The Killer of Sheep of Videogames

Tanner Higgin's picture

[NOTE: A version of this work was presented at the 2013 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. Here is a PDF of the slide deck.]

Measured Representation

We’ve seen the fight for diversity in videogame culture gain ground in recent years. Women, people of color, and LGBTIQ identifying individuals and communities have productively re-framed and countered the prevailing racist, sexist, and homophobic design and discourse that’s dominated videogame culture for fifty years. But as we move forward, I want to provide a word of caution and a tactical suggestion.

While she wasn’t the first or only person to make the claim, Robyn Wiegman’s articulation of the perils of multiculturalism stands as one of the touchstones for me of critical race critique in late twentieth and early twenty-first century media culture. Looking at television, Wiegman explains how “in the frantic move toward representational integration, in both popular culture and the literary canon, the question of political power has been routinely displaced as a vapid fetishization of the visible has emerged to take its place.” As a result “political equity” has been understood as “coterminus with representational presence, thereby undermining political analyses that pivot on the exclusion, silence, or invisibility of various groups and their histories.” Wiegman reminds us of one of the key bait and switch tactics of hegemonic media enterprise: measured representation that appropriates rhetorics of equity and diversity while maintaining structural and institutional support of white, masculine, and heteronormative privilege. Videogame developers and publishers are avid practitioners. 

Main characters in Gears of War 3. Normative character up front in hero pose.

Main characters in Gears of War 3. Normative character up front in hero pose.

In fact it’s such a powerful corporate logic that we see it at play in the Japanese developed Resident Evil 5 (RE5), one of the most heavily debated representations of race in videogame history. After an initial trailer for the game received backlash for its representation of African zombies, it was revealed that the game would feature a black woman, Sheva, as its secondary character next to the prototypical white hero of Chris Redfield. It’s unclear whether the decision to include Sheva was a response to political controversy, but nonetheless it’s timing appeared as such. Capcom, the game’s developer, was perceived as attempting to diversify and by many accounts this was a positive gesture even though the game maintained its prototypical white masculine hero. But when the game was released, the corrupt representational core of the game resurfaced when it was revealed that one of Sheva’s alternate costumes was an exoticizing and sexualizing leopard skin bikini.

Sheva in alternate leopard skin costume.

Sheva in alternate leopard skin costume.

We need to fight for a diversity that exceeds visibility. We need to introduce forms of inclusive representation, vernacular, and expression that go beyond the epidermal to the linguistic, stylistic, experiential, performative, aural, and philosophical. Each drawing on the experiences, perspectives, and histories of a wider group of people, and doing so in ways that do not fit comfortably within biased representational systems that relegate representation to a “vapid fetishization of the visible”  like with RE5, or just flat out privileged whiteness like most mass market games with muscle-bound white male heroes.

There’s two primary fronts in this struggle. The first is in game production which remains disproportionately white and male. This battle is being fought by groups like Black Girls Code which helps girls of color forge positive connections with media production, game design, engineering, art, and the creative industries. Hopefully some of these girls will break into the industry and provide voices of dissent and diversification.

The second front, and the one I am focusing on here, is in design. We need games that rework representation and do so in ways that harness the expressive bandwidth of the medium. Perhaps the one productive outcome of the overblown ludology vs. narratology debate was that it was clear there wasn’t much to debate. In the best games it’s tough to drawn clear lines between story and mechanics, because the two are interwoven. Mechanics can tell stories and stories can find expression in mechanics. In bad games, the two clash. This all too common occurrence was given the name “ludo-narrative dissonance” by Clint Hocking.

Making Games Mean Something  to People that Aren’t White Guys

The games that tend to receive a lot of critical attention and provoke conversation are less dissonant, and often wrestle with big ideas, metaphors, and political provocations through story and code. I’m thinking here in particular of Braid, Portal, Red Dead Redemption, and most recently Spec Ops: The Line. Each weaves together its environment, characters, mechanics, and story to communicate a central idea: a struggle between agency and control. But as Mattie Brice has brilliantly illuminated, these stories, while compelling and technically proficient, are the stories of white men. Brice uses the word “obey,” the title and conceit of a mission in Spec Ops: The Line, as the central thematic nexus of these games. She argues that this theme stages the bourgeois anxieties of white men who lament that they must work within a manipulative system to achieve success. This controlled yet financially secure and privileged bourgeois drudgery, she argues, is not an option for those outside of the white cisgendered/sexed norm. For those in the margins, there’s no choice to obey; rather, they must “break out of the system.”

Thus the challenge, as I have framed it here, is for progressive game designers to design experiences that effectively harmonize narrative and mechanics, but to do so with the aim of busting up the gamic logics of white masculine heteronormative hegemony while also disrupting systems of visual fetishism and integration.

It might sound simple, but it’s not. It’s not only supremely difficult to use mechanics artfully to communicate social, cultural, and philosophical perspectives that combat dominant narratives, but it also requires an understanding of what it’s like to be outside of what’s deemed normative.

Anna Anthropy’s design work is thrilling in this regard. Working at the vanguard of game design, her critically acclaimed game Dys4ia is a collection of raw gamic vignettes that provide a glimpse into the anxiety, insecurity, hope, emotional and physical pain, and tenderness of her six month journey through hormone treatment. Along with her book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, a manifesto for home-brew game creation, Anthropy offers a field manual for interventionist design that does not just diversify game discourse but shifts our notion of what games are for and can be. It actively works toward a new system of expression. Similarly, Merritt Kopas’ Lim reconfigures our notions of what violence looks and feels like and means in videogames, offering a simple but powerful mechanic that speaks to the physical and psycho-social violences experienced by marked bodies in socially policed spaces.

