Far Cry 4 saw a leaky reveal earlier this week. Box art, along with a uPlay store page that got disappeared very quickly added a few more details, but nothing really substantial. We’ll be hearing more about it at E3, though, so expect some “official” announcement of story/setting/character details to come out then.
But what was more interesting was the discussion around the cover art.
Is Far Cry 4 racist?
Brendan Sinclair over at GIBiz wrote an interesting article regarding the depiction of the characters on in Far Cry 4’s box art. It’s a well thought out piece that draws attention to the fraught nature of depicting characters in a video game that critique or adhere to certain themes – in this case racism (and a little bit of homophobia). Give it a read, and you’ll get a decent idea of what I’m going to say next, except with a slightly different focus of course.
First off the bat – is the box art racist?
We have the image of a traditionally white supremacist ideal – white male, blonde hair, blue eyes. He’s well dressed, is surrounded by symbols of power (guns), and is directly exhibiting an exploitative posture over a visually identifiable racial other. It is an image that depicts a white man holding power over a non-white man.
Second – is the box art homophobic?
The white man is shown to be wearing stylish clothes – fashion accessories such as a pink suit, leather dress shoes, and a tidy haircut, all of which are markers of the stereotypical image of the gay male. His relationship with the other male is one of subjectification, which could be interpreted contextually as one of sexual dominance.
In short, the white male is obviously meant to draw parallels with the image of a white supremacist, and quite possibly one that may be a little bit homosexual, or at least depicted to exploit males sexually.
I don’t personally consider the man in the box art to be depicted as gay – that’s a bit of a tenuous line to take, in my opinion. It’s problematic to judge a person’s sexual orientation based on their appearance, although I do completely concede that there are stereotypical markers in place that might lead a person to see him as gay. It’s art, which means it’s inherently symbolic, and I wouldn’t fault anyone for interpreting the character as gay, considering how ambiguous it is. And, if he is supposed to be gay, then we’re getting into a whole other problematic mug of slugs. I’ll give Ubisoft the benefit of the doubt in this case though, and assume he is not meant to be gay.
Now we get to the tricky part.
It is not inherently racist to depict inherently racist characters or situations.
Let’s go straight to a very well-known example – is a film like Schindler’s List racist? It shows Nazi concentration camps, the systematic extermination of Jewish people, and the overall societal racism that occurred during Nazi Germany. There are characters in the film who are blatantly racist people, with no redeeming qualities at all. And yet to call Schindler’s List “racist” would be absurd. It depicts racism, but it is not inherently a racist film.
Far Cry 4’s box art is a little bit like Schindler’s List, in a way. The white man in a position of power is not really positioned as an aspirational character in this instance. He is not who we are supposed to empathise with. He is not who we are supposed to want to be. He is, very clearly, supposed to be The Bad Guy. And depicting a person who adheres to racist archetypes as the villain is not a bad goal.
Obviously, though, Far Cry 4’s box art is a completely different beast to Schindler’s List.
There is an issue, though, and that’s of context.
Firstly, the box art is nowhere near as nuanced as an Oscar winning opus by a world renowned director. It’s one static image that establishes an entire new idea. We knew literally nothing about Far Cry 4 before this image was produced, so it’s totally reasonable to take the imagery at face value. As art goes, it’s not the most subtle thing either. It paints characters in broad archetypal strokes, conveying in visual language an immediate blunt impression. The image shows racism, and positions it as bad.
But there is an issue with this too. It relies on racial stereotypes heavily. Powerful white man, victimised non-white man. Using racial stereotypes like these in artwork reinforces the ideology behind the stereotypes in the first place, which can be damaging. Instead of subtly depicting racism, it instead relies on images easily recognisable as racial, reinforcing stereotypes.
Essentially, we have an image that says racism is wrong, by reinforcing the idea and imagery of racial identities that lead to racism.
Which leads me back to the question – is Far Cry 4 racist?
While the art’s heart is arguably in the right place in wanting to vilify racism, it’s hardly elegant in its execution. There is no deconstruction of the imagery of racism, which can be interpreted as negative. But without a wider context for the image, it’s really hard to say much about it at all.
We know that previous Far Cry games have more or less successfully addressed race in some way or another. Far Cry 2’s take on colonialism was intriguing. Far Cry 3’s exploration of exotification was interesting and widely debated. And now we have Far Cry 4, which so far looks like it will be taking racism as a central theme in some way or another.
People are right to be worried about whether Far Cry 4 will be “racist”. Racism affects a whole lot of people, and racism in popular culture actively hurts. If Far Cry 4’s take on racism is not nuanced or sophisticated, it might just damage the idea that video games can produce thoughtful social commentary.
But again, it’s way way too early to make any kind of judgement just yet based solely on one image created to generate interest – and not to make a political statement. That’s what we need to remember right now – this image is promotional, and not intended to be primarily a piece of social commentary. We don’t know enough about the game to decide whether it will deal with issues of racism sensitively. And we won’t know until we get to play the final game.
Games are art that reflect the culture in which they were created. But we haven’t seen the game yet – just advertising. And advertising rarely accurately reflects the end product as a whole.
I guess what I’m saying is – let’s talk about this issue, but let’s also remember not to prejudge a final creation based on one image alone.