Assimilation and the Double-Bind of Respectability

The story of my hair is very long. Emotional, and not exactly complete. Here and there, I would seek out information online about what to do with my hair, only really diving in lately once I got past a jargon wall and product idolatry. I realized how a facet of fashion and beauty from the 90s, particularly beloved R&B women, grew out of maintenance practices for coarser hair. As I twisted my hair into bantu knots and wrapped a scarf around my head before bed, I felt a fashion flashback that isn’t getting as much coverage as boho chic, feeling an undeniable connection to a time when black and brown artists elbowed their way into pop culture and have stayed ever since. Despite this being appropriate for my hair texture and exactly what I should be doing to hair, I feel a bit of a sham. I didn’t grow up surrounded by friends and family members in twists and wraps enough to associate with it, and I’m aware of the continued exploitation of black culture by people in places of privilege. On top of increased vigilance of people wrongly claiming to be black, I am often exasperated when I need to talk about race, or specifically, my race. Am I black? Am I black enough? These kinds of questions are very familiar to me.

My relationship with race and class stem from biological family, now estranged but the first influence every therapist asks for. They are both from the Caribbean, having moved to the US in the 80s and relying on my father going through college to turn up something for them. My parents a multi-racial themselves, which isn’t really remarkable in the Caribbean, but it made things confusing for me here. Enough people bothered me enough that my lineages became a chant of sorts: “Jamaican, Indian, German, Trinidadian, Palestinian, and Venezuelan.” Did I really feel like I was from any of these countries? No, not really, I described myself as distinctly American, which I didn’t understand meant assimilating with a particular white, middle class-ness. Immigrant parents have a way of goading their children into the assimilation vs roots dynamic, and mine, well-intentioned, took it as far as they could. I rarely went to schools in my neighborhood, often the least well-off person in a group of friends, yet a ‘spoiled American’ to my parents. I became ‘not one of those people,’ groups of black and latin@ kids who strongly identified with their or their parents’ country or neighborhood of origin, to my school friends. I internalized that, spurned by frequent calls of oreo and taking to faux-intellectual punk and/or queer kids as an outlet of not fitting in. But because those spaces remained populated by mostly white people, my role in resistance was being the exotic, the other in service of white people’s fantasies. I’m held to a high standard of respectability as someone who is both not white nor cisgender. I can see my stock go up and down depending on how I wear my hair, what clothes I wear, and how much makeup I have on.

Upon learning more about activism and the many methods of resistance, I know there are parts of me that come up against and even alienate people of certain radical politics. I don’t think that I’ve done, or am doing, anything wrong; I would go as far as saying I don’t have a larger than typical amount of internalized racism, classism, and other harmful systems. Rather, I am responding to my circumstance in the best way possible, and any critique of complicity, which indeed has come my way, is ignorant of the context in which my behavior exists in. I’m pretty self conscious about my love for fashion, a love that came as a coping mechanism for a very real dress well or die pressure. I’ve walked in an interview that was over in 3 minutes, a man looking me up and down and clearly not liking what he saw. I got a job when I straightened my hair, wore makeup, and got clothes that I needed to own for years in order to not be a complete splurge. Of course, one of the first things my coworkers said to me was that I looked like I spent too much time on beauty.

People today say I have an inaccessible beauty, I’m too academic, I’m too professional. I have internalized classism. Of course, the people who say this are typically white, queer people who come from middle to upper-middle class backgrounds and had the confidence to leave that and get by on lower amounts of income, because their backgrounds will always be with them. I don’t get to be trash queer, I don’t get to be anarcho artist love pile in the woods. When I first moved to San Francisco, I stayed in a hostel downtown while looking for a room to live. Within two weeks I was stopped four times in public, in broad daylight, by men assuming I was a sex worker, bringing along the usual shitty attitudes people have towards them. When I dated a man who worked in the Financial District, I could feel all those eyes as I waited for him on the side walk. I don’t get to be anything less than respectable on other people’s terms, there is no enlightenment for me to throw it off, because I’m not throwing off middle class life, just a desperate mirage. When I look around and the women who are supported, who get’s who’s dollars, who is in who’s book, I can tell that I never fully integrated into any community around here. I’m trans for black people, and brown for the queers, the kitchen sink for everyone else, when they want me. It’s not uncomplicated, I try to find the joy in the position I’m stuck. You see, this respectability thing, it goes two ways. From the people who aren’t like you, and from those who are.

