Straight White Male: the Lowest Difficulty Setting

I’m not sure how many of you like playing video games, but I know for me it’s definitely one of my favorite activities. One thing I haven’t really thought much of though, is the connection of video games to history, even more, the connection to video games and race and gender. Maybe this is because I play games that don’t have any overarching themes of race such as any of the Mario series, or Animal Crossing, or maybe it’s because I haven’t thought deep enough into how race and racism are actually very apparent in both the creation of video games as well as the culture that surrounds them. In this post I’ll be telling you about two of this week’s articles: “Modeling Indigenous Peoples: Unpacking Ideology in Sid Meier’s Colonization” by Rebecca Mir and our very favorite Trevor Owens, and “Gender and Race Online” by Lisa Nakamura. I also used the title for my post from John Scalzi’s essay via Nakamura’s article (it was too good not to use).

In “Gender and Race Online,” Nakamura evaluates both race and gender regarding videogames and she does this by looking at both the creation of video games as well as the people who play them. Much of her discussion revolves around the fact that we live in a supposedly “post-racial” society and the creation of traditional gender roles we see surrounding playing video games. Beginning with race, Nakamura cites the fact that minorities are actually represented more often in video games than white males. On the surface, this fact seems to fall in line with the idea that we live in a post-racial society, until you read deeper to find out that these groups are usually represented as the antagonists or enemies in games. This produces the argument of “racialized pedagogical zones,” which is a term I think is really interesting. It essentially means a place, such as a video game, “that teach[es] young players the proper place for race and criminalized bodies” (Nakamura, 84). With teaching young players, either overtly or covertly, about the commonality and acceptability of racism, it lends to them using racialized terms to other players, which according to the article, is a much bigger problem that we see it to be, proved by the creation of crowdsourcing websites against these types of remarks. This same type of thing happens with gendered terms as well. Many of these games and culture around video games promote masculinity and often exclude women both in the actual game and from the culture itself, claiming that video games are for boys. One player was even quoted saying he has the right to say whatever he wants about women because it was part of the video game culture. Because video games have been traditionally masculine creates a sexist atmosphere around gaming that often men can’t shake, causing for this overt sexism to be present in these cultures.

While Nakamura focuses on culture and game creation in general, Mir and Owens focus specifically on Civilization IV: Colonization, a game revolving around the colonization of the Americas. Mir and Owens argue that this game “presents a particular ideological model of the world. Specifically, Colonization’s model restricts potential readings to a limited and Americanized colonist ideology,” and they also aim to understand how ideology is created (Mir and Owens, 92). With this, it glorifies conquest and suggests through the actual gameplay that the colonization and subsequent murder of indigenous people was inevitable. One of the ways they reinforce this notion is with a “strict and problematic win condition” where the player is forced to play as a colonial power and cannot be a native group unless they were to modify the game themselves (Ibid., 94). This forces the player to reenact what happened with colonization but only through the colonizers’ point of view. Even if the game is modified to play as the natives, they still have limited abilities which reinforces their “inferiority” and inability to advance as a people. Natives can also assimilate to literally change races and become a European if they are educated in the game, again reinforcing their inferiority and their “need” to be educated by a white man. In contrast, a white European can never assimilate to native culture in the game, suggesting their culture dominates over the natives and is impenetrable by outside forces. Even with all of these issues, Mir and Owens believe that because the game essentially requires you to reenact history, it puts a level of guilt upon the player for having to do horrible things in the game. They do argue, however, that there is not enough guilt placed upon the player because many events recounted in the game are whitewashed and you also cannot experience the colonization from the native point of view.

Civilization IV: Colonization - Largest Colony Ever! 40+ ...
Part of the Colonization gameplay. You can see how many controls there are. I tried playing Civilization VI and I had no clue what was going on. In this respect, it’s certainly understandable leaving things out for better gameplay.

Reading both of these articles really got me thinking about the video games I play and how they might fall into these problematic categories of promoting racism, even if it’s not incredibly noticeable. Many of you might be familiar with the Animal Crossing series, especially because Animal Crossing: New Horizons just came out on the Switch. The game seems like a relatively problem free game considering it is just a bunch of cute cartoon animals running around an island. But before Animal Crossing: New Horizons, you could not change your skin color, making your character consistently white (unless you went to the island too long, then you’d get a sunburn). This is certainly a minor issue regarding race, especially compared to other games like Colonization, but the lack of being able to create a character that truly represents yourself can be a harmful thing because it shows that the creators of the game don’t acknowledge your race as a viable player. Another game I play that I thought of was The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. While this game doesn’t have traditional races, it has races that are its own and based on the race you choose at the beginning, you will be treated a certain way by other characters in the game. This isn’t incredibly noticeable either, and if you’re a casual player it’s probably even more unnoticeable. Either way, these ideas exist in this game and even if it’s not an attempt to be overtly racist, it still has the potential to instill the belief in young players that some races are superior to others.

