Genre is, to one extent or another, all about re-using old ideas. Ideas shared. Ideas reclaimed. Ideas reinvented. Ideas lost. Ideas rediscovered. Encounter enough works of genre over a long enough time period and you will see ideas rise and fall like the tides. You will also see patterns emerging in the way that certain ideas are used. For example, it is no accident that the rain slicked streets of 1930s noir fiction would pop up in the works of Raymond Chandler before re-appearing in the films of the 1960s French Nouvelle Vague, and appearing again in the novels and stories of Cyberpunk in the 1980s. The long shadows and bad weather of noir were an expressionistic manifestation of a sense of unease, a feeling that society was somehow broken. That same intuition has stayed with us over time, summoning noir’s set dressing again and again as new generations of authors deploy the same ideas and techniques to express ideas of their own time and place.
Genres are collections of these kinds of ideas. Ideas that form a shared vocabulary that gets used and re-used to tell new stories. But sometimes a good genre idea or trope will become detached from its metaphorical roots and take on a substance and a physicality of its own. The idea will develop freely as generations of authors engage with it but, because the idea has been separated from its original metaphorical purpose, the idea will forever remain wedded to the time and place in which it was forged. Like mitochondrial DNA, or a forgotten time capsule. A window into a different time and a different place.
Given that most video games are works of genre, it is unsurprising to note that video games have time capsules of their own containing ideas that have long since ceased to be useful. This is a column about one such idea: racial essentialism.
Essentialism is the philosophical doctrine that all things of a particular kind share the same essence. An essence that determines their individual characteristics. This might well seem self-evident and, to a certain extent, it is. After all, if a group of things do not share certain characteristics, in what way can they be said to be a part of the same group? Essentialism only becomes philosophically problematic once you start to apply it to groups of people or humanity as a whole. Indeed, underpinning Humanism is the belief that there is such a thing as human nature and that this nature is unchanging. What is problematic about this viewpoint is that it seems to suggest that humanity cannot change and that the different groups that make-up humanity all have fixed characteristics. Indeed, push this belief far enough and Essentialism can be used to justify all kinds of horrible beliefs, including the idea that because one is of a particular racial group, one must necessarily possess certain fixed characteristics.
Contemporary computer role-playing games such as World of Warcraft (2004), Mass Effect (2007) and Dragon Age : Origins (2009) share a commitment to racial essentialism. In all of these games, being a member of a particular species entails certain physical and psychological facts. For example, if you are an Elf in Dragon Age : Origins then you will be small and quick with a chip on your shoulder; meanwhile, if you are a Tauren in World of Warcraft you will be physically powerful but ultimately peace-loving and attached to nature. Of course, as the player of these games, you can create the character you want and there is nothing stopping you from building a bruising, slow-witted Elf with a hatred of magic. But while you have the freedom to express yourself through character creation, the game worlds and plot-lines will invariably reflect the expectation that certain races behave in certain ways. Indeed, some of the most powerful experiences one can have in contemporary RPGs revolve around the issue of race. Consider for example Evan Narcisse’s excellent The Atlantic column about the death of the Krogan Wrex in Mass Effect.
Mass Effect 2 (2010) returns to the issue of the Krogan with the character Grunt. Created in a lab out of bits of DNA from famous Krogan heroes, Grunt struggles to come to terms with his identity both as an individual and as a Krogen. The Krogan, we are lead to believe, are a violent and bellicose race of huge saurian thugs whose expansionist and militaristic tendencies looked poised to cause a huge war right up until someone fixed the problem using a Genophage, a disease that effectively sterilises part of the Krogan race, thereby making it impossible for them to achieve the kind of population density that might make them want to travel to other worlds in search of lebensraum or maintain a large enough army to attempt an invasion of any of their neighbours.
What is fascinating about Mass Effect 2’s handling of Krogan psychology is that at no point does it question the idea that the Krogan are an inherently violent species who will, sooner or later, try to take over the rest of the Galaxy. For example, the game allows you to win the loyalty of the cloned Grunt only by helping him to achieve the acceptance of a clan on his home world. This is an individual who has reached adulthood with only the most tenuous of links to his race’s culture, and yet he can only achieve true happiness by jumping through that culture’s requisite hoops. Krogan culture is, evidently, a manifestation of their genes. It is as though being born a child of Ashkenazi Jews meant that you were incapable of being happy unless you started observing Pesach.
Another member of your crew, a Salarian scientist named Mordin Solus, turns out to be partly responsible for the creation of the Genophage. However, despite his being responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent Krogan, one does not have the option to dump Solus out the nearest airlock or fly to the science fictional equivalent of the Hague in order to have him indicted for war crimes. Instead, the game sets about muddying the moral waters by suggesting that even if the Krogan hadn’t been infected with the virus, they most likely would have nuked themselves back to the stone age anyway… and besides, the guy who is trying to cure the Genophage is experimenting on live Krogan, so who are we to judge Solus anyway, hmmmm?
Mass Effect 2’s acceptance of the idea that being a member of a particular race dictates your personality forces the player into an almost comical crisis of liberalism. One can either be a Hawkish bad guy and see the treatment of the Krogan as a useful means to an unavoidable end, or one can be the hand-wringing good guy and accept that the Krogan are a community with their own values, and that we really should not judge their violent natures. What makes this worse is the fact that Mass Effect 2 has a moral choice system built into it, meaning that only the only character with genuine moral agency is the one controlled by the player. This concentration of power gives the game a rather unpleasantly colonial feel as it sets up Humanity as a US-style galactic policeman, bringing truth and justice to squabbling lesser peoples. The fact that the game is constantly referring to the protagonist Shepherd as a hero does not help this sensation in the least bit. I kept wanting to swap my character’s battle armour for diplomatic whites and a feathered pith helmet.