Blackness, queerness, these things are summed up to be monolithic experience, something that you need to be close enough to in order to qualify. If you don’t look or speak enough of the part, people question your authenticity. I think it’s a mistake, especially with blackness, to not see the identity itself in a diaspora, spread far and integrated, surviving, in different ways. That everything about me is black at the same time that it is every other race in my blood. Making assimilation the opposite of progress goes the same way of the alternative becoming mainstream, being another list of customs one must ascribe to in order to ‘authentic.’ I’ve been thinking of this word a lot lately, authentic, what is authentically me. And as I started to dig, I found parts of me buried under this double-bind, too different from the norm, not flagging enough for the rebels. A part of me is sad that it won’t be contributing to one community or another, but I think it’s time I did something for myself, despite what others say.

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“It’s Progress” – I Won’t Wait for Video Games to Validate Blackness

I guess it’s my turn to do a Black History Month post, that I didn’t think I’d be doing. Mostly because conversations that pop up around race, and seem to mainly come only during this month outside of a few dedicated writers, frustrate me. I’m frustrated like I am with any sort of discussion that centers around any representation, but with blackness especially, within American history having set a path for civil rights for so many other people, blackness is still waiting for their time. That’s the majority feeling I got from watching and reading some pieces on race in games this month, even though I know there is restlessness. They grumble while they do it, but still say, “it’s progress.” I’m an impatient gal so:

fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat

Why? Why, exactly, must we deal with the breadcrumbs that corporations dole out? In a way, progress is not what we want, when we’re forced to play by someone else’s timetable. And even now, the progress we do have, would our forebears honestly nod and pat us on the shoulders, to commend us for this bold step forward for racial justice? Can’t we just give words to how fucked it is?

I will not wait or settle for what AAA video games has to offer non-white people, and I think it’s unhealthy to propagate this progress narrative. I commend those who do actively create and interrogate past the representation aspect of games. This isn’t to shit on all the non-white people who are trying to handle this fucked industry, rather, I want to be the anger we aren’t allowed to have. We don’t need more non-white people in AAA. Actually, that’s a death wish for what we actually want.

AAA INDUSTRY ISN’T “GAMES”

Instead we want creators and critics who are as free from the direct marginalization companies exert as we can get them. If we are stuck in the system, to wave our hands and yell for them to get before it’s too late for them too. To build a community and discourse on the outside, not find out that their golden ticket trapped them in the tubes of industry.

Work that fully realizes race as an active force of culture is done by those people, for those people. White people who enjoy it are incidental, welcomed when respectful and engaged, but incidental. We don’t need to go along with the ‘something for everyone!’ song and dance. I get that popular works have larger reach, but really, how often do popular works even outside of games really speak your story in comparison to the dominant identities? Black people are still waiting for all other mediums dominated by white people to catch the fuck up to them. And, somehow, we hang onto this pale glimmer of a hope that one day we will have our The Color Purple played over dubstep at E3? For the AAA industry, white people will never be incidental.

I am not, of course, telling non-white people to just ignore all of video games until problems are solved. Instead, I want people to actively rip apart and appropriate the shit out of video games. Talk about how we are made to be monsters. Say it, we are seen as monstrous. I am a monster, and I can find those a-plenty in video games.

Aptly, I played Dragon Age: Inquisition the evening it came out, because I am a sucker for the series. I would put it next to my equally trashy but trying copy of The Bone Palace (and say 10 Hail Butlers before bed each night to repent) if I could. I decided that the first race I would try out would be the Qunari, a mostly elusive ‘race’ that were clearly the most othered, constantly being in conflict with the rest of the world, generally darker-skinned, different belief system. I tend to pick the most ‘other’ in the series, because incidental commonalities and commentaries crop up in the most poignant and cruel ways. While the other races are basically other shades of human, Qunari are like the orcs, obviously the one that doesn’t belong. And I felt that: when the world saw that my character was the center of the story, they were like, what the fuck? You? I would put on strange bright green masks and tower over all my love interests, always sticking out, shuffling, stammering, trying to roll with the offensive comments. People would openly mock me, assume things about me, expect me to educate them. On other playthroughs as other fantastical races, I found out that people are just generally nicer and more attracted to you when you’re not Qunari. To put it lightly, I was alienated, and it felt right. This is my life, this how blackness and queerness intersect in my life. By feeling like a monster no one wants around. For being obviously different and trying to pass in a culture unprepared for me. Fumbling when someone expresses interest in me and seeing how awkward it is, but they seem to not care, how cute I don’t get it. I’m sure if you went to the writers of BioWare, they aren’t going to applaud themselves for having black and queer monstrosity depicted well enough in the treatment of the Qunari that it felt more queer to me than any of the more on-the-nose occurrences. I believe in the blackness that didn’t mean to show itself, that slipped out from the unconscious, and I named it. I don’t necessarily commend or damn the game for only speaking to how I am a monster to society, instead, I will fully take in that monster, and I will show its ugliness, I will make you look at me in the face as you recognize, that in the back of your head, you were taught that I am an atrocity and I will own it. That is my experience, and no game realizes that without my reflection. I don’t have to sit and hope that I will appear in a game and save the day. Instead, I will morph the sublimations of society into my image and wreck the place.

