The Gamification of Neo-Racism: Bioware’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect series.

The following comes from an abstract I wrote for the Cultural Studies conference. It’s an idea I’m kicking around about how the old World War II narrative of “good pluralist power” versus “fascist monocultural power” gets reworked today in Bioware RPGs. Feedback is welcomed.

This essay will explore the management of cultural differences in perhaps the most profitable and widely circulating form of entertainment today: video games. Particularly, I will look at the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series from Bioware, which combined have sold over fourteen million units worldwide. I claim that both series rely heavily upon “neo-racist” assumptions of cultural difference, where culture is seen, as Etienne Balibar predicted, “like a nature,” and racial signifiers mark individuals “a priori into a genealogy, into a determination that is immutable and intangible in origin” (“Is There a Neo-Racism?” 22). This acceptance of cultural insurmountability opens the way to an unquestioned division of labor, which the player must maintain and manage if he wishes to win the game(s).

Set in a mythical European fantasy, the Dragon Age series depicts a time where segregation, race wars and religious fundamentalism were the norm, and likewise the player, after choosing a particular race to belong to, is limited to siding with the immigrant Qunari, the scapegoated mages, the enslaved dark elves, the religious chantry, or the power-hungry Templars. Any attempt by the player to create a bridge between either of these groups, or to remain neutral, becomes either impossible, or only increases the amount of ensuing racial violence. The Mass Effect series, set in a Sci-Fi universe, reverses these racial aspects of Dragon Age. Rather than choose to be a member of any race or species, the player must be “human,” and their ability to choose a skin color is reduced to a purely aesthetic decision, since skin-color does not affect any interaction (while gender and origin story often do). While Dragon Age—especially Dragon Age 2—sets races against each other in feudal grabs for power, in Mass Effect, the player joins a multicultural alliance—the Citadel—to defeat armies of “monocultures,” species who have kept so conservatively to their own traditions that they have become easily influenced and unnecessarily violent (à la the War on Terror). Implied in both of these series is that contemporary society stands somewhere “in-between” the feudal race wars of the mythic past and the multicultural ideal of the distant future.

Using the theories of Balibar, Lisa Lowe, Homi Bhabha and Wendy Brown, this paper will argue that both Bioware series reinforce the neo-racist assumption that each “race” be confined to a particular normative behavior. In doing so, these games support an unquestioned racialized division of labor, where each race is given special attributes and labor roles, while the humans—analogous to “whites” in western multiculturalism—are seen as “jacks-of-all-trades,” who can appropriate any specialty they wish. Strengthening this point are the group combat mechanics of the game, which allow the player to make decisions that can offend and even drive away his valuable, but more sensitive multiracial companions. The player thus learns not only to accept these assumptions, but also discover new ways of reinforcing and managing racial difference within an ideology that accepts cultural insurmountability and a racialized division of labor.

Student Responses to Avenue Q’s “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”

In my cultural studies class, I used Avenue Q’s song about racism to introduce the term “racial projects,” defined by Omi and Winant as the simultaneous interpretation of racial dynamics to impact the redistribution of social resources.

We spent the class discussing the musical number as a racial project, and my students made some stunning observations, many of which I did not see myself. Three things really popped out–the privilege of ethnic jokes, the absence of men of color, and the absence of arab or hispanic representation.


The privilege of ethnic jokes. 

My class saw a gap between the ability to make jokes about one’s own race, or the race of others. To make light of a category often deployed to categorize, repress and disenfranchise communities seems like a privilege available only to those who could associate race with “everyday representations” rather than with traumatic events. For some students, to claim that “everyone’s a little bit racist” seems to connote that everyone is impacted by racism the same, or that one man’s racial slur equals another’s. For Omi and Winant, all racisms are not equal because structural organization and management of race makes one racism (white supremacy) far more violent, and much more possible to enact through white privilege.  The ability to joke about real racial inequalities (as I often do) and to flatten all racisms to be not only the same, but “ok,” was seen by one of my “peanut-gallery” students, as “hipster bullshit.”


The absence of men of color.

The student who pointed this out claimed that the absence of men spoke volumes about how “legitimacy” for racist institutions was often invested within the participation of female racialized bodies. The figure of the woman of color often connoted innocence, or victims to the “culture of patriarchy” seen in the Moynihan Report. I gave the students a counter-factual: How would this video be different if men of color were included? Would it be a different racial project? Most students said yes, because the figure of violence associated with a prison system over-represented by people of color, with radical or political violence, and with terrorism or gang warfare, would disrupt the project’s light-hearted romp through racial bodies (and puppets).  The students seemed to identify how white hegemony could be sustained through this racial project by insisting upon patriarchal relationships. Here acceptance of cultural difference was only possible through the subjugation of women of color.

The absence of Arabs or Hispanics.

Another keen observation my students made was the absence of hispanics or arabs. That this musical came out in 2006 (and won the Tony) seemed strange, because if it really was insisting upon anti-racism through open discussions of race, then why not get to the heart of the matter and discuss how race shapes labor practices and U.S. imperialism abroad? Again, this problem in the project signaled that the project itself, while perhaps a significant critique against colorblindness, was still limited in using the representation and interpretation of race to see the significant structural and organizational modalities enabled by these representations.

