The Walking Dead and Disempowerment – Short Piece

Spoiler Content: Some mild situational spoilers, from Season 2, Episode 2 of Telletale’s The Walking Dead.  Not enough to ruin the game, but you might want to avoid this if you’re picky about spoilders.

Video games, for the most part, tend to be about empowerment. The player takes on the role of a grizzled space marine, a powerful warrior, or a skilled football player. Almost from the get-go, gaming has been about creating a world where a powerful, usually male, usually white, usually straight character goes not from weakness to strength, but from strength to even greater strength. Telletale Games’ The Walking Dead, based on the popular comics and TV show, challenges that. The game is divided into “seasons”, collections five “episodes”, or two-hour game segments that are released bi-monthly. In the first season, the player rook on the role of a black man in the American south just after the zombie apocalypse, and explores themes of race without explicitly addressing them. The plot followed this man, Lee, as he escorts his adopted daughter-figure, Clementine, throughly the quickly-crumbling world and various groups of people. In stark contrast to the usual themes of zombie fiction, which tend to emphasize raw, brutal empowerment, The Walking Dead created a sense of desperation, of a need for survival, not hours of zombie killing.

However, in the second game, the player takes on the role of Clementine, and I entered this brutal world of death, betrayal, starvation and suffering, as an 11-year-old black girl. What surprised me was how long it took me to get used to this role reversal. When fierce arguments would emerge between members of my group, or a few rogue zombies would attack my friends, my default response was to take command and solve the problem. But, as a little girl, I couldn’t do that. Often times I could only stand by and watch as friends died or bitter tensions emerged. I had to unlearn everything I knew not about combat mechanics or how to shoot a gun, but of my place in the world, and my control over it. Like the first season’s approach to race, this season’s approach to power is also heavily understated but very present. There was a sequence in the second episode where my friends had been captured by another group of survivors, which highlighted this shift most powerfully. Had this taken place at the beginning of the game, my default inclination would have been to jump out and slaughter my enemies with machine gun fire, or tactically use stealth techniques to take them down one by one. But, I wasn’t some gun-toting badass, I was a little girl. I was so legitimately frightened, disempowered and shocked that the only thing I thought to do was run outside and to find the two, mid-30s white men in the group. Completely contrary to everything video games had taught me over the years, this game conditioned me not to indulge in empowerment fantasies, but ask for help from those who would traditionally be the heroes of this story.

Throughout the game, I still found myself injecting my perspective into the situation. “If you would just let me take control and handle the problem, everything would be fine!” was something I shouted at the screen numerous times. My perspective as a middle-class, straight, white, American man is to take control and fix the problem. But my perspective as Clementine taught me that that isn’t the way everyone approaches the world, it is, in fact, just a perspective, one rooted in privilege and circumstance, and not in the reality of the world. In The Walking Dead, I found that the characters who did the most damage to the group were the ones who DID try to take control and solve the problem, and those who helped the group were the ones who surrendered it. Through the game’s injection of the player into a small, disempowered, little girl, I learned a lot about what my position in life has done to my worldview, and how embracing these qualities can lead to dangerous consequences.

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