C’mon y’all, stay angry.

 

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Static and Noise About Bodies and Play

I confess that, with blankets wrapped around my legs and Homo Ludens opened to pages 2 and 3 crunched beneath an elbow, I’ve watched and rewatched Ghost in the Shell instead of researching like a good little faux-academic. While interviewed in New York, I ad-libbed an answer wanting to understand the ‘ghost’ of a video game, ghost in this context being what the main character of the movie refers to as her spirit, or what it seems like in the cyberpunk milieu, the essence or instinct that comes with humanity that an artificial being cannot have. The use of ghost is, appropriately, haunting, recognizing the human is dead and present only in some supernatural form trapped inside machinery. In the movie, a program gains a ghost after spending enough time connected to the net, which is consistently described with ocean imagery, a collective unconscious of the augmented living. This new sentience and the main character are posed as mirror images, living reflections of one another. I find myself thinking about play experiences gaining a ghost once submerged in human context, and how it pines for a body to live out its newly gained humanity.

Like in many cyberpunk narratives, bodies are blurred, often made grotesque. Ghost in the Shell questions, when the ghost moves from one body to the next, how is that new entity still the same? Bodies are masks, sentimental ones. The body, I find, is an abandoned metaphor in these sorts of narratives, quickly discarded as a mental stepping stone to the question about humanity. It feels wrapped up in tropes surrounding technology and the kind of people typically associated with making it, who loathe the limits of their body. They want to escape from reality, escape their physical form, and once they can do that, they will finally be powerful beings.

Because the medium of play is largely colonized by the dominant culture surrounding technology, involvement and exploration of the body is frequently absent. To many games and surrounding discourse, the player is a pair each of eyes and hands attached directly to the brain, staring unflinching as they imagine systems and methodically tap and click. This extends even to sports and many physical games, which imagine the body as, ultimately, one large controller without a reflection on that transformation in the experience itself, though we see efforts to augment this with transmedia like documentaries and journalism. This is not to say nothing happens with the body, or feelings concerning bodies don’t arise, rather that they are marginalized in the culture surrounding these kinds of play in spite of how fascinating they may be (and there are projects I’m working on to exploit just that. Alas, for another time).

I see this detachment from the body eptimized in the glorification in what might be called the magic circle, or at least, the belief that the game is separated from the rest of reality in some manner. While most will concede that this separation is porous, the concept is deployed in a way that excises play’s relationship with the body. We are alienated from full experience and appreciation of play when the body is erased from design and interpretation. I am speaking in a lineage of critique that can be most relevantly, maybe, found in queer of color criticism of queer theory, where the focus on texts stems from the normalized whiteness, and how bodies (sometimes called ‘sites,’ as in the site of conflict or site of resistance) and their subjective experiences. I find this parallel to many complaints of games being read as just a text, though I would move past that and say things like design are also texts; the particulars of each individual subject is erased, or in my experience in criticism, actively marginalized.

There is a resistance because bodies are complicated. Incorporating subject(ivitie)s decentralizes the game object and forces designers and critics to ponder the infinite relationships bodies can have with an experience. Controllers in particular throttle the ways bodies can be recognized in the design, and is probably the main agent in the absence of body subjectivity in critique. It is impossible to know how another’s bodily reaction will be to an experience, and that exactitude is only necessary for products that promise it. That class critique is also underrepresented might hint as to why these sorts of connections are rarely traversed outside of particular, minoritized niches. Right on the surface, the lack of awareness of bodies assumes a typical body, most definitely excluding those who don’t have it and their experiences. And further on, there is a distinct lack of internalization, digestion, and reflection baked into these experiences.

