The Melting Pot and the Salad Bowl: Why the Witcher 3 is a step forward for ethnic diversity in games
I watched an Akira Kurosawa film the other day. It was good, but it was too Japanese.
No, not really. But I did read a Forbes article today titled "Yes, I'm Colorblind about The Witcher 3, and Yes that's a problem". The author responds to an article by South African writer Tauriq Moosa that criticises The Witcher 3 for its lack of non-White characters. Moosa complains that it's symptomatic of a general tendency for games to ignore minorities.
I sympathise with Moosa, and agree that diversity in games is generally pretty dismal. But in targeting The Witcher 3, I believe that Moosa was wrong-headed, culturally insensitive, and has inadvertently attacked the very diversity he seeks to promote. I have no doubt he has good intentions, but I find his article personally offensive.
First, let me clarify where I'm coming from.
I'm no reactionary or anti-political-correctness crusader. I'm what many people would call a bleeding-heart liberal. I've never voted for the Labor or Liberal parties (the Australian equivalents of the Democrats and Republicans, respectively) because I find them both too conservative. I've always voted for the very liberal Greens instead.
I am, for example, generally a fan a Anita Sarkeesian, and have no tolerance for her army of hateful detractors (the mere existence of people who call themselves 'anti-Feminist' strikes me as incredible).
I'm also no stranger to racial diversity. My wife is a dark-skinned South African woman who grew up under Apartheid. We delight in our mixed-race daughter, and we're raising her with dual influence from both our cultures, and in both of our native tongues: English in my wife's case, and Polish in mine.
In 2010, something very special happened to me. After decades of playing computer games, I played - for the first time in my life - one that was for me. It was a first-time game from a young Polish developer called CDProjekt RED, and it was called Wiedźmin. I was enthralled. The people in this game looked like me. They spoke my language. They emanated a Polishness that at once resonated with my own.
You might think, as Moosa would seem to: "Pffft, big deal - you're a White guy, so you've been playing games about yourself all your life." But that's a very myopic way to look at ethnic identity. I find the notion that a person's identity might be defined by their skin colour to be patently horrific, not to mention inaccurate. There are a thousand physical and cultural idiosyncrasies that can make up a person's ethnic identity, of which skin colour is, at most, one.
When I grew up watching White Americans in Hollywood movies or big budget games, I never felt like I was seeing a representation of myself. They were from the other side of the world to me, their roots were different to my Slavic ones and, with their square jaws and rectangular heads, they didn't particularly look like me either. I imagine that a similar thing would be felt by an olive-skinned Venezuelan watching movies about olive-skinned Italians: they would see foreigners, whose coincidentally similar skin colour would be mostly irrelevant.
Sure, I had American heroes, but they were as likely to be Hispanic (Lou Diamond Phillips' Chavez in Young Guns) or Black (Mr T) as White (Val Kilmer's Madmartigan in Willow). I just saw them as cool guys, rather than 'guys like me'.
I felt increasingly out of place in the predominantly Anglo-Saxon society I was growing up in. Very rarely in a threatened or hostile way, but just like I never quite fit in. I'd grown up in a Polish household, and Polishness was a large part of my makeup, though I almost never saw this part of myself reflected in Australian society. It was a part of myself that felt fundamental to who I was, but existed mostly quietly inside me, lonely.
As I grew older, I discovered Polish cinema, and fanatically devoured every Kieślowski and Wajda film I could find, among others. These films felt like home. Sure, they weren't exactly about me, since their protagonists hadn't spent most of their lives in Australia. But they spoke intimately to that part of me that had hitherto remained unspoken to.
And then in 2010, I played Wiedźmin ("The Witcher"). Here was a huge, 50-hour game that was unashamedly, profoundly Polish. I played the demo, was at once entranced, and hurried out and bought the full game. At every step in its sizeable world, I would encounter people who looked like they could be my relatives, or even looked like me.
The high cheekbones. The small triangular jaws. The heads that were wide and flat at the back. The lean forearms. Here I was among my own people. I found elements of Slavic mythology and Polish history (both old and recent). The world was covered with Polish folk art and architecture, and I recognised the world's alphabet as a variant of the ancient Slavic Glagolica script. I noted in Wiedźmin's world the twin pulls of Romanticism and Positivism that had so defined the various ebbs and flows of uprisings throughout Polish history.
And then there were the less tangible things: the humour, the melancholy, the colourful profanity, the earthy philosophising - it was all so familiar. I spoke to old women who sounded like my grandmother. Zoltan the Dwarf reminded me of family friends. I mean, drinking vodka and getting blind drunk was actually an important gameplay mechanic! Playing the first Wiedźmin game remains one of my most cherished memories in three decades of gaming.
