Lacan And Critical Race Theory: Team Ninja’s Nioh And Whitewashing

Edmund Burke’s statement, that ‘the only thing required for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’, is one of the great idiomatic touchstones of Western ideological fantasy. In the present, within an increasingly authoritarian state, this translates into a usage of this quote alongside pop condemnations of fascism. Why should we think critically about fascism when we can seemingly dismiss it with such ease? In fact, the parallels between Hitler and Trump have seemingly become so transparent in our imaginations that you could be forgiven for confusing Burke’s statement with similar lines of reasoning from Hannah Arendt’s own work, and in particular, her statements on what she has called “the banality of evil.” In our minds, these two things seem to have collapsed into each other, and not without good reason.


Banksy’s “The Banality of the Banality of Evil”

Adolf Eichmann at his trial in Jerusalem infamously attempted to defend himself by claiming that he was purely interested in maintaining order within civil society. In his own imagination, he was not participating in the Shoah with some sort of demonic will towards perpetuating systematic suffering, rather via his defense Eichmann wanted the court to see how he was “just doing his job.” From Eichmann’s perspective, in signing papers and calculating the finances of the regime, he did not directly participate in the systematic murder of six million Jews. In order to get a more subtle appreciation of Eichmann’s argument, it is important to read this point as stemming from sincerity, regardless of whether or not it makes our skin crawl. From this rationalization, Arendt develops her well-known sophisticated point about the banality of evil, or the bureaucratic evil of everyday life within Nazi Germany. As Žižek in particular has noted, however, Arendt and Burke’s arguments require a certain sort of obscene supplement in order to reach their full capacity. In this sense, according to Žižek, what Arendt’s and Burke’s points fail to account for is the presence of a certain enjoyment that occurs in the banality of evil, or in the act of “good men standing to the side.” I make this lengthy introduction through these events succeeding the Holocaust in part due to my own readings of peoples’ reactions to recent events, and also, more importantly, because I think the structure of enjoyment that Žižek points to in this is critical for future academic practice in cultural analyses. Arguably, the “deep structure” of this enjoyment is analytically similar to what Critical Race Theory takes as whitewashing. Now, on to Nioh.


Nioh’s Cover Art 2017

Tuesday, February 7, marked a supposed return to form for the software developer Team Ninja with their recent release of Nioh, a video game where the player takes control of the figurative representation of one William Adams. Adams, as a figure of history, enjoys a certain amount of notoriety for supposedly being the first Brit to make landfall on Japan. However, in the context of Nioh, his presence as one of the first Westerners to be inaugurated as Samurai also occupies a privileged significance in the narrative. Unless you are considered (by people who don’t play) to be one of us “Otaku”, you could again, be forgiven for not being familiar with Team Ninja’s previous work. They are best known for their two flagship series: Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive. This is, of course, to say nothing of some of their other gems like Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball– a piece of software (or “vanishing mediator” between Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive) which has garnered a significant amount of ridicule and critique from people who concern themselves with such trivial things as representations of gender and sexuality in pop culture. Nioh is significant in the history of Team Ninja, because it seemingly marks the developer’s return to an interest in crafting sophisticated and precise action games rather than digital softcore pornography.


Lacan’s Matheme of Jouissance

The “sub-genre” in the context of Nioh is something that is also worth considering for a moment. Nioh is a “souls” game, which means it demands to be read inside the context of a dialectical movement of gameplay. If we really want to get pin-headed we can think of this in terms of Hegel’s triad: thesis/antithesis/synthesis. The general “gameplay loop” of souls games goes something like this: a.) player is inserted into a large open world with subtle narrative context that becomes more clear over time b.) the player must gather the souls of defeated enemies as a type of currency in order to level-up and make their avatar stronger c.) when the player makes a mistake and dies they lose their accumulated souls d.) throughout the course of the game the player needs to defeat a series of increasingly difficult challenges until beating the game. In a crude sense the triad then goes something like this: 1.) the Hegelian theses are the ideations that the player constructs as strategies for overcoming challenges encountered in the game 2.) the Hegelian antithesis is seemingly what it always is, death or mistake 3.) finally, the synthesis is the accumulated knowledge built through sublation that enables the player to complete the game. What is significant about the gameplay loop are the cyclical structures and sensations of frustrations and triumphs that compose the experience of play. In other words, Lacanian repetition is present in a full sense. Insofar as gameplay is concerned, this is the defining feature of Nioh and other “souls” games.


