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This is Your Brain on Stories

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The Ethics of Storytelling, Part 3 (Part 1, Part 2)

If you know anything about me as a writer for The Fandomentals, you’ll know that ‘stories matter’ has become a bit of refrain for me (okay more than a bit). The phrase pops up in all of my social media accounts and my website. I talk about it a lot in my reviews of various TV shows. This very series of articles on Ethics in Storytelling stems from that one concept. It’s basically my career soapbox at this point, and I don’t plan on that changing any time soon.

In the last of my articles in this series, I wrote about why stories matter: their power to shape one’s perception of self, the Other, and the world in positive and negative ways. I realized sometime afterward that I’d put the cart before the horse a bit. It’s one thing to say stories matter because they shape our thinking. But the counter-argument invariably emerges that some people are ‘above’ being influenced. Or, to put it differently, that human beings have the ability to exist apart from socio-cultural narratives and can judge them impartially as we consume them. We’ll know when we hear a ‘bad story’ and be able to reject it without it influencing us.

It’s a reasonable argument. After all, many of us can and do recognize that stories are harmful. If no one was capable of recognizing toxic or problematic stories, this website wouldn’t really exist. So, I realized I needed to back up a bit and explain not just that stories matter but how. How do stories shape us? How do our brains process and interpret stories? And, what does all of this mean for the responsibility of storytellers?

Of Words and How They Mean

Full confession: I’m not just an unabashed nerdy fangirl, I am a dork with a capitol D. I love languages. I went to school for ancient languages and linguistics. If you want to keep me occupied for a long period of time, ask me about The Great Vowel Shift or the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language at the end of the 19th century. Or, about how a bunch of dudes in the Enlightenment decided to try and make English more like Latin. Best be prepared for a rant if you ask about the latter, though. I have a lot of opinions about it, most of them cranky.

So, when I sat down to think about how stories matter, my first instinct was to look to language itself for a model. The building blocks of stories are words and concepts, after all. Both stories and language itself are, at heart, attempts to create and communicate meaning out of lived experience. But how does that happen? Now, there are whole fields devoted to these subjects (e.g., neuro-linguistics, semantics, cognitive linguistics), but don’t worry, I’m going to summarize. And I’ll do my best not to get to jargon-y.

So, to start off with, words have meaning. Groundbreaking, right? You’re probably thinking I wasted money on a degree in this shit, right about now, but bear with me. The most prominent theory of word meaning (lexical semantics if you want to know the terminology) posits that while a single word can’t mean anything, it can mean many things. What exactly it means in any given situation derives from context clues.

Take the word ‘bank’ for instance. Look it up in a dictionary and you’ll find three different clusters of meanings: one related to slope or inclination (like a river bank or the inclination of an airplane), one related to finances, and one related to a linear or tiered arrangements of objects. I found 23 different definitions of the word ‘bank’, and those were just noun forms. It’s dizzying. And yet, most speakers of English would have little trouble determining which meaning applies to the sentence “I’m heading down to the bank this afternoon to get cash”. Why? Because context informs which meaning our brain defaults to. People don’t usually get money from a river or the cushion of a pool table.

Over time, one meaning may become dominant as it’s usage grows more frequent. Take ‘bank’ again. If I said, sans context, “I’m going to the bank”, most people would assume I meant the financial institution. Why? Because most of the time, that’s what people mean by ‘bank’.

This points to the fact that the human brain is both incredibly lazy and incredibly efficient. In fact, it is in it’s very laziness that efficiency emerges. Your brain cycling through every single possible meaning of the word ‘bank’ every time someone uses it would waste an incredible amount of energy. “This word means one thing, except in circumstances where these other words or concepts occur” is a much more efficient system. It’s lazy insofar as it arises from the brain’s desire to expend minimal energy for maximum interpretive potential. Prioritizing meaning in this way saves energy and processing power that the brain can utilize elsewhere.

I call this process the creation of ‘meaning pathways’: connections between specific words and their meaning informed by context and frequency. Think of it as the linguistic equivalent of the ‘path of least resistance’ mentality. As I phrased it in my piece on male victimization:

“Absent specific clues, the brain takes the shortest pathway of interpretation, whether it be a word or a concept.”

If not corrected or specifically led elsewhere, the brain defaults to the most common perception of a word’s meaning.

