Publication Date

November 15, 2022

Perspectives Section

Features

cop recovering from a hangover approaches a tattooed Black man and commands him to remove a body from a tree. This simple scene conjures violent meaning centered on histories of race and police brutality. The tattooed man eyes the cop and remarks, “Your body betrays your degeneracy. . . . Occidental haplogroup B4 is done giving orders around here. The influence of the ham sandwich race is waning.” And so begins one of the most enigmatic exchanges in video game history.

An in-game screenshot from Disco Elysium featuring part of the player’s interaction with Measurehead.

In Disco Elysium, the player’s interaction with the character Measurehead typifies the paradoxical fact that video games that constrain player avatar creation offer more narrative depth and nuance. ZA/UM Studio

Disco Elysium (2019), the role-playing game (RPG) in which this scene occurs, is set in a world trapped between recovery from a violent war and the “disco” bliss of the 1980s. Nearly every character is the worst version of themselves: a socialist is fat from exploiting his constituents; a fascist is an old racist soldier; the cop, the protagonist and player avatar, is a drunk and drug addict; and the tattooed Black man is a homophobic phrenologist and a eugenicist appropriately named Measurehead.

The exchange between the player and Measurehead exemplifies how Disco Elysium explores player agency, inclusivity, histories of race, and the capacity of games to represent postcolonial legacies. Widely regarded as one of the best video games of all time, Disco Elysium owes its success to a paradoxical aspect of game design. Removing the player’s ability to customize their own avatar makes for better stories because protagonists with predetermined identities and histories tend to be better integrated into the narratives and the worlds they inhabit. Thus, games with a set player avatar maximize the potential of their medium to tell a meaningful story. Over the last two decades, the presence or absence of avatar customization has been emblematic of two dominant approaches to RPG design, approaches that are of utmost importance to historians invested in postcolonial studies and the digital humanities.

Video games have had a complicated relationship with the academy. Long held responsible for decaying attention spans, antisocial behavior, and even mass shootings, they have only recently become a legitimate medium in the public eye. Consequently, they are impossible to ignore in the classroom and research. Part of this shift is generational, as many who grew up with video games are now in a position to legitimate them. Game developers have pushed the possibilities of interactivity and narrative well beyond the first genre-defining experiments.

Protagonists with predetermined identities are better integrated into the worlds they inhabit.

Anyone who has played a game like Age of Empires (1997–) can attest that games deliver historical content and narrative. Scholars of historical game studies have long acknowledged that games engender historical thinking, albeit not exactly in a way academics encourage. Souvik Mukherjee and Emil Lundedal Hammar’s 2018 observation still holds weight today: “The treatment of colonialism in video games . . . is marked by a Western, and, specifically, late 19th-century imperialist bias.” Mukherjee and Hammar refer primarily to the grand strategy genre and the “Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate” (4X) subgenre, in which players reenact the logic of empire in interactive structures that reward adherence to its most violent precepts. Although players might unwittingly acquire a basic familiarity with historical figures, works of art, and city names around the world, these games’ overall estimation of “civilization” and “progress” undoubtedly mislead more often than they inform.

In recent years, developers have sought to redress the flawed thinking behind their earlier games by issuing apologies and creating new iterations in conjunction with cultural consultants. For example, Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition (2020) featured a “Note” on the menu screen explaining, “The original release of Age of Empires III [2005] took liberties with the depiction of Indigenous civilizations. . . . we collaborated with Native American and First Nations consultants to correct these errors. . . . We have replaced inaccurate or stereotypical depictions, created new voiceovers using authentic speakers, and addressed problematic and harmful mechanics and storylines.” While an admirable reexamination of an earlier game, the base mechanics of the genre continue to encourage play that is often at odds with this aspiration of “authenticity” regarding Indigenous peoples and stories.

Thus, not only do games participate in historical, counterfactual, and revisionist imaginaries, but they are also cultural artifacts that convey contemporary racial visions. Game developers struggle to find accurate ways of incorporating the stories of people of color in order to reach diverse player bases. The games at the center of these issues of representation and power are often RPGs because of their tight focus on character development and story, and speculative and science fiction games have emerged as the most inventive in this regard.

