One of the recent issues in the gaming industry that has been at the forefront of arguments is representation, especially in terms of gender, sexuality, and race. Some developers, when asked about why there are not more women, people of color, or LGBTQIA+ characters, offer the same excuse: there were no people like that at that time and place, so it wouldn’t make sense to put them there. This shows up in games like Assassin’s Creed, The Witcher, and many others. Hearing this always sends a shiver of irritation up my spine as someone who was working on a Masters in History, focused on the Middle Ages. I can say that those developers are categorically wrong.
I think the problem lies in a few areas. One of the largest stumbling blocks in this is the white man-centric nature of the historical narrative that gets taught. When history becomes simply a collection of “white men did this,” it seriously undermines the breadth and depth of history. Another area that affects this is historical fiction (both in books and movies) and the failure to include people of color, women, or the LGBTQIA+ community. This one is all about representation—and the creators who don’t take the time to do their research in order to make their “history” correct. Lastly, I think creative laziness is a factor as well, since these writers don’t take the chance to tell a broader and more inclusive story. These are all factors of racism, sexism, and genderism that tend to be ignored because “that’s just the way things are.” That may be the way things are, but it doesn’t have to be.
So, let’s tackle the biggest issue first: the white man-centric historical narrative. The way this particular story goes is that Western Europe did all the things, discovered all the things, and was sufficiently white the whole time. Honestly, when I hear this, I tend to stare at the speaker as if they have no clue what they are talking about. Sure, that is how most people are taught history in elementary through high school, since a group of people dictate what publishers can put in the textbooks that kids have access to. Is that information always accurate history? No. In fact, it usually seems like all those lessons need to be unlearned before someone can really advance in the study of actual history. But I digress.
What was actual history like? The simple answer is that it is very complex and rather varied. If we take Western Europe as a jumping off point, like many games do, then you can see that there is a huge gap in what game developers think the era was like and what the era was. To these creators (from my perception), they are assuming Europe was a white, heterosexual wonderland dominated by men and filled with compliant and submissive women. I understand why they might think this (kind of), but that has nothing to do with actual reality. There were women fighters, religious figures, and rulers. There were people of color in Europe from very early on—as in, before and during the early Roman Empire. There have been LGBTQIA+ people since humans existed. So why is there an issue?
Let’s start with race. More than any other charge, this whole “There were no black people in Europe!” thing gives me the worst headache. The argument states that there was simply no way for people of color to have been in Europe during the Middle Ages. That whole idea seems to hinge on the notion that black people were “discovered” and then enslaved by the white people in the late 1400s. If anything, that shows the lack of reality going on in these development teams. From what I can gather, they—and I am aware that I am using this term rather broadly—seem to think that history is a progression of whiteness from earliest records till now. What?
For the record, when historical narratives start with, say, prehistoric humans, they are talking about PoC. When they talk about Ur or Egypt and the beginnings of Civilization, they are talking about PoC. When they talk about Carthage, they are talking about PoC. When they are talking about the Moorish courts in medieval Spain, they are talking about PoC. Those seem pretty understandable, right? However, there are those who still think people during that time stayed put and didn’t travel about. Sure, travel sucked back then, but it happened. During the Roman era, there was a great deal of travel throughout the Empire, partially due to the Pax Romana. And the biggest proof of this movement and the presence of PoC in medieval Europe lies in medieval art.
A lovely collection of these works can be found at medievalpoc on Tumblr. In some early works of art, it is easy to spot the non-whites in the audience. But some might argue that this sort of art didn’t represent “reality,” whatever that means, and that “they” weren’t really there. Sorry, that notion falls down as well. There are a number of mentions in various medieval writings talking about PoC, including in the Arthurian legends. To the people of that time, race wasn’t the issue we think of today, so the difference in skin color was no big deal. That issue had not literally been conceived of yet—so there you go.
Gender is problematic as well. People who think women were utterly docile and didn’t do much during that time period are, again, historically out of touch. Current historical research delves into the lives of women more than these developers do, and have noticed that while there were women for whom this notion was true, there were also people like Eleanor of Aquitaine. She rode off on the Crusades, having taken up the cross during the Second Crusade. She and her handmaidens rode bare-chested into battle—and this doesn’t even get us started on Joan of Arc. I could list exceptions for quite a while, but that gains us nothing. Granted, the woman’s role during that time was rather limited, but in a lot of ways, so were men’s roles, as there were only so many nobles and a lot more peasants. Again, the issue has to do with representation in actual history texts, and part of that is being addressed by historians themselves. The role of women in history is changing as more research shows how important they were.
Sexuality, apparently, is also a stumbling block for games developers. However, when you realize that ‘lesbianism’ got coined by Sapphic from the works of Sappho of Lesbos, homosexuality was common in ancient Greece, Rome, and other ancient cultures. There were also a lot of transgender individuals within the Eleusinian Mysteries. In the worship of Cybele, it becomes more difficult to make the point that they didn’t exist. There are also plenty of records that indicate that Richard the Lionheart was gay—and the same with Edward II. There are lots of resources if you want to look into the subject. Suffice it to say that there is plenty of material there to work with and no excuse for not finding it.
So, if there is plenty of data to show that history isn’t what a lot of people think it is, where do a lot of people come up with these ideas? A lot of that can be laid at the feet of popular media. When you have movies, TV, and books including fantasy literature that fails to provide the existing variability, then you have people who start to think that movies, et al, are the truth. It is a form of ignorance to believe that the entertainment industry cares about accuracy in all things, but it is a common problem. It is more rare to see accuracy in such media than for early video games to have logic in the storyline. What seems to occur is that a developer fails to accurately represent history, then these flaws in representation stack on top of each other until casual viewers believe the created narrative rather than the facts. Control of the story allows you to control what people know and don’t know. All repressive regimes know this fact.
While it is a given that imperfect historical narratives have entered popular culture and writers and developers are defaulting to the “known,” it doesn’t mean it is accurate. To my mind, as a published novelist and someone trained to teach creative writing, this is a classic example of sloppy and ignorant storytelling. These are earmarks of where the writer has not done the needed research to best convey the material in their story. Sure, these games are not meant to be accurate representations of medieval Europe or even fantasy versions thereof. However, when someone in turn states there were no non-white cis straight people in that specific time period, they are making themselves look like buffoons by not having the information to back this up. History is amazing and a lot of fun to read, but if you try to make some sort of stance without the weight of information at your back, you are only making yourself look foolish.
My recommendation to designers and writers is to exert sufficient effort in exploring what you are talking about, especially in any pseudo-historical narrative. In the span of five minutes Googling, you can come up with collections of information that can fill in your education. It is honestly not that difficult. All the links listed here took me mere minutes to discover and to judge their accuracy. So please, don’t say people of color didn’t exist in Europe during a specific time, that women couldn’t do specific things then, or that the LGBTQIA+ community didn’t occur when it clearly did. I know people like to think they know everything (and I am including myself in that flaw), but a few minutes of research never hurts and can lead you into more interesting directions.