The first game I can remember playing that dealt with the issue of racial prejudice is Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance. In this game, there are two predominant races (like in most fantasy RPGs, it would be more scientifically accurate to call these “species”): the beorc and the laguz. Beorc are what we in the real world would refer to as humans, but the world “human” is a spiteful one in the fantasy setting of Path of Radiance. Laguz are shapeshifters who have humanoid forms and beast, bird, or dragon forms. In the recent history of the setting, laguz were enslaved by the beorc and that slavery has not been long abolished. There are laguz countries but their alliances with beorc nations are uneasy at best. Discrimination is a harsh reality of laguz life and the game wastes no time in establishing and using the racial slurs of the setting.
Since that time I’ve played a number of games which address what Around the Bonfire refers to in his Charming and Open question as real-world divisions: topics like race and gender identity that cause division in the world outside of video games. His question to m is a pretty straightforward one – do I prefer it when video games address these divisions in a direct way (he cites the example of race in Mafia 3) or when they abstract the concept (for this he references non-binary genders in Star Trek)? Bonfire specified that ultimately he is not as concerned with those specific topics as he is the idea of whether I prefer that real-world issues are tackled directly in video games, or talked about through symbology and metaphor.
This is the first Charming and Open question that I have struggled to answer. That’s not the fault of Bonfire – it’s a fair question posed in a respectful way. I think my struggle is that for me, this question has powerful undertones that I felt the need to address in a way that is equally fair and respectful. It activates the part of me that has been thoroughly immersed in social justice work for a few years now. My day job is working for one department within the juvenile justice system where I live – for nearly two years, the specific capacity I served in was providing training and analyzing data related to racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system. It was literally my day job to think about and educate people about unconscious bias and systemic racism. It’s hard for me to hear this question and not have tied up within in all these complicated issues that don’t really relate to what Bonfire is asking here. So in an effort to stay on topic, I’m going to spend exactly two paragraphs establishing some context to help you understand where I’m coming from, and then within that context I’m going to talk about video games.
First it is important that you understand my context. I am an abled, straight, cisgender white man who lives in the United States of America. What that means is that I am of the race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and physical capability that represents the majority in the context of our power structures. When you look at the people who historically have been in charge of the country where I live, the people who created its laws and ran its businesses for the most part looked and acted like me. When I talk about the issues faced by people of different races or gender identities, I am describing them from the perspective of someone who has been educated by those communities about their struggles. I’ve not faced those struggles firsthand, and so to a degree I can never fully understand what marginalized communities have had to endure. This is also a relatively recent journey for me. I grew up in a community where the white population was around 90% – my exposure to other cultures took a long time, and unfortunately as a result of that along with the messaging I received from my community as I grew up, I still carry to this day a lot of baggage in the form of unconscious bias. Because I don’t want that bias to negatively impact my message, when I’m discussing these topics I always have to slow down and think more carefully about what I say – or in this case, write.
So you can imagine how tricky it was for me to approach this article. This may seem like a simple topic to some but for me there’s a lot of history and complexity tied into it, and it touches a nerve in a philosophical sense. I guess what makes this different from other Charming and Open questions is that I care deeply about it. Instead of sitting down to mindlessly type out a top five or throw together a goofy short story, I’m navigating through a tangled web of complicated feelings to try and put together a thoughtful, educational article in response to a question that I can only assume was not posed in the same sort of overwrought state of mind. It’s just a question – but for some, it is much more than that, and so this is my attempt to acknowledge that and to address it in kind.
Do I prefer when games address real-world divisions directly or abstractly? For me, the answer to that question comes down to the difference between what’s comfortable and what’s needed. I prefer to play games that don’t make me squirm in my seat. When I come home from work and finish cooking dinner and get my son in bed, when I finally slump down onto the couch or my bed with Switch in hand, I want to not have to think about the real world for awhile and just lose myself in fantasy. But that itself is an example of the privilege I experience. That I can pick up most video games and not have to worry about how I’m going to be portrayed, or whether by purchasing that game I inadvertently gave money to someone who thinks of me as less than human…there’s a whole additional layer of this process I get to simply skip because of who I was born as.
But the games I’ve played that had the most positive impact on my ability to think about these real-world divisions are the ones where I was not comfortable. Path of Radiance isn’t necessarily the most thought-out or progressive take on the issue of racial prejudice, but for me at my experience level it was a starting point. When I watched Ranulf, a laguz, surrounded by beorc peasants and beaten as they spat slurs at him, I wasn’t comfortable. I was thinking about how this was a reality faced by people whose skin color was different than mine. But the thing is, guys like me, we have to be made uncomfortable to get us to face these issues and divisions head-on. If we are allowed to live in comfort, to just ignore what other people are facing, we’re never going to have the fire to make change.
