Which doctor?

The culture of the umbaru of the lower Teganze is fascinating and perplexing to those hailing from more civilized walks of life.

I’ll admit I’m somewhat hesitant to make this post. While I’ve been reading Pat Miller’s Token Minorities blog for some time and was around to witness the backlash to N’Gai Croal’s concern about the first Resident Evil 5 trailer (I agreed with him), race is a topic about which I’m not nearly as well read as gender and sex. That’s not to say I have not read anything, but it’s a topic about which I feel apprehensive precisely because it’s a discussion we rarely seem to actually have. I was able to talk feminism with my mother all day long and it was part of my degree, so gender issues are a comfortable stomping ground.

But let’s discuss it. I also wish to make it perfectly clear that I’m not calling anyone racist–that’s not my intent. Much like with most things I post here, I’m noticing a trend that infiltrates from our own society into the games we play. In other words, I want to add to the discussion over the issue of race and how it is presented in videogames. Racism, like sexism, exists. Unless we discuss it, we can’t really deal with it.

When I saw the first video for Diablo III I was thrilled, sure. I was also somewhat baffled. As Blizzard’s page for the game went live, I devoured the information and was somewhat taken aback when I read the description I put up at the top here. ‘More civilized?’ I suppose I could harken back to the days of Diablo II and remember the Paladin fondly as a civilized, devout man, but this is not that game. Thus far, this is the only instance of a black character I’ve seen, and he’s already being depicted as less civilized.

I realize many talks around the character classes have occurred and it has been stated many times that the design team wanted to create character classes that were instantly recognizable–archetypes. However, one other aspect that is instantly recognizable is a stereotype. In a class on Gender and Media at my alma pater, we discussed depictions of black males in society, and one that frequently came up is as an othered shaman of some degree or another–especially in games. For that we need go no further than Michael LeRoi in Shadow Man (or, alternatively, the Jamaican-speeched trolls in the Warcraft series).

What’s even further confusing upon continuing to read the information we have on the Witch Doctor class is that they do seem to be setting up to be othered with mentions of human sacrifice. Is this troublesome? I realize Blizzard is trying to flesh out a world with all manner of different belief systems, cultures, and a diverse cast of characters. I commend that. However, I become somewhat uneasy when this starts to resemble our own world in many fashions. Why do we replicate our own world with its histories and racial underpinnings when seeking to create diversity in fantasy games? As N’Gai Croal stated in his comments on RE5, there’s a history here.

Included in that history is the way the Witch Doctor carries him or herself. As a male, in the gameplay videos we see him hunched over. The female is carrying herself, very noticeably, upright. The history of dynamics between race, sex, and how we project images unto other people could take up a whole other post, and likely will at some point.

Am I blowing this out of proportion? Possibly. However, much as I pointed out with sexism, racism permeates through all sorts of nooks, crannies, and Grand Canyon sized crevices in our society. How else does one explain people feeling the need to articulate on how articulate and well-spoken Senator Barack Obama is? The note of surprise from some people that a black man can be articulate speaks much to how we see ourselves versus the othered race. So again, a history exists.

What do I make of this? Right now a sense of slight unease, but with the recognition that I have only seen the tiniest portion of this game. I love the idea of a Wall of Zombies, for instance, but I hope that once I see more of this game and world that I can be somewhat relieved. Seeing as we don’t seem to see many black persons in the world of Sanctuary outside of the classes we the players can choose, the representations of them just happen to fall into that realm of more scrutiny by someone who has been, admittedly, trained in ways to recognize this imagery. It might also be intriguing to note that this is written as if from a scholar’s journal, so we may be playing with racial dynamics within the game.

Will this game actually explore racist and classist notions? Will we see some post-colonial discourse occurring? That truly would give the world some flavor and history if done correctly. The Warcraft series already plays with racial identities and tensions somewhat, even if it simplifies it to two opposing factions…

Am I just being too quick to jump the gun on this one? Let me know your thoughts.

About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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12 Responses to Which doctor?

  1. Ben Abraham says:

    I think it’s great to talk about this issue. If I can offer an outsiders perspective, living in mostly white (and mostly tiny bit racist) Australia this kind of thing would have people knocking you for “reading too much into it”.But I quite like the fact that you are reading it for the underlying assumptions and hints of racism. Still, it could probably go either way at this point. Like you say, still too early to tell.

