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The Walking Dead Game: A Case Study of a New Hegemony

The Walking Dead Game. 2012 Telltale Games

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.

Lee and Clementine from The Walking Dead Game. Image from IGN.

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.

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Mass Effect 2: One Year Later

Karen Shepard, my character from ME1 & 2, has helped me explore the galaxy, humanity, and alien cultures.

(Warning: Mass Effect 1 & 2 spoilers follow).

January 26, 2011 marks the first anniversary of BioWare’s Mass Effect 2. It is hard to believe a year has passed since we first got to play the second installment of its epic space trilogy.  Mass Effect 2 continued the saga of humanity’s struggle for survival as well as its quest for political supremacy within the Citadel. It would be the biggest understatement to say I have enjoyed that game.  However having completed the games several times, I think I am in a better position to look at several areas of research available due to the volumes of content that come with the Mass Effect experience.  Some of them I have already touched on, yet there are other areas that cry out for exploration, including disability, body image, moral choices, and several mass communication theories to include framing (in-game media broadcasts), agenda setting (Cerebus network), and gatekeeping. To be honest, I have already dabbled into why Mass Effect 2 address the human condition and how some story elements represent cultural hegemony.  In fact I did that not once, but twice.  A few months later, I wrote we need more characters like Joker. Recently I explored how BioWare uses fictitious faith as an option to avoid the controversies of addressing real-world religions. I even argued that my beloved Karen Shepard should die again at the end of Mass Effect 3. In addition, other writers have brilliantly written about some of the political aspects of BioWare’s epic. Jorge Albor over at Experience Points penned “The Quarian Exiles,” “The Salarian Dilemna” and “Cultural Conflict.” One might think that because of the many articles about Mass Effect that we have sufficiently mined universe for cultural ideas.  Not so.

Mass Effect "Overlord" is an opportunity to study disability.

First, the added content (DLC) “Overlord” infused horror and oppression of the disabled into Mass Effect 2. The “ends justifies the means” mentality used by Cerebus to combat the mechanical Geth put the player in the position of leaving a disabled man in the hands of his oppressive brother or shipping him off to an academy for help and thereby putting humanity at a disadvantage in its war against the Geth’s masters, the Reapers. Anyone interested in exploring how the story unfolds must capture and study the flashbacks the player sees as well as the ending cut scene and in doing so will see how the character Daniel will shift from what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls wondrous (awe-inspiring) to exotic (dangerous, alien, strange) to sentimental (to be pitied and taken care of).

Grunt (foreground) and Tali help the gamer explore family issues in ME2.

Body image and gender issues are obvious avenues of exploration in ME2.  Critics will no doubt zero in on First Officer Miranda Lawson, whose tight outfits present the image of sex symbol even as she reminds Commander Shepard, and the player, that she has been genetically bred to be intelligent as well as a powerful biotic.  She therefore often times splits the male player’s focus on her since she is a possible love interest for MaleShep while catering to the Illusive Man’s interest as a Cerberus operative and first officer of the good ship Normandy. Her cool demeanor is offset by the fiery and sexual Jack/Subject Zero who presents the option of unattached sex. In contrast, Samara’s quest to kill her daughter provides room for those interested in the intersection of child rearing and employment and the consequences of being away from home too much.  Kasumi Goto quest reveals a love tale with some James Bond elements thrown in. Of all the characters, it is Tali’Zorah who provides the interesting political/familial/loyalty missions in the game (as does the Krogan Grunt).

The Mass Effect trilogy is well-known for its moral choices.  One of the big selling points was that choices made in the first game carry over into the second.  Likewise, choices made in ME2 will help shape the outcome of the series in ME3.

If you saved the Rachni in ME1 will they help defeat the Reapers in ME3?

I have read accounts of how Shepard’s actions with the Krogan, the Quarians, the Geth, and the Rachni will help to form an alliance against the Reapers in ME3. It will be interesting to see if certain options lead to success or if some kind of pluralism exists in ME (all roads lead to a good ending).

Another rich area of research is in-game media, ala the Cerberus Daily News and in-game news updates on different planets. The CBN ran for one year, providing daily updates from the ME Universe.  These short messages not only enhanced and expanded the canon, but also provide material for textual and content analyses. Just as interesting are the numerous in-game updates the player can listen to.  These quick announcements might provide some insight into how news reports are framed within the game.  What elements are emphasized and which ones are downplayed or even ignored? How do the interests of the Citadel play out against the public’s need to know? Do these news bursts, as I call them, in any way help to set the public agenda for conversation and reaction? This last item is difficult since we are only privy to the reactions of Shepard and those around her.

It seems that the anniversary of Mass Effect 2 raises nearly as many questions as it answers. The middle chapter of this trilogy has one final section of downloadable content due out this year.  BioWare has not revealed if this will be DLC that bridges ME2 and 3, ala “Lair of the Shadow Broker.”  If it does you can bet that researchers will add it to the healthy collection of ME content already available.

Will Defending the Homefront Mean Being Anti-Asian?