This wasn't just the rosy-eyed romanticism of a culture-starved ex-pat talking. In the DVD that accompanied the Collector's Edition, the creators positively beamed as they spoke proudly of their singular achievement: the bringing of a piece of Polish pop culture - the Wiedźmin books by Andrzej Sapkowski - onto the world stage.
No one had achieved this since Chopin. Sure, Poland produced some renowned art film directors, jazz musicians, and a few Nobel Laureate writers. But these were 'high art' works that never really seeped into global mass culture. We never had, say, an Abba or a Björk. The average Westerner was likely to have read just one Polish book in her life, if any - and it was about as un-Polish as a Polish book can get: written in English, by an ex-pat with an Anglicised name, about Africa (Heart of Darkness).
But now, CD Projekt had done it. They had made a game by Poles, for Poles, and placed it upon the world stage. By doing so, they opened up a window through which the world could glimpse a slice of Polish popular culture. Sure, Sapkowski's world borrowed liberally from Tolkien's, which was based largely on Germanic, Nordic and Finnish mythology. But Geralt of Rivia's world was still unmistakably steeped in Polish culture, history and mythology.
It was a modest achievement. The Witcher could at best be described as a "cult hit". Sales were good for a first-time small studio, but technical issues marred the game, some juvenile sexism had crept into the otherwise mature narrative, and reviews were mixed. In many ways, The Witcher 2 was a quantum leap forward. It was graphically and artistically stunning - at times peerless - and with writing that was almost universally praised for its complex and believable characters. Though it too was not without problems, and its limited scope still made it feel like a little brother to a Skyrim or a Dragon Age: Origins.
The Witcher 3 changed all that. It's a truly AAA title; it arrived with bombast and grandeur and promptly raised industry benchmarks. It was sprawling, ambitious, and well-made. Critics praised CDPR's refusal to take shortcuts that must have been tempting when making such a huge game. Care was taken to ensure the scores of NPCs felt like believable people, and almost all of the numerous quests feel like solid stories, their many possible outcomes intertwining meticulously with the narrative whole.
There have been AAA games by Polish studios before, but they weren't really Polish Games per se. Think Bulletsorm or Dead Island. The latter, incidentally, contained an Aboriginal character who looked absolutely nothing like a real Aboriginal person, but like a Black American. This is absurd, given the tens of thousands of years and vastly different genealogies that separates those two groups. But no one in the media seemed to pick up on this - as long as the skin colour matches, that's all that matters, right?
Anyway, one of CDPR's achievements that hasn't been mentioned much is how they managed to make such a gigantic game without watering down its inherent Polishness. By now, the Polish market must be a small fraction of CDPR's target audience. They could easily have watered down the cultural elements of the game to make it more suited for an American and/or global audience, which was far more instrumental to its commercial success. This happens routinely with Hollywood movies. But they didn't. Witcher 3 is as Polish as Witcher was. This is a great thing, for everybody.
As it stands, The Witcher 3 is Poland's finest export of popular culture in living memory. CDPR have produced a world-class game that would not have been the same if it had been produced anywhere else on the planet. It is a unique gift to the world that only Poland was qualified to give. The French gave us Asterix, Hong Kong gave us Bruce Lee, and with The Witcher 3, Poland has finally made its contribution to global mass culture too. It's a win for Poles like me who rarely get to see themselves in a game, but it's also a win for pop cultural diversity in general.
But for writers like Moosa, a Polish game like The Witcher 3 is unacceptable - it's too Polish.
Of course, Moosa would surely never say that the game is too Polish. For him, the issue is much coarser than that: it's simply too White, and that's that. No need to look deeper than skin-deep.
Well, yes. Of course everyone in The Witcher is White. It's a Polish game, made by Polish people, based heavily on Polish history and Slavic mythology. And so everyone in the game - whether Human, Dwarf, or Elf - tends to look.....surprise surprise......Polish.
Poles, like most Northern Europeans, almost all happen to be White - this paleness helps our skin get more vitamin D from the scarce sun. The largest non-White ethnic minority in Poland are the Vietnamese, who comprise less than 0.1% of the population. Not surprisingly, there were even fewer Vietnamese people in medieval Poland, and fewer still in ancient Slavic mythology.
For me, the saddest thing about this whole thing is that people like Moosa have clearly missed the cultural uniqueness of The Witcher 3. Some Polish critics praised the game's Polish elements, yet optimistically predicted that the game might be even more interesting for outsiders than for Poles, since it would contain elements that were exotic for them. But for people like Moosa, the opposite seems to have occurred: all he saw was just another Western game.
It's not just another Western game. It's the first ever AAA game that portrays Polish people and Polish culture. This is our game. The Polishness of this game is special to us, because it's the only one we've got!
