White Protagonism and Imperial Pleasures in Game Design #DIGRA21
The text from my Keynote at DIGRA India’s 2021 Conference on 20th November 2021
As I attempted to structure and restructure this talk — trying to organise the various imperial pleasures in game design I wanted to talk about. I’ve tried to work out what’s important to include, how deeply to examine certain ideas, how systematic I should be and how playful or concise. There are parts of this talk which are not fully developed and parts I’m less sure about, but that I felt compelled to include. I dearly wish I had slides, but this week has been a difficult one in the games industry with the recent investigative report into worker abuses and cover-ups at Activision Blizzard King. Blame Bobby Kotick for my lack of slides!
You’ll have to bear with me through some of the sticky bits, this isn’t easy territory to navigate and articulate. It is all so personal, and so profoundly connected with so many parts of my identity: as an Indian, as a woman, as a writer and designer, as an immigrant here in Britain, as someone who lives and loves and traverses two worlds — British and Indian, each of them shaped by a history of British conquest. There is so much horror and dislocation and suppression in this history, but I wouldn’t exist without it. There are times I feel like a foreigner in both my homes despite the privileges and passports of caste and religion, education and class. I don’t belong easily to either nation, I have to see myself as both.
I like to say, I’m so Indian I’m British, I’m so British I’m Indian. In trying to find myself I came to decolonisation — it’s not an abstraction for me, the theory and practice of it is self-preservation, as it is for so many of us. In trying to understand and practice decolonisation, I’ve had to grapple with capitalism — they are intertwined, which is why I use the term colonialism-capitalism in this talk to describe its effects.
For me, it is impossible to talk about decolonising video games without talking about the world and how it’s structured. Our world is profoundly shaped and ordered by Anglo-American imperialism. The American empire of global capital and racial and colonial hierarchy is a continuity with British and European colonialism. We do not live in a post-colonial world.
Video games are only made possible by the kinds of technologies, knowledge-systems, collaborations, platforms, structures and even excesses of capitalism-colonialism. In a world of technologically-mediated alienation and proliferating images and globalised culture, I would go so far as to say that the video game is the highest form of capitalist art. It is in terms of sheer revenue, bigger than Hollywood, and its aesthetics and influence have seeped into movies, books, television, internet culture and even global politics.
It’s impossible not to see the video game as a particularly imperial pleasure. Many technologies that power video games were developed by American military funding, and the global industry is still dominated by the Anglo-American imagination.
It is no coincidence that most mainstream video games present the world to the player at the barrel of a gun, and that killing and war are fundamental mechanics and themes. The gun is still the fundamental tool we give players to interact with the world. War and conquest as pleasurable ways of being in the world are fantasies of Anglo-American empire.
Clearly the empire thrives in the ways mainstream video games imagine their players and worlds.
I think there are many ways in which the cultural dominance of the video game can only be understood in terms of the video game’s potential as a tool of empire, easily harnessed to the task of colonising the imagination in order to bring more subjects into its extractive grasp, and remake them as consumers.
So is it even possible to make a video game that resists capitalism-colonialism? Is this industry — my industry — too hopelessly mired in these powerful systems and structures for any of our work within them to be anything but tools of oppression?
If video games are effective tools for the oppressor, doesn’t that also imply that they can be effective tools in the struggle against oppression? Or at the very least, that they are tools of oppression which are worth sabotaging and turning to different purposes?
The fact that this cultural territory is so contested speaks to its value. It is important to resist the colonisation of video games BECAUSE of the increasing cultural dominance of the video game and SPECIFICALLY BECAUSE of how effective video games are as tools of cultural imperialism. We must not cede this space to dominant culture. At least, that’s the reason that I do what I do, and the reason that I’m so happy to be talking with you all today, at this particular conference, about this specific topic.
Personally I believe that those of us who make our living engaging with human fantasies and imaginations ought to have a healthy paranoia of the systems of power that seek to order it.
There are fantasies that make the world clearer, or help people to bear it. There are fantasies that numb us, and dupe us, or capture our imaginations in order to extract from us something which we did not consent to give. Fantasies as cover for the operations of colonialist-capitalist power. There is no conquest possible without first imagining it.
