Down Under-Represented: Australia in Videogames

Opinion
November 2, 2016 by Douglas Fry

The weird thrill of seeing your country represented-- not always accurately-- in videogames

Microsoft is leaning hard into the Australian angle for local marketing of Forza Horizon 3. The game is not just set in Australia, they remind consumers – it’s SET IN AUSTRALIA, a pitch that’s boldly stamped on the game’s cover and advertising material. They’re trying to sell us on the countryside we could experience in real life, the patriotic appeal of dodging kangaroos while cruising on the left side of the Great Ocean Road in an Australian muscle car. Evidently it’s working: online classifieds ads abound for people looking to trade their PS4 for an Xbox One “because I want to play forza 3 horizon.”

But according to James O’Connor, the “hopeful and beautiful version of Australia” in Forza Horizon 3 glosses over some uncomfortable social truths, playing on an idealized depiction of the country that conceals its often racist and bigoted underbelly. While this may be the case, it’s also worth recognizing that Forza Horizon 3 follows a long videogame trend of representing Australia in a manner that doesn’t always reflect the whole picture.   

Growing up in the 90s with a steady diet of international (mostly American) pop culture, it was a wondrous surprise to see Australia depicted in videogames. I found it thrilling to chase fugitives through Sydney in Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego, or deploy a team of cyberpunk assassins to New South Wales in Syndicate. I was fascinated that developers in a country that mattered like Britain or the United States knew humble little Australia existed, let alone included it in their game. So I was astonished when an entire Nintendo 64 game, HSV Adventure Racing, made Australian-built cars its centerpiece, even localizing the race announcer with an Australian voice actor. Hearing my own accent in a videogame for the first time was a very peculiar moment.

The novelty lingered through to Project Gotham Racing 2, which photo-mapped a historic suburb of Sydney. While walking through this area, I passed an old church with a sign out front detailing its history. To my amazement, the devs had included this minor detail in PGR2 – the low-res text on the sign was muddy and unreadable, but it was there. An inconsequential object that I’d stood beside, I could now drift past in a videogame, a tangible connection that I was excited to show my brother - though he didn’t seem to care.

What he did care about was that token Australian soldier in Halo: Combat Evolved. During co-op sessions, we’d go to immense lengths to protect “Chips Dubbo” and ensure there was a spare Warthog seat available for him. Though we tried our best to drive that Warthog into areas that Bungie didn’t want us to go, we’d have no choice but to eventually part ways with Chips and his ocker optimism. Leaving him behind always felt like treason.

It’s fitting that an Australian joined the UNSC to fight the Covenant. Australia has never had cause to go to war alone, but has happily joined multinational coalitions led by its powerful allies. Our national identity was essentially forged in the imperial machinations of World War One, and this “ANZAC legend” has been an ongoing touchstone in Australia’s contribution to wars against fascism, communism and terrorism. Sure enough, Battlefield 1 draws on the near-mythological status of ANZAC troops for source material, where a stoic veteran becomes a one man army during the Gallipoli landings: “You’re Australian,” he tells a frightened young soldier. “We’re impossible to kill.”

Despite the centrality of war to our self-identity, Australians don’t often feature in war games; it usually falls to the mod community to add the appropriate skins and equipment to ArmA or Project Reality. There are studio-made exceptions beyond Battlefield 1 though – Medal of Honor: Warfighter included the elite SAS Regiment, for example, and an Australian spy provided mission briefings in Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction. The hex-based strategy of People’s General, meanwhile, forecast Australia’s potential involvement in a US-led war against China.

Rarer still is the depiction of Australia itself in videogame wars, despite enduring post-colonial paranoia towards foreign invasion by imperial powers/South East Asian communism/undocumented migrants. The “Asian invasion” scenario is a recurring theme in popular fiction, yet it has been – somewhat ironically – Japanese developers who have explored the virtual violation of Australia’s sovereignty, with Front Mission 3 and Gundam Side Story 0079 depicting the continent as a barren, wartorn stomping ground for combat mechs.

The perception of Australia as a desolate wasteland isn’t totally baseless – it is the driest inhabited continent on the planet, about 70% semi-arid or desert. Even so, it’s likely that this popular dystopian vision owes more to George Miller’s highly influential Mad Max films, which extend the harsh and unforgiving Outback to envelop a post-apocalyptic world. In gaming terms, ubiquitous desert served as the backdrop for Avalanche Studios’ (literal) sandbox adaptation of Mad Max, naturally, but also features in Beneath a Steel Sky, where the only escape from oppressive corporate mega-cities lies in the arid expanses of “The Gap.”