My students had more to say about the genre of musical and the puppets, but then the bell rang…


Cascadia Critical Geographies Conference – The Filipino Migrant in Spaces of Liberal Tolerance: Peter Bacho’s Cebu

The Cascadia Critical Geographies Conference was comfortably unapologetic in its political critiques.

Cascadia is the name of the politically alike region of the Pacific Northwest, which reaches from Oregon to British Columbia. Yet the term now has often been used to invoke scenic passes and temperate forest aesthetic. The corporate use of the term, and criticism of the name as erasing indigenous knowledge of the region led one discussant to insist that we rename the conference “Cascading Critical Geographies.”

The conference began on Friday with a panel on Neoliberalization, and ended with an open discussion on the theoretical underpinnings to Occupy. In the meantime I was on the “race” panel, as we called it, since we were the only panel with “race” in our title (we were, therefore, racy).

My talk came in two parts. First I explored the history of the Pacific Northwest as a constructed space of liberal tolerance. In the second, I offered a satirical reading of Peter Bacho’s novel Cebu to show how this Asian American novel can reveal new ways of seeing ideologies of liberal tolerance form the point of view of the Filipino migrant. Ultimately, I tried to investigate how spaces of liberal tolerance are constructed in a way that represses political involvement, co-opts Asian American cultural production, and normalizes an imperialist attitude towards “intolerable” communities and peoples.

 I have excerpted the claim of my paper below.


The Filipino Migrant in Spaces of Liberal Tolerance: Peter Bacho’s Cebu

In Peter Bacho’s 1991 novel Cebu, Ben Lucero, a Filipino American priest living in Seattle, makes his first trip to the Philippines to bury his deceased mother. While discovering his “roots” in Cebu and Manila, Ben witnesses surges of religious and political violence that prompt his quick retreat from the poverty and corruption of his homeland back to the “order” and “sanctuary” of Seattle (Bacho 133). While some scholars have seen Ben’s retreat as an escape from his social debt toward his homeland,[1] Ben’s return can also be seen as a way of paying off a different social debt: a debt to the Pacific Northwest for providing a space of liberal tolerance. Throughout the novel, Ben shows gratitude toward Seattle for providing a space where violence, corruption and poverty are distanced into the history and geography of the Filipino homeland. To pay off this debt to the host country, Ben performs as the good, Asian American citizen, and encourages his Filipino congregation to do the same by abandoning their “intolerable” cultural practices, such as loyalty to their barkada, their peer group and community.

When violence erupts in Seattle’s International District and migrant Filipinos are thrown into a cycle of murder and robbery, Ben identifies the violence as a Filipino cultural aberration, discovering “something in [Filipino] culture, however diluted it was by life in America, that allowed wild swings in cruelty and compassion, that…tolerated, even glorified, violence” (149). For Ben, Filipino culture withholds an authentic kernel of violence and “wild swings” that “life in America” must “dilute.” When the violence becomes so overwhelming that Ben cannot escape into his “aesthetic afternoon” at the Cascade mountain range (165), his impulse is to interpret the violence as a remnant of the Filipino homeland:  “Ben wondered how many more would die before the killing would run its course. He feared the worst. He knew how Filipinos could nurture hatred, black and seemingly eternal, treating it like a pet sore to be scratched routinely to keep it from healing” (157). “Hatred” and “killing” here become innate characteristics of the Filipino “fresh off the boat” migrant, a diasporic instability that might affect or infect other Asian Americans such as Ben. As he says of his Filipino friend Teddy, “Teddy was like [the Filipinos], and Ben was afraid that, at his own deepest core, he was too.” Though other possible causes for the violence are depicted in the novel such as police indifference and South Seattle segregation, Ben ignores these and instead blames the migrants themselves for retaining intolerable versions of their culture. In order to continue a narrative of liberal tolerance that always posits itself as the bastion of multiculturalism, freedom and order, Ben must locate violence within a cultural realm, rather than within the political sphere, putting it upon the individual Filipino to overcome their “intolerable” way of life. Bacho’s portrayal of Ben as a “good Asian American” provides readers with an understanding of liberal tolerance as a de-radicalizing ideology, one that Ben accepts wholeheartedly.

This talk investigates how Peter Bacho’s Cebu allows us to read liberal tolerance as an ideological formation that sees violence as an infectious cultural practice, and thus allows the tolerant subject to blame all instances of racial tension on the individual who chooses to retain an intolerable version of the culture. In this talk I read Cebu as a social satire to expose the gaze of the liberal, tolerant reader, and open up new ways of seeing how diasporic ties to reciprocity and social debt affect the Asian migrant in spaces of liberal tolerance. For Cebu, a concept of “diaspora” as the representation of a foreign culture compels the Asian American protagonist to represent an authentic homeland always in contrast to Seattle, a technologically advanced and liberally progressive city. Bacho’s novel exposes ideologies of liberal tolerance from the point of view of the migrant subject, where social affects of reciprocity, such as guilt, shame and debt, reinforce notions of the host country as a place of tolerance, and secure acts of racism and violence within a diaspora’s homogenized, re-imagined culture.

[1] See Elisabeth Pisare’s “Payback Time: Neocolonial Discourses in Peter Bacho’s ‘Cebu,’”