The Trap of Representation

Posted by on May 23, 2011 in Articles | 9 Comments

When we evaluate race in games, character creation seems to draw most of our focus. And there’s good reason for this: character creation appears to facilitate the kind of bodily manipulation promised by digital technologies during the mythic imaginings of the early internet. In some way we’ve been desiring a tool for identity play that lives up to the promise of these 90s promises.

Recognition of inequities in both technology use and in representation have shifted some attitudes about digital identity play from optimistic to skeptical. Lisa Nakamura’s work has been transformative in this regard.

In her study of telecommunications advertisements “‘Where Do You Want to Go Today?’: Cybernetic Tourism, the Internet and Transnationality,” Nakamura critiques myths of internet freedom. Rather than providing the equitable slippage of global identity ostensibly communicated in ads for internet access featuring the meeting of people across the globe, Nakamura describes how the ads actually show something very different that cuts across political lines. Here we’re faced with Nakamura’s key notion of identity tourism: greater freedom of movement, both geographic and cybernetic, for the privileged, and deeper othering and exoticization for the underprivileged. It’s not difficult to see the connection between the fantasy that telecomms sell in the advertisements Nakamura critiques, and the fantasy worlds of MMORPGs that are disproportionately played, in a North American and European context, by whites.

Using the restrictive choices available to users of MUDs and chatrooms, Nakamura characterized online identity as primarily reinforcing stereotypes. After the rise of videogame studies, and technical advances in computer graphics, animation and modeling, Nakamura revised her original claims. In her follow-up monograph Digitizing Race, Nakamura summarizes this change in position:

“While in Cyberytypes I focused on the constraints inherent in primarily textual interfaces that reified racial categories, in this work I locate the Internet as a privileged and extremely rich site for the creation and distribution of hegemonic and counterhegemonic visual images of racialized bodies.”

From my perspective, if we are to adequately describe and transform how race is communicated in videogames, we need to focus our attention on how representation is structured, and the politics of production behind this structure. Without an eye to the underlying causes of inequities in representation, our critiques of stereotype, or calls for multi-racial/ethnic/cultural equity will be severely limited in effect.

However, many fans and academics focus the bulk of their attention on what bodies look like and what options are available. The controversy on the popular feminist gamer blog The Border House over the limited options of character creation in a videogame is characteristic of battles being fought over the possibilities available to users in programmed environments. The debate started with a comment posted on the official discussion forum for the then yet to be released Dragon Age II:

“Do we know if DA2 will have a better range of racial diversity? I was dissapointed [sic] that Dragon Age, a game that seem [sic] to use elves as an allegory for black slavery and the treatment of native Americans lacks any black or asian people.That and it’s a fictional fantasy world that’s not based on anywhere specific so it just seems thoughtless to the point of discriminaton (sic) to not include other ethnicities.  Not to mention that the character creator doesn’t really let you make a black or asian character with its messed up colour settings. Will this be changed for DA2?”

Tami Baribeau, who posts on The Border House as Cuppycake, begins her post, which provides an overview of the ensuing debate on BioWare’s forums, with the passage above. Baribeau clearly aligns herself with the poster’s sentiments and Baribeau, the original poster, and the legacy of The Border House’s advocacy for diversity are correct—it is shameful that BioWare adheres to the disturbing privileging of whiteness characteristic of most high fantasy. Yet the discussion that Baribeau summarizes, and which generated a flood posts before being locked by BioWare admins, while commendable and just, is also representative of the pitfalls of representational critiques in media culture. In order to engage in critique of character creation, progressives appeal to the neoliberal structures of market choice determined by the logics of videogames which reduce differences of all kinds to pure style. The results of critique are beholden to market forces, and existing biases of game production, as opposed to ethics and politics. What we end up getting from this push and pull exchange are a few more skin colors, rather than a game which disrupts the integrity of fixed racial difference entirely.

BioWare representative Stanley Woo’s responses reveal the powerful capitalistic logic of market demand and profit which truly drive game makers. Woo argues that making games fair in representation is a “slippery slope” because there’s no end to groups who would want to be represented. Thus, in his estimation, when designers decided on what races are included in a game they should depend on the setting for guidance. (As if the setting is not itself selected, or as if geography, however fantastical, provides a clear instruction manual for racial difference.) He explains:

“We’ve got European concepts pretty well covered, but perhaps you also want Asian to be represented? That might work, but is there an Asian equivalent in the Dragon Age setting?”

