Down to the Nitty Gritty: Tiresome Dickishness in The Witcher III

[Cross-posted to Doubt is an Art.]

Nathan, Kelly, and I were joined by Kelly’s sister Caitlin for July 3rd’s episode of the Lunchzone, where we continued our playing through of The Witcher III (find Stuart’s write-up of our Jun19th session here). We’ll be sticking with The Witcher through the summer, so pop in to our Twitch channel for Lunchzone’s next episode on July 17th (12 pm US Central time)

Never having played this series, yet being a dedicated Elder Scrolls series player, I immediately began noticing the many similarities to Skyrim – graphically, aesthetically, and mechanically. What followed in our conversation was a set of thoughts that revolved around the appeal to the “gritty” in these games. The seriousness, the gray palette, the gore, and – above all, in Kelly’s memorable phrase – the “tiresome dickishness” exhibited in practically every dialog with NPCs.

(We also discussed how the player’s effort achieves durable effects vs. the forces of entropy in the game that push against this, but for this post I’m going to focus on our first discussion point.)

What we began wondering about were the cultural and historical steps that led us to have so many games that invoke this constellation of characteristics: somber aesthetics, intense gore, dark narrative themes, and every NPC you meet quite ready, well, to be an asshole to you and everyone else. It may just be me, but (as I said at the time), the impression one gets is that in putting forth this combo the developers of these games are attempting to establish in them a claim to “realism.” The world invoked is supposed to be, one thinks, an illusion-free, school-of-hard-knocks kind of setting, diametrically opposed, on pretty much every one of the counts above, to something like Breath of the Wild. “This is how things really are,” one almost hears the game saying: “Deal with it.”

And, as we discussed at the time, this strikes us as something that can be productively unpacked. It seems to be, in part, an expression of a point of view, from a particular history and culture, that is strongly gendered as masculine. The Hobbesian landscape presents itself as practically devoid of social support, instead structurally, narratively, and mechanically celebrating a kind of rugged and cynical individualism. (We recalled Harry’s claims of having a “dark side” – as opposed to Sally’s seemingly lacking in substance? – in When Harry Met Sally; the gendered association is direct.)

Now this is fine, of course, in a way. All modern, “authored” games, after all (whether they admit it or not), are produced from specific points of view. I suppose what caught our attention (and perhaps in part explains the brilliant use of the word “tiresome”) is the way in which this set of tropes, like so many claims to be “realistic” thereby disguises the arbitrariness or partiality of its viewpoint.

One example that I recalled was how, in Skyrim’s weapon perks trees, one of the perk’s descriptive text concludes – after duly stating the gameplay bonuses provided – that it “unlocks decapitations.” Were decapitations something I was just waiting to “unlock,” as a bonus feature? That is, after all, the implication here. The game, in its structure, imagines that desiring to unlock decapitations goes without saying. Like most enactments of a privileged point of view – one that can (usually) comfortably avoid confronting its own arbitrariness or partiality – these claims are disguised by their “unmarked” quality (as the linguists have so powerfully put it; more here).

And this gets us to a frequently handy conceptual pair: the prescriptive vs. the descriptive. Whether we’re talking about scholarly disciplines (consider economics), works of art (film, painting, novels, games), or other cultural products, it can be quite enlightening to ask of any given work whether it is purporting to offer a purely descriptive, or “realistic” account of how things are, as opposed to an account of how things could or should be.

In his famous lecture series, How to Do Things with Words, the philosopher J. L. Austin took on the idea of whether language (for one) could ever be purely descriptive at all, concluding instead that even the most descriptive utterance is a proposition, or a bet. What this meant, for him, is that we should be on the lookout for statements about how things “really” are, and I can’t help but wonder whether many games traffic in a similar kind of appeal, implicitly claiming to be more “real,” more “serious,” more “challenging,” more “skill-based,” and on an on. The purely descriptive strikes me as better understood as “aspiring to be unmarked,” to stand on facts that simply go without saying (for some).

So here’s to games that challenge those expectations – that don’t seek to leverage a kind of serious pride of place for their own point of view.


Thomas Malaby (PhD 1998, Harvard) is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His research interest is in the ever-changing relationships among institutions, unpredictability, and technology, especially as they are realized through games and game-like processes. He has published numerous and widely-cited works on the status of games in human experience. Dr. Malaby’s work suggests that the increasing use of digital games by institutions marks a fundamental transition in modern governance. His book, Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life (2009, Cornell University Press), is an ethnographic examination of a San Francisco high tech firm.

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