  2. Denis Farr says:

    Right, though Australia’s aboriginal problems are a minefield of colonial privilege and from the few Australians with whom I have discussed it, something many people would rather just ignore. Even in the U.S. I realize many people would see me ‘reading too much into it,’ as they would my posts on gender and sex.Eh, what can one do? There are some people who just don’t want to see or believe it, and they’d rather just believe that if they have no personally experienced it, I must be making things up with an extremely cynical worldview (I will admit I have that at times).Right, which is why I prefaced this with saying I’m not saying the game is racist. It really is far too early to tell. At the same time, Blizzard opted to release select bits of information, and looking at that information without further comment, this is how I feel. While it may very well be fruitless, I also think it may be useful to be able to track these things and be able to see how an idea started and from there note how it progressed or didn’t.

  3. Chris Lepine says:

    I suppose it is worth keeping in mind a few things about art. (This isn’t meant to sound like a lecture – I’m just in a rush!)First off, it’s a misconception to imagine that any fantasied creature/person/thing would come from anywhere but our own living world. If art mimes the lived world, then surely it is going to look to the way we live (or imagine that we live) for inspiration.Second, art focuses/typifies/concentrates/idealizes what it depicts. Meaning that anything it depicts is hyperbolized or caricatured .. sometimes to the point of ridicule or lampoon.In that light, what would it mean to say that something is “racist”? Does Diablo 3 purport itself as a true representation of history? Is it a requirement in every grade-school social studies curriculum? If the character class was supposed to represent some race, why did they make up the name ‘Umbaru’? Etc etc.That’s all to say – it’s not a case of making a mountain out of a mole-hill. It’s a case of beginning with the wrong kind of question, and becoming trapped by it (to remind us of Wittgenstein’s problem of the fly trapped in the bottle). Is D3 anything but the expressed imagination of the collected social-cultural identities of a hundred artists/programmers/designers sweating in cramped offices somewhere in the US?That’s all to say: it is fantasy. It is their fantasy. It is our fantasy. It is what the world looks like in relief; embossed, against the background of our desires.The question that we should be asking is, and I think your analysis very much lends itself to this already – what kind of depth of the human imagination does this game present to us? There are varying depths to which a fantasy can penetrate our desires – and if it is just a superficial desire, for quite literally killing monsters, then perhaps Diablo 3 is suited to a childhood audience. But if the game can depict human desire in a way that shows us our frailty; our way of being-in-the-world that we didn’t even recognize until we played it, THEN perhaps D3 is worthy of critique and understanding.But until we are sent into personal epiphanies (like I felt when I played Planescape: Torment), I think we shouldn’t create philosophical/moral/ethical problems for ourselves.

  4. Brilliam says:

    This is an absolutely vital conversation that I’m glad to see being started more and more often across the games blogging circle. Unfortunately, I think an ugly chain of events have made it very difficult to talk about things like this: the media demonizes video games; politicians threaten the industry’s right to create media that challenges the viewer; the “gamer community” bands together to lash back; after a while, the gamer community develops a reactionary stance to anything that might indirectly threaten their pastime– which, sadly, includes thoughtful discussion of race, sexuality, and gender issues within the medium.After attempting to open discussion on the potential sexism/objectification of women displayed in Braid in another blog, I received nothing but abuse. There was no meaningful discourse; only ‘arguments’ rife with logical fallacy and outright anger. In fact, my question made it to Jonathan Blow himself on a podcast, who pretty much wrote the argument off by saying “some people say the game’s empowering” and completely failing to defend his work.I truly hope that this space doesn’t fill up with that same inability to discourse. You do bring up some fantastic points. The question I wonder is, what can <>Diablo III<> do to avoid these stereotypical and insulting archetypes? Could it be as simple as swapping in a pale-skinned shaman, or even better, making all classes race-selectable as well as gender-selectable? Then, at least, it would leave the racial stereotyping in the hands of the player instead of Blizzard.

  5. Denis Farr says:

    Right, invariably we color any fiction we create with our own experiences and perceptions, which is why I don’t consider the game racist, so much as the society which has provided its backdrop. Most people I know to have been sexist, racist, heteronormative, et cetera ad nauseam, do not purposely mean to do so if I actually question them, it’s just an issue that was never discussed one on one, only as a public discourse removed from their own perception of self and interaction with their world. There naturally are some, but as it is art that reflects our society, I also think it’s useful to think about this in terms of not just the game, but what it says about us and where we are in terms of our relationship with race in society.This is why I feel games, much like literature, film, art, and music, will be a rich field for examining societies in which they were created via historic criticism.I suppose my curiosity, and this is something on which I should follow, is based on what I’ve seen of Blizzard’s work so far versus what we see in society. The tensions between the Horde and Alliance in the Warcraft world are very curious and show no clear-cut good versus evil, chaos versus order as Warhammer seems to be touting. Having recently read the Diablo novels (which I’ll address at some point), there is definitely a lore that I hope finds its way into the games themselves, but upon which I think they can expand the use of human interaction.This is hardly something over which I’m losing sleep, but something that caught my eye and made me stop and think in terms of what’s been presented us right now.

