CONTENT WARNING – Spoilers for QWOP
In last week’s tutorial we discussed how racist imagery and attitudes can be in video games unintentionally. Needless to say, after the lectures on representation, we can now think critically about the representation issues in video games that we never noticed before.
This led me to think about the racialised markers and tropes in Bennett Foddy’s QWOP, the world’s most advanced frustration simulator (although the recent Flappy Bird is a close contender). It shows that these issues aren’t restricted to big-budget games, they can be present in simple, amateur productions too.
DISCLAIMER: I’m NOT saying that the creator Bennett Foddy is a willing racist, just that the game is an example of “racially problematic” tropes in a non-market context.
If you’re not familiar with Qwop’s backstory, here’s the introduction:
- You are Qwop, our small nation’s sole representative at the Olympic Games.
- Use the QWOP keys to move your legs.
- Ideally you will run 100 metres…
- …but our training program was under-funded.
- Remember, it’s not about whether you win or lose
And here’s a picture of gameplay:
From here on, QWOP (in uppercase) refers to the game and Qwop (in title case) refers to the main character.
Already we get a clear idea of how QWOP is marked. Remember, the game didn’t just fall from the sky – every sign, their selection, their significance and their combinations were all deliberately chosen and crafted by the designer. For example, characters don’t just “happen to be” male, female, young, old, White, Black, etc. – they’re intended to be so. Also, no cultural work is made in a vacuum, so the signifiers are influenced by the tropes in the shared imagination of its wider society, whether knowingly or not.
The introduction is explained in a “National Geographic documentary” style where the reader is assumed to know nothing of this unknown, obscure and exotic place. This tone and Qwop’s silly name presents him and his nation as “The Other”. The fact that this “Other” is also marked as Black is not surprising considering that Foddy comes from Australia where the “default” person is considered White (c.f. Reading 6).
Design elements are chosen to fulfil a specific artistic vision, and in QWOP it’s the overall humour. So how do the markers achieve this? Everything mentioned about Qwop’s country makes it sound pathetic – it’s tiny, can only send one athlete to the Olympics and can barely fund him anyway. This selection of story elements is problematic since it specifically evokes a stereotype relevant to real groups of people – the “pathetic, poverty-stricken, tiny nation in the Third World” stereotype (African countries are known for sending few or no participants to the Olympics). The game might not explicitly say it, but it’s there. Qwop’s Black marking and the exoticised tone of the introduction enhances this image further. Worst of all, it’s evoking it as part of a big joke.
Now, again I’m not saying that Foddy deliberately said “You know what would make people laugh? Poor Black countries, am I right?” But at some point he did decide to include certain elements that the audience would recognise as funny, and to achieve this he imported this insulting portrayal from wider culture. Whether intentionally or not, QWOP bashes real groups of people for the purpose of enjoyment by perpetuating such a negative stereotype.
Speaking of stereotypes, we can also see the tired “Black people are good runners” trope. The reason why such a seemingly positive stereotype is problematic is because it relegates Blacks to a strict role. Succeeding at the game necessitates making Qwop fulfil his racialised “role”. You may point out that there are actually many good Black runners in the Olympics and Qwop’s role could be more to do with his career than his race. But remember that we have to approach this work as an expression of culture where everything is specifically designed to evoke imagery and feelings from our shared experiences (i.e. society’s tropes), not a documentary where everything “just happens” to be the way it is.
You may also point out that Qwop is not a good runner. In fact, he seems to have less motor co-ordination than a two year old. To address this, we have to read between the lines and take notice of the modes of address used.
Some more text, from the help section:
- Alternately hold Q and W to swing your thighs.
- Alternately hold O and P to swing your calves.
- It is possible to run like a normal human being, with skill and practice.
- There is a surprise waiting for you at 50m, and another at 100m.
- Try tapping ‘O’ at the beginning to start yourself leaning forward, before you move your legs.
- Press ‘R’ anytime to restart.
Click to resume
If we try to distinguish all the agents in the diegesis of QWOP, we notice three distinct “characters”:
- The implicit representative that introduces you to Qwop, who also hails from his nation (“our small nation’s sole representative”, “our training program was under-funded”).
- Qwop-the-character who is present only in the diegesis as his nation’s sole representative.
- You-the-player, disjunct from Qwop, who are present in the game as the controller of Qwop (“to swing your thighs”, “surprise waiting for you”, “move your legs”, and so forth). If you lose it says “PARTICIPANT. Showing real courage, you ran X metres. Everyone is a winner”. If you win it says “NATIONAL HERO. You ran to the end of the track and jumped! In the end you went: X metres. Press space to restart”.
The main point to take away here is the difference between you-the-player and Qwop, tying into the ludology vs. narratology problem in games. The game sets up you alone as responsible for the race’s events, rather than the story; the personal narrative overtakes the designed narrative. Qwop doesn’t have poor co-ordination, you do. You are the one flailing your limbs about. You are the one falling over. Qwop himself is a great athlete since he’s part of the story, not the game, and the story says he’s good enough to enter the Olympics. The game’s rules might allow the Qwop avatar to flail about, but it doesn’t reward it (it makes you lose, after all). It just says “this is what can happen”, not “this is what should happen”. What does it say should happen? Qwop should be a good runner. So no, the poor co-ordination doesn’t affect the presence of this stereotype.
Even though I’ve mentioned literally ALL text in the game (aside from maybe the copyright tag), there’s still more to be said, but I’ll keep it brief.
The “NATIONAL HERO” label upon victory is directed to Qwop-the-character, not you-the-player, since he’s the one from the fictional nation. He’s one of the best in his country just for getting to the end of a 100m track? It doesn’t matter how fast he was, or how far he jumped at the end? This deliberate absurdity is again bashing his stereotypical nation as “pathetic” even further, just for laughs.
Lastly, the player’s role as Qwop’s controller evokes yet another cultural trope. In conjunction with the markers above, this reflects the systematic representation of developing nations as composed of intrinsically incapable victims that must be helped by foreigners. Now, I’m not saying that it’s wrong to help less developed regions of the world, but the way we socially construct this global relationship cements a patronising, “innate” hierarchy (for further reading, refer to commentary on Kony2012). And this isn’t just a misinterpretation of the player’s relation to the avatar, this is also present in the diegesis as the nation’s representative directly wants you to help.
In conclusion, QWOP is full of racialised stereotypes. In lectures and tutorials we discussed many viewpoints about who is reponsible for problematic representations. Market factors and audience preferences were commonly cited as explanations, but as a free Flash game, QWOP represents a counter-example. Foddy didn’t have sales in mind, so market preferences and target audiences weren’t considered. Yet there were still common racial tropes present, which indicates to me that the root cause is the attitudes in society that unconsciously pervade the production of cultural works.