Combating Dystopia.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

XCOM- Video game characters, social change and the Cold War. Cool.

Below is a post of an interesting article about an upcoming (and impressive looking) FPS/Sci-fi game called XCOM, and more importantly its very interesting take on minority characters you find yourself working with to save the world.

One of the most often repeated, if utterly foolhardy, arguments against gay characters in games is that their sexuality is never a relevant detail to the plot. So I was more than a little curious and delighted to hear a developer put such a strong emphasis on a character's homosexuality in the game's second public showing. Thankfully, Thomas was gracious enough to sit and chat with me about the character of Dr. Weir, and how social commentary is a natural partner for the videogame medium.

"Weir is an Australian," Thomas began. "He's not a citizen of the States, although he came there to study particle accelerators, and already found himself an outsider on that grounds alone simply because of the paranoia of foreigners that was prevalent in the mid-century."

"But on top of that, he is also a closeted homosexual. He has both a sexual and a political opposition to the elite of the country, which are still very conservative - very focused on America as the best and the brightest - and he doesn't fit their paradigm. It is hard for them to acknowledge that one of the best scientists in the world is, in their minds, deviant. So he's struggled with that for a long time."

"But all of sudden this alien invasion hits and they need him and they have to put it aside. But then you see those tensions come to bear in the base. There are characters who don't like working with him. They are people of their time. And so you'll see different positions represented amongst the core cast. But he is - he is a man with true grit. He's able to weather it pretty well, and the player kind of gets to decide where they fall on that continuum. You can basically decide how to treat him."

Of course, homosexuality wasn't the only civil rights movement making headway in the 60's, and XCOM will explore other socio-cultural tensions of the time.

"As a narrative guy, it's the reason I'm excited to work on the game. The setting was chosen very specifically because I feel that the socio-cultural tension was about to come to a head. It was an old America and a new America kind of locked in a mortal combat, and it was very interesting for me to start exploring what was going on at the time."

"Agent Barns, for example, the African American guy who runs the agent operation and recruits for you, he was working COINTELPRO in the FBI - and that was a bureau program to run surveillance on the American people, not known by anybody - and Dr. Martin Luther King was his assignment. He was supposed to infiltrate that movement and discredit King by finding evidence that he was Red. He didn't find anything, and he was asked to fabricate it. He refused, and was almost going to be kicked out by J. Edgar Hoover and his cronies, but at that time the alien invasion happens and XCOM snaps him up."

I commented that it sounded like XCOM was really more of a 60's period piece that happened to use aliens as a catalyst to bring out the social climate.

Between these two characters mentioned, this game sounds fascinating. Whats the idea many a dystopian story has suggested? When confronted with bigger problems (i.e- world threatening invasions etc) there's nothing like a threat of an apocalyptic scale to unify people and (at least temporarily) forget our collective "differences". Marginally at least.

There are of course incidences to the contrary: Alan Turning was a gifted British mathematician that proved to be influential during WWII by code breaking and using his considerable talents to counter the threat of Nazi Germany in England. In the 1952, Turning was convicted of "indecency"(for being proven to be a homosexual) and subsequently chemically castrated, and committed what is believed to be suicide two years later.

It stands as one of the most galling examples of how moral "correctness" and rigid expectations regarding sexual conduct/sexuality can lead to the ruin of otherwise brilliant people. Much about homosexuality during the time period XCOM is set in is still wrapped up in the idea that gay= defective and that its a national security risk. Of course, the way the culture demonized gay men and women it somewhat became a self fulfilling prophecy...

The other compelling bit about the argument is what the US Government, especially in the Jim Crow south, did to black servicemembers, Treating them with distrust and genera purpose malaise. The heavy scrutiny and intel conducted by the FBI against Martin Luther King Jr was done in the interests of finding something to damage his credibility or discredit him (and prove the idea that black people were "agitated" into activism by Communists and otherwise fine with segregation*).

*See note #168.

XCOM's character details, coupled with this pretty amazing looking trailer released at E3 last week puts it waaaay wayyy higher on my list of must have video games this year. I'll be keeping a very close eye on this one.

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