Wednesday, 8 October 2008

None More Black

Warning: the following post contains a discussion of potential implicit racism in a tabletop war-game. If that isn't for you (and let's be honest, who could blame you), then I'd recommend tuning back in tomorrow, when hopefully I'll be spouting off about a more relevant issue.

For the rest of you, let me tell you a story.

Subbuteo is rubbish. It always has been rubbish, and it always will be rubbish, unless at some point the game is tweaked to allow tanks, air-strikes, or possibly a referee with a flamethrower. Part of its crapness can be accounted for by the fact that football itself is a feeble excuse for an activity, both dull on its own merits and responsible for the idolising of any number of selfish unthinking thugs whose complete inability to live within the confines of society is tolerated as long as they can kick something at a net with more accuracy than most. This is not to say all footballers are scum, just that the ones that are should be more clearly labelled. Possibly with gravestones.

In addition, the game mechanics of Subbuteo are pretty poor, sort of a cross between marbles and tiddlywinks, only at, like, seven thousand times the cost (give me Blood Bowl any day, at least that way vampires can get in on the action). The only time this wretched pastime has been of any interest in the entire history of its miserable, static-generating existence was when at some point during the early nineties someone accused it of being racist.

The argument was pretty simple; every single player was white, even in teams which were entirely black in the real world. Hasbro's defence, if memory served, was simple economics; cheaper to buy pink paint in bulk. Whatever the outcome of that particular spat, these days Subbuteo is a veritable explosion of ethnicity, so everyone got to live happily ever after.

My point in all this? Sometimes people offend by omission in the strangest ways. Also, painting is a serious business.

Let's talk about something else. One of the most interesting aspects of stories set in the future, to me at least, is how they deal with the question of race. Whatever criticisms you can level at the second two Matrix films (and God knows, there are plenty of options), I really liked the fact that every natural born human was some shade of brown. It made sense to me that decades of interbreeding between the only 250,000 humans left free would leave my pasty Caucasian complexion several rungs behind on the evolutionary ladder [1]. Peter F. Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy imagined an interstellar human civilisation in which most planets boast populations almost entirely made up from people of one former Earth country. Simmon's Hyperion Cantos (yes, back to that again) works along similar lines, the idea being (though this is much more explicit with Hamilton) that with all the other things a colonial population will have to deal with on an unknown and potentially hostile world, it doesn't make a lot of sense adding ethnic strife to the pot as well.

Warhammer 40,000 (hooray! I approach my point) has a similar idea for different reasons. At least, probably for different reasons. By the 41st Millenium so much history has been lost that it's anyone's guess as to how the first colonies were put together, but certainly the march of the centuries has led to increasing homogeneity across the population of each human world. Which is all fine and dandy, in theory, but in practice it seems like every planet in the Imperium is crammed full of white boys. Cadia, Catachan, Mordian, Armageddon, the survivors of Caliban, not one of them looks like they can dance worth a damn. The Blood Angels have names that invoke Italy, the Crimson Fists (arguably) a Hispanic culture, on and on and on. A certain amount of effort went into using the Mongols as templates for the Attilans and the White Scars, in that they have long hair and/or silly hats (plus they ride about the place, how ironic), but in general, it's all so depressingly monochrome, Subbuteo mixed with Aliens.

The only real evidence that the galaxy wasn't colonised entirely by the Klan used to be the brothers of the Salamander Space Marines (see here, for example). OK, so they had an odd habit of dyeing their hair blonde, which made them look upsettingly like Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man, but still, they were unrepentantly non-Caucasian, and the universe was the more interesting for it.

So what do Games Workshop do? They take the only ethnic variant population in the whole damn galaxy and they mutate them the fuck up. No longer are they the latest generation of the original tribes of humanity, now they all have jet black skin and shiny red eyes. These days, apparently, you're either white or you're a grotesque deviant. It doesn't even make any sense, frankly. The 40K universe is renowned for the fact that an army's name and symbolism reflects their nature as well. The Space Wolves are Viking-like and unruly (and occasionally werewolves, or something), the Blood Angels are violent vampires, the Dark Angels are taciturn and brooding, etc. What's with this, though? Is it really just that the Salamanders are big fans of flame weapons (that, at least, makes sense) and flame, like, makes things black? They're supposed to look like they've been hit with their own weapons? That's like having an army of chainsaw wielding lunatics who are all missing limbs. Or is it just that they come from a moon that is always dark, and black is really, really dark?

It annoys me, is all I'm saying.

[1] One thing that always got me about The Matrix was that your residual self-image more or less looks like you. But then if you look like your parents in the Matrix, then the only possible explanation is that the machines have robots whose job it is to ensure that the right semen gets to the right pod. "What do you mean Stan and Sarah Elliot just got it on? They're eight thousand miles apart out in the fucking Real! I have sixty-three other copulating couples to get through tonight!".

I don't want that guy's job.


jamie said...

Interesting... I suppose there's no obligation to paint your troops white, but yes, it's a bit of an oversight on GW's part.

My main point to this response though is regarding your Matrix question; it's not something I'd ever considered before, but I think that there would be more simple ways of dealing with the problem; after all, there's presumably no need to actually make the woman pregnant (the child would presumably be birthed in its own pod), and the Robot Overlords (tm) can decide for themselves whether it is desirable for the progeny to be spawned. And presumably there would be a central sperm-and-ovum bank of all existing humans where any combinations could be formed with little fuss.

Anyway, that's my rather humourless take on what was obviously a gag on your part, but thanks for the question, it stimulated some interesting lines of inquiry :-)

SpaceSquid said...

Oh, of course there isn't any obligation. But a lot of work goes into the background regarding the nature and iconography of each human force (and non-human, for that matter). There often exists an "official" way for you to paint each individual marine in a given chapter, for example, with various badges for rank, squad type, company etc. Add that to the mono-cultured planets, and anyone who is trying to follow the background (which yes, is going to be more some people's bag than it is others) have good reason to paint an entire force the same colour. Which didn't bother me at all until they took the only obviously non-Caucasian force they had and made them into genetic deviants instead.

It's also interesting that I've read several dozen variants on how to paint a human's face in the pages of White Dwarf, but I don't ever remember coming across such an article that didn't just assume you were painting the Forces of Whitey. Maybe there was something on the Easterners from Lord of the Rings, but then that has it's own attendant baggage, obviously.

Finally, I agree that the robo-inseminator is an obvious non-starter, but it still wouldn't explain why the machines would bother to do consider such things at all. I guess there's no reason to assume you do look like your parents when in the Matrix, but that then raises the question as to why pod-born humans seem to be multi-ethnic, but natural-born have achieved, to some extent, a large degree of homogeneity.

Gooder said...

My Subbuteo (which is not rubbish!) had players of clour when I was kid in the 80's.So Im' doubting that part of the story.

What you will find is that up until the late 80's/early nineties not a lot of teams had black players anyway, thus they wouldn't be in the relevant Subbuteo sets

SpaceSquid said...

Subbuteo is rubbish. It's a terrible game based on a terrible game. You might as well produce Ice Hockey Monopoly, in terms of compounded shitness.

I am totally willing to concede that I may be misremembering the date of the complaint, however.