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 a digital game market flooded with military shooters, Kaos Studios’ Homefront might just stand out. As a gamer, I look forward to playing something different from a stilted campaign and the standard team deathmatch in multiplayer. As a game researcher, however, I wonder if a strong, character-driven campaign might raise storytelling in this medium to a higher level while simultaneously engendering unwarranted animosity toward Asians in general and Koreans in particular. Now you might think that is a stretch, but it seems that many of the needed elements are already in place.
If the title Homefront doesn’t ring a bell, you can check out the information on wikipedia and a brief interview with Kaos Studios head Dave Votypka. In the piece Votypka said he and his team looked to Half Life 2 for inspiration. Regular readers of this blog know HL2 is one of my all-time favorite shooters. HL2 resonated with me because I cared about the characters, particularly Eli and Alyx Vance. If Homefront can make me care about its characters, then I might just come to hate their enemies. That’s the problem. Yes, we can debate the likelihood of a Korean invasion all day, but the real danger here is that making a connection with Americans under the heel of a brutal foreign power may very well cause hatred for the enemy. In addition, there is also the risk that some gamers may begin to agree with positive representations of the good guys (the Americans) while agreeing with the negative framing of the bad guys (the Koreans). After all, it is only natural that we promote and support positive portrayals of those we identify with (known as the in-group) while at the same time harboring negative perceptions of those not in our group (the out-group).
Now in-groups and out-groups won’t really matter all that much if the single-player campaign is simply about herding the player from large battle to next while killing as many enemy soldiers as possible. Those faceless, generic enemies could be Koreans, terrorists, Covenant, Geth, whatever. It makes no difference. That is exactly what you will find in most games: enemies that try to keep the player from his/her goal, but it’s just business (the business of winning). But if I can revisit HL2 for a moment, I really don’t like the oppressive Combine. Not only do they threaten “people” I care about but the setting developer Valve created was quite convincing and thus I decided to immerse myself in it.
Can the same thing happen with an occupied United States? Kaos brought in former CIA field operative Tae Kim to add authenticity of the invasion scenario. Add to that noted screenwriter John Milius (Red Dawn, The Hunt for Red October, Clear and Present Danger) and you have all the elements for an engrossing story. In fact, the assault has already started. Early promotional images of Homefront typically have the enemy soldiers towering over the camera; the viewer has to look up at the occupier, who is the authority. From the beginning we are made to see the invader as large and intimidating. When you compare that to images of the Combine from HL2 you will see the propoganda machine from the world of Homefront already engaged and doings its best to imitate the atmosphere of a masterpiece.
Of course there are readers who will dismiss this as nothing more than entertainment.
Those who support that point of view will argue Homefront is simply fiction. My response would be that even digital games carry certain messages embedded in their content. One of those messages here is that a nation and a people most Americans barely know or understand has been written into this game as a merciless enemy who now sits on our shore. While all known intelligence suggests the North Koreans are in no shape to mount such an invasion, because they are (to us) so mysterious, can we really know what they are thinking and planning? We believe they are aggressive (look at the recent artillery attack on South Korea) and we know they have nuclear ambitions. What else are they capable of? They are the classic “other.” It is too easy to demonize and hate that which is other. Fear and oppression are often-times the consequences of categorizing groups we don’t care to know as “other.” The phrase yellow peril is not used that much anymore; it has since been supplanted by fears of communism and terrorism, but all that can quickly change. A triple-A release like Homefront can expose millions of Americans to a hostile Korea. It also happens that the upcoming Operation Flashpoint: Red River features possible conflict between the United States and China in Tajikistan. However Red River is a niche shooter for those who love realistic tactical military games. Homefront has broader appeal by far and the from the looks of reaction so far should steer clear of the outrage surrounding Six Days in Fallujah and Medal of Honor. Those games centered around present US conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Homefront represents a fictional war. To be more precise, Homefront presents a fictional conflict between the United States and Korea and is therefore more acceptable to the American public than those other two games. However it also embodies cultural conflict with the last cold war enemy, which is also dangerous, albeit in a different way.