I get it - there are no AAA games with all Brown or Black characters. I wish there were; I would eagerly play them too. But to Moosa I say: please understand that until The Witcher, there were no AAA games about Poles either. Although we're a smaller and tighter group than you, we finally got our game. I hope that you finally get yours too. But you have no right to begrudge us ours.
I kind of get the misunderstanding. For one, much of the historical and cultural nuance would have been lost on Moosa, who obviously isn't well acquainted with Polish and Slavic cultures. He can hardly be blamed for this. Though the irony is that he'd be better acquainted with them if he'd paid attention to the game he just played with a grain of cultural curiosity, instead of choosing to dismiss it all as frivolous nonsense.
Thus he calls any attempt at historical accuracy in the game "nonsensical" because "accuracy and realism flew out the window with the harpies." Really? Greek and Incan myths were as outlandish as Slavic ones - does that mean that insisting that the humans in them be portrayed by people who look like Greeks and Incans is also "nonsensical"?
Also, Moosa would have played the game with English dubbing, complete with American and British accents. I always played through the games in Polish, but I briefly switched to English out of curiosity, and it does indeed feel like a very different game. The voice acting seems solid enough, but the dialogue feels heavily watered down, and much of the nuance is lost in translation.
So I can see how an American, Briton, or South African might fail to grasp the cultural content of the game, and instead look through it through his own cultural lens (especially since many other fantasy games are entirely fictional, without real world cultural meaning). I think this is a lazy and crass way to view a cultural product from another country, and I'm not excusing it - but I do find it at least understandable. Especially if that cultural lens happens to contain an obsession with skin colour, as the South African and American lenses tend to.
For this is a key point: Poles aren't anywhere near as obsessed with skin colour as South Africans Americans seem to be. Nationality or ethnicity? Yes. But skin colour? No.
We have no reason to. Unlike South Africans during Apartheid, we were never conditioned to see the world in terms of skin colour. Unlike the British, we never colonised distant lands. And unlike the Americans, we didn't take part in the African Slave Trade (though, if you're Anglo, some of your ancestors might have owned some of my Slavic ones, before they owned the ancestors of present-day Black Americans, since that's where the word "Slave" comes from).
So, without colonisation or African slavery, we don't have a resulting large Black population, and we don't have any White Guilt, because there's nothing to feel guilty about. White Guilt is largely an Anglo-Saxon and Afrikaner problem - please don't project it onto us.
This is of course not to say that Poles have any kind of moral superiority to Anglo Saxons or Afrikaners. Like every nation, we have a checkered past with too many atrocities to count. It's just that our traumas are different to your traumas. In your case, the wronged parties were frequently people of colour. In our cases, they tended to be Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Jews, and Czechs, to name a few.
If playing a game where everyone is White makes you feel uncomfortable because you're American and you live in a country where most people are White but 10-15% of people is Black, then go play a game where most people are White but 10-15% of the population is Black. It's called Skyrim. It's American, and was clearly made with an American demographic in mind.
But if you play a Polish game, please don't complain that there are too many Poles in it, and that you'd like the demographics to be a bit more similar to that of your own country's. That's like walking out of the airport in a foreign country and angrily saying "Where are all the McDonald's!?"
Broadly speaking, there are two ways of looking at multi-ethnic harmony. One is the Melting Pot, and the other is the Salad Bowl. The Melting Pot is by far the more commonly understood metaphor, but it's also by far the least desirable of the two.
A Melting Pot is a crude furnace that assimilates everything into a single, homogeneous pulp. Some melting pots are mindless, producing whatever random gloop happens to remain at the end of the melting process. Some, as in the case of a metal alloy, use a recipe, and carefully discard and select elements accordingly. Neither is a particularly desirable conception of multiculturalism.
A Salad Bowl is a harmonious and exciting environment where the unique qualities of every single ingredient are honoured and celebrated. The lettuce is green and crispy, the tomatoes are red and acidic, the oil is mellow and fatty, and together they make for a sumptuous dance of flavours and textures. No one demands that the tomato be more green and crispy, or that everyone become a little more acidic. The only requirement is that they get along harmoniously. When they do, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. This is multiculturalism at its best.
A world where a Polish dev isn't allowed to make a fully Polish game is the world of the Melting Pot. It's not a more diverse world. It's a less diverse world. It's a world where everyone is asked to become a little bit more similar, and the unique demographics of any one culture must be downplayed. It's a world where the smaller cultures of the world get smeared into incoherence by the normalising wooden spoon of conformity. It's a world that's not likely to produce many culturally diverse games.
I want to live in a Salad Bowl. I want to be able to play a game where I can see my own people, in all their glory, uniqueness and imperfection. And I want to be able to play games where I can see other peoples in all of theirs.