I find that we don’t often pay attention to how we are affected by play, just that games affect and we are affectable. A game will have fun in it, and somehow we will feel entertained. What is that link in the middle, between the ghost of the game and us? Our bodies are the site of play, where meaning occurs, willing or not. ‘Player’ is a misnomer, when they are considered active agents of intention. We are simply living. In my experience of more sensory-explicit experiences, like course meals and perfumery, this process is inverted. Objects and subjects dissolve into each other, until they become inseparable. The subject is pulled through their own landscape of body feel and associations, yet that these objects affect a politic, and that the subject is susceptible to their influences, seems largely understated if not missing. Or maybe because most art surrounding the body is considered profane, and mainly for titillation, that this process isn’t as emphasized, much like what many games confront now. Either way, it is difficult for those arts to not account for the body, though there is definitely a case for class critique to complicate that. How themes seem to repeat themselves.

What I’m getting at is further awareness of how play is currently occurring with our bodies. The act of touching, the act of seeing and hearing. Not simply to the fact that we are doing those things, because we do them all from different positions, or maybe not at all. Critique that doesn’t fall to body normativity, that incorporates living experience and expounds on the blurring borders between self and play. Where the ghost of the game joins theirs. Games that don’t center immersion, rather the opposite, to prick our senses and remind us that we are alive, that we are more than moving around in disjointed shells.

 

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Passing Through: Another Take on Identity in Activism and Design

My grandmother always seemed to have cutlery to polish whenever I visited her for dinner. She was, almost to a point of a stereotype, distinctly matriarchal in the way she existed in my family structure. Physically present, shouting inquiries of personal issues from the kitchen, enlisting any idler to shine her silverware. I would sit down in her green, billowy recliner in front of the TV as I cleaned on a fold-out dinner table. This time, talk show hosts were debating about immigration, which caused my grandmother to launch into a story as she cooked jerk chicken from behind me.

She and my father are from Jamaica, but neither of them really look like it. Something many people in this country don’t realize is how mixed it is in the Caribbean. All in the same family gathering, we had people who looked asian, white, black, or something altogether different. At the time, I didn’t really think of it as odd; every couple in my blood line were interracial. When she arrived in New York to immigrate, my grandmother recounted all of the invasive questions clerks asked her about herself. The one that stood out: “What race are you?” She answered:

“Human?”

This past year, I’ve sat down with a lot of creators about representation in games. One of the first questions out of their mouth is “How do you depict minorities well in games?” Maybe it’s because this is usually over dinner, knife and fork in hand, that I want to reply with “Human?” Thinking of my grandmother who doesn’t have a clearly identifiable race by American standards trying to explain herself to an official. ‘Human’ is loaded though; dominant identities are conflated with universal traits of humanity while minoritized people must be loud about their diverging qualities. Usually, I would fall back on trying to tap what is really human, and in turn, interrogate and separate what we assume is default about humanity and is really dominant culture.

I’ve started to think of my grandmother’s story a little differently lately. I feel like there’s a more active, personal dynamic with identity than what we currently conceive. Contemporary activism has a strong slant towards self-identification, particularly within established minoritized groups. This makes sense; a person is who they say they are, and that needs to be respected. What does that say about my grandmother, who didn’t have an answer for her race until she lived in America? Would she be outside today’s activism if she didn’t explicitly label herself?

We aren’t inherently any of these social categories. We are not essentialized genders, races, sexualities, abilities, or anything else. These labels are instead leveraged for power, two kinds in particular: to create difference and then elevate one difference over all others, or in reaction, to form community around a shared minoritized quality. Despite flexibility in some of these communities about who counts for what, identity is treated as a fact once declared, in complete ownership of the person who claims it. This isn’t the whole picture.

Upon memory, the first time I heard the term ‘passing’ was when I looked through transition video diaries on Youtube by queer people. It means when you successfully appear as cisgender to someone, and is constantly haunting non-cis people’s lives. Many queer folks on forums and chats thought passing was the ultimate test non-cis people should try to conquer. Men on personals sites plaster ‘passable only’ all over their ads. The thing about passing is that you can try to influence it as much as you can, but ultimately, it’s the perceptions of other people that decide whether you pass or not. There is a bit of your identity that is always held hostage by the public, a site of power struggles. I’m interpreted to be many genders throughout my day, and not simply man, woman, or non-binary, but a whole other host of qualities and baggage that each particular person brings to those things. I’m being gendered by them; they imbue my identity with whatever gender they interpret and create a power dynamic with it.

