There have been a lot of discussions lately – in interviews with developers, online, and in my classroom – about the notion of “historical accuracy” or “believability” and issues of diversity and representation. Among them are Golden Glitch’s in-progress game Elsinore, featuring a dark-skinned Ophelia, and an interview of BioShock developer Ken Levine with GameInformer,which has occasioned both praise and condemnation for its discussion of religion and autism. I’m not going to talk about this article specifically, but, rather, I want to address more broadly some of the notions we seem to have about “historical accuracy” and “believability” regarding media (tv and movies, as well as games).
People often make the argument that certain films, tv shows, and games include sexist or racist images for the sake of “historical accuracy” or “believability.” Assassin’s Creed, for instance, excuses its lack of female characters (particularly in Unity) with the remark that it wouldn’t be accurate. GTA games have often been excused for their sexism on account of the “believability” of their stories – because clearly crime must also contain prostitution and sexual violence. Even fans of Game of Thrones excuse its sexual violence with the assertion that sexism was a part of medieval life (to be fair, GoT also has some of the most kick-ass women on television, Brienne of Tarth and Arya Stark). My students accepted the racism and stereotypical dialects in BioShock Infinite as “historically accurate” to the game’s setting of 1912.
The argument is common. Sometimes it even makes sense. But more often, intentionally or not, it is simply an excuse for lazy storytelling that falls back on stereotypes and tired tropes that perpetuate racist and sexist ideologies.
More importantly, the suggestion that a game or show must contain racism and sexism because of “historical accuracy” or “believability” when it contains other obviously fantastical elements (flying cities, dragons, functionally immortal criminals, the Illuminati, aliens, superheroes, or any other number of imaginary things) is even more specious.
It’s vital that we remember that all of these depictions are choices, not facts. None of the stories I listed above are real. They all exist in fantasy worlds that never existed or have not yet come into being. In each case, someone – or more than one someone – decided that this prostitute would be beaten to death or that Circe would be raped or that Daisy Fitzroy would speak in uneducated dialect and threaten to kill a child or that the Vox Populi would wear demon horns. All those things were choices.
The danger of these choices comes in the fact that not all of them were made deliberately. What I mean is not that someone held a gun to the creator’s head, but, rather, that creators often don’t think about the ramifications or implications of their choices. They don’t think “Oh, hey, Daisy’s pigin English might be offensive or seem racist.” They think “Oh, Mark Twain did it,” or, worse, “This is how black people talked back then.” They don’t consider the implications that choice might have in terms of the present-day social acceptability of racism or sexism or the demonization of a religion or nation.
This becomes difficult to explain when we get to the idea of causality. Just one game with sexism or racism doesn’t make its players sexist or racist. Two games won’t. Three or four or even ten won’t. But when certain tropes and assumptions become commonplace across all media and in conversations had in the news, in classrooms, and around dinner tables, they do become harmful. But just one game, or two games, or ten games which explode those tropes, question the racist assumptions inherent in the American institutions of education, capitalism, and justice, then they can make a difference. Voices questioning the status quo stand out and have a greater impact than those which follow the well-worn path.
I am not arguing that all games should seek to become vehicles of social justice (although that would be pretty cool). I am arguing that creators of all media – print, television, film, games, etc. – should take it upon themselves to do research into other viewpoints and other ideologies. Creators should assume the responsibility for making educated decisions about each race and gender and religion and sexuality they depict. Creators, in short, should choose deliberately.