One of the most interesting things – out of a wide field – that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has done is reignite the ongoing discussion about race in video games. While CD Projekt’s latest outing does many things so right, race is something it gets quite wrong: the cast of The Witcher 3, it cannot be denied, is uniformly white.
Critics argue that this is at best a missed opportunity and at worst, deliberate erasure of people of color. Why else create a fantasy world – a world full of monsters and magic – that fails to include people of non-European ethnic backgrounds?
There are a couple hypotheses that I think can be dismissed out of hand: Developer and blogger Luke Maciak writes “[CD Projekt] literally forgot that non-white people even exist, which is something that happens when you are a white person, living in predominantly white culture, and consuming predominantly white media.” Meanwhile, at FuriousFanboys, Jeremy Conrad seethes about Polygon reviewer Arthur Gies’ “completely boneheaded” failure to understand the “historical” context of The Witcher universe.
To Maciak’s point I would simply say that in a game that shows as much attention to detail as The Witcher 3, it’s fairly disingenuous to automatically mark something down to laziness on the part of the developers, especially a reality as important as race.1 No, let’s give CD Projekt due credit and assume this was an intentional choice. In any event, the game is explicitly aware of racism: the conquering Nilfgaardians refer to the people of the Northern Realms derisively as “Nordlings,” whom they consider to be unwashed and unlettered.
Conrad’s point is also fairly easy to dismiss – Medieval Poland may not have been home to many Black people, but it also wasn’t home to things like griffons and wraiths, both of which feature prominently in The Witcher 3. The argument for “historical accuracy” in a game where characters are capable of casting teleportation spells is laughable – it makes as much sense as the fanboy furor over seeing a Black man in a Star Wars stormtrooper costume in the first reveal trailer for The Force Awakens.
Take away the insistence on historicity, however, and there’s a fair enough thematic argument to be made. In a pre-industrial, medieval society such as Witcher’s, where people probably rarely traveled more than a couple miles from where they were born over the course of their lives, it might make a certain amount of sense to have a fairly ethnically homogeneous population. In game terms, The Witcher 3’s map is enormous, but in sociological and political terms, it’s a very constrained area – about 52 square miles all together, making The Witcher 3 just slightly larger than the Bronx.
But this defense falls apart a bit when you look at the broader landscape of fantasy titles – films, books, and games: When there’s a homogeneous society used as the basis for a fantasy world, it’s a safe bet it’ll be a white society. When nonwhite characters appear, it’s as “foreigners.”
More to the point, the lack of people of color in the game can’t be solved simply by adding a couple darker-skinned traveling merchants or a ship captain character – that would be tokenism on a par with “…but I have a Black friend.” This is a problem that’s bigger than The Witcher 3, and bigger than BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition, which did include people of color in the main cast. It’s a problem in fantasy as a genre, which since Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has been stuck in a sort of Kipling-esque paternalist colonialism. Since Tolkien, fantasy has often been keen to portray racial prejudice as happening between humans and, to take the most common examples, dwarves and elves – both the Dragon Age and Witcher series are examples of this. Tauriq Moosa, writing for Polygon, explains the problem:
This is literal dehumanising of people of color. We are relegated to non-human species, their treatment is supposed to mimic real-world racist policies. This sci-fi/fantasy trope of dealing with racism by showing inter-species treatment could work — if all the humans weren’t all white.
If anything, making us short, bearded white Scottish men, or very white, pointy-eared thin people reinforces how dismissed we are — by not even being considered human.
Tolkien’s orcs are a central feature of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and Austin Walker wrote a fantastic piece in Paste about how that game’s “Nemesis system” gave NPCs a new kind of emergent agency that made them a real step forward in game design. However, he notes the troubling aspect of this portrayal as well:
They hate beauty. One of the Orc captains I fight has the title “The Literate One”—the joke of course is that these dark savages don’t even read. It’s unavoidable: the characterization of “Orkish” society is caught up in a history of white, European military and cultural colonialism, with narratives of the “dark continent” and the “mysterious east.”
It’s difficult – or maybe impossible – to use Tolkien’s framework without also adopting his British sense of colonialism. Characters in The Lord of the Rings can actually be measured in goodness by the lightness of their skin. While orcs are now usually portrayed as being green, Tolkien originally described them as literally black-skinned.
Back to The Witcher 3, though. What’s the answer? Addressing the controversy at his new home at Giant Bomb, Walker says just having the discussion helps:
So no, a few Zerrikanian traders or merchants or alchemists wouldn’t fix the problems games have with race, but no single game will ever do that, in the same way that no single film solved the problem of representation in Hollywood cinema. But each time a dev takes a moment to think about how diversity might fit into their game–or, no, better: how it might have always been there, ready to be uncovered, ready to make their worlds feel more alive, more real–they add a brick to a wall of overall improvement. And sometimes that brick looks like a few brown faces in a crowd. Sometimes it looks like character creation. Sometimes it looks like a bi-racial lead character whose racial background is identifiable, but not directly addressed and sometimes it’s a game that tackles the racial identity of its characters directly. It’s all of these things and more, and none of them are perfect, and none of them can do it alone. How could they?
There is no silver bullet, no grand plan for creating diversity in games. There’s lots of little steps that we can applaud, and that we can remind developers that they have access to. We do this constantly with other bits of games (Oh my god, please put the Nemesis System, or something like it, in a bunch of other games by this time next year, thanks). Why not also do it here? And if the answer is “Because this isn’t as interesting or valuable or meaningful as X game feature,” well, it is to me, so I’m gonna keep writing this stuff.
After playing a few hours and enjoying the game immensely (a couple mechanical quibbles notwithstanding), I’m encouraged by what I’ve read by others discussing race in The Witcher 3. As far as the “games as art” arguments go, I can’t think of a better one than a piece of media acting as a launch-point for a larger discussion about how race is seen – and not seen – in pop culture. The Witcher 3 isn’t the first game to do this, and it certainly won’t be the last.
CD Projekt’s home is in Poland, and commenters have often pointed out that the country is more than 96 percent white. Well, CD Projekt is a high-tech company that also owns the international digital distribution service GOG.com, and the claim that the development team suffered racial amnesia during the process of creating the game rather beggars belief. ↩