Discussing: Polygon’s Race Problem in Games

Discussing

Polygon, ever the popular cat on the internet, recently published an opinion piece by Tauriq Moosa. I won’t be explaining the article in its entirety here so I suggest you click the link in the previous sentence and read it yourself before reading this reaction post. That said, I will say that the post dealt with the subject of video games not being inclusive towards various races, focusing only on Caucasian characters for the most part. What’s more is the article decided to use The Witcher: Wild Hunt as its focal point. Polygon has the bad reputation to publish articles and videos whose purpose is to rile up anger and controversy, not for the sake of creating discussion on well deserved topics but for more traffic on their sites. I mention this because I am not one of those people who think this. The reason being that I haven’t read Polygon or watched their videos in the past and despite my experience with the video games industry, including now four years as a blogger, critic, journalist, editorialist, and video creator in the field, I have managed to mostly keep Polygon out of my radar. I’ve only now started to read the site and this is the first opinion piece that I’ve read from the site. So I don’t have the expectations those who have been reading Polygon for awhile would have. Therefore, my reaction to this article is coming from someone with no previous bias towards Polygon and can be seen as a completely fresh opinion to this article and this article alone.

That being said, I definitely see why Polygon has the reputation they do, if this one article is representative of the content they publish. I want to point out that I do actually see the point Tauriq Moosa is trying to make here. To say that a multitude of races are represented in video games would be false. Many video games suffer from a lack of racial diversity. Hell, a lot of us are tired of every protagonist in major releases being white males with shaved haircuts and antihero dispositions. I will even go as far as to agree with the article in regards to its mention of the situation with Rust, the survival game that now features various ethnicities without the option to choose which one you play. Some of the players of Rust have expressed disappointment with the creator’s decision to randomize your character’s race. I find this to be offensive as playing as a white character is expected but playing as a person of color is “forced politics”, according to one user on Steam. At best, this is shallow thinking as it comes from someone only thinking of their own existence. At worst, this is blatantly racist as it assumes that the mere recognition of someone with a different skin tone from their own exist solely as a political statement. I’m willing to grant that the lack of a choice is disappointing as I like to sometimes play as different ethnicities and genders in game for the sake of variety. However, I see it as no more a lack of choice than when a game has you choose from a pre-set cast of characters to choose from, such as in Dead Island or Left 4 Dead, which is to say it’s just a decision from a development standpoint.

Concerning the rest of the article that mentions Witcher 3, which is to say most of it, I have to say that while I can see the sentiment being expressed, it mostly shoots itself in the foot. First things first, I have not played Witcher 3 because…well, my computer can’t run it and I don’t have either of the new consoles. However, I do know that the game takes place in a fantasy world based on Slavic mythology. Therefore, in order to be historically accurate with the people described in the mythology, the humans in the game are all white or specifically Slavic. This means a game that has little to no racial diversity with its human population. Okay, fair enough. This is all true. However, Moosa mentions that the industry is not an equal playing field, as games featuring other ethnicities are nonexistent. The tales told in games are often “white stories” or stories featuring exclusively white people. One solution to this is apparently race-bending, or casting other ethnicities to play a role often played by a different ethnicity. “White-washing,” or when white people are used instead of other ethnicities in roles that didn’t call for a white person, was also mentioned and this was used to explain why race-bending and white-washing are not the same. However, the article failed to mention that neither is particularly better. Sure, race-bending grants racial diversity where it normally wouldn’t be but it doesn’t provide an accurate depiction of someone of that ethnicity.

Take Witcher 3. The problem with this is the world is written with Slavic mythology and people in mind, meaning their culture, mannerisms, and social hierarchy in mind. The world is not our own and is not beholden to the same social faux pas and controversies. I won’t get into whether or not the different species in the game equate to different races in our world as I feel like I would have to had played the game in order to accurately comment on that but I do know this. All ethnicities should be treated equal but not because we are all the same. All ethnicities have different beliefs, traditions, and stories of their own. We all are different but should be treated with the an equal amount of respect and understanding. So even if you don’t buy into the argument of the game being historically accurate to the Slavic mythology, race-bending does not actually solve your racial diversity issue in this game. To place a Puerto Rican in the role of a traditionally white role would not take into consideration the differences that character would now experience due to their race. You would have to take into account not only how that character would react to the world around them, but how the world would react to that character. The same could be said if you change a male character to a female, a poor character rich, and a young character old. This is exacerbated with characters with smaller roles such as NPCs, as the world IS their characteristic. The NPCs you see in, say, the first Assassin’s Creed game have only one character trait: being Arabic. If you were to replace some or all of them with Asian people, they would still act like they were Arabic unless you changed the world, and in turn the game, significantly. Therefore, changing their ethnicity has no real representation of the race. It literally would just be a palette swap. It’s essentially affirmative action: racial diversity for the sake of it, regardless of the accuracy of the racial representation.