So whose imaginations do we inhabit? Whose fantasies do we portray? What emotions and self-hood do we protect inside our simulated worlds? What do we take from our players while they are with us in our games, and what do we leave with them? What are our responsibilities to our players as human beings and not simply consumers? What purposes do we intentionally or unwittingly serve in our designing? Who do we make safe, and what do we endanger? We have to ask ourselves these questions, if we don’t want to be unwitting accomplices in the Anglo-American imperial project which I would also describe as capitalism-colonialism, which we could also describe in the contemporary world as neoliberalism.
How can we design spaces, interactions, opportunities, embodiments outside of these imaginings, using cultural artifacts that are deeply embedded within these structures?
I think of the role of the artist, of the opportunity of the artist, as to be able to say to the audience, hey, this dark dream you’ve been sold? It’s not the only dream in town, and here, dream a better one with me. Dream a hundred different ones. There is an alternative. Let’s imagine our way out of this reality together.
Today I want to name some of the fantasies of colonialism-capitalism that video games are invited to collude with, in order to open up possibilities of resistance, subversion and sabotage to those invitations. But I don’t know that it’s as helpful to enumerate individual counter fantasies as it is to name the dominant fantasy, which thrives and evades us through making itself invisible and even normative. If you are familiar with my work, you will know that I have in the past talked about my specific strategies of resistance and subversion, while much of it is relevant to the topic I want to as far as possible avoid this I want to avoid the sense of closure, definitiveness and categorisation that comes with specificity, and instead leave the space open for play, exploration, discussion, in the hope that others will take these thoughts forward and imagine and design in ways that I could never have anticipated. Naming, defining and categorisation are colonial modes, and by turning them on the dominant fantasy, I hope to explode its singular vision and replication of sameness into infinities of possibility.
So what are the design features of capitalist-colonialist systems and entities, what are its tendencies? Contemporary culture is about filling up every nook and cranny of our time — to colonise and expand into the available space. These entities will invent new spaces to fulfill their fantasies of endless exploitation when they are at risk of saturation. Think about Facebook’s attempts to colonise the internet in the developing world, and its recent push towards a new digital territory ripe for colonisation, the metaverse.
Capitalist-colonialist entities are designed to extract profit or attention or whatever is desired by the system from human beings and the world, with no regard for our integrity or needs.
On a human level, these are systems that are not designed around us as humans, but rather see us as consumers. This type of design is only interested in the parts of us which can be consumed — our money, our attention, our engagement, our time — with no regard for the social, cultural, psychological effects that result. These systems are unable to see value in anything outside of what *it* values, and our well-being, agency, dignity, health, self-esteem, humanity, are not parameters which are factored in to this type of design logic, which is why we live in a world of technology which cheerfully robs us of agency, time, self-esteem, connection and fosters addiction, dependence, hatred, fear, insecurity and even social and interpersonal violence. Under capitalism-colonialism, we do not have to intentionally design for these outcomes, but they are almost inevitable unless we deliberately and intentionally design against them.
In game design we can see this as a tendency towards attention-seeking design — design which seeks to colonise the player’s time and attention, to be demanding within “attention-economy”. Possessive design: games that guilt or punish you for leaving them, and reward you for engagement. Games which pull on the player’s attention neurotically because any gap or loosening of control or potential moment of inattention is a moment where the player may become distracted, because there are a thousand other bright pleasures “in competition” for the consumer’s attention.
My friend @v21 on twitter talked about wanting to design games that you could fall asleep to — but they also pointed out the lack of sales potential in “games that are designed to let go of you”. Capitalist-colonialist design pulls us away from the possibility of calming games, gentle ones, designing for letting go and instead towards increased spectacle and bombast.
So what are the kinds of pleasures that are easy to offer people — and players — inside a culture of spectacle and alienation? It seems to me that capitalism-colonialism replicates itself at multiple levels — I think we can talk about the capitalist-colonialist system that seeks its own benefit at the cost of anything else, as an abusive one — and the pleasures that it offers to individuals are similarly abusive ones. The predatory and shallow system offers predatory and shallow pleasures to those within it, and valorises those pleasures — those of domination, individualism as freedom, power, authority, violence instead of the erotic, consumption in lieu of self-actualisation.
Which brings me to the idea of “white protagonism”. Umberto Eco talked about the “model reader” embedded in the text, and various games scholars have brought these ideas into our understanding of how games work in terms of thinking about the “model player” that is imagined by the game’s designers as they encode meaning into the work. The “model player” of the video game is the white man — video games are by cultural default and deeply ingrained design prejudice, shaped by the white and male imagination. I would argue that there is a conscious or subconscious conflation of the “model player” as the “white player” — there’s an entire talk in that, which I don’t have time for today — but the interactive and embodied qualities of video games I think cause a deep slippage in the concepts of “player” and “protagonist”. The “white player” has resulted in the “white protagonist” as the “model protagonist” — white protagonism is, I would argue, an ingrained and at times even unspoken set of rules, instincts, tendencies, design frameworks around the very idea of protagonism in games.
