Identity Politics in Video Game Criticism Stifles Real Conversations About the Medium

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By Ian Miles Cheong | 5:50 am, March 8, 2017
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Fiery criticism with tongue-in-cheek commentary is a valid enterprise. There is a stark divide between cheeky criticism and morally indignant politicking in disguise. Sony’s latest PlayStation 4 game, Horizon: Zero Dawn is the latest to come under fire for political incorrectness.

Accused of cultural appropriation for its portrayal of a futuristic primitive society, the game’s developers have seen a flood of condemnation for stating that it was impossible for them to predict what would offend people. As we previously noted, they made a good attempt at being sensitive to social issues—not that this has stopped anyone from attacking the game.

Discussions revolving around whether it’s “acceptable” for an artistic production to portray culture have dominated the discourse, preventing more interesting conversations from taking place. Everyone intending to talk about the game is first forced to deal with the elephant in the room.

Of the issues raised against Horizon, its Celtic, Viking, Mongol and Native American-influenced aesthetics have been deemed as insensitive towards Native Americans, particularly as terms like “brave” and “tribal” are used to describe some aspects of the Nora culture to which the female protagonist, Aloy, belongs.

The culture is indeed tribal, and the term “brave” isn’t used as an epithet, but rather as a term of belonging. Beyond that, Native Americans do not have a monopoly on leather clothing, bows, and feathered ornaments. It’s unfathomable as to how any of this could be considered cultural appropriation—not that it’s even a real issue.

Given how tenuous these complaints are, it’s worth asking why anyone who’s taking offense to Horizon—or even Blizzard’s 2016 “game of the year” Overwatch—hasn’t bothered to take more egregious examples of cultural appropriation to task.

In the massively popular online game World of Warcraft, cultural stereotypes inform several of its playable races, often to an offensive degree. The bison-like Tauren are clearly Native American, replete with totems, shamanism, and stone tools. In addition to their stereotypical love of gold, the Dwarves borrow heavily from a twisted version of Jewish mythology—they construct golems and their ancestors were spawned from clay. And as for the Trolls (who are literally trolls), they’re strongly influenced by Caribbean and Haitian cultures—they raise zombies, dance the capoeira, and speak in East Indian accents.

And yet, when people spoke of World of Warcraft, its insensitivity towards such cultures was seldom, if ever, the point of discourse outside of Tumblr. Critics were able to weigh in on its Dungeons & Dragons-influenced team-based raid mechanics, its pervasive addiction-based game design that influenced numerous other RPGs and mobile games, and so much more. The same can’t be said of recent games, where even the discussions always end up revolving around identity politics.

Last year’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was the subject of heated debate not for offering players agency in narrative or its intriguing stealth and combat options, but for how its use of the terms “mechanical apartheid” and “aug lives matter” was offensive. Such discussions do little to advance the art, and instead stifle creators from telling the stories they want to tell.

As a nascent artistic medium, the biggest thing holding back video games are the critics who care nothing about how they can be more emotive, expressive and immersive—but care too much about how they can be less offensive to the readily offended.

Ian Miles Cheong is a journalist and outspoken media critic. You can reach him through social media at @stillgray on Twitter and on Facebook.