Or, if you want another example, think of it like driving a cart down a wide dirt road. There are many possible ways to travel this road with your wheeled conveyance. But, chances are there’s a well worn rut down the center (or maybe one of the sides). Unless you specifically direct your cart elsewhere, it’s going to take that rut. Why? Because it’s simplest and requires the least amount of effort to use. That’s a ‘meaning pathway’, only it’s in your brain not on the road. And instead of being about going physical distances, it refers to traversing the distance from language input to word or concept meaning.

Contextual Meaning and Relevance

You better believe I’m going to use this gif.

Communication theories reinforce this basic premise on a larger scale than words. One such theory, known as Relevance Theory, posits (among other things) that the human brain is wired to maximize relevance in communication. In any given situation, it will do no more processing than is necessary to achieve a contextually relevant meaning. It’s basically my idea of a ‘meaning pathway’ writ large to include entire utterances like speeches or whole conversations.

As with word context, relevance theory implies that context has a significant part to play in determining what people mean when they communicate on a conversational level. Just think of the idea of ‘discourse’. In an academic setting, ‘discourse’ refers to a neutral, frank discussion of ideas. It’s basically just a fancy way to say an earnest, intelligent conversation. On Tumblr, ‘discourse’ is decidedly negative in tone. That’s because Tumblr has a culture and framework of its own in which that idea, and how it plays out as a dialogue between people, progresses in a particular way. Thus, engaging in ‘discourse’ will make some concepts more relevant depending on whether you’re on Tumblr or in a classroom talking philosophy.

All sorts of things determine relevance. Physical context, the preceding topic of conversation, familiarity with the person and their speaking patterns, a history of communication. All of these impact which pathway a brain will default to as ‘relevant’ to any given situation. ‘Relevance’ is just a way of speaking about the necessity of context to determine not just what individual words mean, but also entire conversations and how those conversations will play out. Because brains are lazy and want to do minimal effort to maximize meaning.

Moreover, as a theory of communication more generally, Relevance Theory also applies to the interpretation of media and art. “Utterances” are more than verbal. We read and interpret books in a certain way because of what our brain finds relevant to that book’s meaning, for example. This is why two people can read the same book and walk away with a different meaning. Because although the author of that book may have intended one meaning, readers bring different sets of assumptions to their experience of reading. Their brain’s definition of ‘relevant meaning’ can differ because their brain has different contexts that shape it’s processing of information.

In other words, they have different default meaning pathways. Brains will do the minimal amount of work to find a meaning that ‘makes sense’ in context and stop processing.

Conditioned Meaning, Or Brains Sucks Sometimes

Sometimes I mean this ironically.

I’m going to veer off road a bit and discuss another field of study that focuses on patterns of thought and the creation of meaning: psychology. Specifically, cognitive psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is based on the premise that people’s reactions to events are based more on their perception of that event than on the event itself. In other words, people have frameworks for interpreting situations in either positive, negative, or neutral ways and react based on those frameworks. CBT seeks to challenge negative patterns of thought/frameworks in order to change ineffective behavior or coping mechanisms.

The frameworks that behavioral therapists seek to dismantle and rebuild in healthier ways are no different from what linguists and communication theorists call ‘meaning’, just applied differently. Because perception is just another way to say “what this means”. Or, put better, “what this means to me”. Because perception is both personal and conditioned. My perception of an event reflects my thought processes, my feelings, my conceptual frameworks. But these, in turn, are conditioned by my history and experience.

For example, I was raised in a home where policing volume was used to control my participation in conversations. Therefore, when someone tells me “Gretchen, you’re too loud”, what I hear is “Gretchen, you don’t matter, and I don’t want to listen to what you have to say”. The words ‘mean’ one thing but my brain interprets them based on a conditioned framework based on a pattern of interactions.

Another example would be how frustrating certain widely accepted soothing phrases are. I grew up in an emotionally volatile home where my older siblings projected their frustration with my mom’s mood swings onto me. Thus, I interpret phrases like “It’s going to be okay” to mean “You’re overly emotional about this and out of control”. Is that what the words “It’s going to be okay” actually mean? Not if you look in a dictionary. But that’s what they mean to me, because how I interpret certain phrases has been conditioned by my experience of what those words ‘meant’ in a different context.

It’s another way to talk about ‘meaning pathways’ essentially. Only these meaning pathways aren’t bound by the words themselves or even the context of a conversation. These are conditioned by a lifetime’s worth of experience. They’re old frameworks inasmuch as they stem from my childhood, and they’re therefore ingrained ones. The ruts in these meaning pathways are well worn, and my brain defaults to them on instinct.

