Progress and Fantasy

Much to my acquaintance’s surprise/and or dismay–if he were actually aware of any of my entries, of course–he’s provided me a surprising amount of fodder for my blog entries. I’d intended only to write one about the stuff we talked about, but it seems like I can make two! Probably no more than that, but who knows…XD

In our conversation last week (discussed in the previous entry), this person said “Portraying oppressive biases and cultural norms without critiquing them actually reifies them, in effect.” He was referring to Gwyndolin from Dark Souls, but earlier he also mentioned Skyrim, as a way of critiquing the fantasy genre more broadly. He said this:

“A while ago, I read a blog entry that made (in my opinion) a very good point. I don’t have a link or even remember the original author, so you’ll have to take my word for it. I do recall, however, that the blogger was playing Skyrim, and noted an NPC literally said ‘It’s hard to be a woman in Skyrim!’

“What the blogger wondered about, and what I do too, is /why/? Why should misogyny and/or sexism be present in a fantasy world? Anything can happen in fantasy, but they just happened to include that particular facet of our society. For what reason? Realism? They can have a fantasy world full of elves and dragons, but not one absent of sexism? The same applies to racism or any other form of bigotry, like I told you earlier. There’s no reason to include those in a fantasy world, at least not without explicitly critiquing them for progressive purposes.”

Fair enough, I suppose. But I can think of a few answers to my acquaintance’s query–again, even if he might never read them, listing them is a sufficiently amusing intellectual exercise for me to spend an entry on.

The first reason I can think of for simply recapitulating world-world prejudices in fantasy is simple laziness. This isn’t a condemnation of Skyrim or other fantasy worlds my acquaintance criticized, though, for reasons I’ll get to later. But it seems to me many authors, writers, etc. import real-world bigotry into fantasy worlds simply because it’s easy to do.

As most of you know, and I’m sure my associate knows, conflict is the engine of any story–protagonist vs. villain (or villain vs. heroic antagonist), protag vs. the forces of nature, or protag vs. society. While most videogames have protag vs. villain, if you want to add extra conflict, you can choose the protag (or sympathetic NPC) vs. society route. And if you want to do that, sexism is a pretty easy way to make such a society hostile towards the protagonist or any sympathetic NPCs if they’re female. Women struggling against oppression! Heroine proving the sexist haters wrong! It’s not particularly creative, but it serves in a pinch. Same thing with racism. Want some more conflict and extra pathos? Make your hero an elf and make society at large misunderstand him for whatever reason. Worked for Drizzt, right?

Secondly, and more philosophically, when my colleague quoted the blog post that said “fantasy worlds just happen to include that particular facet (racism/sexism/bigotry/etc.) of our society,” well, I would say that virtually all fantasy worlds, ranging from Dark Souls to Skyrim, copy *most* things from real world societies. When you think about it, aside from the names of the countries and magic and monsters, few fantasy worlds really make an effort to distinguish themselves from our history in social, political, or economic terms. Most countries (in Dark Souls or Skyrim) are ruled by kings who enforce their rule through knights, who defend the realm against highwayman and/or Vikings (the Nords from Skyrim), who prey on the hapless innocent peasants who make up the majority of the citizenry pretty much everywhere.

As you’ll note, this is pretty much a retread of the medieval European world–vastly simplified, of course. The only differences are really the addition of dragons, monsters, magic, and elves. So if you’re not expecting the addition of those factors to make any deep change on the political (we still have kings, knights, and marauding Vikings) or economic (we still have peasants) state of the Europe-ripoff most fantasy worlds are, why would you expect to see any meaningful social change (in gender relations)? If the writers or devs are too lazy to give their world a different political or economic structure than the same old knights and peasants, they’d likely be too lazy to provide an entirely new social structure based on gender equality.

Laziness isn’t the only reason for such shoddy worldbuilding, though. It can also result from a shortage of time and/or budget. That’s probably why I don’t go down as hard on such things as my acquaintance does–aside from my near-complete apathy towards progressive politics (or politics in general, for that matter). Lamentable as it may be, even triple-A games don’t have an infinity of money to use, nor an eternity to polish all aspects of the game. And when you get down to it, most developers will spend the bulk of those finite resources on the graphics, game engine, combat, and so on, with story probably coming in as a distant consideration. When the writers are faced with the challenge of making a reasonably coherent story under a tight deadline and with probably less lucrative pay, it’s understandable that they’d ‘phone it in,’ to an extent. They’d thus choose the easy path of creating a derivative faux-European setting with all that implies (gender inequality, among other things) rather than spending time they don’t have on crafting a more original gender-equal society.

And believe you me, such a thing is easier said than done. My acquaintance would probably say it’s quite possible, and I would tend to agree, but he also told me such a thing would have to be done skillfully and carefully. I can understand if a team of writers, under the stress of tight finances and deadlines, didn’t feel up to the risk–after all, if they made a desultory attempt at gender egalitarianism, they might end up making something offensive, which would obviously defeat the point. For instance, rather than making up a “whole new social structure,” progressive game devs could just make some of the male knights or kings or whoever female, and so on. But just doing that haphazardly, especially without any regard to dialogue, relationships, etc. would likely seem obviously rushed and slipshod, which might ironically enough annoy and insult the people the writers were trying to please.

So we remain with sexism, and bigotry, and all that bad stuff still present in our fantasy media, however lamentable one may find it. If one wishes that to change, I would recommend giving your writing team sufficient time and resources to really work hard and come up with a plausibly egalitarian setting (one that also has requisite sources of conflict for the player and/or NPCs if you don’t want to do the “struggle against sexism!” thing again). Of course, you’ll also need to give the graphics and game engine guys enough of the same to build a tech demo very soon afterwards…just look at what happened to the Mooncrest guys. For those of you who don’t know, Mooncrest was a video game proposal that failed on Kickstarter because the only people it had on its team were writers, and they made a video of themselves talking about how they’d make a feminist game…without showing a single second of footage of what that game might look like in action. Unsurprisingly, their Kickstarter generated very little enthusiasm and they quit while they were ahead, saying they’d make a second one when they actually had some gameplay footage or at least possible screenshots. Lesson learned!

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