We’ve now arrived at the part of the series where I talk about – well, it’s not quite the elephant in the room. It’s maybe something like the hippopotamus in the room (hippopotami, while smaller than elephants, are still pretty big). You see, when The Witcher 3 was first released, there was nary a person of color to be found anywhere in the game. Some in the games media noticed this, among them Tauriq Moosa, who wrote an article for Polygon titled “Colorblind: On The Witcher 3, Rust, and Gaming’s Race Problem.“
I’m not aware of any reliable statistical measures by which one can measure the size of an internet brouhaha, so I usually just eyeball it: the brouhaha was medium-sized, and, as brouhahas go, I think it was more productive than most. Any time a hot-button issue like this gets raised, some percentage of the arguments that follow are made either in bad faith, at cross purposes, or both. Accusations of racism unavoidably activate people’s defensiveness, and, well, you know how the internet can be.
I’m aware that as a white person, I risk making a hash of this, but the only other option is to not talk about it, which can be harmful for its own reasons. Paraphrasing the many objections to the absence of people of color in The Witcher 3 is a tricky business, but paraphrasing one of the most common defenses isn’t. It goes something like this: “Why would you expect there to be people of color in the game? It takes place in a setting based on medieval Europe, and partly on Slavic mythology, and it’s made by a developer based in a country that’s overwhelmingly white. There’s no sinister motive here.”
I happen to agree that there’s no sinister motive. I don’t think CDPR’s developers ever sought to deliberately exclude non-white characters. But I also think that racism isn’t only gauged by intent – it can also be gauged, and perhaps more accurately gauged, by its effect. Meaning something can be racist by accident. If anything, it’s more common than being racist on purpose.
The idea that everyone of consequence in medieval Europe was white is neither accurate nor politically innocent. It’s an idea that has, over the centuries, been deliberately crafted by a relatively small group of people, and then spread through unconscious habit by a much larger one. I have neither the time nor, frankly, the qualifications to make this argument comprehensively, but I can link to a website that makes it far better than I can: this series of articles by The Public Medievalist, which is also the source of the image above.
What this means, to me at least, is that the whiteness of The Witcher 3 at release (since then, CDPR has added some dark-skinned characters –
from the fictional region of the Witcher universe called Zerrikania thanks to the commenters who pointed out they’re from Ofieri, not Zerrikania – in the Hearts of Stone expansion) is not something that should be regarded in a vacuum. CDPR didn’t deliberately steer towards racism, no, but neither did they successfully steer around it.
It bears mentioning, at this point, that accusations of racism can be aimed at things rather than people, and can also be made in degrees. Forgetting to include non-white people in a video game does not put CDPR up there next to the guys Gene Hackman went around punching in Mississippi Burning, and from what I’ve seen very few people are claiming that it does. Tauriq Moosa’s original article was full of praise for the game, in fact. A direct quote: “I’ve currently put in a total of 170 plus hours into it, and it’s one of the greatest games I’ve ever played.”
I think it’s pretty clear from this series that I have a high opinion of the game as well. Pretty much everyone does, it’s one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time. Which if anything, I think, makes it more important that critiques like Moosa’s get something approximating their day in the court of public opinion. It wouldn’t bother me much if some obscure asset flip from the deepest caverns of Steam reinforced damaging cultural habits. It’s precisely because the Witcher series has been successful that it should be examined.
Now that I’ve said that I agree with some of the criticisms of The Witcher 3, it’s time for me to express reservations at others.
At various points earlier in this series, when discussing the games’ depiction of female characters, I’ve noticed how the writers can skillfully navigate around some sexist tropes while stumbling head-first into others. There’s a similar pattern evident in the games’ relationship to racism. In fact, I think that the series’ depiction of racism, or more broadly of discrimination, is rather strong.
In the Witcher games (and the books), the victims of racism are not non-white humans but non-human fantasy races like elves and dwarves. This dynamic is sometimes met with eyerolls. I’ll try to paraphrase the average objection again: “So even the depictions of racism erase people of color from the narrative. Why can’t you depict real racism?”
This is one area where I think cultural myopia can risk mistaking itself for a progressive critique. Very often, implicit in the criticism of “fantasy” racism is the assumption that American-brand white supremacy is “real” racism, and other kinds are somehow fake. But Polish game developers are going to have a different conception of racism, and different life experiences with it, than those of us from other countries (the USA, in the case of many of the criticisms), and this is going to affect how they build their worlds.
To explain this one way, it always seemed to me like the discrimination faced by dwarves in the Witcher universe is not “fantasy” racism and is instead much closer to “fantasy” anti-semitism, an area in which Poland has a tragic wealth of experience. With this belief, I’m much less inclined to scoff at anti-dwarf discrimination as a milquetoast depiction of racism designed to minimize discomfort in white audiences, and more inclined to see it as coming from a place of a genuine, and distinct, understanding of how discrimination works. (Just in case it’s not obvious, let me say that I’m not accusing Sapkowski or CDPR of anti-semitism. Their depictions of anti-dwarf discrimination are clearly meant as condemnation, not endorsement.)
To explain it another way, a depiction of discrimination in a fantasy setting can benefit from a layer of abstraction. As with discussions of racism, depictions that are right on the nose trigger people’s defensiveness, and even well-intentioned ones can end up hamfisted and damaging in ways the creators never intended. Whereas “fantasy racism,” for lack of a better term, can, at its best, avoid at least some of that dynamic.
I don’t mean to imply that fantasy fiction is some perfectly objective Archimedean Point from which all illogic has been banished. Fantasy doesn’t exist independent of reality; it’s generally only a short walk away from it. But even taking a short walk away can give readers a new perspective on a familiar human foible.
This one example of this that I want to cover next time. If you haven’t guessed from the above picture, it’s Avallac’h, Ciri’s mysterious elven companion. I had originally planned for this entry to cover Avallac’h and the Aen Elle, but the introduction to that post just got longer and longer until I decided it had to be an entry unto itself.
Long story short, Sapkowski did something very clever with his elves, and CDPR successfully adapted it into their games. More on that in the next entry.
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