually, and finally, realism is actually clearly not a priority usually. On the inverse, when saying “But including real world groups would be unrealistic,” usually this is ignoring all the normative real world groups that you’ve included, and, for that matter, when the setting isn’t real there’s no reason not to have it ridiculously diverse.  And certainly no reason to make the normative race in your faux-Europe white.  After all, it’s not really Europe.

With regards to the “inclusion is unrealistic” argument, non-normative people aren’t actually a new thing.  For example, LGB and trans people have existed throughout history (there was a Roman emperor who wanted people to make them a vagina.  I mean seriously, we’re not new) . For that matter, systematically silencing them sometimes is a new thing.  Modern concepts of race are, well, modern.  In an actual medieval society things would probably have been slightly different.  And secondly, the real world is actually pretty diverse.  Even focusing on just medieval Europe, you’ve got North Africa and the Middle East right next door, for a really obvious example.  There was definitely some communication between them and Europe. (Have you heard of the crusades? They certainly weren’t friendly communication across cultures, but they were still communication.)  And of course, there’s no reason for every fantasy game ever to be set in medieval Europe.  Precolonial southeast Asia, would be pretty interesting, try setting it there (I’ve only seen this even attempted once, in Diablo 2.  Not sure it was actually done particularly well, but it’s something new, and should be inclusive if it is done well.)

Anyway, back to the medieval, since video games seem to be stuck there.  As a second point, when they are set in faux-Europe, these games are rarely even trying for realistic cultural attitudes.  I’m not particularly a medieval scholar, I will readily admit, so I can’t point out too many specific holes in it’s supposedly realistic portrayal of medieval culture, but really, there’s never really any research or effort put in to making these things accurate to the time.  I do know, for example, that those giant stone castles that are practically the hallmark of medievalness? Only really showed up towards the end.  And the armor is usually ridiculous (and that’s not even starting on the chainmail-bikini type armor.) And that the Catholic church was all over the place.  And these settings seem to have an abnormally large number of katanas or other references to Japan, usually without the non-white people to go with it (the former is by itself not particularly a problem, and I would guess the latter isn’t a problem nearly as much in games from Japan, which I’ve played rather less of unfortunately.) Which is to say, it tends to be more a popular pseudo-medievalness then anything actually accurate.

And outside of culture, the game’s world rarely is even remotely realistic.  Wounds don’t cause any lasting harm, usually, just lower a hitpoint meter that doesn’t do anything until it’s empty.  Infection and disease, which were some of the leading causes of death, are nonexistent.  Weapons tend to have completely ridiculous weights.  Frequently you can, for that matter, carry huge amounts of stuff with no effort put into modeling how you go about carrying six suits of armor without even a backpack.  Cities are really really tiny.  Farming is often nonexistent, or only there occasionally for scenery purposes, and certainly not in proportion to the food requirements of the world.  Magic tends to provide certain abilities, such as, for example, flying, or blowing things up, that would completely require rethinking how you defend a city (walls don’t work when you can fly over them).  And things tend to only happen when the player is around.

Many of these breaks from reality are completely okay, obviously.  Because it’s not the real world.  You want “medieval” fantasy, you want castles and knights.  And probably wizards and dragons.  The fact that the latter may possibly get in the way of the former if you think about it at all realistically isn’t really a problem.  And it’s a game, not a academic simulation; a protagonist centered world is not particularly a problem, because we only ever see the protagonist’s point of view.

But the point here is, you aren’t trying to be realistic.  You’re not modeling your game off of real history, you’re modeling it off of modern ideas that are related to real history but only sort of.  Thus neglecting or demeaning your audience because you claim it’s realistic is entirely out of place with what you’re actually doing.  Your not creating a bigoted fantasy because it’s “realistic”, you’re creating a bigoted fantasy because you want to (or slightly more generously, because you weren’t thinking of others beyond yourself), and realism is just a crutch you’re using to defend you’re obvious mistakes.

