The Problem of Manufactured Racism within Sci-Fi Media

Written by Ryan Files

January 8, 2018

Racism…the familiar frontier. These are the continual tropes of writing teams across all media. It’s continual mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, and to weakly use the same boring manufactured racism that every team has used before. (Queue theme music).

Racism is and will continue to be a commonly used divisive point amongst various groups that are introduced within any sci-fi lore. And why wouldn’t it be? Science fiction is commonly used to show that no matter how far advanced one is as an intelligent species, groups can continue to fall into the various traps of society. When cultures collide, the puzzle pieces won’t fit exactly together.

Let’s use the example of humanity in the Mass Effect Universe. Humanity is an upstart species within the galaxy, and are new to the table. Let’s ignore the fact that we are burying hundreds of years of intercultural strife, racial and religious dynamics, and rampant nationalism that is the Earth of today (yea future Earth!) but I’ll grant that all this was solved miraculously when “aliens” arrived on the scene. The aliens in question in Mass Effect are the Turians (lizard type humanoids). Humans and Turians fight, peace is found, and then humans are brought to the intergalactic government within a giant space station called the Citadel where they live happily ever after working out problems with other species.

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There is also history amongst the other main races in the story of Mass Effect. The Asari sort of run the show. The Salarians are the technologically advanced know-it-alls. The Turians, who we talked about before, are the disciplined military society. The Krogan are beefy, mercenary people. The Quarians are space travelling wanderers without a home. All of these groups have complicated histories with one another that are somewhat fleshed out over the course of the four games.

When approached with these rich histories of conflict amongst the various created races within the game, this causes writers to rely on what I like to call “overt racism”. To give an example, I’ll use a scene from Mass Effect 2, where an Asari is complaining about the various races.

The writers here show use the typical “I don’t like your kind!” level of yelling about some of the basic level created stereotypes I listed above. What developers and writers are missing within this experience of defining conflict amongst groups is what I called “nuanced racism”. Racism is not just a stripped-down peer to peer interaction based conflict. Racism is systemic. It is overarching.  Racism defines the haves and have nots, from government to businesses to at its most basic level the interactions between people, or in this case, alien species.

For example, in Mass Effect 1, the Asari, Turians, and Salarians oversee the governmental system. In Mass Effect 4: Andromeda, only the Asari, Turians, Salarians, Humans, and Quarians get to have giant ships that leave to explore a new galaxy. There is a underlying racial balance that control these things that happen, and the racial motivations of characters could be a lot more defined then the overt option of “ I don’t like your kind!”.

The main reason the nuances between groups can be lost amongst creative teams is that these groups are largely homogenized. If the Mass Effect Universe, and in turn the science fiction landscape is supposed to represent the melting pot of diverse species, then the writing room should reflect a diverse array of individuals as well. If cis-white males make up the majority of the decision makers, how could we expect them to understand the nuances of racism? Culturalistic boundaries, religious confrontation, and racial conflict are major parts of our world today experienced from different perspectives and people from all walks of life. If our created universes will have the same things, it’s reasonable to conclude that the writing room should include those diverse perspectives as well.

The reason that I have used Mass Effect to illustrate my point is that it is my favorite video game series of all time. The “technological tower” is a large bastion of prevention of change in our society today. Development companies, software creators, and video game studios continue to fall into the same comfort zones they always have when it comes to hiring practices and development cycles. The gamer stereotype that they used to rely on to purchase products doesn’t exist anymore. If companies like EA, who create Mass Effect, want to tell different and better stories, they must diversify their staffs so those perspectives can be included, and in turn can increase their consumer pool and increase their revenues as well. Until then, things such as forced racist interactions between characters will continue to come off as not only bad storytelling, but insensitive to their consumer base as well.

Ryan Files is an avid video game consumer, reviewer, and critic hailing from the boondocks of Illinois. He has taken his ethnographic cultural studies background and applied them to his love of geekdom. He is a huge Star Wars nerd, Castlevania fanatic, and his power level is definitely over 9000. When he isn’t online writing about how he misses old school beat em’ ups like Final Fight, Streets of Rage, or TMNT IV Turtles in Time, he raises his brood of 3 Metroid children with the most awesome wife a blerd could ask for. You can reach the mumbly one @moblipeg on Twitter.

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