Despite what you might think about the title, this is not a post about Resident Evil 5. I’m not referring to a game using racist imagery or themes to propagate existing social biases, but the creation of new group stereotypes. While I’ve often thought a game where the player-character is subjected to racism could be a powerful transformative experience for someone who is not a subject of such prejudices, I haven’t thought often about the reverse.
Why would that be a good thing? There’s a powerful theme there looking at how intolerance is formed, how it can impact us while we are unaware of it, and how to avoid it’s sources of influence. The point would be to generate these biases in the player, only to expose them as false later on. Their own discovery process would ideally help them consider other prejudices they might have.
Let’s take an allegorical example for the design of a hypothetical game. An alien world has two races, A & B, with merely superficial differences between them. Perhaps one, or both, feel they are superior to the other – like that episode of Star Trek where these two fighting aliens are half white/half black, and if you sandwich them together properly you get an oreo cookie.
The game would characterize the group you don’t play with a stereotype, then you discover it to be false. There’s two big unspoken if’s there: you have to completely buy into the stereotype, and you have to discover it’s false on your own. You can’t just be told it’s false, because at that point the game’s just jerking you around – you believed it the first time, why should you listen again?
Those two points are important. On the surface you could throw this plot into many sci-fi shooters. Haze sort of tried to. It made the soldiers (who you start fighting with) judging the rebels (who you eventually fight for) despicable characters. That worked in terms of making you hate the characters you’re supposed to hate, but I don’t know that they were ever successful at creating much empathy with the rebels. It also did this in the name of a different anti-war theme.
I’ve never played the KillZone series and for a moment I thought that might actually be the plot around the Helghasts (looks like it’s not). So let’s transplant another example. What if, 3/4’s the way through any Halo game, you came across a group of Grunts having an intelligent conversation about tactics & strategy? That’s playing against their stereotype.
Mechanically, you could also reveal the stereotype. Let’s say killing Grunts had a hidden impact on overall strategy taken by the enemies – they’re less effective at advancing ground in some way. This would be too obtuse for the player to realize on their own, but if you point out this effect as the player comes to the disillusionment of the stereotype – the player would have to consider all their play up to this point in a whole new light. That’s the kind of discovery moment that would bring to life this kind of theme. It would be most effective if the player had been shown that there was something causing that tactical reduction, but not what, to help build up to that Aha! moment.
Still though, it seems hard to avoid coming across as cheap and manipulative. I can’t think of a good movie or book offhand that succeeds in this type of presentation of this theme, using racist imagery sided to one perspective only to flip it later. I don’t think applying the same direct approach in a game would work best either.
Again, it goes back to those two ifs: making the player believe the stereotype, and discovering it to be false on their own.
For a player to truly discover it on their own, you have to make the characters that are the subject of prejudice as full-fledged as possible. They need to be simulated, traveling the world with their own agendas, with friends and family of their own, with those relationships having an impact on how they travel around the world and what they do.
In order to sell the stereotype at first, you have to present all this behavior under one lens. The player only ever sees these characters in one environment, in which they exhibit consistent, simulated behavior, but only a subset of all their behavior. When the player goes to a new environment, he sees more of their overall behavior. This can be staged progressively, with small hints at first, leading to a final reveal where the majority of their true behavior is shown.
While you can actually change the groups behavior around the discovery point, like making them dumber earlier on and then making them smarter after the reveal, you’re using an unreliable narrator type of effect. You’re lying to the player to show your point later on. Cheap tricks like unreliable narrators can be powerful at times, but like sucker punches people are going to be expecting it unless you carefully sneak up on them.
It’s even more difficult when you consider real world scenarios. People come with their preconceptions. Imagery like that in Resident Evil 5 has a history as N’Gai Croal has actively pointed out. You as a player can ignore that, be ignorant of it, or it can bother you. You’re propagating a existing societal stereotype, but to any adult playing the game I don’t know that you’d effectively introduce a new one. You could still play on an existing stereotype in order to contradict it later on.
This is dangerous territory, for sure. People’s own interpretations that they bring to such a loaded topic could end with a majority of people misinterpreting the work. When someone can inadvertantly walk away from your game with a more harmful view of the world, that’s not really respecting the power you have as a creator. That might be fine with lots of other themes, like light satire (Stephen Colbert enjoys being misunderstood by conservatives) but this may be even past my own line. I haven’t convinced myself that it’s entirely possible to do, or even worth doing. But interesting to consider.