Allowing a player to create their own avatar seemingly resolves the issue of representation in games with a catalog of diverse skin colors, hair styles, body shapes and sizes, and, more recently, gender expressions. Avatar customization began relatively early. Knights of the Old Republic (2003), a Star Wars game, boasts an array of preset options that determine appearance. Several games by the same developer, BioWare (including Mass Effect [2007] and Dragon Age: Origins [2009]), allow the modification of all physical features. The result affords players a truly customizable appearance, and although the possibilities are near limitless, many players tend to recreate an identical, aspirational, or oppositional version of themselves for their protagonists.

Although this approach objectively makes these games relatable to a broader audience and therefore popular, the result is that race becomes a meaningless category. That is, the protagonist’s dialogue, history, and in-game experiences do not usually differ in any way as a result of these physical modifications during character creation. Race is cosmetic only. When taken as a production of these science fiction universes, the effect can initially feel liberating, like an ahistorical reality without colorism. Mass Effect foregrounds conflicts, stereotypes, and discrimination among alien species in ways that resemble historical empire and modern racialization, but it also implies that, by the year 2148, humanity has unified and resolved its internal disputes, racialization included, and everybody speaks English. The result actualizes the myths of cultural pluralism and colorblind meritocracy—long-standing cultural and political aspirations in the United States. Diversity is embraced so long as all have assimilated into the dominant culture.

By the release of Mass Effect 3 (2012), I wanted the history of racial formation to matter in a futuristic or speculative vision of humanity. Imagining a human society that has eradicated racial discrimination in just over 100 years requires a suspension of disbelief beyond that demanded by the appearance of aliens and the achievement of faster-than-light travel. It implies an alteration to the very nature of humanity. I did not want race to matter in that I desired to see protagonists with non-European features othered; I wanted difference to manifest in ways that are undeniably human: as culture, as cosmology, in language, in historical memory.

Thus, games like Disco Elysium that have eschewed character creation in favor of a predetermined protagonist have proven far more capable than their counterparts in offering compelling commentary on postcolonial realities and racial discourse. Though less inclusive in the formal sense, eliminating player character creation means that the characters’ histories, identities, and actions matter to the narrative in ways that are impossible to achieve in the alternative format. Mukherjee calls these characters “hybrid” for their in-betweenness, their entanglements with past and present.

A human society that has eradicated racial discrimination requires a suspension of disbelief beyond that demanded by the appearance of aliens.

In Disco Elysium, Measurehead’s dialogue is the epitome of Mukherjee’s hybrid archetype, playing off the real-world dynamics of a Black man talking to a white cop. Measurehead activates a historical lexicon of race that inverts power between two presupposed, unequal poles. In addressing the protagonist-cop (an “Occidental”), he laments, “You were once a noble and powerful race. You gave the world eugenics, electricity, and powerful weapons of war. . . . You made great gains in metallurgy, race theory, and statecraft. You dominated lesser cultures . . . but now your ascent to the genetic summit has halted. You are obsessed with sadness and with frivolous pop culture.” Measurehead’s impromptu counterethnography throws racial ideology back into the face of the protagonist, who is unable to respond in kind. Instead, the player can choose to assimilate this racial logic into their character’s “Thought Cabinet” of ideologies as “Advanced Race Theory” by becoming Measurehead’s disciple.

Disco Elysium further invites the player to speculate as to the displacements, both conceptual and physical, that must have occurred to produce Measurehead. For example, we later learn that he is actually from the same country as the protagonist, having only heard of his homeland (which he sees in his “genetic dreams”) from the radio. His contradictions produce a postcolonial fever dream that subverts power and tears down entrenched categories. The confrontation between Measurehead and the protagonist thus offers a more serious intervention into questions of representation, postcolonial identity, and racial discourse than games with more representative character creation options.

Crucially, Black artists designed and produced Measurehead. As technological advances allow more developers around the world to publish their creations, games like Disco Elysium will only continue to push the possibilities of digital interaction with topics of immediate interest to historians. I encourage historians to take video games and their enactments of historical discourse seriously, to consider science fiction and fantasy as replete with racial analogies, and to invite those who have not tried a choice-based RPG to take a chance on something new.

Diego Javier Luis is an assistant professor at Tufts University.

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