Another recurring trope that can be traced back to Mad Max is that of the deranged, unhinged Australian, where the inhabitants of an unforgiving land are almost entirely criminals and lunatics. It has carried through to Overwatch, for example, and the destructive insanity of Junkrat, a hyperactive caricature of the classic Australian larrikin; the cliché is rounded out with an unlockable skin that dresses Junkrat as a convict.

In all fairness to Blizzard, Australian society does often revel in its criminal streak – it was founded as a dumping ground for England’s prison system, after all. Legendary bushrangers like Ned Kelly became folkloric anti-heroes in the 19th century, while popular TV shows and films have paid homage to modern gangsters like Mark “Chopper” Read and serial killer Ivan Milat. This roughshod characterization was rife in the locally-developed Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, for example, with uncouth NPCs and the coarsely-spoken “Boganella” shotgun poking fun at our lack of refinement.

Rough though our accent can be, it’s apparently also a point of pride – enough to kick up a stink about an American voicing the titular hero in Avalanche’s Mad Max. While there are notable instances of Australian voice actors in games-– Chloe Frazer in the Uncharted series being a prominent example-– there is still an overabundance of mimicked accents, which range from passable (Bambi ‘Buck’ Hughes in Far Cry 3) to atrocious (the Sniper in Team Fortress 2). Enlisting Australians actors doesn’t guarantee authenticity, however – Dead Island character Purna Jackson is part-Aborigine, yet is voiced by a white actress, an especially unsavoury casting choice when Purna describes herself as “a nobody, an Abo bitch.”

While Dead Island corrects the near absence of indigenous Australians from videogames, it’s an inauthentic treatment that falls into a common trap of cultural misconceptions and racist stereotypes. Another offender is Beneath a Steel Sky, where a mystical Aboriginal elder (see also: Magical Negro) names the white hero after Foster’s beer, naively sidelining the serious public health issue that alcohol poses in Aboriginal communities. Worse still is the character of Porunga in Front Mission, whose dialogue evokes “noble savage” stereotypes of the colonial era: “I not babbling about nothing! I want to protect nature of this island.” 

A far more palatable stereotype is the Australian Sporting Hero. We love our sport, worship exceptional athletes, attend matches in droves each weekend – enough to establish a viable market for rugby, cricket, and Aussie Rules videogames. At an international level, we are accustomed to winning performances, and have lofty expectations of our sporting icons. Videogames quickly capitalize on newfound international success: rising MMA star Robbie Whittaker features in UFC2, the Australian men’s basketball squad made its virtual debut in NBA 2K17, and the women’s national soccer team graced the local cover of FIFA 16 after progressing to the World Cup finals.

Motorsport is no less popular, with the V8 Supercars competition – roughly comparable to NASCAR – worth hundreds of millions in sponsorship and broadcasting deals. The competition’s iconic Mount Panorama racetrack in Bathurst has been recreated countless times in videogames, as have the Formula One and MotoGP racing circuits in Victoria. While developers have occasionally ventured off road in simulators (Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo) and arcade racers (Cruis’n World), Forza Horizon 3 unites the dirt and bitumen by twisting and squashing geographic features into a sample-pack sized Australia.

Although its map takes artistic license, Forza Horizon 3 pays close attention to incidental details like phonebooths, and cultural peculiarities like the enduring competition between Ford and Holden (General Motors’ local marque). The “Red vs Blue” rivalry is given impressive dues in Forza Horizon 3, with locally-built cars featuring heavily. It’s the first and likely last time that most of these cars feature in a videogame – Ford and GM will soon cease Australian manufacturing, effectively ending local automotive production.

Forza Horizon 3 is as much a love letter as a postcard – and it feels pretty nice to receive, when Australia is a relative rarity in videogames. It only comprises about 0.3% of the world’s population, so I’m under no illusions about its global importance, even with its disproportionate levels of soft power. So for a AAA studio to bother handcrafting such a splendid rendition of my country, after a long line of stupid caricatures and regurgitated clichés – well, it gives me the same humbling, giddy validation I felt as a kid, because I take pride in being Australian. That sentiment carries some sour, bigoted connotations coming from a white hetero male, but it shouldn’t automatically be insidious, either. Australia has a dark side, no doubt, but it also offers a great deal that is worth celebrating – and critically exploring – through the medium of videogames. The pristine landscapes of Forza Horizon 3, while shallow, seem like a good place to start.