This isn’t the sole domain of gender, as we can see, my grandmother was being raced during her story. I am often raced by white people who don’t see me as ‘one of those black people’ and by non-white people as ‘basically white.’ This structures our relationship with one another, both the restrictive and creative forces of power that is organized by institutional oppression. Removing individual expressions of power by interpreting other people’s identity makes us go to the default, that people are a series of labels that can be neatly organized into who’s valued and marginalized. These aren’t simple declarations of ‘I’m going to treat you like a woman,’ rather us creating an internal barometer to gauge how we should relate to one another. I think this creates an easier view for how microaggressions and non-overt oppressive power plays happen in daily life.

Some of the queries I’ve received plan to show that a character is transgender by having some sort of reveal, because how else would a player know that the character is trans? This is a product of declarative identity, and it is often used to marginalize even with the best intentions. A stronger way to express someone’s sense of self is to show the struggle over that negotiating space of someone’s identity. By making it extremely particular to the people involved; what does it mean for someone to perceive a woman cis when she’s not? Or to assume someone’s half white, half black? Framing it this way makes it pretty compatible for play design, as the me-too slant of current rhetoric around representation rarely talks about what it means to have these identities, especially ones like race and sexuality that was created to categorize the other.

The mechanics of passing, and how that affects activism and design, feel shoved to the side for a very identitarian manifestation of intersectionality. Identity doesn’t have to be restrained to story conceits, but up for play. It’s not only the person themselves who plays with identity, rather, they co-struggle with society and how individuals interpret them. This is more readily apparent for people who don’t neatly fall into boxes, but can be done with all aspects of identity and oppression. This doesn’t even have to be strictly realistic, find any good science fiction book on cyborgs or mutation and how humanity is negotiated. If we consider what it’s like to be human to be this struggle, we afford ourselves complex insights into not only the minoritized, but also the ingrained qualities of dominant cultures.

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Decolonize Me

“Why do you act so white?”

Her name was Shanti. I will always remember the exact look on her face, how her head floated in my vision surrounded by the artifacts of a high school classroom. It was the 10th grade, American Sign Language class, and I was clearly not white.

I’ve revisited these three seconds of memory often throughout life, coming back with different answers each time. At first, I thought it was absurd that someone could “act so white,” how could someone act a race? Eventually, I came to associate that question with ‘Why are you so educated?’ since, at the time, I found many non-white people to act rather unrefined.

It wasn’t just me asking this to myself. More people took note of my non-whiteness and proclivity to surround myself with it. It also came in reverse, with white friends glad I didn’t act like those kind of non-white people. I remembered visiting Chicago and seeing an improv theatre show with about 200 other people. For the first time in my life, I noticed I was in a room where I was the only person who wasn’t white. It was startling, considering this pattern I’ve noticed. What is going on with me?

What I’ve come to learn is how the status quo, the marker which we all mediate our lives with, is actually the culture of the hegemonic class. The labels of this group can go on forever, so let’s just settle for white American patriarchy. Which is why there are so many othering stereotypes of people who fall out of this, while whiteness gets assigned traits associated with the general person. Black men are often typecast as uneducated gangsters and white men the honest average joes. We see getting a university education as a standard that everyone should achieve, but politics that disproportionately affect non-white people frequently makes achieving the American Dream, whatever that is now, far out of reach.

There is a similar status quo in the game industry. An expectation for objective, fact-driven games and journalism. When personal experience enters, it is met with distrust. Herein lies the problem- when you leave out the personal, all that’s left is the status quo. Because that ‘standard’ consists of the values of a particular type of culture associated with the hegemonic, privileged class, there is actually something personal and subjective going on all the time. Thus, by leaving out the particular experiences of the silenced and marginalized, it bars anyone from revealing the bias that exists within this supposed stoically neutral discourse. It takes away the vocal chords of a person in a room full of shouting.