Woo defends the limited options of identification via an appeal to a Eurocentric setting that remains peculiarly beyond criticism—as if it exists independent of design manipulation, intention, and the pitfalls of ideology. Equally problematic in Woo’s response is his appeal to the market as the ultimate arbiter of equity in representation. Continuing from his “slippery slope” line of thinking, Woo claims that the solution from a design perspective is to “appeal to a large group of people (maybe not ‘the largest’ or ‘as many as possible’) and hope for the best.”

The discussion in this thread, and Woo’s perspective as a representative of BioWare, provide a valuable lesson to progressives fighting for more equitable games. If we’re to simply argue for the increase in options of visualization for various underrepresented groups of people, while sometimes appeased, we’ll find our demands consistently disrupted by the protected privileging of whiteness present in the very ideological structures of game development. The “setting” of the Dragon Age universe, one which, like most high fantasy, fashions the world in the image of medieval Europe, facilitates an exclusion of difference which allows developers to protect logics of white privilege.

And when our demands are met, they are done from the perspective of market demand, i.e. who is the “large group of people” with the most consumptive power. As a result we’re left with empty gestures to diversity already familiar in more mature media forms such as TV and film. Robyn Wiegman expertly diagnoses the contemporary difficulty of fighting for racial equity within and through a regime of visuality that continues to privilege whiteness and cast racial difference as deviations. She explains how “in the frantic move toward representational integration, in both popular culture and the literary canon, the question of political power has been routinely displaced as a vapid fetishization of the visible has emerged to take its place.” As a result “political equity” has been understood as “coterminus with representational presence, thereby undermining political analyses that pivot on the exclusion, silence, or invisibility of various groups and their histories.” When we focus our on energies on, for example, a more diverse character creation system in Dragon Age II, we simultaenously disclose the possibility of analysis of how race is displaced and foreclosed through means beyond the explicitly representational.

Thus Wiegman’s perspective is still relevant, but, in light of the particularities of videogames, we must modify her perspective. Racial difference, and its potential disruption of white supremacy and dominant politics, continues to be pacified under a logic of representational equity. BioWare prides itself on detailed character creation, and user dissension is met with small conciliatory gestures, but never a fullscale revision of the inherent logics of the technologies. It’s the game systems themselves which need to be altered and which facilitate the exclusion and silencing of racial difference Wiegman critiques in 20th century visuality. In games we must be simultaneously mindful of traditional forms of representational management of difference as well as the less understood technological means.

Consequently, I think we need to design a critical tendency that does not just call for more representation because these representations will still fall into the system of fantasy, sporting culture, or whatever dominant ideological frame is already in place, not to mention the inherent hegemonic tendencies of Wiegman’s “integrationist aesthetic.” What we need is a critique of logic and ideology of videogame systems, and an attendant new regime of signification that does not comfortably fit in.


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  3. Jon
    June 3, 2011

    Why is this the responsibility of video games?

    This exists as part of our current society, and is reflected in all of our media.

  4. Josh W
    June 6, 2011

    When you wish to replace a structure, you should decide what to replace it with.

    Games have three main obstacles I see to real human-ly helpful expressions of difference:

    1- I’m assuming you’re probably against essentialist constructions of “race”, rather having a contrast between racial differences that are choosen/owned by their actors or those enforced on them by others. The excluded mechanism there is racial differences that are fundimental and unavoidable, enforced on both by the differentiations inherent to external reality.

    The problem is that conventionally the mechanisms of a game are the latter; whatever is represented within the game is constructed in, defined either as functional (with how it affects things also being defined) or non-functional (and so unable to go beyond the cosmetic).

    In other words, if racial differences are represented systematically within a game world, the object class structure underlying the code will create a heirarchy of determinations, in other words that one mode of difference predetermines another. Someone will have to create that structure.

    If they do not, then whatever is represented will be non-functional, it will in game terms, be irrelevent.

    If the racial differences are not constructed systematically and coherently, they will provide poorer feedback for game decisions. This might be a good thing; you might not want someone to make decisions about other characters on the basis of ethnicity, to choose how they interact on that basis. But you might want players to be able to interact with their own characters ethnicity, to play with it and see it’s consequences.