There’s another layer here to acknowledge, and that’s consideration for those who have experienced this mistreatment in real life. It’s all well and good that Path of Radiance made my teenage self actually stick his head out of his naive bubble, but can you imagine what it would be like to have lived through racial prejudice and then play that game? Maybe you don’t have to imagine. I bring this up as an acknowledgement that even though games that make people uncomfortable are important, games as an escape are also important and valid. There’s a problem in the tabletop community where some dungeon masters will use depictions of racism to make their setting “real” – but for people who have experienced real-life racism, sometimes a fantasy setting free of that mistreatment is a welcome respite.
All games are important. Games that provide an escape matter for people who need to escape. Games that challenge you to think about uncomfortable topics matter for those of us who have never had to face those topics directly. Would I prefer to play games that deal with everything abstractly, allowing me to ignore the metaphor and simply treat my gaming time as escape time? Absolutely. Less stress for me. Games can help me escape and nothing more. But in many cases, what is comfortable is not what is needed. If a game that directly tackles real-world issues is what it takes to get me to empathize with someone who doesn’t look or think like me for the first time, then there better be games out there that dare to talk about the issues in a direct way.
I want to take the final section of this article to talk about normalization. Different communities have different needs. In a lot of games, race exists but its impact is not addressed. This creates a need for race issues to be (respectfully!) portrayed and addressed in gaming. But for the LGBTQ+ community, many games don’t even acknowledge their presence in the world. Or if they do, the characters are caricatures of stereotypical beliefs about what it means to be gay or trans. For this group, games that actually show LGBTQ+ characters existing – and existing in healthy communities with personalities and culture as nuanced and varied as anyone else – are going to be important. That’s what I mean by normalization; games that incorporate these characters as naturally as they incorporate straight or cis characters.
Undertale for me really hit the sweet spot with this. When I first played Undertale I can honestly say that there probably wasn’t anyone in the LGBTQ+ community who would have described me as an ally. I wasn’t hostile but I certainly wasn’t helpful either. But when I met the two guards in Hotland and realized that the way to defeat them without killing them was to help them realize their love for each other, I loved it. In a matter of maybe one full minute, Undertale portrays a sweet story about these two soldiers who always fight alongside each other and have been through thick and thin together. It’s a cute moment that is treated as normally as any other peaceful resolution to any other combat encounter in the entire game.
After beating the neutral story, if you’ve done a pacifist run of Undertale you can see the story of Undyne and Alphys play out. Undyne and Alphys are both women but their relationship isn’t portrayed through the lens of a horny dude (often the problem with WLW relationships in games). Alphys feels unworthy of Undyne because the latter is a mighty warrior and well-loved while the former is a dork and carries a heavy burden of guilt. Undyne helps to guide Alphys through her self loathing and expresses the parts of Alphys that she dearly loves, even if their hobbies and interests are totally different. This portrayal of a healthy, non-sexualized lesbian relationship is an important one – lots of real women have relationships just like this one, but how often do those women actually get to see themselves in the games they play? And how often are these relationships visible to people outside of the LGBTQ+ community? Undertale and other games like it helped my naive self to build a greater acceptance, and that coupled with the patient education of my real-life LGBTQ+ friends changed my tune on diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.
To summarize, I think that while games which abstract real-life divisions are important and necessary for some, in my experience games that handle them directly are the ones that are most likely to change or expand someone’s perspective. For issues of racial injustice and failure to meet the needs of the disabled community, ignoring the problem is a key contributor to how it is maintained. For people in the LGBTQ+ community, pretending that they do not exist prevents people outside the community from ever having to face the consequences of their negative views about that lifestyle. Representing all of these communities in a direct, intentional way is one way for video games to help and address these real-world divisions.
I understand that there is so much nuance to this topic, much more than I can realistically address in a 2000 word article. Realistic, healthy portrayals of marginalized communities in video games won’t save the world by any stretch of the imagination, and in my experience it took more than just video games to change my perspective on real-life issues; behind the scenes, I was being thoroughly educated by the people that my passive ignorance was harming. If anything I’ve discussed in this article has piqued your curiosity, feel free to leave a comment with your questions – but know that I will have zero tolerance for any comment that I feel is posted in bad faith.
If you enjoyed this article, much thanks is owed to Around the Bonfire for posing the question! Be sure to go and check out his blog, where he’ll be answering a question from me as part of my ongoing Charming and Open event. If you want to participate in Charming and Open yourself, you can ask me a question by following this link and leaving a comment there.