Liveware Quickies: Normative Morality And Narrative Analysis Of Fiction
November 8, 2012 2 Comments
When is it appropriate to use normative morality/ethics in our analyses?
Recently there has been some noise around a few games in which women have been purportedly portrayed “wrong”.
Both Campster in Errant Signal: Dishonored and The Cynical Brit in Content Patch have talked about the respective games and their positions. Of course many other media outlets have weighed in previously and will continue to do so about the portrayal of *insert interest group here*.
The question I want to raise here is that of if it is appropriate to criticize a fictional portrayal as wrong/inappropriate in the first place. Should I get offended at The Forever War for its depiction of governmentally forced “gayification” of society, or Borgias for the portrayal of women as property?
I do not believe so.
While I certainly appreciate stereotype-breaking portrayal of characters in fiction, I do not think that normative morality is necessarily always applicable for critique.
I commend shows like Merlin for re-imagining a medieval tale with a more modern and diverse cast, however we can not remove certain elements from the tale, struggle as we might. If we are portraying medieval fantasy there will be servants, there can even be slaves, and applying our modern standards in judging the fictional setting simply is not applicable. We can not reject the portrayal of female black servants in Game Of Thrones any more than we can reject the portrayal of magic or dragons.
This applies similarly to games, Dishonored’s steampunk setting necessitates certain concessions on our part, some suspension of not only disbelief but also our normative morality. Yes, we are free to judge the characters with our modern standards, but their portrayal never the less is consistent with the setting and should not concern our ethics, or at least not be a point of overt critique.
Maids will wear maid outfits and be subservient to their masters, they are there for an authentic feel of the setting. If they are purely eye-candy, or not, is not really important, they just simply exist as a reinforcement of the visual narrative. There is no requirement to give them more personality or more “enlightened” behavior, they are visual narrative objects with purpose, and there is nothing demeaning or wrong about it.
The place where normative morality is just not applicable in analysis is called context.
Yes, stereotypes can be used to great effect in narrative, and even characters that do not follow normative morality can become valuable tools to convey mood, setting, etc.
If we take a closer look, most of video game characters and protagonists do not follow normative ethics. We happily exterminate other sentient beings in Legend Of Zelda as well as in Modern Warfare and games like Spec Ops: The Line used this portrayal to their advantage. Racism or sexism isn’t inherently any worse a portrayal than CODs hoo-rah jingoism, but we don’t hear complaints about that.
Leveling criticism at a piece of fiction just out of the necessity of political correctness, and a false entitlement of applying their descriptive or normative morality to portrayal without context, is juvenile.
Offense in itself can be a useful tool and it can be utilized to make the audience think.
There isn’t anything wrong in making a game about an abusive misogynist husband, or a racist shop clerk, and they don’t even need to be antagonists.
We shouldn’t limit ourselves by normative morality in fiction, it’s called fiction for a reason, it tells stories by creating situations that if not outright fantastical are at least improbable.
The current incessant whining at anything that just slightly looks like it might be racist, sexist, or other-ist reduces the spectrum of conversation, it actively discourages developers to take a leap and make something revolting that will make us stop and think. If developers ideas and portrayals are constantly under a barrage of pointless criticism about herp-derp offensive, how can they create freely and without constraint?
Yes, for the love of video games, be offensive, you have my permission!