Hubris and arrogance, two potentially toxic personality traits that in unison reinforce your notions and beliefs at the expense of objective evidence or reasoning. In our current, polarised state of discourse where your view point is entirely right, and your opponent is equally wrong the notion of compromise and discussion is a diminishing quantity, as an unfortunate consequence of being able to control and minimise any contentious discussion or challenge through digital media platforms for instance, effectively reinforcing the echo chamber principle of only hearing your own, favoured thoughts and opinions, the ability to process change or challenge diminishes and creates, in my opinion, the perfect conditions for a polarised and divided society. When we are surrounded and only hear like minded opinion, it reinforces the notion of hubris, our opinions are the only valid ones and I should take pride in being right. To admit we are wrong, to admit our opinions and minds can be changed is a humbling experience but one I do wish people would realise doesn’t denigrate or weaken their standing, Quite the opposite, compromise was the basis for reason and the rule of law, how opposing civilizations found common grounds and forged modern society as we know it today.
In its infancy, gaming was very much a distraction, an enjoyable pastime but not one that would necessarily change or challenge opinions on anything of great significance. I do feel as an aside, a great respect and envy towards a generation of gamers coming into the subject matter and being exposed to the vast swathe of topics, genres and narratives imbued into the genesis of modern gaming storytelling. In my formative years, the 3D era was in its infancy and there had been no real attempt or drive to create these morally challenging gaming experiences we find today. Though perhaps that’s not entirely accurate. Lara Croft in 1996 and Carl Johnson in San Andreas in 2004 were championing gender and racial equality in gaming long before they became the vocal issues they are today. Perhaps, though certainly not ‘balanced’ or proportionate to societal representation and demographics, gaming in its fledgling infancy had made some steps to address character representation long before these polarised debates emerged and calling for change. A change that had begun almost a decade earlier. I adored playing Goldeneye on the N64, not only for the associatory thrill of being James Bond in this fully realised world but also because it was a solid, competent game. Then Rare delivered Perfect Dark and I fell in love with their take on the tech noir, Blade Runner esque future of espionage, aliens and gun play, irrespective of the gender of the central protagonist, it was a solid, competent game.
There lay my reinforced notion for a long time, if you produced a competent product, irrespective of whether it was a game, movie, book, whatever the media, characteristics such as gender, race, sexuality shouldn’t be a detracting factor. When I attended the Design/Play/Disrupt exhibit last year at the Victoria and Albert museum in London I had no forewarning on it’s content, expecting it to be an artistic, bastion of creative design and creation. In part, those expectations were met and the first part of the exhibit was a treasure trove of sketch books, development notes and process boards behind some influential titles such as Journey. The ‘Disrupt’ aspect of the exhibit took a different approach, designed around challenging pre-existing notions and opinions. Largely, this focused on characteristics such as gender, race and sexuality in gaming with a talking heads video montage of game creators and developers sharing their viewpoints on the industry. It was informative, at times uncomfortable and honestly revealing as to how certain characteristics were prevalent in representation in games, how modern titles looked to erase built in stereotypes and biases to present an open and inclusive experience. Those words can be, threatening or challenging to some, for me, it just means anyone can pick up and play a game and not feel subjugated to a particular biases, in 2019 I don’t see why in a large modern game you can’t create your character to reflect yourself when creating a digital avatar.
When discussing discourse earlier, I made reference to the notion of compromise in discourse and here, perhaps, a slight need to accept certain characters portrayed in a certain way. When Battlefield 5 was first advertised, there was a great furore and contention on the way character design and representation was enacted in an historical setting. Whether it was appropriate is a debate for another time. Needless to say it polarised opinion on character representation in games, specifically on the accuracy of gender to a large degree in the historical setting and whether this was a dis-service or lack of respect to those that lost their lives during that conflict. However, arguably it also reflects the inaccuracy of the portrayal of these events in modern media and how our perceptions of reality have been shaped by somewhat, biased movies and history over the years. For instance, at time of writing there is an exhibit in the UK at the National Art Exchange in Nottingham focusing on the contribution of Muslims in the UK armed forces during World War Two and the contribution of the Commonwealth countries in pushing back against the Nazi threat. It raises questions around how memorialisation of this conflict has been shaped around a European narrative diminishing to some degree the contribution from the commonwealth. When you begin to realise events can be changed or forgotten, for whatever reason, it does make you realise the necessity and important of approaching games with an open mind, being able to challenge your own deep seated and perhaps, wrongly taught beliefs of history when presented with conflicting facts.
One of the games highlighted at the exhibit I attended last year was one I had only recently completed, Mafia 3, praised for its effort to highlight the race inequalities of America in that period of time. I’ll openly concede, black history was never really taught when I attended high school and is only now seeing a more broader uptake in schools certainly in this country. Honestly, that is shameful, and consequently creating a somewhat skewed bias if reports are to be believed such as this article from the Independent on how guilt and shame is framing the education debate. There is perhaps a conversation over what can be taught in a curriculum considering the broad scope of history and historical events, should it be centric around the nation state you reside in or encompass major critical junctures in time. For my own learning, I recently finished a fascinating book called ‘Disparities and Discriminations’ by Thomas Sowell which takes a look at American history over the last century and highlights in a balanced and reasoned approach root causes behind discrimination that permeates the United States today. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a more objective balanced take on this issue. When I viewed the admittedly brief footage on show at the exhibit was sobering to realise this was perhaps the first game to actually set itself and tackle the cultural prejudices and challenges from this period of time. There was an available guide and series of essays as part of the exhibit that is still available today to purchase I would recommend which included a look at racial inequalities in gaming specifically centred around Mafia 3.
