The Fantasy Prejudice Problem

Fantasy.  Science Fiction.  The whole Speculative Fiction umbrella.  A genre or genres that are very much apart from this lame boring realistic world were you have to get a job and not all the lasses are buxom and not all the dudes are hunky and you only get to hunt dragons a few times a year.  These stories present their own worlds, with their own rules, that can be as separate from meatspace as the writer’s skills can stretch believability.  At the same time, though, they’re close enough that they can actually speak to the real world.  Allegory and metaphor are powerful tools available to this medium, with the writer offering familiar situations in an unfamiliar setting to help the reader see them from completely new perspectives and in a completely new light.  Lots of authors feel strongly about lots of things, lots of authors write speculative fiction, so lots of authors bring these two great tastes together.

But lots of authors don’t think things out the whole way through.  And therein lies the problem.

So, racism is bad.  Sexism is bad.  There’s a whole lot of –isms out there that are bad.  You know what?  Let’s just go ahead and say screw prejudice as a whole.  That will be our platform.  Screw Prejudice 2024.  Then if anyone argues with us, we can prove that they’re really a racist elf.  That’s how you win politics, people.  Anyways, the roots, causes, and impacts of it are an incredibly complex subject, far more than any self-proclaimed expert can just pick up from Tumblr, but we can still go out on a limb and say prejudice is a bad thing.  We all on the same page here?  Good.

Lots of other people think prejudice is a bad thing, too.  So they decide to use their medium of choice to change hearts and minds around it.  Get people to understand it better, look at it from a new perspective.  Make the world a bit of a better place.  Speculative Fiction is a ripe ground for metaphor, so it seems to fit right in.

But in the process, it’s easy to change too much, and tie a whole lot of other implications into that metaphor as well.  It’s easy to inadvertently give ammunition to the counter-point.

Elves and dwarves just hate each other.  You can find entire slave races all over the place.  So many people have to deal with a world that hates and fears them for having powers they never asked for and can’t control.  And all too often, these aren’t meant to just make a plot point in and of themselves, but to remind you of the plight of a specific strain of humanity.

Real world prejudice is a blight because it assigns poor treatment to people because of traits that really don’t matter.  A lot of speculative fiction prejudice impacts people with real, tangible, physical differences that set them apart from other races.  That weakens the metaphor drastically.  Having races with different capabilities and stats makes them interesting, but if you’re trying to use them to create a real world analog for racial treatment, making them differently capable just starts implying that there’s maybe a reason for that prejudice.  Like, you remember in the Elder Scrolls, where Khajiit just get treated like an entire race of thieves but that’s what their stats lay out?  And you know, that was all fine, until they started brushing, lightly brushing, but still brushing, against the real world “racism is bad” metaphor in Skyrim, where wasn’t it such a shame that all the Nordic cities treated all Khajiit like thieves even though EVERY SINGLE FREAKING KHAJIIT NPC WAS A MEMBER OF THE THIEVE’S GUILD!

And then when you go further than that, start giving races access to weapons and tools that others don’t have, that they can’t even control themselves, and yet isn’t it such a shame that everyone else is so phobic to them?  X-Men is a big offender here.  Back in the day, it just made itself more realistic by grounding itself in the more recent civil rights movement rather than directly confronting it.  The struggle of mutants was something that the team was working on, was a major focus of the plot, but they didn’t start trying to make the real world parallels right away.  And when they did get around to it, did start saying that “these are your blacks!  These are your gays!”, the whole comparison rang a little unfortunate, because really, by that point the humans were at least partially justified in their fear.  The comics have spent story upon story detailing characters with little control of their deadly, dangerous, powers, showing people who first realized they had these mutant powers in the first place by nearly murdering those around them, and have spent years showcasing mutant characters who were unabashedly, openly evil.  Trying to make that analogy, trying to say you have no reason to treat a population that way, just makes things worse when you give the people in your story plenty of reason to fear and be wary of them in the first place.