The kinds of fantasies that the “model designer” — who is also white, and male — has embedded into the supposedly objective notion of the protagonist are in desperate need of marking and being made visible, and I believe reveal more about the desires, pleasures, anxieties, intuitions, fears of the white male designer than the possibilities of protagonism. By marking and learning to identify the “whiteness” of the protagonist and seeing it as a product of a design space that it structured by capitalism-colonialism and the Anglo-American imagination, I hope that it will we will be able to reveal possibilities for protagonism — and game design — that have been occluded, dismissed, discarded, shadowed or even suppressed.
Before I share some of these injunctions of white protagonism which I have identified — I want to make it clear that this is not a definitive schemata, nor do all “white protagonists” exhibit all these qualities all the time. Nor do protagonists have to be “read” as white by players, to exhibit “white protagonism” — I am talking here about whiteness as normative, default, whiteness that stands in lieu of humanity and personhood. I want to share these ‘injunctions’ because I believe that these are rules which I consider, to borrow a phrase from Ursula LeGuin, not only “fake but pernicious”, and I would like to encourage my fellow designers to break them, knowing exactly what we are doing and why.
Let’s start with a simple one.
The white protagonist is a hero
I’ve talked about this before in publicly available talks and written about this in terms of decentering protagonists and refusing the hero narrative, and I think it’s fairly well understood — the white saviour fantasy, the lone hero fantasy etc etc. I don’t want to spend too much time on this one apart from one thought about the sheer scale of heroism that video games offer players. The idea that “the fate of the world rests on you” seems to me a vapid and artistically counterproductive conceit, and I find its prevalence in video games to be excruciating. It is a white fantasy, and an imperial one — the fantasy of saving the world is in fact necessary to conquering it, and has provided “moral cover” for brutal conquests and wars in the real world. I would argue that that games in which the protagonist mass murders and brutalises their way into “saving the world” are a reflection of the types of fantasies which enabled white imperial conquest and continue to enable white global domination — the transformation of brutality, murder, domination, exploitation, subjugation of the “other”, into something noble, good, worthwhile, and even necessary.
I would also say this fantasy is also pernicious because it, perhaps counterintuitively, breeds a kind of apathy and nihilism, an acceptance of the status quo. “Something is only worth doing if I change the world”, “my actions mean nothing unless I see a result, immediately”. I saw this last year in certain white friends of mine who responded to their new knowledge of racial injustice and pervasive structural inequality with an indignation and anger that quickly transformed into pessimism, and wallowing in guilt and shame. The systems that we struggle against in the contemporary world, that MUST be struggled against, will not be brought down by a lone hero. Structural racism will not be solved by a white saviour. These fantasies are so pervasive that the denial of the white saviour fantasy, the denial of the hero fantasy, the idea of a worthwhile struggle that is not structured like a war with its directly felt actions and consequences, winners and losers, and promised resolutions, feels like the denial of agency. The idea that the only worthwhile way to be in the world is a conqueror, that changing the world is the only interesting way of being within it, that freedom and agency for oneself necessitates choosing for others — all the way up the scale to choosing for the entire world.
This also leads me to the next injunction:
The white protagonist is the only entity that matters in the world, which is to say the only human in a world of objects
Every story in the world is there for the white protagonist’s consumption and every NPC exists to guide, support, aid, cheer, antagonise or be an obstacle to the White Protagonist’s journey. In the ultimate fantasy, every tree, rock, environmental object can be acted upon and extracted from. Nothing in the game world has utility or purpose or value beyond what is given to it by the White Protagonist. If it contains secrets, they are there to be uncovered. Every hidden place is a temptation. The world holding something away from the White Protagonist is not a cue for the player to leave it alone, but a coy invitation.
I would draw the comparison here with what Amitav Ghosh describes as the colonial fantasy of the “inert world” in his book, The Nutmeg’s Curse. From the recent LA Times interview with Andrew Malmuth:
Ghosh traces how colonial systems of domination shaped both racialized ideologies toward enslaved people alongside mechanistic ideologies toward the “natural” world — casting all nonhuman entities as inert, machine-like, and devoid of vitality. He quotes Ben Ehrenreich, who has observed that “only once we imagined the world as dead could we dedicate ourselves to making it so.”
