The Dark-Skinned White People Of Star Wars: The Old Republic

I play a lot of MMOs, mostly because they tend to have particularly interesting spaces. And when an MMO goes free-to-play, I’ll almost certainly check it out sooner or later. It’s in that spirit that I recently started playing Star Wars: The Old Republic. I take a variety of different approaches to character creation for MMOs, but one thing I do like to do occasionally is give my character a distinctive appearance, something quite different from what most players look like. This is one of the reasons I chose to create a dark-skinned character in SWTOR.

The truth is though, I’m also interested in the racial politics of popular sci-fi and fantasy settings, particularly those of MMOs. I’ve played dark-skinned characters in a number of MMOs, and the thing that strikes me is that the experience is very similar: if there’s any response to my character’s skin colour, it’s from other players, never from NPCs, or the game itself. I’m perpetually disappointed by the way these games reduce non-white, and generally non-male, identities to basically identity tourism, by making them purely cosmetic/aesthetic options. As a white guy, should I be more uncomfortable with playing a non-white character in SWTOR, or with the fact the game only really allows for playing a brown-skinned white person?  Is the bigger problem that non-white identities are represented in this way, or that I’m trying to play them anyway?

I posted about this question on Facebook, and some of my concerns, and this blog entry comes from the exchange that ensued. Consequently it’s got a bit of Racism 101 that will seem all too familiar to those used to discourses of racial politics, and hopefully isn’t over-simplified.

Screenshot_2012-12-31_09_15_03_059970

Star Wars has what TV Tropes calls Fantastic Racism, i.e. “black and white put their differences aside and gang up on green”. It’s a way of dealing with racial politics via metaphor, at a remove, at a level of abstraction, rather than directly.

The problem is, it’s a way of dealing with racial politics via metaphor, at a remove, at a level of abstraction, rather than directly.

Fantastic Racism obviates a lot of the actual, concrete facts of racism, and generally simplifies it a lot to make it easier to deal with in the narrative. The abstraction also generally includes a lot of simplification of racism to primarily or exclusively overt racism, i.e. Star Wars’ overtones of Space Nazis in that the Empire hates non-human species. Far more relevant to contemporary society is the phenomenon of covert racism, i.e. disparities in socio-economic status between racial groups that are ostensibly “equal”, due to deeply-ingrained systemic prejudices.

Furthermore, Fantastic Racism enshrines the concept of race as an objective fact of nature, rather than as a social construct. The non-human species in Star Wars are literally not human, they’re objectively, demonstrably a whole different species. This doesn’t reflect the actual contemporary real-world reality of racism, where racism is very much based on race as a social construct. In a sense, Fantastic Racism justifies racism, because the other species discriminated against are literally, objectively different and Not Like Us.

The case of SWTOR is one where as a consequence of the setting using Fantastic Racism, actual brown-skinned humans are treated absolutely 100% identically to light-skinned humans. This might seem like a desirable situation, everybody’s actually equal, right? Problem is, being a social construct doesn’t mean race as a concept doesn’t exist, and affect people’s lives in all sorts of ways.

One of the things about being a white person in a culture dominated by white people is you won’t have the same experience of being subject to racism, both overt and covert, as somebody who isn’t white. That’s awesome! For me and other white people, at least. It’s a privilege we have. Non-white people don’t have that privilege. Dealing with racism is a fundamental reality of being non-white in a white-dominated society. Never being subject to racism is very much a distinctively white person’s experience and perspective.

So when, in the case of SWTOR, a dark-skinned character in a game speaks with a voice and accent that is culturally associated with white people, has limited access to facial features and hairstyles beyond those culturally associated with white people, and is never subject to racism, in exactly the way that white people are never subject to racism… you can hopefully see how this might be a problem. You can hopefully see how this basically amounts to non-white characters being represented simply as dark-skinned white people. It basically makes skin colour an aesthetic, cosmetic choice. It’s a costume you can put on and take off.

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This gets even more complicated when you have to deal with the fact that, yes, the vast majority of MMO players are white males. They will generally have no experience of being subject to racism in the way that non-white people are, and may well be unaware that this is a distinctively white privilege. When they play a dark-skinned human in a game where dark-skinned humans are just dark-skinned white people, they may well be unaware that the experience of playing a dark-skinned character is entirely, utterly different from the experience of being a non-white person in contemporary society.

Where the fact contemporary society does not have lightsabers and Hutts and Sith may be blindingly obvious, this subtle cultural difference is far less obvious. You can just play a dark-skinned character because you think it looks cool. You’ll be treated like a white person, like you’re used to being treated, either way. It’s totally safe and familiar. It comes with no actual consequences, unlike being a non-white person in the real-world. This is not a particularly respectful way of representing non-white people in a game, for reasons that are hopefully obvious.