Hegel’s Triad

And of course, in being true to Team Ninja’s formula, there has to be some sort of “controversy” at work in Nioh. In their previous entries in the software library, these controversies were about sex and “jiggle physics.” Perhaps the controversy hasn’t quite hit its full potential yet this time around because it concerns race in a tacit form…… Then again, this is always a fundamental structural feature of whitewashing. Even prior to its release Team Ninja was waving around the disclaimer that its white-guy protagonist Samurai was predicated on reality. And again William Adams was a “real person.” But this “based on a true story” -ness/quality of Nioh is the phantasmic structure that allows Adams’ whiteness the justification of dissolving back into reality.


Nioh’s Death Screen (Re: Antithesis/Negation)

Žižek’s analytic distinction of the “fool” and the “knave” is useful for thinking through the complexities offered up to Cultural Studies by pieces of popular culture like Nioh. This distinction comes in the example of the two obscene jokes in The Plague of Fantasies which involve narratives of exploitation paid for with surplus enjoyment (RE: Arendt and Burke.)

The first joke involves the knave’s appeals to “material reality” (Žižek associates this appeal with the republican’s demand for “the real facts.”) In the joke, the knave finds himself at a bar, where he orders two fingers of whisky. Upon receiving his order, a monkey comes sprinting across the bar, pauses over the tumbler, and thereupon rinses off his testicles in the man’s drink. He orders another glass, and the same thing happens again. The knave then looks around the room and spies a gypsy (the racial pejorative should be read here as well) playing fiddle in the corner entertaining some other patrons in the bar. The knave approaches the gypsy (with the assumption that she simply must know something of what’s going on) and asks: “do you know why the monkey keeps washing his nuts off in my whisky?” The question of course makes no sense to her, and she begins to play a very maudlin tune while belting out the lyrics “oh—- why did the monkey wash his nuts in my whiskey—–“….. Musicians who’ve ever been asked if they know some X-tune will understand this; especially if they already possess a contingent strategy of having a designated recognizable song prepared for just such occasions, over which they sing “watermelonwatermelonwatermelon.” (The idea being that you can play this in order to adapt to any possible tune suggestion that you don’t know, and that nobody else but the person asking for it will know either.) This is the problem of the knave.

Trigger Warning.

The fool’s joke is more akin to the Hegelian master-slave dialectic and is significantly more violent in content (Corresponding to the echo chamber between the fool and the knave, Žižek associates this joke with the problem of liberal academic practice.) In this joke, a fool and his wife– both of whom are members of the working class– are interrupted on the road by a member of the aristocracy. This nobleman, who upon lecherously spying the fool’s wife, orders them over to the shoulder, whereupon he commands the fool to hold his testicles (on pain of death or some other punishment) to prevent them from drooping in the dirt while he assaults the woman. The nobleman leaves, and the fool laughs off the situation, having not protected the man’s genitalia from the dust. The stupidity of the joke being that the fool thinks he has somehow robbed the nobleman of some stolen enjoyment by not fully complying to the demand, and besides this interpretation, the woman’s testimony is completely absent. This is the problem of the fool.


Both of these problems should be read into Nioh in the context of a debate about the presence of whitewashing in the game. A number of routes through this are possible. First, we could take the fool’s path and criticize Adams in Nioh as yet another example of whitewashing in popular culture. This of course is a perfectly legitimate criticism of the game. The problem however, is the first path is easily accounted for by the second path. The second path shows the problem of the knave who will appeal to the “based on a true story” -ness/quality of the game narrative. One could reply to this by stating that the William Adams of the game is absolutely not the William Adams of the historical record, but this would essentially be the same move as asking for another glass of whisky or phrasing the question to the gypsy in a slightly different manner. In the meantime, we continue to vacillate back and forth over whether or not Adams’ presence in Nioh constitutes an example of whitewashing– and this is the whole point of whitewashing as ideological fantasy.


The Real William Adams?