Tellingly, many behavioral therapists call these frameworks stories.

The Root of Responsibility

And this is where I draw it all back in to storytelling. Because what I’ve elsewhere called ‘stories’ (i.e., narratives in media) are really just frameworks for interpretation. They’re no different from lived experience in terms of how our brain uses them to create meaning pathways. Just like language meaning derives from linguistic context or dialogue meaning derives from conversational or personal context. Narratives in media exist in their own form of social context. They represent the individual units of meaning in our cultural system of frameworks the same way that individual words function as units of meaning in language.

Stories—and by stories I mean any narrative in media, whether it occur in a book, film, TV, comics, etc—then, participate in a system of frameworks that make up our social consciousness. They influence us in the same way that words and conversations do; they shape our default meaning pathways.

“The gist of what communication and neurolinguistics theories tell us is that the human brain is both efficient and lazy. It takes the shortest path to contextual meaning. If not corrected or specifically led elsewhere, the brain defaults to the most common perception.” (source)

This is where responsibility comes into play. Stories either reinforce or undermine meaning pathways. When there is a prevailing norm for conceptualizing something, failure to challenge or offer specific details pointing in a different direction will be interpreted in line with the norm. Think of it like the meaning of the word ‘bank’ mentioned above. Absent any context clues, my brain will assume ‘bank’ means ‘financial institution’ because that is the most common definition used in everyday conversation.

With words, meaning pathways are more likely to be neutral. However, that’s not always the case with cultural frameworks. Meaning pathways created by oppressive or problematic social systems are more likely to be problematic and harmful themselves. When this is the case, reinforcing the meaning pathway further reinforces negative frameworks.

I spoke about it in my article on male victimization. Our society’s default meaning pathway is ‘men cannot be victims of sexual violence’, and the stories on our screens reinforce these meaning pathways for ourselves as individuals. A character like Archie in Riverdale then, is perceived of as being equally culpable (and/or lucky) for having a relationship with an older woman that is actually illegal solely on her part.

Thus, storytellers have an immense burden of responsibility when it comes to problematic meaning pathways. As with words, lack of direct undermining reinforces the default meaning pathway by sheer absence of contradiction. Going back to the bank example. If I were to tell my friend, “I’m going to the bank”, and I meant ‘river bank’ but did not tell her, she would assume I meant the financial institution. By not specifying otherwise, I have reinforced the default meaning, even though it is wrong.

The same applies to stories. Hence, depiction without context or contradiction will be interpreted by the audience as endorsement. In many situations, this does no active harm to viewers. We use this neural pathway process all the time, actually. It’s what tropes and archetypes are, just put in different words. If you see an old man with a long beard and a staff in a fantasy novel, chances are you can assume he’s a Wise Mentor. Again, this is useful because it’s more efficient for the brain to deal in shorthand and stereotypes. It maximizes efficiency.

But it can do active harm when stories either directly or indirectly reinforce harmful meaning pathways. Depicting bisexual woman as manipulative or cheating. Depicting black men as volatile, violent, or drug-addicted. Having a man play the character of a trans woman. Each of these situations reinforces pre-existing negative societal meaning pathways. Absent a direct challenge, the repeated use of violence as a ‘power up’ for ‘weak’ female characters on Game of Thrones reinforces patriarchal concepts of toxic masculinity and violence as empowerment.

Stories literally have power to shape social and individual consciousness directly through the creation and reinforcement of meaning pathways. Storytellers, as the creators and purveyors of meaning pathways, have tremendous responsibility for how they wield that power in the stories they tell.

So What Do We Do?

The good news is that meaning pathways can be changed. It’s hard and takes a lot of work, but it can be done. The whole point of the therapeutic discipline of CBT is to undermine and change negative thought patterns. It can be done on a personal level if the patient commits to do the work and actively challenge these frameworks.

It can be done on a societal level as well. The lazy brain meaning pathway can be changed, but only by interaction with the new ideas over and over again. It’s why normalization, exposure, and representation matter. Because by seeing things more and more often, we can change that default setting.

