Controlling the Narrative

I want to talk about Tomb Raider today. This may seem strange for a leadership blog, but it’s relevant, so stay with me here.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Tomb Raider is the title of a series of video games that began back in 1996. The protagonist, Lara Croft, is an obscenely wealthy British woman. She’s an archaeologist, which in video game lingo means she solves puzzles and picks up loot (hence the name). In the original series there wasn’t much depth and Lara’s design was clearly intended to appeal to a young male demographic.

In 2013 the series was rebooted. This reboot was a big deal for focusing more on realism and creating a more in depth Lara Croft. Her proportions were no longer cartoonishly rendered and she was a much more emotional character. She had more selfless motivations, often related to helping others and defeating a shady organization of baddies.

Lara engaging in the well-known archaeological practice of hiding in trees.

However, as we moved into the modern era, it was getting harder to escape the fact that Lara still broke into ancient crypts and took items (often with a good dose of destruction on the way). There was little acknowledgement of the increasing awareness of the damage done by White Americans and Europeans to other cultures in the name of archaeology.

Lara’s less savory activities were somewhat tempered by the framing of the first two games. Although clearly inspired by actual history, the first game took place on a fictional mystical island, and the second took place in a fictional valley in remote Russia. The people and cultural artifacts she encountered felt realistic, but did not associate strongly with any current real world cultures.

Last year, the third game in the series was released, with the majority of action happening in Peru.

As reported by Variety, the developers stated upfront that this game would be the first to “tackle the political tension at the heart of the series“. In other words, they wanted to acknowledge the reality of a wealthy white woman hunting for treasure in a foreign land. Narrative director Jason Dozois also stated in an interview with VG247 that the game was “about learning that archaeology is also culture, and history, and language, and that involves people.” The developers included cultural elements of the Maya, Inca, and Aztec people in their game design, and utilized historians and cultural advisors. It is clear that a phenomenal amount of work went into this project.

And the result is, to be blunt, appalling.

Lara was always the hero of the story, but now all of sudden she’s surrounded by people of color telling her how amazing and brave she is, and how lucky they are that she’s there to save the day. She roams through their villages and goes freely into their homes, picking up items without any consequence or reaction. When locals fail at important tasks, the people turn to Lara, who performs perfectly and returns successfully each time.

And when she’s in trouble and needs to hide from the antagonists of the story, she dresses in a native costume, which is apparently so very convincing that none of the antagonists seem to notice her pale skin and British accent.

Lara, mistress of disguise.

One of the best characters in the story is a native Peruvian, Unuratu. She’s the leader of a hidden village and is in conflict with her brother-in-law over the future of their people. She’s intelligent, compassionate, motivated, and a fierce fighter. She’s the key to stopping the antagonists.

Until she’s shot and killed, so Lara can step in to save the day again.

Unuratu, also known as a woman who deserved better.

So what happened? We had developers who were aware of the minefield of running a game series called Tomb Raider. They listened to previous criticisms of a cognitive dissonance between Lara’s stated goals and her actions. They brought in experts to advise them. I believe them when they say they genuinely had good intentions.

The problem? In the end, they still made a white narrative.

They put a lot of work into adding elements of Indigenous cultures, but it’s not an Indigenous narrative. Every person of color in the game exists either to help Lara, or die in service of her story.

The truth is this shouldn’t even be Lara’s story. This should be Unuratu’s. It’s her culture, it’s her people, and it’s not up to some wealthy white European to be swinging in to save the day.

Literally swinging.

This isn’t just about a video game.

This about the organizations that will hire diversity experts and promote diversity training. They will appoint a few people of color to high level positions. They will talk boldly and openly about the need to do better. And in the end, they will still reinforce the exact same message as before: the white narrative is the one that matters.

Because the problem isn’t just a lack of training or a need for different leadership. The entire system is flawed. And if you really want to change things, you have to break the system.

At this point, some people will be scoffing. “Seriously?” they’ll say. “What do you expect? Are they just supposed to implode their own series?”

Well, yes.

Imagine a developer who is able to look at their material and say, this is not the world we live in anymore.

Imagine a developer who shows their protagonist making big mistakes and being confronted with the colonialism of her actions. Who is not welcomed, but sees the anger of those being affected.

Imagine a developer who allows their protagonist to step back and pass the torch to someone else.

Maybe it would implode the series. Or maybe it would launch something much greater.

Who can be sure?  We’ve yet to see someone try.

"Here. This isn't mine. It never was."

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