When I came to play this game last month, it was with a weight of expectation and to an extent, a certain degree of trepidation, feeling somewhat daunted at the prospect of a game challenging my convictions and viewpoints on race and racial inequalities. Alluding to an earlier point, there are circumstance where you expect to be able to shape your characters presentation and portrayal to how you wish to be perceived. In a contemporary or modern setting where the narrative isn’t dependent upon a set characteristic it should be a necessity, here, the tone and impact of the game requires your character to be who they are. Given a somewhat limited knowledge of historical African American history beyond additional reading around discriminations and inequalities, I was aware this was the same timeframe as the assassination of Doctor Martin Luther King, a Christian minister and leader in the American civil rights movement before his murder in 1968 sparking nationwide protests in cities around the country. The scope to address these events in some form was expected but in truth, never really materialised. Therein lay my biggest disappointment with the execution of this game, it felt in its entirety it made some effort to show the inequalities of this fictitious representation of New Orleans of this period, when you first approach and enter a store in the open world and find yourself turned away because of your skin colour it’s unsettling to say the least. But the tone and purpose of the game eradicates any lasting sensation of inequality or injustice you feel in those opening moments.
Mafia 3 follows the open world Grand Theft Auto format faithfully, starting at the bottom and working your way through organised crime to the summit. That rise and progression, eliminating those above you, the lieutenants of the crime boss creates a sense of accomplishment as you expand your influence across the city. As an unfortunate consequence, beyond a constant undertone of racist name calling and actions throughout the city, there are no real repercussions or hindrances in your way. If you choose to drive erratically and kill a swathe of civilians and police officers, it’s very easy to escape the game mechanic of the police radar and be in relative safety in short order. The most poignant and effected I felt during the entirety of the campaign came from finding myself in a so called, nice neighbourhood where the residents would comment I didn’t belong there. The developers and design team created an effective atmosphere of racial tension and intolerance, unfortunately they were unable to execute any real consequences of merit for the actions you took. With civil unrest across the country as a result of the assassination of Dr King, you might presume this would be touched upon in the game to a greater extent but at least in my campaign, there was no real challenge or hindrance to my rise to the top of the criminal empire. Perhaps that says more to my expectations of this game as a pinnacle of representation of racial inequality in gaming, perhaps the reality of the situation was Lincoln Clay was just a damaged, war veteran unable to see passed the traumatising effect of Vietnam on his psyche and view of the world on his return.
In contrast, as commented in the New York Times in 2014, Assassin’s Creed Liberations, a spin off title from the American centric third chapter, launched to a limited audience on the Playstation Vita, Sony’s seeming final entry into the handheld market with a central protagonist, a daughter of a French man and African woman who is able to adopt distinct personas that allow her to infiltrate and as a result, allow the user to witness and change events depending on the characters in the environment reacting to her various guises. She can adopt the ‘lady’ or ‘slave’ persona, each with their strengths and weakness. The lady can walk freely amongst the guards, the slave can hide amongst the labor, as a gaming mechanic its consistent with the mainline games use of disguises in allowing you to blend in and infiltrate various areas, as a spotlight on racial inequality, it was a remarkably forward aspect to bring into a game, one sadly not repeated to date. As highlighted on Kotaku the design of Aveline was in the foundations and genesis of the game, it didn’t come across as an afterthought. The narrative of the game doesn’t ‘feel’ or come across as if Aveline is a representation of all the issues at that period of time, as with all Assassin’s Creed games, rightly or wrongly, she is merely a reflection of the user intersecting certain critical junctures in history and reacting as you see fit. Her actions and mechanical characteristics, utilised in the game design are consistent with what you have experienced before, they are familiar and as a result almost secondary or subconscious to the user allowing the broader context and situation around you to dominate.
I was hoping Mafia 3 would change my mind, or at the very least broaden my knowledge to an extent, or allow me to perceive an open world game from a perspective unfamiliar to me. Lauded for its attempt to highlight and showcase the disparities and discrimination of American society in the late 1960’s it should be rightly commended for this intention, it is both unsettling and disturbing for those unfamiliar with what transpired, and perhaps worryingly what continues to exist to this day. That said, as a game, ultimately what limitations and restrictions that existed at that point in time were largely redundant as you progressed to the top of the New Bordeaux criminal empire. Your peers in the underworld held you in equal regard, supporting your every action without any tangible objection. There comes a natural point, especially in game design which is in itself an artificial contrivance of progress and fulfilment, to allow you as the user to gain some form of accomplishment in your actions, to hit the societal glass ceiling would be intolerable to a user and as such, whilst you can highlight and talk about discriminations to an extent, they can’t block the central narrative, at least in terms of these sorts of historical open world games. A brave attempt to bring to life to a young generation an important aspect of American history, one, unfortunately not well executed. Did it provide greater clarity on the subject matter? I guess as with any forms of fictional media, it shapes and adds depth to a certain perspective. At the very least, it creates discussion around the issue which cannot be faulted.
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