The Games We Play: The Light is Right
The false dichotomy dividing “good” and “evil” into groups represented by light and dark goes back further than my first memories of seeing The Empire Strikes Back at the drive-in. It is a way of looking at the world around us and packing things into neat little boxes, and it has enveloped our popular culture and our mythology.
Religion, advertising, fashion, movies, and even video games rely on dividing symbols into black and white, light and dark, to represent morality. Though this is done for the ease of the viewer/consumer/player, the categorizing can be harmful in one extreme or another. A woman in a swank black dress can be seen as extremely fashionable because black is considered the staple of elegance, but she could also be seen as a slut trying to show off because black is the color of evil or darkness in some cultures. Back to my thoughts of Star Wars (because many things in my mind drift that way), Luke Skywalker robed himself in black in Return of the Jedi when he overcame the seduction of the Dark Side, proving himself stronger than his father, Darth Vader, the symbol of evil in the Empire, also clad in black.
Light and dark motifs have been used heavily in video games as well for almost as long as I remember. Heroes clad in light colors and showered in shimmering light, bestowed sacred gifts by mysterious women clad in unicorn kisses. Villains with dark and sallow features and droopy dark eyes in long dark robes swirling with dark magic feasting on babies' souls.
Lionhead Studios franchise Fable's third iteration displays this spectacularly, using their notorious morality system which changes your PC's appearance according to your in-game decisions. The RPG (role-playing game) has a story that is rather linear, and the combat interface is reasonable (though, if you have pain in your hands, this is not going to be an accessible game), and allows you to combine three different styles of fighting, which I enjoyed immensely. But the further into the story I delved and the more choices I made on my character I began to notice that my character, whom I was playing as a complete goody-two-shoes, was getting pale. Her skin was becoming almost translucent. The tattoos I applied were glowing blue. My partner, who was playing co-op with me (a great feature in Fable III is that you can actually play local online co-op) was running around and slaughtering all the guards and nobles, and he was darkening, and turning red. As his game progressed, he sprouted wings and horns as his moral compass swirled and reached pure evil.
One of Lionhead's most highly rated games ever, Black and White, was pretty blatant in its PC representation. You are a god. You make good decisions or evil decisions for your islanders, and this supposed to be black or white. Simple as that. Great concept, a real “hand of god” situation, wielding mighty power over everything you touch. The title spells the narrative right out, and it gives me a great Genesis feeling.
Blizzard's powerhouse World of Warcraft divides itself into two factions which come together to help each other only when convenient (say, against a Lich King or some Cataclysm). Players choose a team to belong to as the first step in character creation, and the choice of playable race is divided by this decision. Most players would be hard pressed to say that there wasn't some aura within the game play to lead one to believe that one faction was posited as more morally good than the other. I would venture to say that the Alliance, which is comprised of the (mostly) white humans and gnomes, the graceful draenei in their crystal city, or the night elves (the only race associated with something other than lightness) in their gorgeous, dense forests, or even worgens who are really humans who change into werewolves anyhow, is somehow supposed to seem less savage and corrupt.
The Horde, on the other hand, is composed of undead dwelling in an Undercity of abominations, trolls and orcs with tusks jutting from their jaws, green goblins, and the blood elves, who, while pale and living in a city devoted to the sun, have a dark weakness for magic. The Horde is certainly shown to be the less civilized, especially the races with the supposedly less desirable features, and darker or decaying skin.
This dichotomy of using light and dark to express concepts of good and evil being widespread, pervasive, and very old makes me wonder how it affects people who consume video games.
There are certainly examples that flip this idea, I'm sure. Several that are not U.S.-centric or Western come to mind. Certainly, you as readers will be able to think of others. But does that undo the long-standing history of what has been established in cultures where this iconology has become so common?
How do you think that non-white people or people of color might feel when encountering these narratives while consuming video games? When it comes to good vs. evil being represented as light vs. dark, can we really say it's just a game?
Comments27 comments have been made. Post a comment.
Have an idea for the blog? Click here to contact us!
TOS fan (not verified)
Anonymous (not verified)
Roberta (not verified)