Monday, October 22, 2007

Race in Cyberspace

Reading Galloway’s piece “Allegories of Control,” I was struck by his examination of racial coding and “ ‘soft’ racism” (101) in video games, because it made me think about the internationalism and racial heterogeneity in the cyberpunk worlds of Snow Crash and The Matrix.

Galloway argues that the expansionism central to games like Meier’s Civilization “has, historically, always had close links with racism” (96), and Meier’s “gamic algorithm” specifically “endors[es] a logic that prizes the classification of humans into types and the normative labeling of those types” (97). Civilization III further “conflates a civilization with a specific national or tribal identity and ignores questions of hybridity and diaspora” (98).

Complicating this idea, he continues by saying that “the skin tone parameters for player character construction in everything from Sissyfight to World of Warcraft are not an index for older, offline constructions of race and identity…but instead an index for the very dominance of informatic organization and how it has entirely overhauled…the function of identity” (102).

Snow Crash and The Matrix, on a related note, bring us worlds in which the Nebuchadnezzar’s crew is a smorgasbord of races and even individual characters like Hiro are mixed-race. What’s more, extreme racial diversity initially appears to be a non-issue in these stories, humans having simply accepted their transnational world.

The television commercial we watched in class advertised the Internet as a place without racism and other physical judgments, but Internet communities like Second Life still cannot manufacture wholly raceless identities. People in the Metaverse can choose their avatars’ skin tones, but the digital secretary still shifts to explicitly reflect a given character’s race.

I have a hard time subscribing completely to Galloway’s claim that video game “skin tone parameters…are not an index for older, offline constructions of race and identity” (102); what then do they signify to the average gamer?

What are the implications of an increasingly transnational culture in which many people no longer identify themselves as one particular race, thus evading “the classification of humans into types”? What does it mean that the cyberspace created in Civilization includes code for race and even racist stereotypes?

“The gamer is…learning, internalizing, and becoming intimate with the massive, multipart, global algorithm,” Galloway writes. “To play the game means to play the code of the game… To interpret a game means to interpret its algorithm” (90-91). Is race merely an algorithm that we learn to interpret, a code that we learn to "play"?

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