  6. Denis Farr says:

    @Brilliam: Well, I think I hinted at it toward the end of my article. I don’t necessarily want to wash away racial tensions. What I would find more intriguing is an actual exploration of what it would mean that this scholar actually say something along the terms of this being a less civilized society. Instead of worrying about needing more skin palettes, how about we put more in terms of story? As Ben alluded to, we have a plethora of examples of how this can be handled, whereby a government may seek to address wrongs but not encouraging actual discussion and knowledge.The Witch Doctor will be in place to be set up as a hero, there is no denying that. She or he will end up saving the world in some way (unless dying off in hardcore), so if that could possibly be addressed, especially in NPC reactions which would change as quests progressed, that could be ideal. Instead of just ignoring the tensions we face, I think the interactivity of games give our stories a realm for us to experience those moments of revelation (as Chris noted above), so that we can actually ponder these thoughts.The trick becomes, as you rightly note, being able to bring this to a game without having players roll their eyes or making it too heavy-handed. It’s a very delicate balancing act, especially in the society in which we find ourselves, where it seems we must always be on the watch for how our words may be misinterpreted (instead of being examined and then engaging in discourse, rather than just lashing out).I, likewise, hope that it’s something we can discuss, as we are doing now, and not feel the need to point fingers, but just talk about what this means (and readily encourage you to do so here). Do I feel any shame or animosity toward the Blizzard team? Not at all. They’ve caused me to once again think about the larger picture. So even if this representation comes out well, it’s a positive step, but there are further actions I can take in the real world to enact more change and dialog.

  7. Something like the Witch Doctor makes me wonder about my own cultural biases. When I heard the term Witch Doctor I had a mental image of what it would be like and when I saw the character it fit. I never really considered this was a problem.I don’t think that any person, or race, conforms to a particular stereotype so I’ve never really seen their use to be particularly offensive. It seems to me you’d need to be stupid to think they were in some way representative of an entire race or class.I’m white and English and I’ve never felt that anybody really considered the stereotype of “top hat wearing, tea drinking softies”, or “beer swilling football hooligans” to be a valid representation of the English as a whole. In hindsight aren’t both descriptions as racist as the “Black Shaman”?I’m not trying to say we shouldn’t talk about this, and consider the implication of the use of such cultural and racial stereotypes just that sometimes they are used because they are a form of shorthand characterisation. Maybe used in that way they are just lazy. Ideally we probably shouldn’t be using stereotypes but in games, and more so in movies, often you need to define characters very quickly and stereotypes achieve that; especially for bit part characters.I understand that the very fact we have such cultural stereotypes is a concern, and I know that racism quite clearly still exists. I just wonder if it’s possible to use them or be entertained by them while still understanding the problems surrounding them. I guess I feel the ideal is not the removal of such racist or sexist representations but the universal understanding that they are simply works of fiction and don’t mean either the creator or player believes them to be accurate.Though maybe I’m just naïve?I’ve been thinking about a similar topic recently as I’ve been playing The Witcher, and finding I’ve been enjoying it’s blatantly sexist and borderline degrading representation of women, simply because it’s so unusual and yet fitting for the world in which is occurs. Though the attitude it implies is one I generally find abhorrent.

  8. Denis Farr says:

    “I don’t think that any person, or race, conforms to a particular stereotype so I’ve never really seen their use to be particularly offensive. It seems to me you’d need to be stupid to think they were in some way representative of an entire race or class.”I’m going to bite my tongue and try and address this in using a metaphor.The problem primarily comes in breadth of representation. If we look at how many examples of persons of color we actually have in videogames, we start seeing that this easily takes up a large portion of what we expect to see–especially in fantasy or magic settings. This representation becomes a problem precisely because we have very few other examples, or models out there from which we can base these opinions. You and I may know better and be able to look past these stereotypes, but for many it just confirms a belief they may have.For instance, if I were to walk up to most Americans, I’d probably be rather distressed if I asked them of their knowledge of Africa as it stands today. I know that my high school in Tennessee, the common thought was that everything over there was still wild and tribal.That’s the problem we face. And racism definitely goes both ways. However, much like feminism, there’s one brand of racism/sexism which has stronger roots and is more harmful to an image.As for the concerns of how we separate fact and fiction, I believe we can definitely make that. Like I said, I would prefer that this would be a model that is used and is further used to comment on the image. This will not be a bit-part character, so there is a whole field of story that could open based around his odd origins. The Necromancer in Diablo 2 was often treated in a disgusting manner, but we rarely saw progress in our interactions with NPCs, which it appears they may be trying to do with this installment of the series.Ultimately, much like with your example of the Witcher, I feel it comes back to breadth and scope. The more diverse representations we have of women, racial differences, et cetera, the more this will become something we can look at and see among a field where we can actually discern that there are differences in representation. When those representations all share a common theme is when it becomes worrisome.

