For the past fifty years, civil rights and cultural progression have been big in the United States. Not necessarily big as in “popular”; more like big as in “everywhere”. Large, sweeping protests have been the hallmarks of each movement for equality and, on the whole, make Americans feel very proud that they’ve made a step towards the America they want to see.
The problem? Beneath these large, sweeping statements lies a challenge with smaller, more pervasive forms of opposition. Unfortunately, it’s a trend in American history. And this is addressed best through two avenues, specifically Samantha Blackmon’s initial analysis of “Cuphead” and the theme of “Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus”.
I know. Two wildly different games. But both give us an idea of what America is really made of, and what it means for the future.
How is it possible to look at “Cuphead” and think it has any connotations of discrimination? It’s two characters, with cups (or mugs) for heads, battling it out to save their souls. It’s an adorable bullet hell with beautiful artwork hearkening back to the 1920’s and 1930’s. Well. That’s the issue right there, according to Samantha Blackmon.
“Animated shorts were ridiculously guilty of [racist] behavior and most notable in these cases were Walt Disney Studios,” says Blackmon. “The 30s saw the production of a lot of Disney animated shorts that covered political and biological/hygiene issues that have since been buried or burned by the Disney corporation.”(Source)
Blackmon goes into more detail about the types of racism that is pervasive in this sort of artwork with Alisha Karabinus (Source). With each point of evidence Blackmon and Karabinus use, they present how the game’s artwork, without meaning to, revives the racism of the original artwork for those who are aware of the history.
The most notable piece of evidence in favor of Blackmon and Karabinus (to me) is the compulsion to dance that is reflected in both instances above. At first glance, there seems to be no correlation. To the layman, one is racist and the other isn’t. And perhaps that is how it should be. Blackmon, however, sees the connection and emphasizes that due to her knowledge of the history of this artwork, the unsaid message here is problematic.
Now, to “Wolfenstein II”
“Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus,” on the other hand, is a little more overt and intentional with its message. In the Wolfenstein universe, the Nazi’s won WWII and then invaded the United States. It’s up to the main character, BJ Blazkowicz, to help a revolution to overtake and remove Nazi’s from power. Yes: the Wolfenstein franchise still involves killing Nazis. The interesting thing, however, is how Nazi ideology is normalized in the simulated culture.
Rather than showing a United States wholly oppressed and miserable, we’re instead given a plucky game show rewarding approved behavior and “re-educating” unwanted behavior. Even if that behavior is something as simple as German proficiency. This theme of a United States cajoled and trained into Nazism continues on in throughout the game – when you’re not killing Nazi’s, of course. With each display of this emerging culture, it’s eerie how much it hearkens to the emerging culture that cajoled and trained America into its own form of patriotism. America was inches away from becoming a Nazi machine in its own right.
Put them together, what have you got?
Neither Blackmon nor “Wolfenstein” aim to make gamers out to be racist. That is not at all what they’re saying. Both recognize, for their own reasons, that doing so would just isolate their intended audience. It defeats the purpose of their intended message: pervasive behaviors can lead to discrimination very easily. There is nothing inherently wrong with cajoling and rewarding good behavior, and there is nothing wrong with basing your artwork off others. The trick is making sure that you don’t put yourself on a pedestal. Do not think yourself better than others just because you think you do something better.
And, ultimately, I think that is what the point cultural theory should take overall with media, especially video games. Promote change where no one thinks themselves better or worse than another. Remove the competition that is inherent in discrimination, and at that point, discrimination falls.