Image: BioWare, Flickr

The white saviour in video games

If there’s one thing about universities that receives the most amount of criticism from both within and outside the institution, it would have to be their PC crazed, echo chamber-loving, no-platforming addiction. And hey, sometimes, it can feel like there’s no longer much room for controversy, in a place which has traditionally held a long history of fighting for free speech. These issues of free speech, however, tend to get mixed up with discussions and teachings within the lecture theatre and the seminar room, most paramount with the inexcusable and undefendable topic of Colonialism. Rarely, in history, has anything else been able to bring about so much pain, trauma and deprivation as this force; justified by racist mentalities, and driven by greed. It therefore fills me with sadness to see the ‘white saviour’ trope, one of the very mentalities that drove Colonialism, has long held pride of place within many of my favourite and beloved games.

it was simply here that I realised that there had existed in games a problematic and worrying trope without anyone really mentioning it

My inspiration for this article came to me while playing Mass Effect: Andromeda. No, I’m not here to rant on about how disappointing the game was, or to talk about the dodgy facial expressions, it was simply here that I realised that there had existed in games a problematic and worrying trope without anyone really mentioning it. You, the Pathfinder, travel to a new universe, with a new species to discover; the Angara. This species, who had already suffered from the onslaught of another species, the Kett, generally acted with suspicion and hostility to these new strangers. A group of zealous Angarans formed to combat this perceived threat. As you walk through the market places of their home world, your human protagonist experiences racist abuse, despite the fact that you are here to save them. Their hostility proves to be totally unnecessary and you eventually save the day.

The game almost screams ‘white saviour’ as the credits roll with your team celebrating their victory. Your player is not necessarily white, or male for that matter, but the fact remains that an outsider entered a region in which they knew nothing about, solved a conflict, and put to rest many political complexities that the player had been introduced to mere hours beforehand. The Angara, incapable of dealing with their own problem, required your help. And this is not the only time this trope is used in gaming. Take pretty much all the Far Cry games, but especially Far Cry 3, in which your white, male American protagonist is put up against a group of barbaric, ambiguously ethnic pirates. Or, how about Assassins Creed: Revelations, in which the Italian Ezio Auditore travels to Constantinople and puts to rest the conflict between two sons of the Sultan. Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain involves Snake going into the Middle East and involving himself in the Soviet-Afghan and Angolan Civil wars. Generally speaking, when outside powers, especially white European ones, enter regions of conflict, they usually make things worse.

Image: Kojima Productions, IGDB

Of course, there are video games that do well to avoid this narrative. Though the Just Cause series has generally been poor in this trope, the third instalment featured the protagonist returning to his home country to deal with a cruel dictator, redeeming the series somewhat and demonstrating how the white saviour trope can be avoided. In Fallout 4, the two groups that are most apathetic to the plights of the Synths (robots created with sentience and emotion), are the Institute who live underground and the Brotherhood of Steel who live high above the earth in zeppelins. They are outsiders, coming in to deal with something they have perceived as a problem, literally de-humanizing those they see as a threat. Even Grand Theft Auto: China Wars, yes Grand Theft Auto, had you play as a Chinese player in China. When Grand Theft Auto is doing better than another game in the political correctness category, you know something has gone horribly wrong.

They are outsiders, coming in to deal with something they have perceived as a problem, literally de-humanizing those they see as a threat

This is partially a result of the lack of diversity in gaming. The vast majority of videogames have white protagonists, and the thrill of exploring new and strange places can make for a fantastic game. The need to make your protagonist more important also of course means that major conflicts and politics feature regularly in these stories. But the combination of these three, fairly innocuous factors, means that the trope of white outsider swooping in to save the day appears all too often. The solution to this problem appears pretty simple: more diversity within game development and within gaming characters.

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