Colonialism, for Ghosh, is in part a “process of subjugating, and reducing to muteness, an entire universe of beings that was once thought of as having agency, powers of communication, and the ability to make meaning — animals, trees, volcanoes, nutmegs.”
The white protagonist will increase in power as the story unfolds
Think about RPG progression mechanics, the pervasive notion of levelling up etc. This power increase of the protagonist, their “journey” is usually linear, they accrue more and more power as they “progress” through the game, mirroring a colonial idea of human progress as linear from “savagery” to “civilisation” — the forward momentum of the world and the people within it as a journey towards perfection guided by the ingenuity of coloniser-player.
While the white protagonist might briefly experience powerlessness or a brief reversal of fortunes, usually their items, equipment and power will be returned to the levels they were at previous to the reversal. Rarely do games ask white protagonists to “re-earn” what they have lost as a result of an overtly narrative or technical decision. Contrast this to rogue-likes, where the protagonist’s progress is destroyed upon death — but the responsibility for this death is carefully designed to feel as though it is the player’s responsibility. Good rogue-like games make players feel as though their progress is still occuring in the form of increased player mastery, even if the protagonist is returned to the “start”. In a sense, the roguelike can get away with punishing and denying the protagonist because the player feels a sense of linear progress and power, to compensate for the protagonist’s failures and repetitions (which still ideally result in incremental progression), thus keeping the roguelike within the logics of white protagonism.
The white protagonist experiences limitation of their power solely in order to overcome it
This I think narrows the kinds of stories we can tell and leads us into uncomfortable narratives and thematic expressions. For instance, the white protagonist who experiences oppression must overcome it — but that is not the experience most of us have of structural oppression, most of us learn to live within it, and find power, agency, meaning, success that is not reliant on the idea of “ending” our oppression. In a way this is a kind of oppression tourism, from which the white protagonist inevitably escapes, a dishonest fantasy.
The white protagonist must act, and rarely be acted upon
We could also say: The white protagonist will decide
I think the specific idea here is that deciding is in itself pleasurable, and to be decided for is not pleasurable. Which feels very paradoxical — the white protagonist’s choices are made meaningful and pleasurable BECAUSE they decide for others, but the resistance to the white protagonist being DECIDED FOR or ACTED UPON implies that this is an unpleasant situation. To act is to be a protagonist, which is to be human, and to be acted upon, is to be an NPC, who is dehumanised.
So this pleasure that is being offered to players reveals itself to be a sadistic thrill, the pleasure of domination that is either presented as an unquestioned right or justified as morally righteous or necessary. The white protagonist, then, bears the white man’s burden, they must choose for others, who cannot choose for themselves. Counter to this, I ask: are our choices only meaningful if we choose for other people? Can we not design for and imagine pleasures which respect the agency and dignity of other people, and indeed the world itself? It seems to me that we are in desperate need of these kinds of conceptions, pleasures and imaginings in the world today.
The white protagonist will be forgiven
This can be connected to the previous injunctions — whatever actions are committed by the white protagonist over the course of the game, must be forgiven by the end. The white protagonist can commit no sins that cannot be redeemed, the possibility of future goodness must outweigh the evils of the past. I think it’s quite easy to see this as a fantasy of the white coloniser, who must believe in future redemption and an inherent goodness which can be reclaimed despite past actions, in order to rationalise the evils of empire, slavery etc etc and still maintain a sense of moral worth and even superiority.
There are games which specifically invert this, refusing to redeem or forgive the player and in fact leveraging this for dramatic effect — yes, Spec Ops: The Line is THE example in this genre — but this inversion is a trick that can only be pulled once.
I think it’s better to think about this notion in terms of asking as designers what is it that we ask our players to do over the course the game mechanically and narratively, and to accept that the action of the game is its theme. The “moral lesson” of a video game cannot be delivered through “story” at the end, it is delivered through the experience of play. What the player does must be pleasurable or satisfying for a video game to work — as designers we spend an enormous amount of time working this out, finding the “core gameplay loop”. The “core loop”, its themes, its pleasures, will be forgiven, because the player must be forgiven for engaging in it, because the player did not choose it. To refuse to forgive the player using the story then, is the game narrative equivalent of grabbing someone’s hand, hitting them in the face with it, and shouting “stop hitting yourself!”