But wouldn’t including a racially different experience seem racist in itself rather than make things more realistic? Do you need to have racism in a sci-fi or fantasy game?

The question I’d ask instead is, would representing the experience of non-white people in a more authentic and less simplistic way be racist? And my answer would be that, no, I don’t think it would be. And that’s what I’d like to see. Represent the experience of being non-white, not just the skin colour. I mean, you don’t have to have dark-skinned people in your setting or game, but I think people are going to ask even more questions if you don’t. So if you do have dark-skinned people in your game, take the time to deal with what that means.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Star Wars, or any other sci-fi or fantasy setting, has to replicate contemporary social issues exactly. But using Fantastic Racism isn’t good enough, at least as it’s generally done. If you really want to deal with racial politics, put some more thought into it, rather than resorting to simplistic abstractions.

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Trivialising The Digital

There’s been a lot of debate in the last couple of years about what constitutes a video game. Critics of games like Dear Esther or Dys4ia, or even Call of Duty, argue that while these pieces of software play on the forms and expectations of a video game, they’re not “real” video games. This is often framed as a new development in video games, but I’d like instead to cast an eye back at some of the earliest video games. I want to argue that reconsidering some of the earliest video games can be enlightening for how we think about some of these more recent ones.

It is space that contains a war!

It is a war that is in space!

Spacewar! is often considered to be the first video game ever created. Espen Aarseth describes it as the first “computer-dependent” game. But it’s not the first game you could ever play on a computer. In fact, using computers for games is almost as old as computers themselves are. In the 1940s and 1950s, numerous programs were created to play a variety of different non-digital games, including checkers and chess. But those who consider Spacewar! to be the first real video game will often argue that these earlier games are simply digital versions of pre-existing non-digital games. They’re digital games, but only in a trivial sense, goes the argument, and the term “trivially digital” is often used to dismiss these sorts of video games.

The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free

Some are set up in the Somerset Maugham suite.

But I’d argue this confuses the rules and framework of a game (digital or not) for the actual video game itself. Consider a chess program, designed for a human player to play against a computer opponent: traditional, non-digital chess obviously provides the framework for the human player to approach the game, and the rules by which both players will engage in it. But this does not mean a computer chess program is a trivially-digital version of non-digital chess. Because the actual activity the human player is engaged in, the actual video game the human player is playing, is not chess, but a whole other game, one that might be called “beat the computer chess player”. The video game is not just trivially providing a digital version of the board and pieces for an otherwise non-digital game of chess, but a whole structure of experience arranged around the concepts and frameworks of the non-digital game of chess.

Actually literally shooting de-humanised brown people.

Actually literally shooting de-humanised brown people.

The human player is no more “just” playing chess than they are “just” managing an army in Starcraft or “just” shooting a gun when they play Call of Duty. In the same way that playing Call of Duty relies on the player’s understanding of what a gun is and does, and a whole host of other frameworks a human player comes to a game equipped with, playing the computer chess video game relies on the human player’s understanding of playing chess. But when they’re actually playing the chess video game, the human player is engaged in an effort to outwit and out-manoeuvre the AI, via the framework of the non-digital game of chess.

Considered in this way, Spacewar! is no more “computer-dependent” than any of the early chess or checkers programs. Certainly the algorithms of a chess AI could be non-digitally simulated, but the effort required to do so (at least for any AI worth considering) could hardly be described as trivial. In the same way, the mathematical physics model and coded interactions between ships and projectiles of Spacewar! could, theoretically, be simulated non-digitally. Cut out some paper ships, calculate movements synchronised to a non-digital simulation of the computer’s clock, etc. Doing so would likely require a lot more effort than simulating the chess program, but to suggest that anything requiring less effort would be trivial seems ridiculous. And it’s equally absurd to make an argument that we can dismiss pre-Spacewar! video games based on non-digital games as only “trivially digital” simply on the basis of some arbitrary lower limit of scale.

"I have become an infected leg, whose lines form a map of all the junctions of the M5...."

“I have become an infected leg, whose lines form a map of all the junctions of the M5….”

It’s in this light, then, that I’d argue that video games like Dear Esther are perfectly valid video games. Because the player is no more “just” walking across a windswept Hebridean island in  Dear Esther than they are “just” playing chess in a chess program, or “just” moving ships around and firing bullets in Spacewar! Video games can’t be reduced to a set of rules or mechanics, or to the representations of ships, or pawns, or islands they display or depict. Video games must necessarily be considered as a whole, as complete things which provide players with an experience. Even if that experience is structured around rules or representations, reducing video games to those things fundamentally misunderstands what a video game is. And it limits dramatically what a video game can be.