Monday, January 9, 2023

Race in Videogames



Lengthy videogame retrospectives are the norm rather than the exception these days. Games like Skyrim now have 20 hour retrospectives that, while generally being of exceedingly high quality, got me thinking about an interesting topic: Race in videogames. 

Just how are videogame retrospectives and race are related? To me it has to do with who is creating these retrospectives and how this impacts their analysis of games. It's not controversial to say that most of the YouTubers creating these retrospectives are white men without graduate degrees in history or related analytical disciplines. Even so, they present their conclusions with the confidence of a scholar speaking from the pulpit of an Ivy League lecture hall. 

The question this article asks is this: Have they earned that confidence? I would argue that, when it comes to discussing topics like race and racism, no, no they have not. 

A select few of these retrospective makers are so confident that they've begun weaving critical historiographies into their videos, citing competitor's videos and arguing against them point by point in excruciatingly detailed fashion. They nearly mimic academia's hostile atmosphere, reveling in the supposed superiority of their analysis and methodology. To be sure, they deserve some praise for the quality of their videos, and I do appreciate the lengths they go to deliver interesting insight on older videogames. 

What I dislike, however, is how these creators broach topics that extend beyond the games they analyze, ones which they discuss without the analytical vigor they deploy in figuring out, say, the intricacies of Oblivion's leveling system.

For example, I've noticed how several recent Skyrim retrospectives argue that the Stormcloaks aren't racist, going to great depths to prove that, within the context of the game's lore, the Dark Elves targeted by Stormcloak prejudice are actually just as bad as the Stormcloaks responsible for marginalizing them. 

They marshal some evidence to back this up, which ultimately boils down to "in the game's history the Dark Elves are racist enslavers themselves, therefore nullifying what the Stormcloak Nords do to them." This is a reductive point, as we know from real world history that it's a fallacy to claim that racism doesn't exist simply because people affected by it might also hold racist views themselves. 

Another presenter, and I'm paraphrasing, said something like "Dark Elves are refugees in a Stormcloak city, therefore they should have aligned themselves with the Stormcloaks in order to thank them for providing safe harbor. Because they don't support the Stormcloaks, their poor treatment is justified and is not an example of racism." This was a line of analysis that didn't make much sense to me, and upon closer inspection seems to in fact prove, rather than disprove, the thesis that the Stormcloaks were racist. Them being supposedly justified in their actions doesn't make said actions any less racist. 

These creators argue constantly that the Stormcloak/Dark Elf situation in Skyrim isn't racist based on the game's lore, while simultaneously injecting their own prejudices about how race and refugee situations work. It makes no sense for them to ask us to analyze an in-game situation based solely on the game's rules, while also applying logic and conclusions derived from their own worldview and life experience. 

In other words, their conclusion that the Stormcloak's actions are not racist is less a product of their understanding of the lore, and more a product of how they seem to understand race and racism, which they then use to frame their analysis of Elder Scrolls history. 

One might have tried to approach this topic by trying to gauge the extent to which Skyrim's writers understood the topics of race, immigration, and slavery. Even when analyzing a videogame within the constraints of its own lore, we should strive to consider how that lore was created. Who wrote the lore of the Elder Scrolls series? By my understanding, it was not a diverse group of writers. If we believe that identity is significant with respect to understanding marginalized experiences, then this matters in how we perceive the conflict between Nords and Dark Elves in Skyrim. 

As someone in academia, the tone and tenor of these Skyrim videos reminded me very much of the scholarship arguing against Critical Race Theory and Ethnic Studies without truly bothering to understand them. The arguments they presented were similar as well, contending that it would be "ahistorical" based on Elder Scrolls lore to use racism to describe the examples they cited. 

Even if it's true that the Stormcloaks aren't racist within the context of Skyrim's lore, then perhaps it's also true that the reason why the lore is portrayed that way is because the writers failed to understand the real-world examples they based their story on. And perhaps the reason why so many recent YouTube retrospectives fail to take this into account is because they themselves are unfamiliar with the scholarship covering this history. 

With more and more YouTube videos fashioning themselves as academic essays, it would be prudent for creators to pay more attention to the fields and methodologies they are drawing from. These videos do an incredibly thorough job of analyzing game mechanics, lore, and storylines, but fall short when trying to relate that analysis to topics that are actively impacting people across the globe today, and of which much scholarship has been written. Despite the overwhelming depth of these retrospectives, they still have considerable room to grow when it comes to properly analyzing topics like race and racism, and how its history in our world relates to the games that we play. 

About The Author

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Nicholas Garcia (M.A.) is a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Davis. He is also a Co-Founder of the Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies. Previously, he contributed to Lifehack.org and the Davis Humanities Institute.