This is an injunction that video games often attempt to subvert using story, and I would tend to say that it is usually artistically or thematically unsuccessful or undermining. Instead I would tend to say that this injunction can be usefully accepted as a design constraint, and intentionally leveraged in narrative design. Games that are about the impossibility of individual morality within abusive systems explore this idea richly: Lucas Pope’s Papers Please and Porpentine’s With Those We Love Alive are some of my favourites.
The white protagonist is an individualist
While it might seem as though that protagonism is by its nature individualist, I would argue that is not the case. It is the white protagonist who is mired in individualist ideology, reflecting the contemporary evolution of the rational rights-bearing Enlightenment man of the Anglo-American imagination (as Pankaj Mishra puts it in Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race and Empire), a conception of personhood that is ideologically useful to the neoliberal world in which we live. It is convenient to colonialist-capitalist systems of extraction and profit to place moral responsibility and the burden for our own happiness and well-being onto the individual, and deflect responsibility away from their own operations. While we are caught in our own individual psychodramas in pursuit of “the good life” that we are promised, unchecked capitalism-colonialism runs rampant. The irresponsibility of capitalist-colonialist systems, the suffering they cause and sustain themselves upon, is made possible by burdening us with the responsibility the system refuses to shoulder, making our suffering self-inflicted when in reality it has been visited upon us.
The idea that we are responsible for protecting ourselves against vast and incomprehensibly powerful systems with infinite resources is maniacal. We simply do not have the resources or capability to do so as individuals. We are in fact extraordinarily powerless — not just in the material world, but inside the grasp of the dark algorithms of social media and the internet which invisibly and irresistibly pattern our experiences to better serve corporate interests.
But in order to place this responsibility upon us, as humans, capitalism-colonialism had to invent, or rather perfect a new type of person: the ultimate individualist, the utility maximising animal, the “self-interested, strategic and calculated being”, who lives in a fantasy of rational, understandable, graspable world that acts in predictable ways, a human who able to navigate complex systems guided by the light of their own self-interest, where our ability to choose is presented as freedom, even if our choices are hugely circumscribed by the operations of vast and impossibly complicated systems. We have the power to choose, and if we fail it is because we chose wrongly, and if we succeed it is because we chose correctly.
Doesn’t this sound like a video game to you? The video game world lends itself to fantasies of neoliberal individualism, and the white protagonist allows us to play out these false pleasures. The white protagonist is, in this way, easily harnessed by the ideologies of capitalism-colonialism. The white protagonist — and video games which conform to these logics — help hide from the player their own fundamental powerlessness, in the game — and I would argue — in the world also, providing the illusion of agency and self-expression which makes it easier to bear the actual lack of those same needs. It is necessary to subvert these fantasies because they are of such value to our oppressors.
The white protagonist is uniquely suited to protagonism
This is the idea of someone being “uniquely suited” to protagonism by virtue of character, situation or ability. The idea that protagonism itself is not special enough unless thematically buttressed. The idea that the situation or abilities that accrue to the protagonist must be unique or at the very least unusual. I’m going to break my own rule and talk about Sable — a recently released indie game I worked on. Sable subverts this very intentionally, and I feel is a much better experience because of it. The protagonist is a young woman called Sable, who lives in a post-capitalist desert world where everyone chooses and wears a mask which represents their vocation. She sets out on a journey of self-discovery that comprises the action of the game. As a protagonist, her circumstances are not unique. Everyone in this world goes on this journey. Other people on this journey have the same powers and abilities. This makes the world warm and familiar, the protagonist’s experience is grounded in a shared one, a communal one, every adult she meets has gone through it, and has experiences and well-meaning or annoying advice. It is her journey, but she is not alone. This kind of warmth — this very human experience — is not possible within the schema of white protagonism and “uniqueness”. It is, I would argue, more interesting for it.
The white protagonist wields a gun
I don’t think this one requires much more contextualisation.
The white protagonist remakes the world as self-expression
Here we can also see games like Crusader Kings or Civilisation, as inside the schema of white protagonism. This is a type of power fantasy of individual self-expression in the mode of global domination.
The white protagonist does not see race, nor goes the game “see” the white protagonist through the lens of race
In this way we can see games which offer cosmetic character customisation on the level of skin colour to be engaged in WHITE PROTAGONISM. The Division, where the experience of carrying a gun in America as potentially a black protagonist is unmarked and undifferentiated from the experience of being a white protagonist carrying a gun. The skin colour of the protagonist is purely cosmetic and aesthetic: the fantasy of power is a white one.
