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The Ethics of Representation at Play – Part 2

In my post last week, I discussed the role of ethics in historical representation. I argued that, as a narrative pursuit, all history involves subjective decision making. Decisions, some of which, will inevitably be made in alignment with our own ethical criteria and the ideological biases they are entangled with. But how does this relate to videogames? Well, certainly many of these same issues apply to what is an often-contentious new form of history produced by an industry that introduces a number of ethical issues of its own.

As I argued in my book Digital Games as History (2016), the people making historical games are a type of historian too, the developer-historian. Naturally, these historians are also regularly confronted by the need to make decisions when making their representations of the past. Just as with those ‘traditional’ historians that work through books and articles, some of these decisions will be made according to the pressures of the form. For the developer-historian, this might similarly be in accordance with the demands of narrative, or, of course, gameplay. However, sometimes decisions will also be made on the basis of some kind of ethical criteria about what and how aspects of the past should be represented. Furthermore, decisions are also necessarily made in relation to pressures from expected audiences and cultural contexts (it should be noted that academic history is in no way excluded from this dynamic either, though the audiences and contexts tend to differ). These two ideas are important – that constructing historical games similarly involves decision making according to ethical criteria, and that the expected pressures of reception play some role in decision making within the processes of production. Hopefully, this becomes apparent as we take a look at a few examples below.

Perceptions of the ‘Limits of Play’

The ethics of historical representation in games is a topic of much debate in recent years. This can be in the epistemological sense that those of us working in historical game studies are often fond of talking about – for example, the fact that historical games are often framed with a problematic authority that sometimes moves them close to realising the epistemology of that naïve, Rankean, pure empiricist, (supposedly) straw-person that I talked about in my last post. However, issues of ethics in historical representation are in no way confined to academia and games culture has often been the site of highly-charged discussions concerning what kinds of history are included or excluded from games.

As noted above, beyond the ethics of representation itself, it is important for us to understand cultural perceptions of the ethics of representing the past through play. Particularly given that what we are dealing with is an inherently public facing media form that cannot help but find itself entangled in the complexities of popular collective memory. This relates to previous research conducted by myself and my colleague Jonas Linderoth. We were initially drawn to this topic when we noticed that games seem to have a particular tendency to provoke controversy when representing difficult or sensitive topics in comparison to other media forms. That is to say, there seems to be particular cultural perceptions as to what themes can be tastefully represented in games – what we termed the perceived ‘limits of play’ (Chapman and Linderoth 2015). A striking example of this phenomena can be found in the controversy surrounding the so-called ‘slave Tetris’ mechanic in Playing History 2 – The Slave Trade (Serious Games Interactive 2013). This game featured a level in which players were asked to ‘stack’ different shaped blocks representing slaves into the hold of a slave ship. Somewhat unsurprisingly this provoked a strong reaction. Indeed, most of us would instinctively bristle at the notion of this kind of gameplay (which was later removed from the game), sensing some kind of breach in our perceived ethics of representation. Whilst it is true that Playing History 2 also had a number of other problems (particularly its aesthetics), one can still imagine a film depicting the same dehumanising, brutal, and frequently lethal, cramped conditions that slaves experienced in the holds of slave ships without attracting the same kind of attention. After seeing a number of such instances surrounding games dealing with contentious or sensitive topics, Jonas and I became interested in trying to understand precisely what fears or objections these controversies were ultimately grounded in. This, we reasoned, might help us to better understand the perceived ethics, and thus socio-culturally established limits, surrounding games and play as a form of representation (historical or otherwise).

By analysing various opinion pieces and public statements by stakeholders that emerged in relation to instances whereby videogames generated controversy for including thematic content deemed inappropriate, we found that such controversies seemed to be grounded in two particular issues. Firstly, there was a fear that placing serious themes into a game (a ‘ludic frame’) in which they inevitably gain a double meaning (as both representational images and gameplay elements) meant that these themes were perceived to be at risk of becoming trivialized. The fear was that because players might only attend to the gameplay meaning of these elements, forgetting their second representational meaning, they might therefore end up treating these elements less respectfully than they are commonly perceived to demand. The second, related fear, seemed to revolve around the appropriateness of particular playable positions – it is seen to be particularly inappropriate when a game cast “at least some of the players in the role of the generally perceived historical antagonist and thus allows the players to re-enact historical episodes of exploitation, cruelty and abuse through their in-game actions” (Chapman and Linderoth 2015, 140).

We then used these insights for a case study examining representations of Nazism (an obviously sensitive topic) in various games. Though the Second World War is probably the most frequent theme for historical games, the Holocaust is almost never mentioned or included. In the very rare cases where it is, the game is always couched in extremely strong negotiating frames that position it as holding significant and serious artistic, educational, documentary or memorial value. Furthermore, we found that even elements associated with the Holocaust (e.g. Nazi ideology, units, organizations, symbols and leaders) are typically excluded from historical games, particularly in cases where Nazi forces are a playable position. Whilst clearly the developers of such games intend to be sensitive and wish to avoid controversy, this case study shows why the ethical perceptions surrounding historical representation in games are worthy of study – because they seem to influence the kind of history included in games and the ways in which this inclusion occurs. In the case of WW2 games, these perceived ‘limits of play’ have meant games ‘whitewashing’ the Holocaust from Second World War history. This is something that could be potentially troubling given the popularity of videogames and thus their potential as cultural tools utilized by audiences to form historical understandings and negotiate collective memory. In another example in later research, I argued that a similar dynamic has affected the way that the First World War has often been represented in games, with such titles often omitting the imagery central to popular collective memory of the conflict because of its contested and sensitive nature in certain core markets (Chapman 2016).