In 1996, a Gallup poll found that only 27% percent of Americans surveyed agreed that same-sex marriage ought to be legal. 20 years later, 61% of Americans surveyed by the same poll believe it should be legal. The numbers more than doubled in 20 years and what did we have during that time? TV, film, and books that normalized same-sex relationships. Media that depicted LGBT+ characters as mothers, sons, wives, daughters, cousins, husbands, friends, bosses. We had media that sought to depict LGBT+ persons as ‘just like you and me’. They too, were worthy of love and acceptance. They too, hurt and suffered prejudice. The more humanized LGBT+ people were in our media, the more favorable widespread opinion became toward marriage equality.

That’s the power of stories. Changing meaning pathways from oppressive and harmful to positive. And it’s precisely because stories both shape and can change these pathways that representation, diversity, and storytelling itself matters. Stories aren’t just the origin of the problem, they’re also, when done sensitively and inclusively, the solution.


Bi, she/her. Gretchen is a Managing Editor for the Fandomentals. An unabashed nerdy fangirl and aspiring sci/fi and fantasy author, she has opinions about things like media, representation, and ethics in storytelling.

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The Unattainable Beauties of BioWare

David

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Happy week after Valentine’s Day! For those of you in a relationship, I hope you were able to spend time with your loved ones and maybe have a little romance. For those of you who are single, I hope that it wasn’t a terribly bitter or frustrating day. In honor of both these states, I’m going to be writing about Bioware characters. But not romanceable characters, oh no. Enough ink has been spilled about them. No, today, we are going to be talking about the ones who for whatever reason are non-romanceable. In fact, it’s going to be a list of who I consider to be the best non-romanceable characters in Bioware games.

A few ground rules first though. First, this list is completely and totally subjective. If you feel like I’ve missed a character, let me know in the comments. Most of these characters are either from the Mass Effect Series or the Dragon Age series. Those are the games I know the best have have played the most. Finally, I’m only going to list five male and five female characters. I could go on all day if allowed.

So, with that out of the way, let’s start with the guys. And first on that list is…

Black Whirlwind

Right off the bat we get a character who seems to contraindicate my first two points. He’s from Jade Empire and isn’t normally the type of character I’d enjoy. But let me justify his place on my list. First off, he’s just a fun character. Pretty much his entire character is dedicated to fighting things with his axes, drinking, and drinking while fighting with his axes. Second of all, given what we do see of his backstory, he’s fairly sympathetic. He was abused by his father until he was finally to defend himself and killed his father, and then was tossed out by his mother. He fought in the arena until he thought he killed his brother. And finally, his voice. Victor Brandt voices him in the game, and that man could read from the stock exchange and make it sound like he was trying to seduce you.

Nathaniel Howe

I can understand why they chose not to have any love interests in Awakening. A lot of the companions are missable and even if they aren’t, there’s better than 50-50 odds that they would die at the end of the expansion. That doesn’t excuse them from making Nathaniel Howe though. He has a compelling and sympathetic backstory, an interesting perspective on the location and events, and a sardonic sense of humor that lets him either play the straight man or the funny man in conversations. And! He got an easter egg quest in Dragon Age 2. I just wish they had followed through and included him in Dragon Age Inquisition (and gave us the chance to smooch him.)

Teagan Guerrin

Bann Teagan gets a bit of a bad rap now, particularly after Trespasser. Time (and the switch to a new engine) were not kind to him, but I remember a different Teagan. A Teagan that stood up to Loghain. A Teagan that risked his life to defend Redcliffe, and then walked straight into a demon’s clutches to buy your party sometime. From a story perspective, having a female human warden marry (or at least be involved with) an up and coming Bann would make just as much sense politically as marrying her to the new king. And from a purely personal standpoint, I would have loved for him to respond to the “Who is dis women Tegan?” quote by saying “My future wife.”

Jeff ‘Joker’ Moreau

Ever since Mass Effect 1, Joker’s presence at the front of the Normandy has been very welcome. Snarky, quick with a quip and a comment about any of your companions, the only fault I have with him was that he was far too quick to abandon the Alliance and hook up with a bunch of racist, human supremacist terrorists in Mass Effect 2. But the fact that he’s loyal specifically to Shepard always melts my heart. I was hoping that in Mass Effect 3 he finally would be a romance option, but alas he was infatuated with EDI. It took a great deal of self control not to sabotage that relationship.

Ser Barris

And here we come to my favorite non-romanceable male character: Ser Derin Barris of the Templar Order. Dude has it all. Good voice and one of the few male PoCs in the series. In addition, he’s everything that a Templar is supposed to be: brave, intelligent, loyal, and willing to defend the weak and the innocent. And yet, after the quest to recruit the Templars, you only see ever see him one more time. The cutscene where he is promoted to Knight-Commander. (A promotion he deserves.) I can only hope that he reappears in Dragon Age 4 as a full romanceable companion.

