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What Rome II can teach us about the Witcher 3 race controversy

Sometimes I open Rome II just to look at the world map. It’s almost inconceivable to me that, within a space that could be swallowed effortlessly by Australia’s hot and sandy maw, there existed a myriad of peoples with their own delicacies, values, religions, histories and heroes. Too often my eyes are drawn to Macedon, where I suspect my ancestors may have presided (though it is completely impossible to know), and am taken back by how much of human history was shaped in such a small part of the world. From the dominance of the Greeks, to the rise of Macedon and Alexander, and again to Hannibal, from Hannibal to Scipio, the rise and fall of Rome, the Huns, the Sassanids and their fall to the Muslims, and so on and so forth.

I think perhaps a better understanding of history and nuance may have avoided the controversy surrounding the Witcher 3, and could have made for a clearer and more productive conversation regarding race in video games. I completely agree that we could have a more diverse range of characters, and have to commend those who are fighting for this end. However, I think the main cross-communication comes from the mischaracterisation of the word ‘white’. I would compare it to saying ‘Asian’. They are vague descriptions that are contextless. An Asian person may come from Japan, India, China, and depending on what period of history you’re looking at, Persia/Iran. Obviously, ‘Asian’ is not a homogenous group, and the same is true with ‘white’ — I think Peter Capaldi immortalised this in ‘In the Loop’.

For instance, my father was Serbian/Romanian and mother was English/Swede. If we are to go off the recent Polygon article, Poland, and slavic peoples, are ‘white’. I’d also assume that both the English and Swedes are white (so white they get sunburn from fireworks), and it would follow that I am simply ‘white’. Yet this is a weird kind of white-white washing, where skin colour is being equated to culture, and presents us with a false dichotomy: White/not white. If my Viking ancestors had met with my Slavic ancestors, what commonality would they have had? One took slaves, and one gave birth to the word ‘slave’. They had different gods, traditions, sources of nutrients, weapons, beliefs, values, dress, and so on. While they may have been closer to each other than they would have been to the Chinese, it would be similarly dishonest to say China and Japan were basically the same because they traded silk and had God-Emperors (and hated the ‘garlic-eaters/Koreans’).


While it may not be immediately apparent to some players of the Total War series, to me there is so much you can learn simply from the mechanics of the game. If your starting area is landlocked, you have no ports. Players may reflect on this and realise that environmental factors were hugely important when it came to trade and travel. They may realise the cultural power that was Hellenisitic ideology and fashion, and how it shaped nations and made revolts against invaders inevitable. If we are lucky, they may see two factions, right next to each other, and realise how different peoples can be despite their closeness.

I wouldn’t limit this to Rome II either. Most historical games can show the differences in culture and worldview when it comes to different peoples with white skin. The Soviets in Company of Heroes, for example, are subject to Order Number 227 — not a shining declaration in human history, but a definitive product of its time and place. People might discover where ‘British optimism died’ with Haig, and start to appreciate the power struggle that exists in every culture between its own people. It may lead to a better appreciation of the different experiences of Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants.

So, again, while I can fully support the idea of more diversity in games, I would ask people to consider diversity as something more than skin colour. Our histories and cultures are vast, and wide, and spectacularly different, and if we fail to appreciate these contrasts, then I think we are failing to appreciate the true nature of diversity.

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About the author

Mark Ankucic

Writer, gamer, lover, viking, but not always in that order.