Both of the issues I have discussed above, the issue of ethical decision making in the construction of historical narrative and cultural perceptions of what it is appropriate to represent, meet squarely in the controversies we still see surrounding more diverse historical representations in recent videogames.

Making Ethical Histories through Play
Kingdom Come: Deliverance. Developer: Warhorse Studios.

In particular, I am thinking of two recent examples. Firstly, Kingdom Come: Deliverance (Warhorse Studios 2018), a medieval roleplaying game that was marketed on the claim that it offered a more historically accurate experience than other similar games. The game triggered controversy when commentators noticed that it offered a myopically white representation of the medieval past, with people of colour seemingly absent. Some of the game’s developers and fans reacted aggressively to this criticism, accusing those pointing to the problems of the game as forwarding a political agenda that had no place in history/videogames (as if either could ever truly be apolitical) and using the claim of ‘historical accuracy’ to defend the game’s representation. However, this runs contrary to contemporary historical discourse concerning the medieval world, which now highlights the fact that it was far more diverse and multicultural than previously portrayed – something that the excellent ‘Medieval People of Colour’ Tumblr and Twitter accounts make very clear by sharing depictions of people of colour drawn from European art history.

My second example is grounded in similar issues but is also opposite in the sense that here it was the inclusion of a more diverse cast that triggered controversy. Whilst some fans had been disgruntled at the presence of female characters in DICE’s previous Battlefield game dealing with the First World War, this reached a head in 2018 when the first-person shooter series returned to the setting of World War 2 and prominently featured playable female fighters as characters. Many fans were particularly offended that not only were these characters in the game but that …gasp… a woman was featured on both the front of the game and heavily in promotional trailers, triggering some of them to even start the #notmyBattlefield hashtag in protest. Yet again, the defence of ‘historical accuracy’ was used to deflect from the obvious misogyny behind this position, despite the fact that, whilst certainly a more unusual presence than men, many women did indeed fight in World War 2.

In both cases, those invoking historical accuracy as an argument against more diverse representations of the past conveniently ignored the fact that both games featured all manner of inaccuracies or liberties that were considered totally acceptable by fans because they were in service to the facilitation of gameplay or fun. And in both cases, regardless of what right-wing commenters involved may have believed or claimed in order to hide their prejudices, this was not even an argument about accuracy so much as an argument about frequency. Again, frequency of representation is one of the subjective decisions that any historian (or developer-historian) must make when constructing a historical narrative. A historian might focus on the same event or historical element repeatedly within a narrative, despite its rarity or uniqueness, in order to emphasise its significance or to consider it from multiple perspectives and/or in greater detail. Similarly, in historical film we often see events that were rare in reality repeated, either within the same film or the wider genre, because such events have some kind of significance to us and constitute a generally accepted meaningful component of the history in question. Certainly, this is often the case with historical games, where they will concentrate on only certain types of activity drawn from a historical event or period because these are the most exciting or fun to play. Critics of Kingdom Come: Deliverance and the developers of Battlefield asked only for the same technique to be accepted in service to highlighting underrepresented aspects, such as gender and race, within the respective histories with which the games deal. As noted, people of colour were certainly a part of the European Middle Ages and women did fight during the Second World War. As such, games should use frequency (and any other useful narrative technique) to try to readdress the balance in our histories and in our games, both of which have all too often sought to exclude marginalised and oppressed identities.

As I argued in my last blog post, constructing all history involves subjective decision making according to particular criteria about what and whom from the past (and present) is included in our representations, how they will be represented, and what this all means. Critics of Kingdom Come: Deliverance and the developers of Battlefield V clearly understand what postmodernist theorists have long argued: these decisions should be made in service to the politics and thus, ethics, we wish our histories to espouse wherever possible. As I hope this blog post indicates, games bring to the fore issues concerning the ethics of historical representation that long precede them. And they do so in often startlingly relevant ways as a ‘frontline’ arena for such debates that are perhaps more relevant now than ever. Ultimately, the issue of ethics reminds us that history is never some kind of neutral existent but an ongoing discourse grounded in the ideological subjectivities of the humans that make it and that use the traces left behind by those that went before us.

It is for precisely this reason that we have chosen ethics to be our second quarterly topic here at the HGN. We look forward to bringing you some great content on this theme from our wonderful guests over the coming weeks, culminating in another discussion panel event in September. Details of both the event and our guests for the theme can be found here.

As always, let me sign off by saying thank you to all of you that take the time to engage with our content here at the HGN and that promote both the website and the wider historical game studies field by sharing our posts and events within your networks.

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