That covers my five favorite non-romanceable male characters. But what about the ladies? Let’s start with…

Gianna Parasini

Gianna Parasini was one of those characters I didn’t expect to find myself liking as much as I did. When you first meet her in Mass Effect 1, she’s working (undercover) for Novaria’s Internal Affairs. She quickly shows herself not to be completely amoral. Just overworked, overstressed, and tired of being a Yes-Woman to a corrupt executive. When you see her again in Mass Effect 2, she’s much less stressed, and much more willing to joke with Shepard.  She leaves far too soon, leaving a male Shepard with a kiss and a promise to see him around. A promise, unfortunately, left unfulfilled.

Dr. Karin Chakwas

Dr. Chakwas is an interesting addition to this list. She is much older then Shepard. She seems at first to be a poor match. But much like Joker, she offers Shepard a sense of continuity aboard the Normandy. She even mentions that as one of the reasons why she stays aboard the Normandy in all its various incarnations. And, unlike some returning squadmates or even Joker himself at times, her presence aboard the ship never seems forced. Of course Dr. Chakwas will be in the medical bay. Of course she’ll be happy to see you. And of course she’ll be waiting to share a drink with you.

Dr. Lexi T’Perro

Unlike Dr. Chakwas, Dr. Lexi doesn’t really provide much in the way of continuity between different versions of the ship. Instead, she almost provides a mirror for Ryder to see himself and his actions. When she’s first brought aboard as your team’s doctor, she’s nervous. And she channels this nervous energy into annoying practically everyone else on the ship. But as she gets more comfortable with the ship and how things work, she starts to relax a little. Not much, but a little. Add to that her backstory in addition to the fact that she seems to care for the team’s mental health as much as their physical health and you get a character who would be perfect to romance. Shame she’s not an option.

Emily Wong

Emily Wong is one of the most frustrating examples on this list. In Mass Effect 1, she filled the ‘plucky reporter’ archetype so well that I missed being able to speak with her or give her an interview in Mass Effect 2. As the release date for Mass Effect 3 drew closer and rumors of a romanceable reporter on board the Normandy began to swirl, I had hope that it would be Emily.  I was bitterly disappointed. The reporter character on the Normandy was quite weak compared to the strong impression Emily gave in Mass Effect 1. And Emily Wong herself? Unceremoniously killed off in a marketing ploy before the game was released. She deserved better.

Vivienne

Vivienne is a ‘love her or hate her’ type of character. As you can tell by her inclusion on this list, I am in the former camp. Aside from being one of the few women of color companions in the game, Vivienne brings to the table a unique perspective: A mage who fully supports a return to the Circles. Not only that, but she has clear, eloquent arguments to back her up. In addition to that, she has a very striking character design and a wonderful voice actress. Most important of all though is that if her approval of the Inquisitor is high, she seems to genuinely care about them and their well being. I just wish that she didn’t politely shoot you down every time you flirted with her.

So there you have it. My five favorite male and female non-romanceable NPCs from Bioware games. However, there is one person that I have thus far neglected to mention. Or rather, one group of people. That’s right, I’m talking about…

EVERY SINGLE DWARF FROM DRAGON AGE

In Dragon Age: Origins, it was just a bit of trivia. “Hey, did you know that you can’t romance Qunari and dwarf characters?” When Dragon Age 2 came out and we were introduced to Varric, it became a joke. But at least the dwarf fans could still console themselves by remembering that there hadn’t been any Qunari romanceable companions either. By the time of Dragon Age Inquisition and the introduction of Iron Bull and Lead Scout Lace Harding, it’s become one of my main problems with the series.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Why wouldn’t Bioware let us romance Scout Harding, or any other dwarf for that matter? Is it because the animation would look awkward? Too much work? In the end, I can only repeat the refrain so many others have, pining after characters who they couldn’t romance: “Maybe next game.”


Images courtesy of Bioware

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Analysis

Kingdom Come, Representation, And Layers Of Privilege

Barbara

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Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a brand new Czech video game that just came out last week. And ever since its development started, there has been one big controversy connected to it: its almost complete lack of characters of colour.

