On The Witcher 3, Race, and Historicity

So I got an anonymous question over on my blog:

As a Pole who is also a PoC, this Witcher 3 discussion has me conflicted. On one hand, I'd love to see more diversity in gaming. On the other, the original source material lacked any sort of ethnic diversity itself, and I can't imagine CDPR was given leeway to write in new ethnicity's in a world they didn't create. Do you think they have a obligation to add diversity to their media, even if it never existed in the source material? Especially since Slavic culture is a minority culture itself.

I've been getting this question, or something like it, for a few weeks now. I don't have time to do a Real Piece on this right now, but I finally found a few minutes to knock out a short response. So...



There are ethnic and national tensions woven even into the fashion of The Witcher 3.
There are ethnic and national tensions woven even into the fashion of The Witcher 3.

I think this issue is super complicated. I really appreciate Tauriq Moosa’s recent piece on the game and the current context of race in games in general, because it doesn’t pretend that there’s a way to address each instance of this stuff in a vacuum (and because it understands that the negative response itself needs to be understood in that greater context.)

I’m pulled in two directions: First, I love when games are made by groups peripheral to the sphere of predominantly white Western European and North American game devs, especially when those devs weave their culture into the games they make. The Witcherclearly does that, and that’s fascinating and wonderful.

But second, let’s not pretend that that’s not all they’ve made. The Witcher is not a pure tapestry of Slavic mythology, it includes creatures and figures from many other world mythologies, like the djinn. And it even has an analogue for the Middle East, Africa, and/or South Asia in Zerrikania–it’s just that Zerrikania exists neatly off the map, where its presence can be felt but its people remain absent. Geralt will use the bombs that were designed there, but rarely encounter actual Zerrikanians. (The game even splashes in a sort of tongue-in-cheek Orientalist discourse around Zerrikania that always makes me smile. These northern folks with their love of the exotic, I swear.)

Also, and I’m not sure how accurate this number is, but I’ve seen the “Poland is 96% white” defense thrown around a lot. And here’s the thing, four percent isn’t an insignificant amount of folks. It’s something like 1.5 million in a country of nearly 40 million. It’s absolutely a minority number, but it’s not license for erasure.

But it is complicated, I get that. There are ethnic minorities–and ethnic politics–in Poland that we in America were not schooled on and that many do not have an easy and firm grasp of. And, for my brief time with it, it seems like the game’s political backdrop is meant to engage with issues of national and ethnic assimilation, coercion, and hierarchy. I’d could see an argument that the southern empire of Nilfgaard could stand in for either the powers of Western Europe or of Russia (or both) shoving their way into the region. The series’ handling of elves and dwarves follows the tropish model of treating them as stand-ins for ethnic minorities.

And this is why the apologia is so frustrating. It’s not that the game isn’t aware of this stuff. It’s that despite its engagement, despite the greater context of race in games right now, despite the fact that the game is not a pure replication of Polish history and myth, and despite what Ian Williams calls its “relentless humanity,” it misses this one opportunity. And some fans want to lay on a sword over this. And whether its intentional or not, when those fans say “Why should they include a person of color?” it ends up sounding a lot like “I’m glad they didn’t include people of color. It was right of them not to. The game would be ruined otherwise.”

And would it? What would be ruined? It’s can’t be their escapism, a fear that they’d suddenly have to care about ethnic and racial politics–because again, the game already touches on those. Would their “immersion be broken” the first time a brown or black face walked down the street or into a tavern? I have my doubts.

It all feels like a desire for “the good old days,” where things–race, countries, games–were simpler. But there were no good old days. There were just days before we knew better.

Edit: There was some forum weirdness, so I've made my response to some of the comments below to a new blog post.