As Lacan has noted elsewhere, when we observe these types of traumatic excesses and reductions in discourse we should immediately recognize the presence of a signifying economy governed by jouissance. In other words, supplementing Critical Race Theory and Cultural Studies with psychoanalytic readings of pop culture products like Nioh can help us to (in Lacanian terms) “traverse the fantasy.” Psychoanalysis can help us to see that maybe in addition to the conversations about whitewashing that we are already having, we also need to consider how things like whitewashing themselves take place inside of a libidinal economy. Arguments overly concerned with whether or not Adams’ presence in the narrative of Nioh is or isn’t an example of whitewashing (Lacan calls this University Discourse) can end up functioning to allow something else to dissolve– and that something else is the fact that we actually get a lot of enjoyment out of whitewashing.


2016 Oscar Nominees for Best Actor


The Dialectics of Mice: Games and the Logic of Practice

“Dude. Have any of you guys tried to buy a new mouse recently? I’ve been doing some searching, but I’m going into analysis paralysis here.”

“I haven’t. I need to, but I have been stressfully avoiding it. For probably at least a year or so.”

“The fuck do you need a mouse for? I thought you controlled everything using a flight stick?”

“Ha. That would be hilarious.”

“We should all pitch in to get him a flight stick– just to play this…. just to see him try to use it.”

“I bet we’d be doing a lot better if he had a flight stick…..”

“… Honestly, I probably wouldn’t even have a kill yet if I was playing with a flight stick….”

“Dude, you wouldn’t even be able to figure out how to launch the game with one of those. You’d be like a 5th grader playing with crayons for the first time.”

“Ummm…. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I played with crayons before the 5th grade…”

“Ahhhhhhahah!!! I love it. Zero hesitation.”

“…He’s probably right though.”

“About the 5th grade or the flight stick?”

“Fuck you.”

“I know how to use a real flight stick in a goddamn aer-O plane, and I guarantee you, I wouldn’t be able to get a kill with a flight stick in this game.”

“… You guys buy me a flight stick and I’m going to quit this shit and go play Elite: Dangerous.”

Buying a computer mouse today is extremely difficult, especially for someone who knows what they are doing. There is an absurd amount of technical language that one has to filter through– which is made all the worse by a parade of acronyms concerning mouse-like abilities…. It is very easy to get lost, especially once you start making basic decisions concerning whether you want an optical mouse or a laser mouse– wireless, or corded.

For someone who knows precisely what they are looking for, and who is intimately aware of how it will effect their use of such a tool, the process might as well be an exercise in futility. For people who use computers a lot– and not just for working– mice are intimidating devices despite their innocuous slight physical appearances. For these people, mice are intimidating because they know exactly how the device will effect what they do with it.

Sensei Mouse

Up until very recently (as in the last year), most of the previous academic focus on videogames has come from fields that are largely  disinterested in what people are doing while they play. This blog post, quite literally, would not have been written by an academic even 10 years ago. Part of this is attributable to the additive properties and possibilities of language– but it’s also largely due to what and how academics find themselves concerned with things. Usually we are more interested in building a type of knowledge about videogames that is fundamentally detached from videogames and the people who play them. This type of research (featured occasionally on your evening news) is easily identified by people who play, because it usually involves testing of some kind, a subject population (people with a potential for violence), and a heinously dated videogame. Regarding this last point– researchers usually try to explain this away in advance of any actual conversation by stating that modern games are immensely difficult to decode. Of course they are correct in saying this– from the perspective of people who don’t play them.

Bourdieu, in talking about what he refers to as the “logic of practice”, makes reference to Mauss’s famous ethnographic work when he examines the reciprocal act of giving a gift. Mauss’s example is brilliant– but we are going to translate it here into something that makes more sense to us…..

Much of the negative criticism concerning videogames has been directed at what might be called their propensity for instilling violent behavior. “What is at stake is the indoctrination and corruption of our youth!”– if you want to use language that is a little more ham-fisted…. First Person Shooters in particular make for easy targets for these types of criticisms. Part of what is problematic with this form of reading however, is that it is too theoretical and is often radically disinterested in what is entailed by actually playing.

