Let me start by saying I have yet to pick up a copy of The Walking Dead comic, though I hear it is good. However I have watched the television show since the first episode. So I was anxious to download the first episode of The Walking Dead game. Perhaps thirty minutes or so after I started I began to notice that this particular game examines social hegemony and identity in different ways than most video games. I thought that was worth exploring. So I thought I would briefly write about a new hegemony (perhaps) that I see emerging within this game world. Warning: spoilers follow.
This is a character-driven game, and as such, it is the player who has agency to help shape the protagonist Lee. We learn through our choices that he cares for people and is sad when he cannot help them. In addition we know he has a tragic past. Finally we realize he will lie not because he is trying to get away with something, but just because he thinks telling the truth will make things worse.
Now one might think because he is black that race might play some factor in how we view him or how the other characters react to him. Not so. This is good and bad.
Good because it seems that the outbreak of the virus and the resulting zombie infestation has rewritten the social hierarchy so now the remaining social groups are simplified. You have the living and the dead. As a result, ethnicity is not so important. Most of the survivors Lee and Clementine encounter assume they are father and daughter. After a while Lee stops telling them otherwise. Even when people, including Clementine, discover Lee’s crime, they simply accept it. The struggle for survival has cast aside the previous social hegemony.
However the series Walking Dead did not shy away from race. Viewers got a strong taste of racial hatred from characters early on in the series. Perhaps the game will too, which would be refreshing. Too many times gamers do not get to see how the world changes when the character is a woman or a minority. Hordes of zombies will not change that, so why should the game avoid it?
Perhaps it is the case that you cannot have both. There must either be a real-world racial reaction or a new social order based on humans vs. walkers. Of course, and as I wrote earlier, I am still playing through the first chapter. My opinion may change. It may not. It will be interesting to see if my view holds through all the remaining chapters.
In the universe of Mass Effect, the organization called Cerberus is either a terrorist group or a pro-human organization. In cultural studies, however, it could be considered something else: an instrument designed to combat cultural hegemony. Now before I get too far, let me take a few moments to explain what I mean by that phrase. Cultural hegemony is a concept created by Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci. He developed this concept after the Marxist revolution failed to materialize in Italy. Gramsci postulated that the oppressed classes did not revolt because they believed it was in their best interests not to do so. Because of that, these social classes that were in the margins of society, gave the dominant class the power to rule. “Power by consent” is the catch-phrase here. So these dominant classes, which control media and ideas, also promote the notion that they rule because they are best suited to do so. Moreover, whenever the marginalized classes decided to take action gain more power, the class in charge will often times provide a concession to appease the oppressed. Of course that concession can be revoked later.
The extensive mythology of ME states that when humanity discovered the mass effect relays, it entered a galactic civilization centered around the Citadel. Citadel space is controlled by the Council Races: the Asari, the Turians, and the Salarians. Each race keeps one representative on the Citadel Council, the ruling body. The Council controls the Fleet and the Spectres, their agents who operate beyond the confines of law.
In the ME2 preview “The Story so Far” we learn that humanity needed only one generation to rise to prominence within the Citadel. Thanks to the actions of Commander Shepard and crew in ME1, the council now has a representative, David Anderson. Moreover, Citadel Security Captain Bailey reminds Shepard that the Systems Alliance (humanity) guarded the citadel after the battle with the Reaper Sovereign. That does not mean, however, that humanity has “made it” in the Mass Effect world. Humans are often looked down upon by other the races, especially the Salarians, and the Turians (Humanity’s opponent in The First Contact War).
We now know that the three primary Citadel races have taken steps to exclude others from positions of power. Chief among these would be the Volus, the Krogan, and the Quarians. The Volus, small in stature, belong to the Citadel as associate members, but have never been offered a seat on the Council. The Citadel races keep the violent Krogan in check with a genetic infection called the genophage that keeps their birth numbers down lest they threaten the whole galaxy. Finally the nomadic Quarians are the outcasts of galactic society because they unleashed the synthetic Geth on galaxy and lost their home planet in the process.
When compared to these races, humanity fares better. And yet an element of mankind seeks to improve its position by whatever means are needed. The organization Cerebrus, depending on who you ask, are terrorists, extremists, or pro-human. They freely use genetic manipulation, imprisonment, experimentation, abuse, and assassination to achieve their goals and their activities often times bring condemnation from the Council. In ME1 Shepard fights against them, but in ME2 she works with them as they are the only group working to stop the Reaper threat.
They are also the organization in Mass Effect that works to keep the gains made by humanity in the first game. With the death of Shepard, humanity’s lofty position begins to slide. Even the ascension of Anderson to the Council begins to lose some luster as he is outnumbered three to one by the other races. (I base this article on Shepard’s decision to save the Council in ME1. The other alternative is for Shepard to name Anderson Chairman of a new council.) The Council took extensive steps to cover up the Reaper threat and thus the need for humanity to play a larger role in Citadel politics. Without Shepard to champion the cause, Citadel space has, for the most part, reverted to business-as-usual.
We could very easily look at Anderson’s position as a hegemonic concession by the Council. If that is the case and humanity political position is relatively unchanged since the beginning of ME1, then other forces must assert themselves to combat hegemony.
Back in the real world, cultural hegemony became more popular thanks to Artz and Murphy’s book Cultural Hegemony in the United States. In it, the writers note that when marginalized groups come together to form historic blocs, they stand the best change to successfully challenge hegemons. In the case of Mass Effect, one violent organization, even one as powerful and far-reaching as Cerberus, cannot successfully combat the political-industrial Citadel. It turns out that if we adhere to the concepts of cultural hegemony than Cerebrus would have to be the vanguard that would allow human movement to partner with other races such as the Volus and the Quarians in order to gain political power. Together, they would have to create such a political threat that the Council would have no choice but to institute changes.
Of course Cerebrus is pro-human to the point where other races are understandably leery. Most of Shepard’s non-human crew in ME2 express hesitation in working with Cerberus. It is only their loyalty to their commander that allows them to join the fight against the Reaper’s agents, the Collectors. One can understand their position after one play through the game. Mass Effect 2 allows players to see the darker side of Cerberus through Jack’s loyalty mission as well as the failed experiment Overlord. Given the history, it seems unlikely that other races would seek to partner with Cerberus and its mysterious leader, the Illusive Man. Right now, no other organization that we know of has taken steps to increase humanity’s footprint in the Citadel. Perhaps Mass Effect 3 will provide that information.
Part two later this week.