Historicity Versus Perpetuation



I watched the first episode of Mad Men the other day, and I found myself thinking about the line between historical accuracy and a perpetuation of attitudes that we no longer find appropriate.

Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate an attempt at historical accuracy, even when it may get a little uncomfortable.  A little historical accuracy can give a film or game an affective power that may not be attainable through fantasy.  I’ve talked in other blogs about the historicity of games like Civ 5, but I am particularly interested in the effect of perpetuating racist or sexist stereotypes under the guise of historicity.  In Mad Men, for example, the characters participate in racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic behavior constantly.  Women are objectified, used, discarded, abused, dismissed, and so on.   This may very well have been common in the 50s, though I wasn’t alive so I have to take the History channel’s word for it.  But I can’t help but feel that those who create shows like Mad Men are missing an opportunity to tell a different story, one that complicates—not perpetuates—our complex history of exclusion, mistreatment, and embarrassing behavior.

The particular game I’m thinking about with this issue is LA Noir.  LA Noir displays the racist, sexist, anti-Semitic behavior we see in shows like Mad Men.  The cops, particularly the cops in the vice squad, are the most egregious.  Developers of games like LA Noir hide behind history as a shield for making it ok to choose—and it is a choice—to show and revere offensive behavior.  In LA Noir, both cops and villains call women whores and bitches.  They both treat women as if they deserve to die for doing outrageous things like drinking.  There is essentially no moral compass.  Even Cole, the main character, does virtually nothing to call this behavior into question.  But this game takes place in the fifties, and that’s how it was—right?

As if we can ever really know how something really happened.  Though, I am not suggesting we ignore the ugly parts of our history.  All that accomplishes is alleviating guilt and opening the door for repeat behavior.  So what can we do?

I think game developers should think about complicating how we view our history by putting contemporary culture in conversation with past events.  When we talk about slavery, for example, most of us situate it in the historical context and in a modern context.  We research slavery in an attempt to give a voice to those who had been silenced, not with the focus of giving a voice to those doing the silencing.

There are moments in LA Noir and even in Mad Men that put contemporary culture in conversation with history.  For example, Rockstar attempts to emphasize the bad character of racist cops.  In Mad Men, the husband calling the wife’s therapist is shown a in dark light with ominous music, suggesting that he is committing some kind of violation.  I think these moments should not be peripheral to historically based games, but rather that they should be central.

In LA Noir, as with many Rockstar games, the women are often portrayed as weak, shallow characters.  They are almost always peripheral, and they often seem to only exist for use by the main character for a specific purpose (ie. the girlfriend, the whore, the secretary, etc).  How much more interesting would games like LA Noir be is designers took the time to step outside of standard (and obvious) way to portray an event or time period.  If we got part of LA Noir from the secretary’s perspective, for example, we would have a deeper (and I think far more interesting) way to engage with the game.

Anyway, I’d love to know what some of you readers think about this issue.  What is a good balance between accurate (whatever that means) representation and perpetuation?  Should we demand that game designers complicate racist and sexist perspectives they choose to portray?  How can we examine moments in our history through mediums like games without caricaturizing , extrapolating, or exploiting issues that we would take seriously today?

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3 Responses to “Historicity Versus Perpetuation”

  1. Jeremy Cushman says:

    Good stuff dr. b. As far as LA Noir goes, I got tired of playing the game a little more than half way through (well into the vice-squad stuff) for a couple different reasons, but one reason certainly falls in line with what you point out here. It turns out, I’m easily duped (at at first) by the ‘shield of historical accuracy,’ but the the thing is, it gets really boring. At least in LA Noir. It’s not that the racism and sexism immediately troubled me (awful as that statement is to write), rather it’s the patterning of the of that racism and sexism. There’s really no surprises, no complexity to the game. Once a player, at least this player, is done being wowed by the level engagement with the story line (driving to new scenes, integrations, clue hunting etc.), a pattern emerges that is built on tired historical accuracy. The women are Eve’s or Mary’s; the African American men are suspicious but affable; and the white dudes and either ‘high-road’ moralists or burnt out drunks. It’s like Beaver Cleaver meets Dragnet without a laugh track.

    I was super excited about the game. I adore noir. But it’s lack of complexity and relaince on pattern bored me. As for Mad Men, keep watching. They show doesn’t settle on the same ‘historically accurate’ patterns that LA Noir does. It certainly maintains them, but s&#*t gets complicated in ways that, at least begin, to follow what you call for in this post.

    • alexlayne says:

      Well I’m flattered that you think dr. b. wrote this!

      But I completely agree about the lack of complexity of LA Noir. On the positive side, it seems like the gaming public has really started to reject the same old protagonists and storylines, demanding more creativity from game devs. I hope that continues.

  2. Jeremy Cushman says:

    Real sorry Alex. Great post.