  9. We need positive representations to offset the negative ones even if neither are truly accurate?That makes sense. I suppose I’m just as bemused that anybody might consider such stereotypes representative. But maybe I’m really am naive about human nature. I mean I know racism still exists and with such negative stereotypes in the media it can be much easier to accept them at face value than bother questioning them.It’s still difficult for me to think anybody would actually think they are in any way accurately representative. Wishful thinking on my part?

  10. Denis Farr says:

    Not necessarily inaccurate. I feel fairly confident in saying there’s a wide range of personalities and characteristics found in any group of people, no matter race, sex, gender, or nationality, and that we could probably explore and show that better.Perhaps I’m just too cynical, but living in the American South definitely shook me up on matters of race. Everything thereafter just became more easy to recognize, no matter how slight.

  11. Chris Lepine says:

    I suppose this is why I attempted to steer the conversation away from “representation”. Getting caught up in whether or not a particular character in a book/game/film adequately or correctly represents a certain race is a blind alley. It’s asking art to do something it cannot: represent the ‘real world’. So I’ll try this again:If we’re going to take games seriously, we have to give them the same credit as we do other expressive forms. Games allow us to express the imagination, just like paintings and books. We make a huge categorical mistake when we think that a painting/book/game represents something else, because it literally “stands on its own” when the finished piece is viewed/read/played by an audience.Think of it this way: do you really want every artistic expression to perfectly represent the world? Do we want every race represented in D3, perfectly representative of real life? This is a very odd kind of reasoning that comes out of a sense for egalitarianism (which is fine) and turns art into representative art, instead of expressive art. Representative art is akin to ‘snapshots’ of the world, hoping that we’ll get to see everything in detail. Does it reveal anything about human nature? Nope. Does it give us any insights into society? Nope. Does it evoke feelings in us? Nope. Does it reveal our deeply racist/stereotypical beliefs? Nope.Representation washes over everything and prevents us from ‘seeing ourselves’ with clarity. And if we’re asking games to represent society, then we’re doing a great disservice to the idea that games could be artistic endeavours.Expressive art reveals to us that we are racist, that we do hold stereotypes, that we do tacitly believe insane things about other people. This is going to sound very radical and not very PC, but here it is: bring it on. Bring on the deeply racist depictions of other cultures. Bring on the subtle stereotypes we carry along with us as societal baggage. But, bring it on <>artistically<> – actually SHOW us what we secretly believe in an expressive form. That’s what moves people. That’s how we come to see ourselves in a bas-relief.That’s how denis even noticed that the Witch Doctor expressed some stereotypical sentiments. The hunched-over look, the curled fingers, the bald head, the outrageously protruding claws… all of those hyperbolized features function together to express something. Some people will see ‘dangerous power’, others will see a tribesman, others will see just a character in a game. But all of us <>see something<> in him, and that’s why it is a wonderful piece of expressive art, and not just the scrawls of some racist designer.I think your article really provided a useful discussion denis. Thanks for the brave post!

  12. Anonymous says:

    An interesting article Denis, as seems to be the norm. I too noticed the look and description of the Witch Doctor, and it does fall pretty hard on the classic stereotypical idea of what a “proper” witch doctor/shaman would look like. While the description is something that can be passed on (it is obvious that it is beng made with the intent of casting the person making the description in a particular light), the design itself smacks of an easy way out of a creative interpretation of an old trope. The Conan series was very creative with such things, why not Blizzard? Why is the Barbarian still a guy in a loincloth? Why, why, why.@Brilliam “my question made it to Jonathan Blow himself on a podcast, who pretty much wrote the argument off by saying “some people say the game’s empowering” and completely failing to defend his work.”This is disheartening considering the lauding the game has recieved and the fact he had an opportunity to persanally lay a contentious issue to rest. My opinion of the man is changed.

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