The beginning of Skyrim where you choose which race you want to play as

What do we do with all of this? Games like Colonization have a lot of potential to be played as historically accurate simulations to help young gamers understand history, but only if they are truly representative of what happened. It feels like Colonization is only halfway there. They remove and whitewash a lot of factors in the game and some of it is understandable so the game isn’t messier than it needs to be but that’s what history is. Should Colonization or games like it include perspectives of the colonizers and the colonized? Are these games profiting off simulating the terror that happened to these groups? What would we think if there was a slavery simulation? Do you think that most people playing these types of games are doing it to educate themselves about history? Or are they playing simply for the entertainment value? Do games like these glorify historical events such as colonization and suggest that it was inevitable to kill millions of natives? How do we as historians promote these games as learning tools rather than entertainment? Should we be doing that? I have all of these questions and more about video games and history and I really want to discuss with you all!!!

16 Replies to “Straight White Male: the Lowest Difficulty Setting”

  1. Hi Sarah, thanks for a great, thoughtful post! As someone who has only recently gotten into video games, your questions at the end resonated with me. The tension between what to promote as historians, and how to value entertainment and education (edutainment as some have dubbed it) is something that should be considered by everyone. I find myself unsure of if a video game can be developed that would appropriately portray the colonized, without profiting from some of the terror they experienced. I think that’s where the motivations behind the players of these games would come into question, if taught in a specific way to potentially college students (who are old enough to deal with more complex ideas). However, I hesitate to say there’s a way to have these games exist outside of an educational setting and instruction from someone to give more context to the game itself. Maybe I’m wrong and someone else has an idea for how it could work without active instruction.

    1. I totally agree with you. I think it would be REALLY hard to have a game that teaches history well and exist solely for entertainment. I think there’s too many complications with profiting off of these situations and being sure that players won’t use these games to justify racism. I would love to see a genuinely good history game for education but ultimately I think game creators are way more interested in creating a fun playable game than they are making something historically accurate and teachable.

  2. Sarah,

    This was so interesting– there’s so much to unpack that I don’t even know where to begin! One method that might make historical video games a bit less sexist/racist/imperialist is to create games that are less intrinsically linked to violent episodes in history. It seems to me that the history games I can think of off the top of my head have to do with very masculine, violent moments (war, colonization, piracy, vikings, etc.) If games dealt with historical moments less linked to these problematic white male spheres, perhaps they would be more educational and less crude.

    1. I completely agree! I think maybe if games were made from more triumphant things, maybe like women’s rights (idk everything seems violent now that I’m actually thinking haha), maybe then we could take some of these aspects out of play. As much as I would love that, I think game creators are more interesting in creating fun games and for whatever reason violence is a huge part of that

  3. Hi Sarah, I really enjoyed these readings, and your post! I’m not a video game person, but maybe this has something to do with being exposed to more ‘masculine’ games when I was younger that I did not identify with. (Like Halo and some other zombie game that I was REALLY bad at playing. But Mario Cart? I’m pretty good at that one.)

    I find it really interesting that Nakamura avoided a discussion of the violent nature of a lot of these video games (like Grand Theft Auto), and chose to focus on other aspects of video game culture.

    Something that disturbed me in the article is that, as implied on page 86, trash talk is essentially meaningless. “If ‘trash’ doesn’t deserve notice or interpretation, as some players maintain, it is because it lacks meaning.” So why keep on using trash talk? It certainly doesn’t add anything to the game or the environment. But then again neither does racism or sexism… Nakamura also acknowledges the “ineffectiveness of industry regulation” (88), which only contributes to the problem.

    Connor’s practicum post on Mission US is a great example of how historical games can be effective and appropriate, unlike Civilization in the Mir and Owens article. I think it is appalling that this kind of blatantly ignorant and racist material is still produced in the 21st century. I’m sure it has something to do with apparently living in a post-racial society and not understanding the consequences of one’s actions. While reading “Modeling Indigenous Peoples” I kept thinking about the ‘glitching’ practicum I did a couple of weeks ago, and how users can look at the code behind something to find the intent of the creator. Mir and Owens make it clear that the intent of the creators is to follow one path of colonization while giving off the illusion of choice.

    As a historian, I do have to wonder about the dangers of speculating about changing the past… What are the implications of changing the relationship between colonizers and native peoples? Allowing the player to act as a native person with a full gameplay certainly upholds the fact that some agency existed in colonial times, but it does not change the fact that native peoples were slaughtered and displaced for centuries with those consequences experienced today.