That doesn’t mean there’s not a good reason or a good way to handle this topic in media.  Honestly, there’s a lot of works that do it well.  Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Final Fantasy X, and Tales of Symphonia all hit those notes quite well, for example.  Just, when you’re dealing with it, keep in mind that you’re walking into a very complex subject, and make sure you’re paying attention to all the elements you’re bringing to it, as such.

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5 responses to “The Fantasy Prejudice Problem

  1. It’s never good when the game you program is actively shooting holes in your narrative and its message, huh? I remember thinking it strange how in Mother 3, the narrative goes on this bizarre, possibly anti-modernity diatribe by introducing concepts such as money to a utopian society that previously had no need for such things and showing how they cause people to drift apart. Indeed, when you look at the food items at the beginning of the game, they’re healthier foods such as nut bread and yogurt. The food items you can buy in the final area, on the other hand, are obviously manufactured junk crafted in the name of making a large profit. That’s all well and good, but these king-size burgers are the best healing items in the game, creating more than a little bit of cognitive dissonance. Not to mention that as powerful as the sticks Lucas finds throughout the course of the game can get, the strongest weapon is a real baseball bat, something that could be seen as a product of the modern age, so it looks like the anti-Luddites get the final laugh yet again.

    Anyway, I too found the Elder Scrolls example you mentioned strange, and I’ve read at least one comic strip that poked fun at that bit of dissonance. On a similar note, I read an LP of Chrono Cross, and this game had an absolutely abysmal implementation of this trope when it expected players to sympathize with dwarves that were supposedly subjected to humanity’s cruelty. They proved to be even worse when it turned out they were in the middle of committing fairy genocide all while doing exactly what humans were supposedly so evil for doing. Considering how good Chrono Trigger was, I’m still stunned that the storytelling quality could drop as much as it did.

    It’s definitely a subject that requires a lot of talent to pull off successfully – even more so in a fantasy setting, I’d wager.

    • I had completely forgotten about that with Mother 3. But yeah, if I recall right, the game was full of these points of dissonance where elements would undermine a point that was being made earlier. Made the ending a bit of a thematic mess.

      Yeah, the whole beast-race discrimination with the Elder Scrolls was all well and good when it was all just confined to the game world. Skyrim wasn’t so strong with it, but it’s still pretty ridiculous that when they started drawing some more real-world ties was when they started really justifying the racism in the first place.

      Man, from what I’ve heard, Chrono Cross is a hot mess, but that still sounds extreme. I might want to check it out just to see that in action, myself.

      • I will admit that Mother 3 is definitely not the worst in this regard, but it is my go-to example when making a case that a message in a game can be undermined if the mechanics don’t support it. You definitely nailed it when you said the game undermines its own points. There was a pretty big thematic clash even before the ending; the game began with a heartrending (albeit off-screen) death only to later include the absolute worst moment in the entire trilogy: that phenomenally idiotic red carpet scene right after the Barrier Trio boss fight (and I can’t simply have the main characters move three centimeters up to pull the needle because…?). I’d say the fact that it and the rest of the problematic moments are not seriously analyzed showcases the dark side of when a work is given a sacred cow status. Indeed, I’ve sometimes wondered to myself if it would have this distinction as a sacred cow if it were both released this decade and localized. I think timing and certain seemingly tangential circumstances have a lot to do with whether a work gets put on a high pedestal or not.

        It’s never good when the in-universe racism is justified, is it? At that point, it becomes impossible to use for any real-world analogy.

        Sometimes, I’ve been tempted to play Chrono Cross so I can review it (I refuse to review a game I’ve never played regardless of what I may think of its story), but the fact of the matter is that I would be spending 30+ hours on a game I would probably only mildly tolerate at best. It’s not like Deadly Towers, Modern Warfare 3, or Metroid: Other M where they were short enough that I could blaze through them and know everything I needed to know once I actually played them for myself.

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