Kaos Studios' Homefront is due to release Q1 2011.

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).

North Korean solder in Homefront

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.

A Combine soldier from Half Life 2.

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.

The Other in charge.

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.

The Message of The Normal Noble in Dragon Age Origins

Dragon Age Origins is my new favorite game.

Disclaimer: There are some minor spoilers for Dragon Age Origins in this blog.  You’ve been warned.

Disclaimer 2: I am still working on my first play through of DOA but I want to write down my thoughts as I play through. It may turn out I am wrong on a number of issues and if so I will blog about it at a later date.

I just bought a copy of Bioware’s Dragon Age Origins last week.  After playing for four days I am hooked.  Whereas before I was not sure if I would even like it, now I find myself thinking about it even when I’m not playing.  That’s when you know you’ve found a game that rocks.

I’ve enjoyed it so much it took me two days to realize something was wrong.

Let me go back to the beginning. For those who don’t know Dragon Age, like so many other role-playing games, lets you create your character and select a background before you plunge into the adventure.  I chose to be a human noble female. Now I don’t play RPGs that much but whenever I do, I always create a black woman.  That way, I can bring two under-represented groups at the same time.  However for some reason, I could not create a black woman this time.  All I could do was give her a bit of tan that just didn’t look right.  After trying four or five times I gave up, made her the best I could, and started the game.

Character creation for nobles is limited in Dragon Age Origins

When my character walked into the castle (she was a noble after all) I realized why my choices were so limited: my family was white.  Mentally I kicked myself for being so silly.  Noble.  Castle.  Very European.  Of course they were white.  That makes perfect historical sense.  And so with only a twinge of disappointment, I launched into the grand epic.

After two days of killing darkspawns and demons it finally dawned on me that something wasn’t right.  It turns out my character was not the problem.  The family was.  Well not exactly. Or maybe that’s really two problems.  The first problem was that I could not create the character I wanted to create because historical accuracy (in a fantasy game mind you) dictated otherwise.

The second problem is that I accepted the fact that a noble human family in a fantasy game should be white due to the setting.  Dragon Age is a fantasy, right?  If I can be a part of a world that contains the most honorable heroes, the Gray Wardens, and the most vile villains then why is it so hard to have a noble family of color?  In my days of traveling the land, I have seen NPCs of color, though none of significance yet.  I assume I will eventually run into one who will present me with a side quest or something.  So if that is the case that there are free NPCs of color in the land then why can they not be a part of the noble class?

Bioware went to great lengths to provide different backgrounds for players to select: human, elves, dwarves and so on. Moreover, they have carefully crafted a spectacular game with a rich and diverse mythology.  I am still amazed by what I have seen so far.  So then how hard would it have been for them to add code to change the family to fit the character?  If I wanted to create an Asian male, then the game should automatically create a family to match.

These were the choices I had in Knights of the Old Republic

The more complex and insidious issue here is that it took me a few days to realize something was wrong.  You see when I realized the European setting dictated a European family, I was okay with that.  It seemed very normal to me. Therein lies the problem.  Because it was normal, I did not question it, though I should have.  I probably should have been outraged that being white and noble was hardwired into the game as well as my consciousness.  But I was having such a great time playing the game that all thoughts of accepting (or rejecting) that particular messages soon fell by the wayside.  And yet this is a fantasy game.  In my fantasy games, I want my heroes to be people who look like me.  I did it that way in Knights of the Old Republic and I did it that way in Mass Effect. Bioware has spoiled me. What’s the difference between those two games and Dragon Age?  In Knights and ME the hero came from either a tragic or mysterious background.  We only got to hear about their origins.  In Dragon Age, I got to experience my character’s home and family.  There was a sense of community.  I had access to my parents, servants, and pets.  All very normal, even it all took place in a huge castle.  The hidden message here: in the better or preferred background, you can’t be black or Asian.  Those races are relegated to the abnormal. This other background is only acceptable for that mysterious person, that tragic survivor, the violent war hero, or the fallen dark lord.

What we are really taking about is re-imagining characters in-game and we should all be used to it by now.  Last summer the entire concept of Star Trek changed with the new movie.  Battlestar Galactica re-imagined the whole series including some of the main characters such as Starbuck (from Dirk Benedict to Katee Sackhoff) and Boomer (from Herb Jefferson Jr. to Grace Park).  In Marvel Comics’ Nick Fury went from white (comics) to black (movies). And who can forget Brandy as Cinderella? I would like the option to either embrace or reject those messages of what is normal in my games.

Now you might think that after all this I would stop playing Dragon Age Origins.  Not so.  I’ve had too much fun to stop anytime soon.  And it may turn out that when I choose another origin the result will be better.  I have yet to try being an elf or a dwarf.  But even if I run into the same problem, I believe this tale will be every bit as satisfying as Bioware’s other games. However fantasy above all else should be about escaping from the norm.  Whenever writers and developers only bring those norms into the game, they limit what the player can do to enrich his/her experience by not allowing that player’s notion of identity to be included.