This is interestingly subverted in Mafia III where the protagonist Lincoln Clay is a black Vietnam war veteran — and there are designed moments in the game where white NPCs clutch their purses close as the protagonist walks past them. The protagonist is marked by his race, the game’s systems see him within racial hierarchy which also means the game’s world does not elide race, but admits and articulates it, breaking a cardinal rule of contemporary white supremacy
Arguably this game overall still fits into the category of a fantasy of white voyeurism, as it operates as a brief vacation into an experience of blackness for the model “white player” — but it is unusual and interesting because the protagonist is clearly racially marked, and racially marked specifically with blackness.
When video games do racially mark their protagonists, it is more often in terms of species than race. But the metaphor of species-for-race is crystal-clear — and in fact overtly acknowledged in the way that fantasy games use “race” to denote “species”
Racial difference in video games is often explored in this type of metaphorical manner, which often produces unintentional and problematic thematic effects and implications. In this way, the metaphorisation of race colludes in whiteness and colonality through participating in the occlusion of the race and its operations. Clarity about race — the admission of its reality and the articulation of its operations is violently suppressed and resisted by dominant culture, which thrives through the intentional propagation of muddle and confusion which serves whiteness.
Pankaj Mishra, in his wonderful book Bland Fanatics talks about how the cultural and intellectual fantasies and delusions of Anglo-American imperialism have resulted in a store of false knowledge which has devastating impacts on the way that Anglo-Americans understand themselves and the world, and act upon it. A huge area of “false knowledge” under the Anglo-American regime is around the operations of race, and the function of whiteness. As whiteness is unmarked, I would suggest that it’s harder for people who are white to recognise the delusion that is whiteness. This is a store of “false knowledge” and a regime of repression and suppression which require an enormous amount of emotional and intellectual labour to overcome, particularly if you are white. Those of us who are not-white are marked in such a way that it is impossible for us to live inside the delusion that racial hierarchy does not exist. No matter our other privileges, we cannot escape the lesson of whiteness. We must see it no matter the cost, and white people may choose to see it, and willingly pay the toll. It is possible for white people to return to “unseeing” if the cost of seeing race feels too high. However, those of us who seek liberation and truth must intentionally commit ourselves to this work.
There is in game design, as there is in every sphere of knowledge, culture and technology under Anglo-Americanism, an enormous store of false knowledge which masquerades as truth about the world while obscuring it from us. The overwhelming whiteness of game design has consequences in what it imagines and defines as “best practice”.
Many of the things I have learned and practice as a narrative designer I have come to through a process of unlearning received wisdom, or through following my own natural instincts which have often led me to places that are interestingly counter to the ways protagonism and players are often conceptualised and designed for, or towards pleasures and satisfactions that feel glaringly absent from familiar game design frameworks. I don’t think I am always right, I know I am not more knowledgeable or experienced, but I have come to recognise that my embodied experience of the world as a brown woman, as someone “other” to the Anglo-American imagination, outside of whiteness, is core to what makes me good at what I do — and also what causes me to question the expected approaches. I think I have done better and more interesting work when I have followed these instincts and sensitivities, and brought the decolonial thinking which informs how I approach the world, and other concepts from outside of the knowledge-systems of game design, into my narrative design work.
The rules of game design are based on a shaky foundation, and riddled with occlusions, contradictions and misconceptions that must be cleared away if we have any investment in our medium being able to see and represent the world and everything in it with honesty. Which, if we have any pretensions to art or think of ourselves in any way as artists, we must desire keenly. This, then, is the task before us, a vital one — to clear away the cobwebs and delusions of whiteness and empire embedded into our industry’s store of knowledge, and see the world clearly in its complexity and infinite variety.
As game designers our own repressions, evasions and self-delusions put us at an artistic disadvantage, particularly when these are shared by the majority of our colleagues. Our world is deeply and fundamentally ordered by a colonial and racial hierarchy with whiteness at the top, and by anti-blackness. To commit to unlearning the delusions of our culture is a vital part of a game designer’s ongoing education, as much and I’d say even more vital than keeping up with the latest games or technologies, to enable us to bring to life meaningful and honest game worlds and systems.