Back to gifts: whatever the circumstances, most people give gifts to other people at some point throughout the year. Giving a gift carries with it all sorts of meanings. Does one expect a gift in return? Is one giving a gift in reciprocation of something else, another gift received? If one is reciprocating a gift, how long after receiving a gift should one give a gift in return? If one was late in reciprocating, is one in trouble when they actually give the gift? Does one choose to call something a gift, that is not a gift? All of these things matter regardless of the type of gift that is given.

Belated Birthday

Instead of getting caught up in the meanings of the gift, as Bourdieu emphasizes, what we should look at is the act of giving a gift itself– where a gift is composed of a whole nexus of thoughts, expectations, predictions and calculations. Things get interesting when we realize that this type of thinking is generalizable to lots of different settings.

Back to videogames: much like in Fencing, through the course of a first person shooter match exchanges of gifts (attacks, ripostes, logics and counter-logics, predicted defensive maneuvers….) happen at massively accelerated speeds. In order to “succeed” in a FPS match, players need to able to calculate distances to each other, predict complex physics involving weapon charge up times, the state of the target (i.e. airborne vs. grounded), your own state (airborne, grounded, sprinting), target groupings, map positions, weapon reload speeds, and their teammates own proximity and communications…. all in order help manage damage going in multiple directions. “Success” here, is also a word that is up for debate. Many people just like playing because it lets them goof off with their friends. Frequently we don’t care who won the match, unless we are trying to play at a very competitive level for some kind of reward. Most of the time, play is its own reward.

In other words, playing a FPS game with your friends isn’t a murder simulator. Rather its an education in practical dialectics during which you get to swear at your friends and talk about stuff that’s going on in your life outside of the videogame. It’s about play.

Someone might make the argument that this all sounds a lot like Orson Scott Card’s “Battle School” in Ender’s Game. Such a reading would be interesting, and would probably result it some curious and important arguments about mythology and ideology (a la Roland Barthes)– but such a criticism would also need to account for the fact that nobody here playing the game is dying or is killing anyone else while they are playing. Granted we all might be being trained to fight or to think in a certain way– but according to Bourdieu, Mauss, Levi-Strauss, or virtually any theorist, these are ways of learning that we are going to be picking up regardless of videogames. At risk of sounding like an apologist, perhaps we should be looking at playing more, and less at what the gift “means.”

In other words, what actually happens when people play?

Teenage Cyborgs

 It takes some imagination, but one can think how buying a mouse– or a competition grade controller of any kind– gets complicated very quickly. (This is to say nothing of a flight stick.) Professional players, when they do this, cannot think just about the mouse. They must also consider how the mouse will effect what they do in the game. On a controller or a mouse, pressing a button takes time. Certain types of button combinations or trigger pulls get used frequently. Being able to do these things faster and smoother means having to think about them differently– which changes the way we play with each other. Being able to jump in a FPS game, while continuing to aim confers changes certain types of thoughts about how someone might move around a game– these are differences which are more noticeable if previously you were only able to jump (and not aim) due to limitations of the hardware or software.

Flight Stick

The catch comes, when people who don’t play start to realize that they do this as well when they think about purchasing a mouse. They think about what type of surface they want to use the mouse on. They might think about whether they want a wireless or corded mouse. They think about what color of a mouse they want, and if it will match their computer. The don’t frequently think about which mouse they want to use (many players own at least three mice). They don’t think about mouse durability. Most don’t think about if the mouse is accurate enough for their needs. Most don’t even think about the position of the cord coming out the front of the mouse, and if it will interfere with how they move the mouse around next to their computer.

Videogames aren’t inherently bad or good as a category of entertainment. There of course are “bad” and “good” games according to games journalism. But this type of journalism is concerned with a different level of discourse which is geared towards telling people who already play whether they will like a specific game or not. Calling FPS games murder simulators is sort of like bumper sticker politics. Saying something like: “Ayn Rand Was Right” is a crude statement that presumes everyone is in consensus with what you think you are saying in the first place. Okay…… well, presuming we are even in agreement that she was right about anything, or that we think she is talking about the same things, what was she right about?

Democrats and Republicans

In addition to talking about what things mean (which changes constantly), lets also talk about practice. Lets talk about mice and what it means to use them. Lets actually talk about games and the dialectics that take place in them.

Lets talk about objects and what it means to think with them.