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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.

7 Responses to Can a game make you racist?

  • Borut, this is the first thing you’ve posted since we’ve started talking on Twitter, and it was worth the wait! Really difficult design problem here. I thought of one way you could integrate this into the game as a non-vital component. I think it would definitely work best with aliens, since it would prevent backlash from non-gamers in a racial/ethnic community misunderstanding the concept (I think you’re right that no books or movies do this incredibly well, but certain Star Trek episodes do attempt it… if laughably poorly written).

    1) Start with a group of soldiers, and characterize them as reasonable, kind, trustworthy people. Perhaps have one save you from death, be a helpful leader throughout the tutorial, etc.

    2) Throughout the beginning of the game, show the enemy race committing various atrocities. Have the teammate NPCs the character has come to trust and like the most make comments about the enemy race being evil, listing horrible things they’ve done, etc.

    3) Have a choke-point in the game where the player has the option to shoot a bunch of civilians of the enemy race or not. Don’t make it ridiculously obvious, a moral quandary where the captain is ordering you to shoot them or some BS like that. Just have the character come upon a bunch of defenseless civilians and decide for him/herself whether to shoot them or not.

    4a) If the player doesn’t shoot them, then the game goes on without them finding out that the enemy race is actually different then they’ve been led to believe.

    4b) If the player does shoot them, then they find out that they were wrong to develop racist feelings that led them to murder, war-crimes, etc.

    This doesn’t answer the question about how to work it into the enemy AI. That’s really tough. I mean, there is the fact that a lot of times you’re faking the AI anyway. I went to a lecture on game AI, and the guy told us that the first thing he ever tries is simply randomizing the decision tree. He plays it, and if it works then he just keeps it random. He only hones the tree if it’s too easy or obviously stupid. So we’re already tricking people about the AI… maybe it wouldn’t be that hard to make players think one thing about the combat dynamics when in fact something else was true.

    The Halo Grunt thing seems like a good test case… but thinking about the hundred thousand times I’ve killed Grunts I think it would’ve been really obvious if something other than “we’re really stupid and tend to run away” were going on. I’ll think more on it and tell you if I come up with a mechanical answer!

  • Hmm, my little four step thing wasn’t very clear. What you could use that for would be to playtest, narratively, whether a mature player had developed racist feelings at the choke point. If a decent percentage of people who took games seriously (25% or so?) shot the civilians, then you’d know you succeeded in inculcating the hatred.

  • Borut says:

    Thanks Simon! And yeah, lately I can’t get my posting rate over one per month, I’m sad like that. :)

    I like your spin on it, the emergent player-character arc. It might almost be too easy to get the player to fall into the shoot’em/feel remorse branch though, because of how trained we are (like with the Grunts).

    Take the civilians in inFamous – A useless lot, they run around while super-powered battles are happening around them. I care about them, in that I try to follow the good path, but I pretty much lay waste to my surroundings regardless (which is very well what a man endowed with godlike powers might do). But I developed an opinion of them as such. In that case it seems tough to come back from, but the emotional distance between Cole and the city dwellers is pretty far, and abstract.
    I probably shouldn’t hold my breath waiting for some inner life to be revealed. :)

  • ron Zinn says:

    I agree this would be a fantastic experiment in game play, but a very challenging design problem. I’ve been thinking extensively about emotional AI lately, which has really driven me in the direction of human perception since emotions are greatly influenced by perception. Perception, of course, is the root of social biases. So the key would be to shape the players perceptions of the game world and its inhabitants. Since adjusting perception is not an exact science, the game will need to employ several different methods of adjusting the players’ perceptions. This will most likely involve an iterative process that periodically tests the players’ perceptions and adds game elements to adjust the perceptions further until the player reaches the required perception threshold. Once this threshold is reached, the game can then start challenging this perception with counter-perceptions. At this point, the game should allow the player to either change their perception or retain the old one. Anyways, I would really love to see a game that can incorporate these ideas, even on a very small level.

    Regarding movies on this subject, I think Crash (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0375679/) does a fairly good job of portraying some of these concepts.

  • Reid Kimball says:

    I think a game that features traditional racist ideas can only be dangerous in the wrong person’s hands. But at the same time it’s important to feature racist characters so that others can learn how not to behave and think.

    I also thought of Crash, great movie. There are plenty of characters with racist views but I haven’t heard anyone say it’s a dangerous movie. People need to look at a work of art in its entirety, its overall goals, not a small segment of it, like a sex scene with a blue alien in Mass Effect.

    I think the alien game could be an easier, safer sell for the public while also helping people to question their own views of other people. The aliens can be a metaphor for anyone who has a different culture or religious belief.

    One of my books on writing for games mentions a scenario like your alien game. The aliens you are allied with talk about the rival aliens in racist tones. But then when you are by yourself in the woods, you happen along a camp site of the rival aliens and you see they don’t behave in the way your current allies described. That they are more intelligent or spiritual.

    Another idea, right after a fire fight, you are injured and they capture you. But instead of acting like the monsters that your allies described, they nurse you back to health and release you. When you go tell your allies this, they say you are lying and start calling you racist names. That feels like a nice way to transition the player from hating others, to changing perceptions of them and finally to being the target of hate.

    -Reid

  • Borut says:

    Yeah, Crash also came up when I asked around on Twitter, I need to see that (bumped it up in the Netflix queue – man I need to watch movies faster).

    @ron: While I agree there’s lots of potential for player modeling to do that kind of interactive storytelling, I wouldn’t discount the offline version either (playtesting to make sure the perception you want is fairly common among players at that point).

    @Reid: Those are good examples too. Do you remember the book the first one’s from out of curiosity?

    In the second example, that contrast from going to possibly very rough warfare to more civil caretaking of PoWs would help sell it (so it’s not just your initial allies voicing their opinion against them). That difference would probably stand out as being incongruous, and then from there you might learn more about why they’re fighting learn why they more brutal on the battlefield (like they feel they’re defending their territory while your allies feel like they own it, ala Palestine).

  • SJML says:

    This made me think a lot about my wanting to set a game in pre-emancipation New Orleans.

    http://blog.shaneliesegang.com/2009/04/whistlin-dixie/

    I hadn’t thought about the ramifications of letting the player take on the role of the oppressed though; would it just come across as proselytizing? I think it’s important to remember the player attitudes and what they’ll accept vs. reject when presented with a social mechanic.

    In terms of media using racist imagery only to subvert it later — I think the closest you get is a lot of war movies, where we unabashedly root for “the good guys” and then there’s a scene where they encounter some wounded bad guy and learn about his life and humanity. If you want to look at the situation in reverse, _The Pianist_ had a memorable scene with a friendly, sympathetic Nazi soldier (and was criticized for it).