This is an idea I feel is important to articulate, as this task is one that I suspect will fall disproportionately to young designers, marginalised designers, and those designing games in the Global South. To those designers I say: Design with confidence and authority, and do not feel as though you must “pay your dues” or follow in the footsteps of those who came before or feel intimidated or lesser because you are less conversant with the familiar frameworks and established wisdom. The games industry is in love with its own image, and is extraordinarily self-regarding and demanding of fealty and obeisance to its idols. This is profoundly creatively undesirable, and personally I reject this entire approach — and if you require permission to reject it from someone who pays their bills making games, then I am here to give you that permission. In fact, I encourage you not to seek validation or acceptance into these cultural and professional frameworks — we need perspectives that are outward looking and rebellious and fresh, not beholden to what has come before or what is currently considered possible or desirable. The canon of game design is white and male and inside the Anglo-American imagination. We are desperately in need of ways out of it — as designers, as players, and more importantly as humans alive in the world today.
“White protagonism” is pernicious, and I believe important to name and design against, because it is one of the ways video games are made hostile places for non-white people, colonised peoples, marginalised peoples. A conditional welcome: come in and play with the toys that belong to us. A magnanimity with a sneer underneath it: you’re lucky to be here. To be a brown player inhabiting white protagonism is to be an immigrant in the white man’s (game) world, which engenders a feeling of precarity, trespass, dislocation. White players on the other hand, are constantly told by video games: we’re lucky to have you.
Incidentally it is entirely possible to design and write a white protagonist who subverts “white protagonism” — in hindsight this is what I attempted to do with Passepartout in 80 Days. His “whiteness” is marked, contested, it results in limitation in a variety of ways, he and the player are placed in a servant role of subservience to his master Phileas Fogg — who would have been the expected protagonist of the game, which would have made the game infinitely less interesting and charming. The main route into this type of subversion is marking the white protagonist’s whiteness and seeing them and allowing them to be seen in the game’s systems and narratives, through the lens of race. I’d highly encourage game designers who are working on games or intending to make games with white protagonists to look at Barnor Hesse’s 8 White Identities and identify where the protagonist falls — and attempt to move their white protagonist’s identity closer to white criticalness, white traitorousness, and white abolitionism.
Though all of our strategies of subversion and troubling of “white protagonism” are peripheral to the real struggle — which is to destroy racial category altogether, to liberate ourselves from this colonialist conception of being which is race so we may live fully, as human.
As I draw to the end of my talk, I hope you’ll forgive me a few maybe self-indulgent observations that occurred to me as I prepared it.
I’ve read more games theory in preparation for this talk than I have in the last few years, and interestingly the way I feel about it is similar to how I feel about the established patterns of game design thinking. Both are an attempt to define what games are, but in my view, what games are is a function of the people who make them, and the history and precedents we build the present edifice upon, which are embedded in the Anglo-American imagination. To me what games are, are the possibilities as yet unexplored, which are hidden by what currently is. I suppose this speaks to my position as a narrative designer — the choices we don’t offer players are as important, sometimes more important, than the choices we do design for them. Emily Short said something similar in one of her talks, which I’m not sure was recorded, about the player — that the choices the player does make shape the experience of play as deeply as the choices that they do not make. And I think that’s what I am interested in: the choices unmade, the territory that is not the map, what is as a shadow, occluding our vision of what could be, which is infinitely more rich and interesting and redolent with branching possibility.
I was deeply struck by this paragraph in Donella Meadows book, The Limits of Growth:
People don’t need electronic entertainment: they need something interesting to occupy their minds and emotions. And so forth. Trying to fill real but nonmaterial needs — for identity, community, self-esteem, challenge, love, joy — with material things is to set up an unquenchable appetite for false solutions to never-satisfied longings. A society that allows itself to admit and articulate its nonmaterial human needs, and to find nonmaterial ways to satisfy them, would require much lower material and energy throughputs and would provide much higher levels of human fulfillment
I have to say, I can’t argue with that at all. Even though it clearly implies that video games are not something we need. But while we are here, all still willingly or unwillingly trapped in this imperial mode of living, I think Meadows has great insight into routes out of capitalist-colonialist design thinking. To see the player’s desires that we are engaged in the work of satisfying as nonmaterial, to pull into game design’s vocabularies and practices, strategies to fulfil these needs — for identity, community, self-esteem, challenge, love, joy — rather than defer them, or at the very least be respectful of these needs in the way that we approach game design. To think about our imaginative work also as an attempt to articulate and admit in our game worlds the desires that our capitalist-colonialist society does not admit or articulate. This would be of enormous value to our players. This to me feels like meaningful work, as a narrative designer.