The inspiration for the game’s depiction of essentialism flows from two different sources.
The First is The Lord of The Rings (1949). Tolkien’s book was clearly inspired by the times in which he was writing – times in which it was not only acceptable to think of people of particular races and nationalities as possessing fixed characteristics, but in which the nations of the World picked sides and went to war with each other. Against this backdrop, Tolkien popularised a technique through which genre can deal with racial and national tensions: namely by projecting them directly onto characters from different species. After all, if there is such a thing as human nature, and if different kinds of humans seem incapable of getting on, what might it be like if entirely different species were forced to co-exist? The degree of in-species homogeneity and inter-species distrust displayed at the Council of Elrond remains hugely influential over seventy years later.
Of course, it is easy to blame Tolkien for these kinds of habits – in fact, it is easy to blame Tolkien for most things, including knife crime, teenaged pregnancy and the fact that every Democratic US president since the Second World War has campaigned as a dove before turning into Stompy McWarboots the second he gets into office. But the history of game design has also shaped the ways in which games deal with race. Indeed, another seminal text in the depiction of race in RPGs is Dungeons and Dragons. While the original edition of D&D only offered Dwarves and Elves as classes similar to Fighter or Mage, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (1977) allowed you to choose both a class and a race (and the term used actually was ‘race’ as opposed to ‘species’). However, in order to make these choices meaningful in game terms, the designers had to flesh out what it meant to be an Elf or a Dwarf. So in addition to racial modifiers, you also got psychological guidelines for how to play your character and limitations upon which jobs your character could have. The rule books of many dead tree RPGs read like works of Victorian anthropology, full of stony-faced assurances that individuals from one race are more intelligent or muscular than individuals from another.
It has seemingly never occurred to game designers to question traditional genre techniques for depicting race.
The Second source of essentialist thought in RPGs is modern identity politics. If we consider the history of identity politics, we will see the way in which certain intellectual strategies have been re-used by different causes. For example, in the mid-1970s, the Gay Rights Movement began to adopt the increasingly successful language of the Civil Rights Movement. This involved fighting for Gay rights not on the grounds that there is nothing wrong with same-sex relationships, but rather on the grounds that being Gay is something that one is born into. Because one does not choose to be Gay, it is unfair to condemn homosexuality – and so, condemning homosexuality is not a question of speaking out against ‘immoral behaviour’. Instead, it is an attempt to persecute a minority. Since then, this strategy of instrumental essentialism has swept across the political landscape. Now, when Richard Dawkins criticises the beliefs of Christians, he is painted (by Christians, naturally) as an intolerant bigot persecuting a minority group. The spread of this kind of politics has made many liberals uneasy about confronting other cultures, even when those cultures transgress liberal ethical values; this queasiness is what underpins Mass Effect 2’s liberal crisis. Grunt sees himself as a warrior who can only achieve happiness by conforming to the standards of his racial culture – and the game refuses to contradict him.
The problem with this kind of species essentialism is that it rests upon highly questionable philosophical bases. Indeed, while racial essentialism is obvious nonsense, the more robust and respectable idea that human nature is fixed is far from being universally accepted. While Jean-Paul Sartre argues, in Existentialism is a Humanism (1946) that existence precedes essence, Stephen Pinker, in The Blank Slate (2003) uses Evolutionary Psychology to attack the concept of the Tabula Rasa, the idea that individuals are born without cognitive content that might shape their natures. Of course, as is usually the case with these intellectual dichotomies, the truth about human nature is partly a question of nature and partly a question of nurture. This is because the concept of ‘human nature’ is an ancient and unclear one. For example does this nature exist at the level of behaviour or at the level of neural processing? Is it application or operating system? Does the existence of a human nature validate particular political and moral systems or is it a more abstract question of how we think and experience the world? Because the basic terms of the debate are unclear and emotive, the question of human nature (and therefore that of non-human fictional sentient species) remains open – but would it not be nice to see a game that actually allowed for the true complexity and uncertainty of the world rather than retreating into the long-abandoned certainties of the past?
One interesting solution to the problem is offered by the winner of the 2009 Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. Jacques Audiard’s Un Prophete (2009) is an epic prison-set crime drama about a young Arab who has to learn the ropes of the prison system, a system in which your race is seen as dictating not only your personality, but also your loyalties. However, despite being an Arab, the central character seems to come from nowhere. He has no family. He has no friends. He has no knowledge of Islam. He does not even know how to write. He is a complete individual. His slow rise is presented not as an example of a member of a minority achieving power by aping the tactics of the politically dominant race (as with the depiction of Frank Lucas in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster or Stringer Bell in The Wire), but rather an image of a man free from racial preconceptions making the most of a world carved up by arbitrary and meaningless racial tribalism. Un Prophete is, in some ways, an attempt to create a mythology for people without roots; just as The Godfather (1972) helped to define the racial and cultural parameters of what it meant to be an American of Italian origin, Un Prophete is the creation myth of people who are not defined by their race or by their culture, but only by their individual actions.
Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.
Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.
[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]