July 2, 2022

Narratively Speaking – A Response.

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for video games. Deus Ex, Dead Island, Space Marine… all have had accusations of racism, sexism and fascism leveled at them. Deus Ex has been blamed of racism – due in part to a lot of stereotyping in its NPCs (the Chinese accents are definitely worth the entry fee), Dead Island, of course, had the “Feminist Whore” line in the code which by token makes the whole of Techland sexist. And of course, Space Marine. Despite years of this going perfectly unnoticed by people with no interest in Warhammer, suddenly – oh my god! The Space Marines are a bit fascist! Like, where did that come from? Let’s all be offended about it, right now, regardless of the fact we could have argued this point a decade or more ago!

Some have argued that videogaming is institutionally naive when it comes to sensitive subjects such as sex, race, sexuality, disability, politics – you name it, if it can cause outrage, videogames have probably at some point tripped up over it.

Except that this is a far more endemic issue than videogaming.

It’s an inherent problem with the whole creative industry that liberties are often taken for granted. I mean, let’s take Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon. For me, it wasn’t really that subtle. Mr Bay is clearly a bit of a teenager at heart, and his directing is poor. But the movie as a whole was rife with controversial caricatures – from the sexist camera work, to racist and quite obscenely stereotypical voiceovers, through to hints of ageism and homophobia – Dark of the Moon was easily one of the worst movies in living memory when it comes down to the quality of the script.

And it is the script. Or rather, how accustomed we writers have become to some decidedly dodgy shortcuts.

As writers, we know we have a limited amount of time, space and money to expand on any given character – moreso in the gaming industry when a player just wants to skip to the action and bypass any actual plot development. This all too often means we have limited means at our disposal to properly impress upon a viewer, reader, listener or gamer, and we have to get the point across quickly – this is doubly important when it comes to supporting cast, as many times we can’t really give a life story to a supermarket cashier, can we? So we go for a young ditzy blonde twirling her hair and chewing gum as the camera pans in, before we see where she is sitting. This is such a cliche, you are correct, but it’s a cliche that WORKS. You get the message, you get the idea, and we drop it immediately afterwards and carry on. For that brief moment, you saw a supermarket cashier.

Narrative shorthand is an awkward beast as all too often it relies very heavily on stereotypes and cliches to actually get a point across. Truth is, most of the general public have a short attention span, and don’t really care much for most of the cast anyway in any medium, so we use bullet points to get the message across; this man is black. This man is gay. This man is a paraplegic. This man is transgender.

And the less time we have to dedicate to a character, the more we rely on this kind of shorthand – the less time we have, the less space we have, the greater the need to condense the character down, boiling it to its base elements – much like condensed soup, the result is often a little indigestible and water is often needed to lighten it and make it slip down – be that humour, or drama, or a romantic liason.

Now, you may find this a little depressing. I agree, it can be. But we’ve tolerated it for decades – soaps are all about the condensed characters, so it can often expand on them. To the point that complaining about it all now is a fruitless endeavour – especially in the journalistic medium, which is far too eager sometimes to cast the first stone and forget about its own misdemeanours – newspapers condemning the murder of a woman, and then the first to call for the death penalty for her murderer. Magazine editors ready to level a massive criticism at their readership, and yet unable to take criticism back. PR disasters, sending out an e-mail to a woman which is bitchy in tone and content and then trying to paint out how normal and American Pie you really are.

Videogames do have some general cultural issues – for example, the Japanese really are quite overt in their depiction of… well. Women. Can’t really ease the blow on that. It doesn’t take much effort to see this – but to the Japanese, this is totally normal. They don’t get why we are offended. Equally, the US gives us stuff like Gears of War – a steaming pile of American self-pleasuring patriotism in every way with enough military hardware to annihilate a small galaxy. America doesn’t quite get why most of the rest of the world continues to cover its mouth and mutter obscenities about its attitude problem. Europe – oh boy, we’ve so many differing cultures here it is kind of hard to know where to start…

But this is normal and natural, and by and large any narrative shorthand is a necessary evil in the wake of consumers who are easily bored, and will wander off if you delve too deeply into a characters psyche. As long as the message is delivered – then our work, as they say, is done.

Thing is, some issues are far too complex and we, as writers, must take a collective responsibility in the fact that all too often, heavy matters are dealt with far too lightly. By making a supporting cast diverse, we often tread on peoples toes – with obscene black dialects from New Orleans, or an overly gay character that would make Graham Norton look positively butch. And it is often on these occasions, and when the press is paying some attention because there is nothing else to moan at, that things are taken out of context.

Very few writers are really racist, sexist, homophobic etc. – and we shouldn’t tolerate those who really are. Let us be clear, we must not condone true discrimination in any form, but equally we must also be willing to accept that all too often, there is nothing inherently offensive about the characters we take offence to. They are not bad, they are not good, they just are – they are stereotypes, cliches, shorthand to get a message to the general public, throwaway characters that are a necessary evil in the grand scheme of the narrative.

Things can always be handled better, written better – the beauty of hindsight is that it is always 20/20. Sure, Dead Island didn’t need to have that in its code. Sure, Deus Ex takes an awful lot of liberties with its narrative – a lot more than most people realise. And yes, we could have argued about the moral, political and ethical implications of the Warhammer universe years ago, when most of us might have cared it would seem. That’s life. We can’t change what has been – just hope we don’t trip up on the next journey.

And there is always a next slip-up. Be it TV, Movies, Music, Literature, Video Games or the Theatre, there will always be another thing to be offended at. All writers – regardless of their speciality (I am often embarrassed to admit mine is poetry but hey, that’s life I suppose), have used narrative shorthand and taken shortcuts and liberties to get their work flowing in the right direction, with fluidity and purpose. There is no medium that is above this – and no medium in the future that will be immune to learning this lesson.

But ultimately, the question is – who is really offended? Ask most of the people whom the stereotypes are remotely related to and they won’t really care – and that’s the real beauty in this whole debate. Most of us, who are affected by any cliche or stereotype, simply couldn’t give a rats arse about it. Sex and the City and its ilk have painted gay men to be overtly camp, along with numerous camp performers over the years. Here’s a newsflash – some gay men aren’t camp. They are normal guys, who struggle with fashion and generally suck at coordinating their lives. Don’t see that breed complaining – it’s a part of the world that simply doesn’t apply to them.

Ultimately, the real question to be asked is why we’re so easily offended by any of this, and why we are so selective over what to take offense to. Because there will be another massively controversial game in the near future (a new Dead or Alive has been confirmed – boing boing and all that!) for us to get worked up over, and we’ll look back at the last one to rile us up and wonder why on earth we even cared…

It’s because everyone else does. And it’s probably time we took responsibility for our own opinions – and let a lot of this narrative shorthand slide. You can’t keep criticising videogames and ignore everything else. To do so only distances the argument to a patronising, almost sarcastic level and it will never be taken with the serious tone needed, with the intelligent dialogue required to work out a solution.

We all need to realise – we don’t need to be offended because others are. If we’re not initially offended… it probably isn’t that offensive. And don’t let anyone else tell you differently.


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