    To answer your questions (kind of) I think we can use public history practices of memorialization in how we tell certain stories. Perhaps these games should be presented in more of a narrative format so that players have to gain the proper/correct material in order to continue in the game?

    1. I might be wrong, but I think in Colonization you can basically change how colonization happened, but I know you definitely have to be a colonizer. So I definitely agree with your point that it could be potentially problematic giving players the option to literally change the history of how colonization happened because ultimately it might teach these young players something totally wrong (apart from all the wrong and awful things that the game already teaches, like how natives aren’t worth being a playable character)
      I personally like your idea of a more narrative game, but on the other hand, as someone who plays games, I hate narration because I just want to play so that might be an issue for players being turned off to the game.

  4. Hi Sarah, thanks for a great post! I really enjoyed these readings and your post gave me an even greater appreciation of the issues they raised.

    I’d be interested to hear y’all’s insight into how the game Jamestown Adventure addresses some of the questions Sarah asks. While a much simpler game than Colonization, I was kind of torn about its portrayal of natives. You play as a (presumably white) settler making decisions about setting up the Jamestown colony. The game gives you the option to ask natives (among others) advice on the decisions you take. I played the game basically only asking natives their opinions, and ended up with a “good” colony, unlike the real Jamestown settlers.

    However, besides this — the representation of natives is very limited and the game really only glosses over the extreme devastation they experienced at the hands of the colonists you play as. I think it could have been worthwhile to have the option to play as a native facing incoming settlers — surely there were decisions to be made there, as well, and these decisions are often erased from the historical narrative.

    So, you all think that this game (while simple) should have better represented native populations? The intended audience for the game seemed to be elementary/middle school. Do you think this game has the responsibility to educate them about an often gruesome history of colonization? As Sarah asked, should games (as a genre) do that in general? If done right, I think I learn towards yes.

    1. Considering the game is aimed toward younger players, I would understand leaving out some of the gruesome details but they also shouldn’t be lied to. A simple “we didn’t treat natives very nicely” or something I think would be fine for younger kids. I hate teaching young kids the whitewashed history so much. I totally get not showing them pictures of lynchings and stuff, but why do we need to lie? To answer your question about responsibility, I think if you’re going to decide to make a game about something in history, game creators 100% have a responsibility to do research, hire historians, whatever, to make it an appropriate game that tells the truth. And to answer your question about native populations, I wish these games, both Jamestown and Colonization (and probably others) allowed you to play as natives. It would allow young players to learn empathy and understand what natives went through. And if I were a Native American player, it would be a way to learn about my own history during colonization. There are so many good reasons to be including the native perspective in these games.

  5. This is a great post, Sarah! I think a lot of people don’t consider that racism is often “baked into” video games simply because of the perspectives of those who created it. Creators may see their reality as predominantly white (or be living in a self-created predominantly white reality), so they don’t consider the roles of people of color that aren’t those typically portrayed in other types of media. All they’re basing their video games roles off are the stereotypes that have been fed to them, and their willingness to accept those stereotypes. For this reason, I think the best way to change this trend in video games and make them more inclusive and less racist is to have diversity in those creating them. This would allow people to represent themselves and represent their race accurately and with compassion, rather than basing representations solely off of the news and movies (although the news and movies should get their act together, too). However, I think topics like colonialism and slavery should probably be off limits for video games. I doubt that many people are seeking these games because they’re interested in history or really facing their white guilt. To me it seems like they’ve probably grown up with games glorifying war and white masculinity, and a video game like Colonization probably just exacerbates this. I think Mission US and other video games like it might be a better way to represent historical events on this platform, but any game that seeks to tackle these issues needs to be full of context, represent multiple perspectives, and offer additional resources for further learning. Otherwise, I believe it’s irresponsible to have games that tackle these topics and can potentially reinforce white washed perspectives of history.

    1. That’s a great point Madi!! In the same way that women need representation in society or African Americans need representation in government, etc, there needs to be diversity in creating these games! My guess is most video game creators are white males although I don’t know the statistics.
      I also think you’re so right about topics that shouldn’t be included in video games like colonization and slavery. Like you said, I doubt these players are buying these games to face their white guilt or learn about the history. I do wonder how you (or anyone else who wants to comment) feel about the general idea of things like colonization and slavery being portrayed in regular video games, as in not American slavery but just the general idea of one person owning another, etc? Is it appropriate in a fantasy game for colonization to be happening? Or slavery? Or misogyny? Do these themes have the potential of teaching younger players that these things are normal? For me, as a 22 year old who studies cultural history, I can distinguish that certain things are unacceptable in real life. But maybe younger players don’t have that ability?