It isn’t exactly helped by the fact that the chief mind behind the game, Dan Vávra, is right-leaning, and also a bit of an asshole when it comes to responding to these complaints. He doesn’t go far for an insult and refuses to listen to any kind of criticism. Not exactly the kind of person that makes one want to defend him.

So…this is where this article should end, right? A jerk makes a racist game, news at seven.

Well. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

Vávra isn’t the only person working in the development. And the most important thing to know about the game in this context is that it’s not a generalized medieval setting. Instead, it takes place in a particular set of villages and towns and the surrounding forests, villages, and towns that exist until today and that aren’t and never have been big or cosmopolitan in any way. A number of events in the game are based on historical events. It isn’t just a story, it the story of Česká Skalice just before the Hussite wars.

In this context, the usual arguments of “there were plenty of people of colour in Europe in the Middle Ages” fall kind of flat. The usual argument of historicity that is pulled for this is frequently false because Western history is whitewashed and contained markedly more people of colour that we like to pretend. But it’s not always false. There actually were parts of the world where only white people lived. And not only are there no particular historical marks of black, brown or Asian people being present in the particular time and place where Kingdom Come takes place, it would also be very unlikely.

Honestly, the most likely place to find a person of colour in the time period would be Sigismund’s armies, and since those play more the role of the antagonist in the game, that’s not exactly ideal. So this is not, in fact, a case of ignoring the real historical presence of black and Middle-Eastern people.

Instead, the first question to ask here is: is it ever legitimate to create all-white media? If we’re depicting a situation where there realistically wouldn’t be any people of colour – not just history, there are still plenty of towns in the world a non-white person has never set foot in – is it all right to make it whiter than new house paint?

On the face of it, the answer should be yes. As long as we’re depicting an actual situation, we’re depicting. And yet. It may be “accurate,” but it might at the same time be unwise in the current climate, where every all-white piece of media contributes to a narrative that is far from inclusive to people of colour.

So the second question: does it even matter? That is, is historical realism such an important goal to achieve?

Most media that supposedly take place in the past play hard and fast with history to make things more convenient for the narrative, so why should the amount of diversity, of all things, be what is kept realistic? It shouldn’t, that is the answer. As long as other things are changed freely, the argument of historicity is irrelevant one way or another.

Kingdom Come, however, is a game that takes great care to be as realistic as possible. The most frequent complaint from players at the moment is the insane difficulty of lockpicking because that isn’t easy in real life either. So does this change anything? Is the argument of historicity valid in such a case? In other words, even in those media that do their best to stay historically faithful, is such an ambition a worthy goal? Is it more important to have something fit history perfectly than to provide representation?

Accusations of rewriting history would naturally follow a negative answer. First, it’s important to point out that it’s no more rewriting than the constant whitewashing, and with a much better intention. But it is true that with a game that boasts of its realism, it presents a problem. It would discredit their claims of historicity if they simply ignored these kinds of facts. You cannot painstakingly reconstruct medieval Skalice and then add random representation from all over the world without becoming a laughing stock. Not the least because this sort of rewriting of history would play down the racism of the past, and that is not an excuse we should be making for ourselves.

Unless we say that media has to abandon goals of high historical realism, then, we have to admit that in certain setting an all-white cast is appropriate. So that brings forth another question: is it legitimate to choose such settings?

And this brings us to the more complicated power dynamics at play when it comes to Kingdom Come.

As I’ve said, Kingdom Come is a Czech game, dealing with events from Czech history. My history. We, as a country, have always played the lovely game of being both oppressors (towards Slovaks, the Jewish and the Romani people, and even Germans after WWII) and oppressed (by the Austrian empire, Nazi Germany, USSR). In the global world of today, we’re far from being the ones in the most desperate situation, but we’re also hardly the top dogs. On the global scale, we’re a minority.

And both our history and our present are mostly white.

Just to be perfectly clear, this is not a good thing. I’m not saying it as a good thing. It massively contributes to the widespread xenophobia in the Czech Republic. But it is what it is. The fact remains that our by far biggest minority are the Romani people, who form about 3% of the population. So every time you tell a Czech story, it is going to be overwhelmingly white.

So should we be allowed to tell our own stories?

Kingdom Come, of course, is not made for the Czech market. It’s distributed globally, and it means it has a global effect, on people who know nothing of our particular context. As an all-white medieval game – which is all most people will take out of it – it perpetuates exactly the image of whitewashed history that we need to rid ourselves of. It becomes part of the problem.

