Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Playing Politics, Losing Sight

                Have you heard this one? "A PhD candidate walks into a conference - Ouch!"
                So an article about a presentation/paper by Victoria Cooper has been making the rounds lately. The short version: Skyrim is racist because players of Northern European descent sympathize with the cultural values of the Nords, a fictional faux-medieval faux-Northern European people. Coming so quickly on the heels of the "Is The Witcher III Racist or Polish?" controversy, I feel this deserves comment.

                However I hesitate to throw my hat into this ring, both because I am recovering from a fever and because I cannot find a copy of Victoria Cooper's paper online. Right now, the only first-hand account on the presentation I can find is the article. Everything else is either Tweet-wars or opinion pieces or opinion pieces about opinion pieces.

                So here we all are, arguing about whether or not Skyrim is racist because Northern Europeans and people of that descent feel validated by the fantisized version of Northern European culture in the game's setting.

                I'm going to throw in my two cents, but please bear in mind the above caveats about not being able to find the original paper, fever. etc.

                Victoria Cooper's base data may indeed be completely valid and correct. White players in general and Northern European players in particular may be drawn to Skyrim because it portrays "their" culture. Given that I have no reason to doubt this data, I will accept it as given.

                However, this does not mean that Victoria Cooper's interpretation of this data is correct. Northern European players being drawn to a game that represents them gives weight to something much more important than the idea that Skyrim is racist. It is one more piece of data indicating that people like to see themselves represented in games.

                Attacking Skyrim and The Witcher 3 as racist doesn't really gain us anything other than smugness points. That's fine for tweet-wars and blog-brawling, but are we trying to score some cheap points or build a case for just how important representation is? Let's not lose sight of the true goal - that is, assuming that your true goal isn't attacking every positive portrayal of whites in media as racist.

                Haven't we been arguing that representation is important? Looking at how important these rich and complex cultural representations are to Northern Europeans or Slavs gives this argument weight. Haven't we been arguing that giving visibility to different cultures/lifestyles/fill in the blank draws people in and helps the bottom line? Here's an example of how skillful representation did just that.

                If the birth rates of Northern Europeans any indication, games simply cannot keep appealing to the same cultural groups. If the game industry wants to keep selling games in an evolving demographical situation, they are going to have to make more games that target other demographics.

                Making the claim that Skyrim is some sort of insidious racist time bomb is ridiculous. Making the claim that Skyrim appeals to Northern Europeans because it presents a well thought-out pastiche of Northern European culture is reasonable. The ridiculous argument leaves us with nothing constructive to do but to shake our fists at Whitey. The reasonable argument helps us point out that representation really does matter.


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