  6. Hey guys! The conversation on this post is super interesting and these articles remind me of some articles I read when I was an undergrad about race and video games. Sarah, excellent job summarizing these articles and really bringing up some interesting questions. Madi you beat me to mentioning how the video game world is often wrapped in this white male perspective because this is the perspective of most of its creators, which is slowly changing. I think that when it comes to the question of creating games where people can play as Indigenous people (or any underprivileged group) within history I think that it depends on the purpose of the game. Assassins Creed III has players spend some time playing as a half-native American man who is an assassin (I do not remember the complete storyline sorry), the reason why I mention this game is because the purpose of the game is not completely wrapped up in the actual historical conflict is used as its backdrop. However a lot of people did learn about the historical time its set in just by playing the game. Through games like this where the stakes are not completely wrapped up in actual events but are placed in the past, people can be shown to some extent what life back then looked like. I feel like part of the allure of video games is their divorce from reality, which means that when using it as a tool for people to learn history it doesn’t have to be completely wrapped up in a narrative that has actually occurred. This might be kind of a weird idea considering that we all want historical accuracy, but maybe there’s some room for flexibility in video games. (Also I hope I am not completely wrong about the purpose of Assassins Creed iii I did not get to play it all the way so please be nice when telling me I’m wrong if I am)

    1. I actually really like the idea of including subtle histories into games that aren’t at all historical. I think we and young players absorb a lot more than we think from things like video games. In that sense, it might be beneficial to include general historical subtleties to educate. Like if we take that Native American character from Assassin’s Creed, maybe if they included traditional and accurate dress for the character, it would just be a subtle, but historically correct, image of a Native American that might get stuck in your brain, thus having the potential to show their culture and break stereotypes.

  7. Great post and discussion! I think all of this highlights the extent to which taking a critical perspective on games and gaming culture is to thinking about public history. As several of you have noted, mass media games like Grand Theft Auto and Civilization are increasingly key media tied to thinking about places, people and the past. In that vein, it’s important for us to be engaging with them and engaging in dialog about them.

    As a few folks have noted, the aspects of interactivity of games can draw out different challenges in thinking about them as a medium. Not to mention the concept that games are “fun.” That is, if someone says they are making a film about the Holocaust we can think of a wide range of ideas about how that could be serious or significant. But if someone says they are going to make a game about the Holocaust it immediately raises questions in our mind about if that is something that should be “played.”

    Ultimately, I think talking about these two readings together does a nice job drawing out how there is work for history/humanities scholars to do that involves critical engagement with both the culture and the content of major commercial video games.

    1. I never thought about how we perceive topics in certain mediums like that. I probably wouldn’t question a movie about the Holocaust, other than hoping they were being respectful and accurate, but if I heard a game about the Holocaust was coming out, I would probably be livid. But why? We get entertainment out of both and we would probably get some degree of knowledge and education from both. Maybe it’s because video games aren’t traditionally methods of education in the same way we think movies can be with documentaries. Now I’m really thinking about this….

  8. I really enjoyed your post, Sarah! I think you raise interesting questions and points about the ethics of history edutainment and education, and I definitely don’t know the right answer. While I haven’t looked extensively, I would be hesitant to use a mass-marketed history video game for educational purposes because of the reasons you stated. I wonder if there are educational non-profits working on this with the capacity to produce high quality and entertaining games.

    Lisa Nakamura’s piece was fascinating and also felt very pre-2016! Not that I blame her, I think she captured much of the discourse at the time, but wow — times have changed. I thought it was interesting that she published this piece about 6 months before the “Gamergate” controversy which was a gender-based harassment campaign against women in the video game industry. It seems like that was a pretty well-publicized example of some of what Nakamura was discussing.

  9. Sarah,

    What a wonderful post! Subsequent discussion is evidence of the thoroughness of your contribution!

    Your discussion of “racialized pedagogical zones” is spot-on, and your observation of the prevalence of these “zones” in Civilizations, Skyrim, etc. is apt. What we find in these sorts of games is the kind of nuanced racism that is, on the whole, just as destructive as overt racism. Some of the older iterations of Sid Meier’s Civilization (the ones that I used to play) unabashedly depicted indigenous people as ditzy/scatterbrained, lazy, overweight, etc. When stereotypes & archetypes are repeated in media representations, those who play these games (especially children) begin to internalize/accept these interpretations.

    Many commenters have also noted the gendered implications here. It is unfortunately widespread in video game design for female characters to be sexualized. In addition, women who play video games themselves are often stereotyped as “girl gamers,” perpetuating cycles of sexism within video games–through characters–and marginalizing players who do not fit within the confines your apt blog title: “straight white male.”

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