    Now it is true that mulitple structures of inheretance can be created, or more complex ones that situate the function of racial differences within different types of interaction; they matter in different ways in different contexts. But that itself must be defined, which leads me to my second constraint:

    2- Difference means work.

    There is no getting away from it, it’s not the logic of capitalism, but the logic of computer programming, that distinctions must be coded for, and the more destinctions you require, the more coding must be done at creation time. Computers themselves don’t strictly require this, they can be set to make new and strange distinctions themselves, but we don’t yet know how to do this in a way that produces a fun game.

    There is also the potential of making modding fundimental to a game experience, but that is a level of freedom that is difficult to combine with a designers creative intent, or balance in a competative setting.

    Until either of the above happens, every distinction that is supported by a game adds time and cost. It requires effort. The more potential for diverse perspectives, the more work that must be done.

    But surely we can just create games that centre on different backgrounds, that emphasise different stuff? That if they cannot include all voices by themselves, speak a different voice to the games next to them? Well that brings me to my third constraint:

    3- Publishing/brand/marketing seeks a large homogeneous target audience, a consistent “voice”, avoids untested audiences and doesn’t recognise it’s dogmas. And they control the funding.

    Sort out this one, which is a classic capitalist/corporation problem, and you’ve made some headway towards broader games expression.

  5. 5p.
    June 6, 2011

    Isn’t cultural differentiation more important than racial differentiation?

    I acknowledge that it’s strange and potentially problematic to have so many games in settings which are predominantly white. This is especially jarring in science fiction – by comparison, fantasy games like Dragon Age almost get a free pass. Why is the only dark-skinned main character in Starcraft II obviously sinister and dangerous, for instance (in addition to speaking with a Jamaican accent and carrying voodoo fetishes)? The hero, his two main sidekicks, his potential love interests (both of them), his main antagonist – all are white. There is one other black authority figure, but he only plays a part in the story near the very end, and is clearly depicted as less capable than the white heroes.

    But still, I can’t help but think that as long as games privilege Western (or occasionally Japanese) cultural norms, any cosmetic differentiation of skin colour is at best superficial. The fact that so many games are set in a faux medieval Europe is potentially problematic in and of itself. The fact that so many games are set in a pastiche of medieval Asia is equally problematic. In the former case, Europe is a “normative” or familiar setting; in the latter case, Asia is presented as “exotic” and otherly. And let’s not get into the question of how many games really take African or Native American culture seriously. (Conversely, Starcraft II is arguably *less* discriminatory here because the white culture depicted is clearly a “redneck” culture which is meant to be slightly disconcerting and otherly while also familiar.)

    In short, before we examine issues of skin colour, it may be more important to consider issues of culture, exoticism and otherness in games. Why isn’t there a fantasy game where the humans espouse an apparently Asian culture and the elves are an “exotic” European or American culture, for instance?

  6. Tanner
    June 8, 2011


    I’m with you. When I refer to whiteness being privileged, and games needing to undermine that, I am definitely also referring to Eurocentrism and its various visions of exoticized otherness. Dragon Age II, and other fantasy games, get away with a lot in service to a “fantasy” setting associated historically with European cultural imaginings.

  7. Tanner
    June 8, 2011


    Wonderful reply, and you’re touching on some challenges that I have been struggling with. There’s a concern many have that the logics of computation are resistant to progressive notions of race because they hardwire in differences. And there’s certainly some truth there, but I think there’s also great potential in enabling players to form affiliations and identities socially, to empower them to create and modify, to critique restrictions that exists, and to create systems that intelligently place restrictions on players in order to build a commentary about the meaning of race, or systems that allow flexibility.

    I am not sure there is any perfect solution, but we can definitely do things better.

    Personally, my goal isn’t to build character systems that provide people with endless option, what’s more interesting to me is how we can build simulations that model race in ways that help us reflect on its meaning to culture writ large. I don’t think games do this very successfully right now.

  8. Tanner
    June 8, 2011


    And re: the marketing point. It’s been revealed in a Pew study, and more recently by a study out of Northwestern, that people of color play more games than whites. Once this data is digested, I think we’ll start to see a shift in target audiences. Of course, this will likely lead to dangerous stereotypical pandering, but also, if we’re lucky, some progressive works.

    And re: difference means work: it seems to me that what you’re diagnosing is very much tied with capitalism, and is a good point regardless.

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