Are non-white characters in fantasy games less "realistic" than dragons? Plenty of video game fans seem to think so.
In a recent opinion piece at Polygon, Tauriq Moosa reignited the discussion of diversity in video games with an opinion piece that questioned both the absence of non-white characters in the fantasy roleplaying game Witcher 3, and the objections of white players whose characters were randomly assigned a race in the survival game Rust.
'You see the problem. When white gamers are forced to play people not of their race, it's "forced politics"; when I'm forced into the same scenario, it's business as usual. When you complain, you're making a fuss and being political. The argument is a bit scary when you break it down: The only way games can avoid politics in this situation is to pretend that people of color don't exist.
The response from detractors was swift and vocal. They argued that adding non-white people to games in which they "don't belong" (a common refrain for period fantasy) is pandering or illogical and would somehow taint, misrepresent or destroy these worlds. Beneath the auspices of concern for accuracy, they're arguing that these are white worlds and can only function as long as they remain that way. And white worlds demand white heroes.
The real magic power of white heroes is that they can be anything without scrutiny—kings, detectives, space marines, assassins, witchers—while non-white heroes alone must pass the test of "historical accuracy." Are they believably representative of the time period that influences the game's setting? Do they need to be, seven centuries later? Are black nobles and paladins really too fantastical to exist, even in worlds of sorcery, wizards and unicorns?
A bit of white history: In the United States, literacy tests were tests administered to prospective voters, usually African Americans and poor whites. These tests feigned measuring "literacy" but had the true purpose of disenfranchising Blacks and poor whites by preventing them from voting. They were filtering mechanisms created to prevent representation.
In games and other media, "historical accuracy" allows opponents of diversified period fantasy to maintain an edifice of neutrality ("that's just the way it was") and ignore the fact that all representation is political. It uses the veneer of objectivity to mask its true function of filtering out non-white participants. In effect, "historical accuracy" is the literacy test of fiction.
Witcher 3 defenders argue that dismissing the game as merely "white" ignores others cultural influences crucial to the game's development. At Gamasutra, Dave Bleja writes that Moosa and writers with similar criticisms "missed the cultural uniqueness of The Witcher 3," as its mythos is uniquely Polish, setting it apart from the countless Ye Olde RPG games set in a more homogenized "Europe." Bleja is right on one point: assuming a 'macro' view of whiteness elides the already overlooked) differences within and between varying ethnicities that read as "white," be they Polish, Austrian, or Norwegian.
But in an industry that commodifies whiteness, that itself erases cultures as it invents a white monolith, even exploring minoritized whiteness contributes to its overrepresentation in gaming. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be explored, just that it should be explored critically.
Players demanding white heroes under the guise of "historical accuracy" seems especially odd for video game series like Witcher and Dragon Age, which tackle issues of bigotry, albeit metaphorically, through oppressed classes of fantasy beings like elves, witches and dwarves.
Witcher 3, for example, features an exceptionally sharp moment of reflection on race, prejudice and power. As your protagonist Geralt explores the fictional province of Novigrad, you learn that witch hunters from a cult called the Eternal Fire are persecuting mages and driving them underground. Geralt helps them to escape, but when he returns later in the game, he learns that the Eternal Fire has begun to burn non-humans at the stake in place of mages, leaving their charred remains outside the city's gates.
As Geralt narrates, "Hatred and prejudice will never be eradicated. And witch hunts will never be about witches. To have a scapegoat—that's the key. Humans always fear the alien, the odd. Once the mages had left Novigrad, folk turned their anger against the other races and as they have for ages, branded their neighbors their greatest foes."
Geralt's observation sounds like a nod to the 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" authored by Pulitzer-winning scholar Richard Hofstadetr. Analyzing the rightwing Goldwater movement of the 1960's, Hofstadter remarked on "how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority," arguing that governmental and religious organizations eternally invent villains—gays, immigrants, feminists, Muslims (counterparts to the metaphorical mages and elves)—to maintain a climate of paranoia that they capitalize on for political leverage and control of the populace.
So how is it that a game fully aware of how ethnic and religious prejudices are inventions used to control us can produce such myopic and prejudiced arguments? Why are the metaphors lost on players? Because it positions the protagonist and thus the player as a "neutral observer," a perspective that falsifies the dynamics of oppression.
From the outset, Geralt has no specific allegiance to either humans or non-humans and remains an observer until finally forced to act. So while there are many clear real-world parallels for both oppressors and the oppressed, Geralt (and thus the player) spends most of the game engaging with prejudice from a position of comfortable neutrality.
Nor is Witcher 3 the only game to engage in this sort of convenient remove. In Bioshock Infinite, a shooting game set in a deeply racist floating city called Columbia, the two main characters always remain isolated from the game's racial atrocities—Booker by his stoicism, and Elizabeth by her naiveté. They observe the horrible things that occur, and occasionally react to them, but neither they nor the player are required to engage with racism in any meaningful way.
And this neutrality is rewarded, as the game ultimately equates rebellion against an oppressive system with oppression itself, in order to make a tepid point about the corruptive nature of power. Here, as ever, neutrality is not neutral, but rather a façade that allows us to ignore the political and human consequences of systems of disenfranchisement.
The myth of neutrality remains devastatingly pervasive in games culture. It's the lens through which game developers often ask players to understand their work. It's why people still believe you can "objectively" review a game. It's why calling for diversity is seen as unnecessary, even radical—no matter how reasoned or moderate the call is. It's why we only see the politics of people who are different from us.
Honestly, how is asking for more diversity in Witcher 3 political, but arguing against it is not? It's why critics like Moosa readily admit their arguments are political, but non-critical detractors believe theirs are not. Because the neutral observer fallacy, the entire noxious concept of "objectivity" teaches that we can engage politics without being political. It's impossible.
The neutral observer fallacy arises from the default notion of whiteness that gaming has yet to free itself from. Which isn't to place the blame at anyone's feet specifically, or even generally, but to say that the anti-intellectual climate of gaming feeds is fed by the myth that some people have politics and other people don't. Privilege is blinding and allows us to ignore the many systems that keep certain groups of people isolated; "historical accuracy" is just one example. When we speak of "adding diversity" we must speak not just of characters but their consumers and creators. In order to unravel the myths of neutrality, colorblindness we must reveal our own involvement in maintaining them.
I applaud those who can look into this often stifling and restrictive community and see change—who strive to create a bustling, diverse, pro-social community that exchanges politics instead of ignoring them. I admire these people and want to see more of them. The future is for the people who don't perceive diversity—be it for women, for people of color, for the disabled, for queer people and transfolk—as "unrealistic" or as the "death" of their world, but rather the beginning of better one.