To see consumerism as a type of longing for spiritual connection in a world which has less and less space for the sacred, the mysterious, the numinous opens up the idea of what we do in the games industry as more than straightforwardly material. We touch on much deeper longings, fantasies, and desires. We sell dreams, and every industry that does has its miracle-workers as well as it’s snake-oil salesmen, and those of us who work in this industry have the choice of which one we want to be.
As game designers, if we are invested in liberation and routes out of capitalist-colonialist design thinking, we can begin with resisting our own instinct towards authority, deliberately designing against obedience and subjugation. One way I think of this is designing for inattention, designing systems with a kind of looseness which could allow players to care more or less over the course of play, or engage more deeply with certain systems than others — to explode the “model player” into a spectrum of potential players, all of whom are made as welcome as each other in our designs. To design games where certain modes of play can recede or emerge into prominence without annihilating the game’s integrity or meaningfulness, which I suppose could also be seen as a kind of design which pulls away from authored, authoritarian wholeness — a creative mode of control — toward a looser, more fragmented, spacious type of design which makes room for different types of players, play, perspectives and abilities.
In editing this talk, I realised that given the points I’m making, you might be forgiven for thinking that as game designers we have barely understood or systematically articulated human psychology. But that really is not the case — we are adept at manipulating it, that is in the nature of our work. The reality of the industry is that we have a deep store of knowledge, practice, precedent, language and even empathetic understanding of human psychology, but is most often deployed in the service of extracting profit rather than in the service of the player’s real human needs.
The balance between our conceptions of the player as a human being and the player as consumer has never been more fraughtly contested, and as game designers and storytellers I believe it is necessary for us to resist the ongoing engulfment of the player by the “consumer” if we have any interest in retaining and expanding the space for humanity in our increasingly alienated, bombastic, spectacular landscape.
It is important, I think, as a narrative designer or game designer, to seek to destroy one’s own ego to make space for the player’s ego — not in the sense of pandering to it, or “player-centric design” in the usual way it’s discussed amongst industry professionals, but rather to destroy our own egos in the sense of an obstacle to the work, which requires understanding, empathy, care, consideration of the player. If games are about self-actualisation, they should be about the self-actualisation of the player and not the self-actualisation of the designer. The game is not the designer, just as the book is not its author.
As designers, I believe we should pursue honesty, respect, compassion and ethicality in our work over a conventionally better story or elegant mechanics or design. Those human qualities will guide us to serving our player’s real needs instead of their shallow desires, and those real needs must be at the forefront of our practice. To pursue this over demonstrating our “skill” or “craft” is what I mean when I say we must annihilate our own egos as artists and designers. The meaning of the game is more than the collection of words, images, sounds, code, it’s more than the experience of play, it’s what the player is left with. The internal transformation that may occur, or the need that has been met or articulated or acknowledged, as simple as a need for rest in order to pursue other desires, or diversion from the material world, while resisting making false promises.
We should as designers be in collusion with our players, defectors to the dominant powers who benefit from our collective numbness, inaction, atomisation and exploitation.
To do this we must perform acts of evasion, intentional resistance and even daring escape, and constantly guard ourselves against encroachment and co-optation. We must also admit of the certainty of failures and incomplete successes, but the only real “failure” would be to give up the attempt.
I think video games can be powerful tools for struggle. Through playful transformation and reimagining systems, structures, societies, and worlds, video games can invite people to see the possibility of transformation in the material world at a time when neoliberalism — and capitalist realism — tells us THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE. We can counter this stifling of the imagination.
It is easier to remake the structures of capitalism-colonialism inside the world of a game than it is to remake the real world — and that is exactly why we should do it MORE and OFTEN. The video game worlds we design are worlds of fantasy, the transformations we make and share with our players as game designers are imaginative ones not material ones, but the material world is constantly remade through acts of collective fantasy. To imagine remaking the world is not a revolution, but it is a spark.
It is, I think, overall, a worthwhile thing to participate in the project of imagining pleasures and satisfactions outside of the ones on offer. It is worthwhile to lay bare the mechanisms of empire and capital in our work. It is worthwhile also to make things that sustain or nourish or even distract people trying to survive the modern world, even if they don’t counter the capitalist-colonialist imagination. But to me, the most worthwhile type of work, the type of games I would wish to see in the world and to be part of making, are games which, through our imaginings, make the revolution irresistible — even if that revolution makes us redundant.