So does this mean, then, that when we want global money, we have to change the image of our own history to avoid exacerbating the global problem of racism? That is problematic as well, especially as making the game for Czech audience only is not a real option. Our ten million people total don’t make for a big enough audience to pay for a game with this kind of budget. It’s another kind of disadvantage global minorities have. It shouldn’t be necessary to pay for it by adjusting our stories.

And even disregarding that, what if we want to show our stories and our world to the rest of the planet? What if we want to share ourselves? We should be able to do that.

Yet…what if what we want to share turns into a white fantasy in others’ hands?

It seems it shouldn’t be such a big deal. Who cares if we change the skin colour of some characters in the story? It’s still going to be a Czech story. But the problem is, it doesn’t quite work that way. After all, that is the “I don’t see colour” argument, only in reverse.

What I’m about to say will sound insanely racist to anyone from a more cosmopolitan country, but when I was little, I didn’t like watching Sesame Street because the multi-ethnic children there were making it so very foreign to me. I saw them and instantly knew it wasn’t my world. Outside of my travel abroad, I spoke to one non-white person total before adulthood. And I live in the capital, the most multicultural part of the country. Whatever it says about us, the truth is that if we populate historical Czech stories with black people, most Czechs will not regard it as their story.

But there is a reason I was specific in this last sentence. There are truly very few black people living in this country even now. You know who is living here, though? The aforementioned Romani. The presence of Romani people in the game would not make any Czech person feel like it was not our story. It would make them angry — because the racism the Romani face in the Czech Republic is something incredibly ugly — but it would not make the game feel foreign. The Romani minority has been here since the Middle Ages, and there are definitely historical records of them being here in large numbers shortly after Kingdom Come takes place. In fact, there are even complaints of there being “more and more” Romani people in our records because of course our racism would be traditional.

We don’t know, of course, if there were any Romani around Skalice, but it was a way to include people of colour that wouldn’t break with general Czech history. It wouldn’t have gone against our own understanding of who has lived here for a long time. And yet they were never mentioned in any of the diversity complaints I have seen. There are also Cumans included in the game, and no one seems to care much either. And that brings me to my last point.

Demanding diversity in Kingdom Come with a particular idea of diversity in mind, the idea that is based on the ethnic composition of the US, is not only American-centric but also offensive to the oppressed minorities of the Czech Republic.  And complaining about such lack of diversity truly does not come across in a way that would endear the author of the complaint to anyone Czech. Especially if the person complaining is white. If a person of colour is offended by so much mayo in their game and would like to feel represented, I can understand that.

But when a white privileged American talks about what sorts of representation a Czech game should contain – particularly with arguments like that Czechia is “just north of Italy” and Italy is by the sea so obviously there’d be plenty of people of colour in here, which is an actual argument someone presented – it suddenly gains whole another tone. Because whiteness is not the only privilege in the world, and while we certainly benefit from it, we do not benefit from the privilege of being American, and anyone from the US telling us how to tell our own stories without knowing anything about us is always, always going to ring a very uncomfortable bell with us.

So yes, making all-white games should be avoided when possible, because it reinforces an uncomfortable narrative. And representation is a good thing, especially representation of those who hardly ever find themselves on screen. Whenever at least a little possible, diversity should be supported. Warhorse Studios really should have included Romani people in their game, just as Czech filmmakers should try casting some in their films. But not all representation fits one muster and demanding medieval Skalice should look like medieval London only makes stories more identical to each other and less interesting. There is more than one kind of diversity.


Images courtesy of Warhorse Studios

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Analysis

Barbara Kean From Housewife to Mobster

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Gotham had a tall order ahead of it at its inception. It had to take some the most iconic characters from the comic page and meld them in a story that takes place before they were iconic. Any prequel adaptation has to grapple with this in one way or another. But Gotham had the unique challenge with Batman’s famous rouges. The origins of so many of his opponents are intertwined with his. Gotham would have to reinvent these characters and their origins. The series has made these characters its own by allowing their development to move away from their comic book counterparts. There is no character with which this is more prevalent in than Barbara Kean.

In the comics, she’s anything but a rival to Batman. She’s the wife of one of Bruce’s closest allies and the mother of one of his sidekicks.  Yet she herself plays but a small role in the narrative. Gotham’s Barbara Kean has made herself a part of the narrative in ways that have seem to have completely change the character we first meet. Gotham has taken a woman destined to be the mother and wife of heroes and made her one of the most prolific members of the Gotham City’s underworld.

