Look, I’ve got to confess I’m not the world’s greatest gamer. I have enjoyed games like ‘Skyrim’ or ‘Fallout’ in the past but, for me, the main enjoyment results from wandering aimlessly through dramatic landscapes (usually as I haven’t worked out the controls) or engaging in the occasional bout of senseless violence after a ‘bad day’ at the office.
Despite my limited gaming credentials however, I’ve played enough to appreciate the artistry of game design. As a writer, I also recognise good plotting and dialogue when I hear them. To be honest, some of the stuff I’ve played over the years, genuinely deserves to be recognised for the spectacular art forms they are.
Fortunately, my lack of expertise in gaming didn’t work against me when I received an approach from a game developer looking to make a video game that incorporated genuine elements of Irish culture in its narrative structure. That approach came a bit out of the blue (probably as a result of an announcement relating to the adaptation of one of my books) but, either way, it did lead to some interesting discussions.
When I first spoke to the producers, I was a bit intrigued and excited, impressed by their energy and creative drive. By the second meeting however, I was already starting to feel a tad uncomfortable, mostly with the way they wanted to portray Irish culture. It quickly became clear that we had very differing views on what ‘genuine’ meant and I ended up distancing myself from the project. Last I heard, it hadn’t progressed much further beyond those initial conversations and I believe the game now lingers in ‘development hell’.
Fast forward two years and I come across this – Wrath of the Druids – a game released in May by Ubisoft (a company far bigger than the one I’d been talking to) as part of its ‘Assassins Creed’ product line. Ubisoft do some of the better AAA games (the term used for the more complex games produced by the larger game publishing houses) and although ‘Wrath of the Druids’ has very little in common with the game I’d been approached about, some of the aspects on how Irish history/mythology were being portrayed were similar.
I guess the big problem with non-native game producers making games based on Irish culture is that they tend to cherry pick aspects that they like (and omit or change what they don’t) and repackage the altered remnants as the components of a distorted, anglicized (i.e. ‘Celtic’) fantasy that appeals to the masses. That would probably be fine if they didn’t keep passing it off as ‘Irish’ to give it an air of ‘authenticity’ but when it come sto game developers, they generally seem to want to have their cake and eat it. In some ways, it feels as though the whole colonization process has continued unabated except that, nowadays, rather than stealing our land, the feckers are after our cultural identity!!!
So Who Will Protect Us? Yay! Tourism Ireland.
What’s most interesting about the ‘Wrath of the Druids’ game, was the involvement of Tourism Ireland (who approached the developers when they heard it was being produced). To their credit, by engaging proactively with the game developers, Tourism Ireland managed to get some excellent leverage through the inclusion of current day tourist destinations (based on ancient sites) into the game. From a marketing perspective therefore, you’d have to admit the final product was a total ‘win-win’. Tourism Ireland gets a rare opportunity to market directly to an extensive gaming community and Ubisoft can utilise their involvement to lend the game an air of er … cultural authenticity (even if it seems limited to topographical or architectural features).
To be honest, I have plenty of respect for Tourism Ireland and its efforts to support the Irish tourism industry. Unfortunately, its narrow financial objectives and its desperation for marketing ‘airtime’ places it in a tenuous position when it comes to representing Ireland. Tourism Ireland isn’t particularly intersted in genuine aspects of our culture. They’re interested in bringing tourists to the country so that they spend money here and they’ll sell them any oul shitedream they want to get them over. With respect to gaming therefore, Tourism Ireland are more than happy for Ireland to be marketed as a land where druids hang out doing their magic schtick (while wearing antlers), where shaggy Oirish wherewolvzes threaten to gnaw your bones, where fiery, red-haired maidens are waiting to be rescued and where every gaming tourist can have their ultimate wet-dream ‘Oirish’ fantasy come true.
Perhaps we should rename them ‘Tourism Oireland’.
I’m being a bit cynical here, of course (no, really!) but it’s important to remember that the aim of products like ‘Wrath of the Druids’ is to entertain. It’s not to inform or to educate – although commercial companies will happily make such claims unless someone takes them to task on the matter.
And, trust me, Tourism Ireland aren’t the entity to take them to task.
Ultimately, allowing non-Irish creatives in the gaming industry to represent Irish culture without credible oversight can lead to some major narrative clangers. It can also have serious downsides that include the replacment of genuine elements of Irish culture by a Plastic Paddy charicatures (anyone remember Cait from Fallout 4!).
Longer term, unless we as native Irish creators regain control of our own stories and heritage, our culture risks continuing to serve as a cheap commodity for ‘Celtic’-style entertainment.
And the ‘MacDonald’s’ version of Irish culture is not something, we really want to pass down to our children – no matter how good the game is.