by Justin Jones for I Need Diverse Games
The news cuts in, updating me on the latest in the trial of a white man who murdered two black men on his stoop. He claims self defense; he claims he was reacting to rampant reports of “black rage” against white people. He feared for his life. The families claim that the two men had just returned home from the war, and were just looking for help with their broken down car. The newscaster quickly reminds me that the defendant was a war veteran himself. The newscaster signs of and the music starts up again. I turn down my radio at a stop light and hear the people crossing the street. “How can we expect white people to value our lives when we don’t respect ourselves?” I pause the game, no longer certain if I’m in 1968 New Bordeaux or 2016 Washington DC. From the palpable tension from a white woman clutching her purse when I approached to characters complaining about inconvenient protests and waiting for a more “appropriate” time, I can’t help but see the similarities to my own experience.
From the onset, Hangar 13 doesn’t shy away from the turbulent times of the late 1960s. There’s a disclaimer that explains that you will be exposed to the racism of the times. They explain that not showing it would be disrespectful to those who actually lived through it. The opening mission features a white security guard who laments how it’s “a sad day when a god fearing white man can’t get a job but any ol’ nigger who staggers in is hired on the spot”. The language isn’t what makes me recoil, but how casually it’s said. How casually it’s accepted in mixed company. And how I know that those sentiments still exist, it’s just not “polite” to say them out loud anymore. Mafia 3 is able to capture not only how disgusting the racism of the time was, but also how normal and widely accepted it is. It’s not just the overt racism either. Hangar 13 does a great job at capturing a wide variety of microaggressions as well.
From the limp handshake Vito gives you in the beginning, to white NPCs talking about “changing neighborhoods” when you walk by. The disgusted tone in which I’m called “boy” for “loitering where I don’t belong.” So often racism is framed as a monstrous system purported by monsters, when the truth is more in line with the world that Mafia 3 presents. An oppressive constant like the air itself that weighs you down with each breath you take. It’s not just the lynchings, church bombings, and systemic violence that break your spirit, but the thousand tiny cuts from “well meaning folk” who just think it’s best for you to come in through the back so you don’t upset everyone at the yacht club. It’s the slow, sad realization that maybe you don’t deserve to drink from the “whites only” fountain.
Mafia 3 is far from the only game that tries to address racial disparity; both the latest Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and Bioshock Infinite attempt to within the last few years. But, they both fall short of accurately capturing the disparity. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s much bemoaned marketing campaign revolved around two phrases. “Aug Lives Matter” and “Mechanical Apartheid”. If you’re going to co-opt Black Lives Matter, or invoke the horrific history of Apartheid, then you can’t miss. The conflict that Deus Ex tries to capture revolves around humans and their distrust and subsequent oppression of their mechanically augmented brothers.
On its face, they make the comparison fairly well. Drawing parallels between how Americans view they can’t compete with the “efficiency” undocumented labor and how the denizens of Deus Ex view they can’t compete with augmented labor. On it’s face, the parallel is sound. However, unlike real life, augmented humans *do* have an advantage when it comes to labor. Immigrants, and let’s be honest we’re talking specifically about brown immigrants, do not have an inherent advantage over white labors in terms of “efficiency”. Much like how black people were viewed as “more suited for labor”, the idea is rooted in racism as a means to enforce the status quo. In trying to tackle a “racism” narrative without actually using black and brown people, Deus Ex makes unfortunate implications about how we view race.
One of my son’s favorite shows is Disney’s Lion Guard. It’s basically Simba’s kids being awesome in the pridelands and teaching lessons to the audience about pacing yourself, trusting your friends, and being nice/respectful. We recently watched an episode where Simba’s son, Kion, befriended a Hyena who taught him that prejudice is bad and how we all play a part in the circle of life. It was really well done for a kids show, and it was underscored by Kion admitting that there’s good animals and bad animals, but we can’t just decide all of one species is bad because of a few bad apples. That’s an important lesson for young kids about prejudice that they need to hear, and using animals as an allegory works.
However, when we graduate from Racism Is Bad 101 and graduate to Systemic Oppressive Theory, it’s hard to teach those same lessons without actually including black and brown people. Just saying “you can’t judge robots because they’re robots” doesn’t have the same resonance as “hey maybe killing black people for no reason and blaming them for their own deaths is bad.” Including race in your narrative, however, isn’t a guarantee to convey a meaningful message.
Bioshock Infinite gives us the Vox Populi, which is essentially a post slavery/Jim Crow rebellion of black people. They’re presented as one might expect the children of slavery to be. The opening sequence gives the player the choice to assault a mixed race couple. That’s not some alternate history fantasy, it’s rooted in American history. However, Bioshock Infinite pratfalls with its depiction of racial oppression by turning the Vox Populi into mass murdering oppressors themselves once they have their MacGuffin, showing that the real problem was power corrupting otherwise good people. It’s a disgusting devotion to duality that completely undercuts what otherwise would have been a powerful depiction of the reconstruction revolt that never happened.
Instead of challenging the audience on how they view systemic oppression and racism, they let them off the hook with by saying that everyone in inherently evil and it just so happens that black people are getting the short end of the stick now. But it’s ok! Because if black people had the power, then white people would be the ones oppressed, and that’s the real lesson, according to Bioshock All Lives Matter.
Wherever you find a Black Lives Matter rally or march, you will inevitably find a party who thinks that “both sides need to just come together.” Some enlightened individual who can see both sides of the issue. They agree that the disproportionate murder of people of color by the police is bad, but they also see where the cops are coming from. Just fearing for their lives from these scary super predators who would tear them limb from limb if given the chance. So really, we just need to come together, both sides, to reach a resolution. This is a fallacy, an appeal to neutrality, a way to appear engaged on an issue without actually tackling any of the complexities of it. It’s an attempt to absolve from actually taking any stance and remaining “above the fray” and position yourself as a thoughtful person, when in actuality it’s a craven act that doesn’t require any level of intellectualism. And it’s that cowardly attitude that games take so often when trying to discuss race and racism.
Too often when tackling narratives revolving around racism, the goal becomes trying to appease all parties instead of creating provocative art. Whenever fiction tries the delicate dance of delivering an analogue for current racial strife without including actual races, it runs the risk of missing the point that it tried to initially make. These sort of allegories work in children’s fiction, where the lessons about prejudice are simplified and don’t require any level of nuance. But when dealing with a mature audience, a simple “don’t judge people based on their appearance” message isn’t enough. In an attempt to avoid offending or even challenging the audience games tell simplistic stories with equivocating messages. If you’re going to tackle subjects as serious as systemic oppression and racism and be honest about them there you can’t leave the audience in the middle.
Art is like a protest in that regard; it should challenge us and make us feel uncomfortable. Mafia 3 manages to make a bold statement about race and racism but without any allegory or metaphors, it simply shows a black experience. And there are few things that are more challenging and uncomfortable than forcing someone to abdicate their privilege and see the world through the eyes of someone like me. Even if it is just a video game.