It is interesting to note that many of those taking to writing journalism or design games with a strong focus on the personal are social minorities. What was, indeed, once a genre where those recounting their childhood memories of video games or pet projects with mary sues abound is now subverted by a newer trend. People have found a method for speaking where once they had none. A method to not only plainly recount and explain their marginalization, but to actually get people to feel it.

There’s a recent resurgence of critique of using personal experience. That’s just a small bit as it pertains to game journalism, but there is common skepticism of personal games and how to relate to them that mirrors this conversation. While there are many shades of criticism for personal, often called confessional, writing, there’s a salient pattern in the pushback against it.

A lot of it boils down to the pejorative term ‘confessional,’ and the discomfort of those reading it. Those who see it as confessional writing equate their relationship to the piece as a kind of therapy for the author, the reader an involuntary psychologist or friend. They feel they can’t critique the piece without insulting the person who had a Very Sad Thing Happen. To them, what should be in a LiveJournal post can’t make a sound argument. As described by others, personal writing is exploiting the intimate experience for a cheap cause or a get out of jail card.

Let’s pick on that word then, exploitation. It is telling that this discourse finds the use of emotions and the personal as a means of exploiting both the reader and the author’s life, turning experience into a commodity that is strategically sold. Turning the self into a meat farm to gain some sort of profit. I find this to be a result of inner conflict within the skeptic- they face negative feelings they don’t want to deal with. A story makes them feel terrible, maybe bad about themselves. We see this in the news, but because it’s a report of the facts, we can flip and click away the guilt. Personal experience used in criticism and games won’t let you turn away so fast, and what has happened with some people is the feeling of being compromised by the author. It’s frequent that the writer or designer purposefully shows their hypocrisy, because it is the position society forces them into. It isn’t tied in the neat little bow allies and those of self import want, to praise or damn it. I argue it’s not exploitation occurring, but implication.

Witnessing the personal experience implicates the reader into the knowing party. They become a witness to something they know shouldn’t happen. Instead of the cold statistics of the transgender community’s suicide rate, which one flips by, the reader sees why suicide is so frequent. They can relate on some level, and now have to think about their own actions in relation to that experience. There is a feeling of I’m letting this happen, I now know it, I have no excuse. The armchair liberal parts of us don’t want to see what is happening to the people patiently waiting, or not for many transgender people, for society to get over itself. The well-meaning ally who hasn’t done anything wrong feels slighted that minorities are guilting them.

This has been the story for decades and centuries. Social progress comes only after those with power gasp and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know it was that bad!’ In this context, the personal experience is rebellion, it won’t allow the status quo to go unchallenged and stay superior without their readers feeling a major sense of dissonance. Personal games make you intimate with the way works influence players with their politics without the participants’ awareness. The other path isn’t bare because it’s impossible, but because it’s silenced.

“Sometimes, I just need to… decolonize my hair.”

I was waiting for the M line, sitting on a seat slicked by mist. I looked over to a girl explaining something to a friend. Her hair looked like mine when I spent hours a day flat-ironing it, straightening the blackness out. It wasn’t until last year that I just had to stop- it was too expensive, too painful. I wanted to be pretty without burning my scalp twice a week. It was one of my first acts of rebellion, both from the society that prizes white beauty and myself, riddled with internalized racism. I took the same philosophy to my writing, letting the pouring rain reveal its curls.

Pokemon: Unchained

Pokemon: Unchained is a dramatic retelling of my journey through Pokemon White with an edited Nuzlocke Challenge. I used it to explore the weird politics in the game surrounding slavery apologia and the idea of gaming fanfiction. Here were the rules I followed when I played:

Rule 1: You can only catch the first Pokemon you encounter in each area.

Rule 2: When a Pokemon loses all its health, it’s dead and must be released.

Rule 3: All Pokemon must be nicknamed.

Rule 4: All instances of “Pokemon” is replaced with “slave(s)” and “Trainer” with “master.”

Read it in chronological order here: http://pokemonunchained.tumblr.com/tagged/PU/chrono

Diversity Watch: Bastion

As a sort of closing thoughts on my time with Bastion, I’m curious as to how I can further my agenda of promoting diversity in games, or seeing how games are an artifact of a culture’s stance on diversity. This isn’t meant to scold Bastion by not fulfilling their quota of minorities, but letting it speak for itself.