We meet Barbara in the pilot engaged to James Gordon, the perfect place to lead to her becoming her comic book counterpart: married to James Gordon and the mother of his children. They’re in a good place in their relationship. As James finds himself confronted with the corruption of Gotham, Barbara becomes a pillar of support for him. She reaffirms his values when he doubts himself. But this can only last for so long. With James fighting against so much of the darkness in Gotham, it was only a matter of time before it got back to Barbara.

Even with the first bit of tension seeping into their relationship, Barbara’s still willing to stand by James. When she learns James’s life is at stake she goes to Carmine Falcone, the king of Gotham’s underground, to beg for his life. But after she’s terrorized by Falcone’s men, her own faith in James is shaken. She’s seen the true dangers in the mission he’s tasked himself with. She can’t share the burden he’s willing to take on.

At first, she falls back into old habits for the comfort and familiarity, drugs, and her ex-girlfriend, Renee Montoya. It doesn’t last with Montoya, and Barbara finds herself in a state of flux. During this time she meets Selina Kyle, who later becomes a close companion. She also meets Jason Skolimski. He becomes an inciting figure of change for her. A serial killer and psychopath, he takes Barbara captive and she almost doesn’t make it out alive.

Her time with him drives her to edge of sanity. Under his influence she kills her parents. She almost kills Lee Thompkins, James’s new girlfriend. The love she has for James becomes an obsession. It doesn’t end well for her with James stopping her. She’s arrested and sentenced to Arkham Asylum. But it ends up putting her in the perfect position for the next wave of her development.

Her stay in the Asylum is short lived. She’s broken out by Theo and Tabitha Galvan, the latter of whom she enters into a romantic relationship with.  It’s through them she’s truly indoctrinated to Gotham’s underground. Barbara’s sanity at this point is shaky at best. Having a girlfriend willing to kidnap her ex-boyfriend and his current girlfriend doesn’t help the situation either. Though even when the last remains of her sanity seem all but gone, the compassion she held for James still comes through. Her kidnapping attempt unravels and her escape ends with her falling out a second story window. Before that happens she helps James, giving him the information he needs to take down Theo.

After some time in a coma, she’s released back onto Gotham streets. Though her love for James still borders on unhealthy obsession her pursuits become more personally motivated. She opens a nightclub with Tabitha. It’s successful but she’s gunning for more, namely to get out from under Oswald Cobblepot’s thumb. She’s openly contentious of the Penguin when he all but runs Gotham at this point. Only a few people could have gotten away with this without fatal consequences.

She gathers some powerful allies with the intention of overthrowing Penguin. And it works. She becomes the queen of Gotham, taking over the city’s underground. Unfortunately, it’s a short-lived reign when conflict brews among the very allies who helped her take down Penguin, and she ends up dead.

In the true fashion of comic books and their adaptations, Barbara doesn’t say dead for long. After she’s brought back to life she returns ready to take on the city again. Reaching out to Selina and Tabitha, they work together running a weapons racket to rebuild their status. Death seems to have tamed Barbara, she’s more rational with her return. She’s even willing to work under Penguin. If only for a short time until a better opportunity presents itself for her, Tabitha and Selina.

At this point, I think it’s important to note Barbara could have easily fallen into the old stereotypes of the ‘crazy bisexual ex-lover’ or even the ‘villainous queer’. But similar to the way the Carmilla series defies its negative tropes, Gotham’s exploration of these narrative tropes doesn’t feel like it steers into the negative aspects. Gotham also avoids these tropes in a way few other series could. The villains make up a huge portion of series. They are the lungs that breathe life into the series. As much as this series is about Bruce and James growing into the heroes we know they’ll become, it’s also about watching the other characters grow into the villains we know they’ll become.

Barbara earns her place among the villainous elite in Gotham. She’s gone from a mild-mannered Gotham socialite to one of its most conniving criminals.

She’s still a woman capable of deeply caring for someone. But now her way of showing she cares for someone involves fewer words of empathy and more shooting their enemies in the head. She learnt to thrive in a city where so few can even survive. She adapted in ways that not even James has been able to. Her place in the story going forward is still uncertain. The possibility of her and James come back to each other is small but stranger things have happened in this city. Though at this point it seems more likely one of the many colourful adversaries Bruce will face when he truly dons the cowl.

Regardless of where she’s going, watching her get where she is has been a wild and entertaining ride.


Images courtesy of Fox 

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