A while back there was an argument on the internet. Yes I know. It should have stayed there, right? This time, however, it had to do with something I as a gamer have had to struggle with a long time. And, by the way, as a game developer. It is that confounded, over used and frankly to my mind pathetic defense of using “historically correct” as an excuse to justify certain characteristics of fantasy settings.
Usually it has to do with the treatment of women, why they are a part of the world in the specific way that they are, or why they’re not. What roles they can have, how those roles are limited etc. Fantasy game settings often reflect a fairly homogenous mass or war, hierarchies, orcs and dragons. They call into being a world where women are treated as backdrops to the real participants in the world, and almost Aristotlean society* where the action is performed and centered around men and their bloody conflicts, forgetting everyday life in favor of high politics, action and – in the best cases – intrigue.
So why is it such a lousy excuse, this historical correctness in fantasy settings? Because the author chooses the influences to use. It is solely in the hands of the author what parts of history to pick and include in the game setting, novel or adventure. No one else tells the author how to portray men, women and others in whatever context they choose to act in. And so the excuse is just that. An excuse for the poor treatment of whichever “minority”** that happen to get the short end of the stick at that particular time. “But it was like that back then” has no relevance for a made up world. If there are dragons, why can’t there be equality? I believe it is because we reproduce patterns we see around us even when we play. There is nothing wrong with sticking inside of your own comfort zones, we can’t always be creative enough to forge new paths through unknown terrain and stuff like that, it would be exhausting. But we can stop defending some expressions of our culture with the “historically correct” excuse. We can also start recognizing that some expressions of our culture – although enjoyable – leave some things to be desired.
For me, looking back at Blade runner, I still think it is an excellent film. But the scene between Deckard and Rachael in his apartment is uncomfortably close to rape, with an obviously unwilling Rachael more or less forced into compliance by Deckard. I find it extremely uncomfortable to watch nowadays. There are a lot of those scenes in older movies (and newer ones too).
As a movie fan, as a gamer, asa comic book reader, as a fantasy reader it has to be okay for me to like some parts of a work and dislike others, without needing excuses.
In a research paper about boys’ interactions in the Sims, Anna Munthers and Louise Peterson*** come to the conclusion that freedom is not the same thing as exploration. The Sims allow boys to play around with gender identity, but they rarely do. Instead they reproduce sociocultural patterns they see around them. My conclusion is that even though we are potentially free to explore anything in games, we rarely do. Instead we reproduce cultural patterns and norms that fall within our comfort zones. We have an easier time imagining dragons and elves than we have imagining women in power. This is not a new conclusion. Gary Alan Fine drew the same conclusions in “Shared Fantasy” when he talked about the freedom of choice in role-playing games. Yes we are free to choose, but we don’t. Instead we keep to comfortable and excluding power fantasies, tailored to the same homogenous group interests that have dominated nerd culture for a long time. White, heterosexual males. No wonder these power fantasies are so similar.
With this in mind, that we have the freedom to be inspired by anything from the past, it is hard to defend an author’s choice by saying “that’s the way it was”. Maybe it was. But there are dragons in the book as well. So why dragons and not powerful (fill in the blank)? This is why I feel that “historically correct” doesn’t cut it as an excuse for the poor treatment of representative minorities, be it in games, books or other media. We choose. Sometimes those choices are poor. We have to start recognizing that, and we have to start recognizing why we make those choices. And in the end that it is okay to like only parts of a cultural expression without feeling the need to defend it with thin arguments about how it’s not really that bad, it’s just historically correct.
* Woman was, according to Aristotle, an imperfect or incomplete man. In the hierarchical world of Ancient Greece, this meant that men could legitimately control women’s bodies. From a scientific perspective, they were lower on the status ladder than men.
** As representative minority. Remember Ursula Le Guin’s Ged? He had dark skin. In every comic, TV-series etc I’ve seen he’s been light skinned and even in some cases blonde. This does not only affect women.
*** Datorspelandets dynamik, red. Jonas Linderoth, Studentlitteratur 2007
The image of this blog post is a fraction of the Bayeux tapestry.