The racialization of people of color, as they are constituted in North America, has long had an ambivalent relationship with the whiteness that Others it. For example, blackness is often seen as a sign of being predatory, lazy or licentious and East Asian women are frequently considered submissive China dolls rather than human beings. However there is also an incredible fascination with people of color. The common literary tropes of the darkest Africa or mysterious Orient display a white fascination with people of color that, while still racist, is also strangely reverent. Whiteness finds something in the Other that it wishes to commune with in some way. These attitudes, while racist, are more strongly connected to appropriation than denigration. They are still prominent today across a wide range of media, whether it be white appreciation of black music forms such as hip-hop and jazz or fetishistic interracial pornography. Of course, as a growing media form, video games are a prime location for this white desire for people of color. No game better represents this than last year’s Far Cry 3, a first person shooter game developed and published by Ubisoft. Far Cry 3 was easily one of the most mechanically well designed games of 2012, yet had one of the most tragically problematic narratives. Set on the fictional Rook island somewhere in the vicinity of the Malay Archipelago, Far Cry 3 centers around a white man, Jason Brody, who becomes more and more enmeshed with a tribe of fictional native people named the Rakyat and their erotically portrayed leader Citra.
The game’s story begins with Jason and his yuppy friends and siblings being kidnapped by pirates. When Jason escapes, he is saved by a black man named Dennis who gives him tattoos which Dennis refers to as the Tatau. The Tatau provide Jason with mystical warrior strength which he uses to rescue his friends one by one. This introduces a role playing game-like talent tree, with each unlocking of a skill granting Jason a new tattoo on his arm. The skill trees are of course named after animals, Heron, Spider and Shark specifically. Mechanically this takes the form of learning new special “take downs” which allow Jason to swiftly and instantly dispatch unaware foes, as well as perks like harvesting plants or animal pelts more efficiently (crafting is also a core game mechanic). He eventually becomes enamored with the mysterious and voluptuous Rakyat leader, Citra, and quickly becomes an important figure in her tribe as he helps liberate the island from the pirates and return its various camps and compounds to Rakyat control.
The fetishistic nature of this fantasy is obvious. It is the White Savior trope meeting the Magical Native on a war-torn island. The Other is fascinating and powerful, both mystical and natural (the power of the Tatau and its connection to the nature of the island) and erotic (Citra is scantily clad and moves and speaks alluringly). This gives the Other an appeal that post-modern whiteness, which feels trapped in a technologically advanced society bereft of a connection to nature and the erotic, feels it lacks. Of course, the Other remains incomplete without whiteness, giving whiteness its power. Jason is needed to free the Rakyat from the scourge of the pirates and the drug lord who funds them and gains Citra’s personal and sexual favor. The gap between whiteness and the Other is bridged when Jason is given the Tatau, and its connection is consummated. But to prevent the Other from overcoming whiteness (untenable in our still white supremacist society), whiteness is given a unique status as savior and god. This allows the presumed white player to feel both a reverent and fetishistic connection to people of color while preventing any feelings of impotence or weakness in the face of that fascination.
This is of course not enough. The social order that produces these narratives is of course very racist, so sublimation is ultimately necessary. As the game reaches its climax, it is revealed that Jason’s former mentor Dennis is a useless drunk who fawns over Citra, and that Citra herself is quite mad. The game ends with Citra kidnapping Jason’s friends and expecting him to execute them with a ritual dagger. The final choice—stay with Citra or leave the island—is made with the blade at the throat of Jason’s girlfriend Liza Snow. If the player makes the morally bankrupt choice and proceeds to slit Liza’s throat, they are rewarded by Citra ultimately fatally stabbing Jason after copulating with him. If the player instead uses the blade to cut Liza free, Dennis comes and attempts to stab Jason as revenge for Jason’s betraying Citra. Citra, enamored with Jason in her own morbid way, jumps in front of the strike and becomes mortally wounded instead. Ultimately black masculinity is impotent in the face of white masculinity, and the excessively sexualized femininity of color is rendered pathological. The order of whiteness overriding the colored Other remains; the white savior, Jason, gets his experience of the dark island and the ones who pay are the people of color who granted him his power, as monstrous as it is.
In light of Far Cry 3 and this year’s BioShock Infinite, which also dealt with race in an in depth way, it will be interesting to see how narratives of race evolve in video games. In Infinite, black people are an oppressed lower class in the floating city of Columbia, and the black revolutionary Daisy Comstock promises them freedom. As sympathetic as she is at the start, she eventually becomes nearly as bad as the power she opposes, ultimately threatening to murder a child because he is white and wealthy. As an increasingly mainstream and vital media form, video games will presumably prove to be a fecund place for discourses on the subject of race. Far Cry 3 shows that racism can often operate without malice, and it in some ways opens a dialogue of its own. Games like Far Cry 3 may very well prove as catalysts for the creation of games and characters which deal with race in a less problematic manner, or at least for discussions of the way race functions as both a narrative tool and a socio-political entity.