Now, when people claim that “We can’t put real groups of people in the game because our game isn’t the real world and that would be unrealistic!” there arguments are still really faulty. People who say this are rarely referring to games that haven’t already included large swaths of normative people.  If your game has a bunch of different “races”, and all of them have white skin, you’ve included white people.  They are also a race.  Claiming you can’t include any others because it’s unrealistic for your setting, is, well, racist.  There’s no reason for everyone to have a light skin tone in your completely fictional world.  And lets be honest, having everyone in your world be the same is really pretty boring.  On top of the racism.

And, on that topic, if your setting isn’t the real world, why not just make your faux-England population black?  It’s not like it’s actually real England, there’s no reason to copy that trait unquestionably.  (Of course, making faux-England have everyone be black wouldn’t actually solve your problems either, but it would be progress.)

The next thing I’ve seen people do, in an attempt to defend it, is to start inventing in-setting justifications for racial uniformity.  Like “Oh, but there’s black people over here across these mountains, and a faux-Asia down here in the south” …which is to say, places that the story never actually goes.  …if you’re going to start inventing these races, why not put them in the game? And if you’re going to start invoking, say, sunlight, to explain how your faux-Europe, being rather far to the north, doesn’t have dark skinned people, why don’t you put that effort into creating more diversity?  And while we’re at it, if you’re using the last one, let’s remember there’s more than one race from northern (or southern, if you’re below the equator) climates.  And they don’t all look like white people.

Really, the point is, except in very rare circumstances your game is not even trying to be realistic, and once you accept that you don’t have to follow reality, there’s no reason not to have diversity in it.  (like, Dwarf Fortress is the only game I’ve ever seen that even comes close to actually trying to be realistic.  And your dwarves can and frequently do have non-white skin tones.  Or are female.  So it’s the only game that could come close to getting away with invoking realism to defend lack of inclusiveness and it’s still inclusive. Also it frequently clearly isn’t trying to be realistic to facilitate gameplay, like, well, everything else.)

In short, if you invoke “realism” to defend bigotry in a game, it’s quite clear that you haven’t actually thought things through from the perspective of “lets make a realistic game.  Ah crap now we can’t be inclusive,” you’re coming from it from a perspective of “Hmmm how can I defend my bigotry? Oh, I know! Your point of view isn’t realistic!”

So, stop thinking like this, and actually make inclusive games.  If you promise, for example, customizable characters, but then go and eliminate large (or small) swaths of humanity, you’re basically telling said swaths “Yeah, you know what, I don’t actually care about you.”  Which is to say, you’re being an asshole to your audience.  Stop doing that, and stop trying to rationalize your bigotry, it makes you look like you’re self absorbed and don’t care about anyone beyond you.

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4 Responses to "Invocations of Realism to Defend Bigoted Fantasy"

Yeah, well, the point continues to go over Stanley Woo’s head. Check out his personal blog post on the subject, from today. http://worstninjaever.blogspot.com/2011/01/im-racist.html

Oh yes, the “But we need artistic freedom! [to do the same thing we’ve always done]” argument. ._.

My critique is that these settings’ authors don’t want to deal with race and that’s one of the reasons why they choose an England-Except-in-Name setting. Because even if you just nominally do that, then it becomes (or aspects of it become) about that. Choice of Games’ games suddenly became about GLBT issues because they started including orientation questions merely for flavor.

However, I agree with your implicit point that game-makers just need to own up and start dealing with race if they’re going to continue trying to make ‘realistic’ and ‘immersive’ games. Dragon Age did it with Antisemitism and I felt it was what made it awesome.

-I often go by Silverhawk

Well, the reason people interpret said games about being about LGBT issues is probably mostly because exclusion is still the norm. Choice of Dragons, the one I actually played, could hardly be described as being about LGBT issues if you aren’t coming at it from a standpoint where erasure is the norm.

And the other thing is, if you don’t want to deal with race, you’re living in the wrong reality. And if you leave out every race that isn’t white, you’ve probably made it MORE about race than if you just spread POC out through the cast. Because now you’re saying that only white people exist and that other races aren’t important. And that’s really probably not what you want to say.

And you can still stick POC in your game and not deal with race much. It isn’t particularly hard. (Not that you can’t fail in other ways, and I’m not sure I feel comfortable saying what I think is a good example, because I’m probably going to be missing problematic things on this front.)

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