Anna Anthropy's Dys4ia

Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia: reworking and politicizing simple mechanics

Neither work is explicitly about race, yet it’s not difficult to draw connections and issues of gender and sexuality are inextricably linked to issues of race especially within the often abstract and allegorical worlds of videogames. That being said, there’s a need to explore issues of race more directly, especially given the invisibility of racial and ethnic difference in games.

From Black Film to Black Games

African American (and Afro-diasporic) vernacular tradition offers a generative model for counter-discursive work that’s deeply tied to culture and history. For centuries African Americans have radically rethought relationships between form and content in a variety of artistic mediums creating aesthetic archives of historical and cultural data including jazz, blue, oral folk history, dance, hip-hop, and film. As scholars have noted, what’s remarkable about black cultural production is how it’s served as a critical and philosophical apparatus offering sophisticated intellectual counters to dominant narratives. For instance, Tricia Rose insists that the distinguishing “features” of hip-hop are not “stylistic effects” but “aural manifestations of philosophical approaches to social environments.”

Click here to view the video on YouTube.

Black film is similarly encoded with rich philosophical meaning narratively, technically, and stylistically, and is a particularly ripe point of comparison to videogames not simply because videogames are so often measured against or interpreted in light of film, but because the videogame industry draws significantly from cinematic tradition for its grammar of blackness and non-white difference.

At this point it’s important to distinguish the notion of black film that I’m using here from black representation in film more generally, and the idea of black film as a “genre.” I defer to Gladstone Yearwood’s definition of black film: “Using a semiological framework, a definition of black film would be cinema whose signifying practices are derived from a black cultural tradition and whose mechanisms for image production use these traditions as a means through which artistic languages are mediated and expressed.” Thus for critics like Yearwood, black film is a distinct (although often hard to define) “mode of expression” (to use Keith Harris’ phrasing) that views blackness through the lens of black cultural tradition and signifying practices which “cannot be isolated from other pressing issues of black existence.” This commitment to the politics of black culture is distinct from black representation by the Hollywood system which developed an oppressive and stereotypical semiotic system which Donald Bogle charts as moving from the minstrel archetypes of early film, “jester” blackness of the 20s, token servants and entertainers of the 30s and 40s, the emergence of back stars and black militancy in the 50s and 60s, 70s blaxpolitation, and ending with 80s black superstars and 90s “new African cinema.” It’s also distinct from the notion of a Black Film genre, because to formalize it would be to remove the power of its mobility: the way it can weave in and signify on other films, or resist categorization.

Present throughout much of this history were examples of black expression of the sort that Yearwood describes, providing a current of non-stereotypical or satirical representation more attuned to black culture and daily existence. Free from the constraints of mass market demand, white dominated production, and institutionalized racisms of Hollywood, independent black films were free to tell more authentic and expressive stories wrapped in radical forms of signifying practice connected to African American tradition. But unfortunately while videogames often pull representational archetypes from the cinematic imaginary, most draw from the well of stereotype.

But what if videogames took their inspiration from Killer of Sheep rather than Birth of a Nation?

Pasts and Futures: Games that Signify 

Killer of Sheep is Charles Burnett’s 1977 film about black working class life; it’s one of the most oft-referenced examples of black film and a good examples of how black film presents a challenge to the mainstream in form and content, technique and narrative. It’s an extraordinary blend of poeticism and realism that melds mysterious, lyrical, and rich figurative imagery with the precarity of working class life and the dust and crags of urban space. Contrary to the narrative driven linearity of studio films and their token stereotypical characters, Killer of Sheep dips in and out of a fragmented and almost cyclical allegory where de-essentialized African Americans move from margin to center. In this way, it both broadens the affective and experiential spectrums of film while also deploying filmic techniques that resist conventional narrative progression connected to western philosophical tradition and capitalistic ethics.

Click here to view the video on YouTube.

I think we’re seeing equally skillful work in the indie games scene, but I haven’t encountered anything that digs into issues of race with the same attentiveness to expression tradition, aesthetics, and narrativized experiences. I do, however, think we see seeds of this type of work in Erik Loyer’s iOS apps.

Click here to view the video on YouTube.

Loyer’s “playable instruments,” which I have written about previously, attempt to design a new paradigm of interaction that’s akin to musical improvisation. Ruben & Lullaby even deploys jazz as the language of negotiation between the eponymous quarrelling lovers. It’s an experience – a call and response exchange – not defined by race, but deeply connected to difference through jazz. Steeped in black signifying practices and history, jazz embodies a philosophy of community, collaboration and mutability aligned against raciological thinking. With these connections in mind, Ruben & Lullaby, like Killer of Sheep, can be interpreted as a poetic allegory not just for the ebb and flow of romantic relationships but of the struggles of racial conflict and understanding. More importantly, it’s a glimpse of a possible inclusive future of videogames that does not deal out equity in doses of skin color, but is invigorated by difference and characterized by sophisticated technical and aesthetic systems with stories and mechanics untenable to the logics of white supremacy. And while Ruben & Lullaby might not exactly be the Killer of Sheep of videogames, I’m fine with that. It can’t be, and shouldn’t be. It’s a new verse, a gesture forward and back, carrying on with difference.


Publication date (from feed): 

Sat, 09 Mar 2013 23:00:38 +0000