Going back to the subject of the lack of racial diversity, this is the main issue I have with the article as the core issue Moosa has with Witcher 3 is with what isn’t there rather than what is. Like I said before, the game isn’t very racially diverse, as per the Slavic mythology. However, it doesn’t seem like it was trying to be. Developer CD Projekt RED is based in Poland, a country part of the Slavic race of people, and for what they know in their homeland, Witcher 3 is accurate to their culture and environment. Sure, they could have broaden their horizons to the rest of the world but that’s not the story they were trying to tell. Our world is not the world the developers were trying to depict in the game and our world’s racial issues are not Witcher 3’s cross to bear. While it’s true that racial diversity is sorely needed in video games, no one game is solely the catalyst of this problem unless the originally planned world was changed to feature a mostly or fully white population. I can understand having this game be the latest example of the lack of diversity in games with others complementing this point, but why is it that Witcher 3 needs to be inclusive when other games aren’t? There are a lot of other games with mostly Caucasian populations that aren’t even mentioned here despite the fact that it would have strengthened this article’s argument. Moosa’s lack of other examples to support his theory may not seem like a big deal but I would compare this lack of examples with Moosa’s complaint with white reviewers not mentioning the lack of diversity in Witcher 3. I understand the need to point out that this game is another that doesn’t tell the story of a different ethnicity but I don’t see how that is an issue with it that could be corrected. So why just attack this game? Perhaps it’s because it was the most egregious culprit in Moosa’s mind or maybe he hadn’t played any other games recently he could pull examples from organically. Of course, the other possibility is the reputation that Polygon has. What better way to gain some traffic for your site than to put up an article about your and the internet’s favorite game right now and call it racist and a defining example of the video game industry as a whole’s problem with race?

Oddly enough, the real problem isn’t what is excluded from Witcher 3 but what is excluded outside of it. Inclusion of other races doesn’t mean the exclusion of white races. Just because “white stories” are what are predominantly told doesn’t mean other stories from other ethnicities cannot be. Representation of one ethnicity doesn’t mean the misrepresentation of another. The problem isn’t with “white stories” being told; the problem is other ethnicities’ stories are not being told. We need more stories from other races rather than other races in white stories. We need Mexican, Indian, African, etc. stories alongside white stories, as well as stories with mixed races and cultures. The problem with representation is it’s comparative. Nicki Minaj got a lot of heat for her single “Anaconda” because it was viewed as shameful to women. She and some of her fans claimed that it was actually a feminist statement as she was in control of her sexuality. However, because there is so much sexuality in music today, the statement is muddled when compared to everything around it to the point that it’s perceived to be the opposite of its intended purpose. Witcher 3 is only racist when compared to other games that also don’t feature other ethnicities. It’s guilty by association and that’s not a fair verdict. It’s important to give light to the misrepresented but don’t place blame on the represented as a result. Do not blame the existing for the nonexistent. Instead, look to why other non “white stories” are not being told. Blame the publisher that didn’t green light the game based around Indian culture. Blame the developers who decided not to proceed with their vision of a game with a Brazilian protagonist. Blame the gamer who was going to buy Rust but didn’t want “to take the chance of playing a black character.”

In summation, my theory is that Moosa’s intentions are well intended and he appears to have the pedigree to back that up. Regardless, his article is misguided and has too many ill-conceived boogeymen and solutions to be credibly appreciated as a whole. Since I know this will be a question, I’ll let you know my ethnicity since while it may influence my position on this matter, it does not invalidate it. I am of Mexican descent and was born and have lived in the United States my whole life. What do you think of Polygon’s “Colorblind: On Witcher 3, Rust, and Gaming’s Race Problem” article? Where do you fall on the issue of race in video games? Let me know in the comments section. Peace and Love, gamers and players! Colorwind out.

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