Extremism as a Narrative Device

Playing DayZ has allowed me to reflect on extremism a little bit. DayZ appears to be a game that fosters a plethora of extremes: one is either an extremist bad guy (I’ll kill everyone!), an extremist good guy (I’ll kill all the bad guys!), or an extremist indifferent (I’ll just care about myself!).

DayZ isn’t unique in deploying extremism as a narrative device. I mean, extremism has been a staple of video game narratives for a long time. For example, the original Bioshock threw players in an extremist underwater utopia that collapsed on itself, while Bioshock: Infinite deployed an extremist racist utopia as the world that the protagonist must escape.

Another example is the Call of Duty franchise that has traditionally used extremism, often unproblematically, as the motif for its bad guys. Traditionally, the Call of Duty enemy is an uncomplicated (and often boring) representation of the extremist found in the time period in which the game is set: Nazis, Cold War Russians, or extremist Islamists.

Even some of my favourite games appear to espouse extremism as a narrative device. Franchises like Metal Gear Solid and Mass Effect heavily rely on extremist tropes to justify the protagonist’s actions.

The difference between all these games and DayZ is that where the former construct extremism as the enemy to be destroyed, the latter builds the entire game around it. This unilateral deployment of extremism is interesting because it creates an actual morality system that is dynamically created as players interact with one another.

Does the fact that it’s an interesting narrative device justify the use of extremism in games? Not really. This past Sunday, Critical-Distance ran a small series of blog posts inspired by Julian Dibbell’s classic “A Rape in Cyberspace.” The posts intelligently, and powerfully, discuss the issue of rape as it happens online, and I’ve frequently used Dibbell’s essay when teaching classes about cyberspace, so I can’t help but be intrigued by any critical engagements with the piece.

While I admire Dibbell’s essay, and applaud any efforts to bring it into popular media, some part of me can’t help being angered that this still needs to be done. It’s been 21 years – let me say that again, 21 years – since the original publication of Dibbell’s article, and we still need to justify arguments about whether rape really happens online? Or are we even given a chance to justify said arguments, given some of the backlash Matt Albrecht describes in his post? Is dissent even allowed anymore?

And that’s where extremism, in any form, hits the hardest. By preventing dialogue, it effectively cuts out any possibilities for transformation. Extremism in video games by itself might seem innocent enough (it isn’t, though), but coupled with the increasingly discourses on national and personal security that we’ve seen emerge since 9/11, such deployments of extremism are but one way in which extreme acts are made to appear normal and justified.

Simple deployments of extremism tend to create simple interpretations of it. Rather than the simple relativistic questions “Is extremism good?” or “Is extremism bad?” I propose a new set of questions that anyone facing extremist representations should ask themselves seriously: How are these representations changing me? How are these representations changing others?


[spoilers]

Perhaps the most effective deployment in gaming of extremism as a narrative device that I’ve seen was during one quest in The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.

During one quest, the hero must choose to ally themselves with either the Legion or the Rebels. Joining the Legion results in a fairly stereotypical colonialist story where the dominant power manages to protect the way of life of its citizen against the rampaging hordes. Allying with the Rebels, however, is something entirely different.

At first, joining Ulfric Stormcloak’s army seems benign enough; we’re treated to the familiar narratives of personal and national freedoms, to the familiar values of personal choice and self-determination. However, these narratives subtly change as the plot develops.

Here, I’m not talking about the obvious, in-your-face racism and extremism found in Skyrim. There’s been plenty of discussion online about that (a quick Google search using the keywords skyrim and racism yielded 284,000 results). Rather, I’m talking about the ways in which playing the storyline made me feel as a person.

A key moment for me was Ulfric’s speech to his soldiers at the end of the rebellion quest line. There, Ulfric extolds the traditional Nord virtues using rhetoric that wouldn’t be out of place at a Nuremberg Rally.

[/spoilers]


Being seen as normal is what extremists and fascists strive for, really, because once that’s accomplished, then they can do anything, justify any action, designate anyone as the enemy. And the first part of becoming normal is silencing dissent. It’s what Wilhelm Reich (1970[1933]) and Walter Benjamin (1968) were subjected to, and it’s what Frantz Fanon (1967;1963) dedicated his entire career to fighting.

At that point, I had to ask myself, how did it make me feel to have followed this man, now that he’s revealed for what he is? The answer was: not good. In fact, I felt vaguely tainted and even ashamed of having followed that particular quest line. This lead to a subsequent question: why had I even played through it in the first place? I mean, I was the Dragonborn, I was a hero. Why would I try to either subject an entire population? Why was I playing along with such fascism? Was the WOPR right? Is the only winning move not to play?

Those aren’t easy questions, and to this day I don’t have a readied answer. In fact, just asking them about yourself, let alone others, is downright uncomfortable. However, it is necessary, because if we don’t ask them, then extremism and fascism become normal. In the end, the question of whether or not we should use extremism as a narrative device in video games is a moot one. Rather, we should ask ourselves why we’re playing along with it. We should ask ourselves why we aren’t countering it, subverting it, through our interactions with the game mechanics and other players.

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About Erik Bigras

Erik Bigras is an independent scholar. He studied as a PhD Candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He graduated with a BA in Anthropology (2009) from the University of Prince Edward Island (Canada) where he focused on the creation of subjectivities through digital media. He's been playing video games since the mid-1980s, but expanded his gaming interest to table-top RPGs in the early 2010s.
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3 Responses to Extremism as a Narrative Device

  1. dapperanarchist says:

    In Skyrim, having wandered round the cities quite a bit, I figured out pretty quickly that I couldn’t comfortably join either the Legion or the Stormcloaks., and so haven’t followed either quest line. What shocked me was how, in Markarth, I ended up being complicit in a brutal attack on innocents… because I 1) wanted to find out the truth (who really was behind the Forsworn murders) and 2) wasn’t willing to leave a man who seemed to be a freedom fighter to rot in jail. Having followed the trail of breadcrumbs the game laid out for me… I then saw various civilians attacked and murdered. Yet, the Forsworn are clearly right that they are being oppressed, and that it is the radical Nords following Ulfric who are doing the oppressing. I’m still not sure what choices I could have made differently there, because even walking away seemed inadequate.

    • Erik Bigras says:

      That’s a good example of the double bind that most extremisms put us into. We become just as extremist if we play the game, but if we don’t, well, often the consequences are morally and ethically unpalatable. It isn’t an easy situation to navigate.

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