Race and Ethnicity

For all the fear that the industry has about touching the topic of race and ethnicity, Bastion pushes the topic out there and lets the player interpret it. What is disheartening is how easily players can overlook this tension and participate in the usual brand xenophobia (and anti-environmentalism at that) that is produced from video games. Bastion makes use of race to draw on the player’s cultural understanding of them against us, of a nation against savages. The Ura draw on the qualities of the Far East (they even live in the East) to act as markers when juxtaposed against the kid and Rucks’ racial features; they have paler skin with dark hair, superstitious about a pantheon of gods, move around the map sharp and quickly (reminiscent of ninjas), and Zulf’s personal item is a hookah. This wouldn’t be so noticeable if Rucks and the kid weren’t depicted as very western (bulky males, caucasian facial features, imperialistic culture, science-orientated), however it goes a step further and marks them as very American. I was personally shocked when I first heard Rucks’ voice and then confused when I saw him; the voice actor was particular in using a tone and diction that is reminiscent of African-American (I use this term to identify a specific group of people, not to be PC) local color stories. So when I saw that Rucks was depicted as caucasian, my rationalization was assuming the team was looking for an aesthetic that was patently American. Following this line of thinking, I’m sure someone can come up with an interesting interpretation of seeing the US against its eastern anxieties (most of the Middle East, China, North Korea) in Bastion. However, that’s not my goal here; it’s possible that those with a differing ethnicity than the canon American one would be able to identify with the wrong done to Zulf, but it would be a difficult claim as you kill more and more Ura to get to your goal. Rucks’ excuse for killing all these people is flimsy and ethnocentric, as I could imagine a different reaction if Caeldonian lives were the ones at stake (or maybe they are, and that’s why it’s easy to kill Ura).

There’s also the tucked away issue about Zia’s liminal status when it comes to her ethnicity; she was raised in Caeldonia, but her race is of the Ura. There are mixed messages with the plot point of Zia running off to meet Zulf, and the implications of him claiming her as an Ura. It is unclear if Zia ever felt a sense of belonging, though this might be implied by the very subtle hints of the kid’s affection towards her.

Gender and Sexuality

The game assumes heteronormativity and doesn’t make any grand statements about gender. Bastion follows many traditions in this genre; the main character is a young male who identifies as a (conventionally Western) man and uses many typical props that suggest masculinity. There are some neat twists on the weapons in the game, but they are the same from every other: every type of gun you can think of and a bunch of melee weapons that require strength rather than anything else. One of the upgrades for the Bastion is a distillery which indicates that the kid is drinking throughout his adventures; I have nothing against drinking, but it is a common trope of masculinity to be a hard drinker, and this cannot go unnoticed if the main character is continually called ‘the kid.’ I find it problematic in an abstract way when boys in video games are assumed to have weapon and combat competency, or at least how prevalent this type of character is in video games. Rucks reinforces these expectations by the actions he points out the kid doing; I remember feeling a little put off when there was a quote of the kid having a sort of affection for one of his guns (I think there’s multiple references like these for the musket). There is little room for any other expression or identification of any other type of masculinity other than the gamer hegemonic one.

Zia’s representation as the sole woman (I’ll assume female as well) seem more to be in service of contrasting the kid’s masculinity. The (typical) emphasis on her beauty is slyly done by hearing her song and voice before you meet her. The sequence attributes the usual qualities to Zia before we even meet her; delicate sounding, beauty in an ethereal sense, a rare sight, something to chase. Rucks’ narration during this sequence is ambiguous during the first play-through as the player doesn’t know who he’s telling the story to (I assumed he was tell me the story), and it prompts the unaware listener to admire Zia as an aesthetic. Also, seeing that her personal item is a cooking pot… It doesn’t seem like Bastion is trying to leave behind any molds.

Something interesting is at work, though, when comparing the two aesthetics invoked, as they seem rather gendered. Zia’s song seems to be the audio translation of the visual representation of the game; I look at Bastion and see something beautiful and delicate. But Rucks’ narration, the only other voice of the game, gives the aesthetic more grittiness, enough so it isn’t alienating to the type of character the kid embodies. My personal observations of the themes at work in this game sprout from details like this, and I’m sure an interpretation waits to be read there.

Closing Thoughts

More could be said about age and and ableism, but they seem to just exist in the game and don’t really complicate the matter. Rucks has an interesting role as an elder, but turns out to be a threat of a harmful culture rather than an agent on his own. There is also no indication of transgender, intersexed, or asexual people, though given this allegory to America overall, it would be interesting where such characters would fit in.

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