The following essay contains spoilers for Borderlands 2 and its expansions.

Here’s a thought exercise for you: if humanity successfully achieves the technological advancements necessary to travel to and inhabit other planets, will we find life on any of them? If we do, will that life be intelligent, able of communication with us? And regardless of the answer to that question, would we go ahead and enact the same acts of colonial oppression that have defined exploration of our own planet, all the while implementing the same destructive institutions of racism, classism, and hatred that feed into real-world political disarray?

Alternatively, a more optimistic Option B: would such achievements be characteristic only of an advanced society, the kind where egalitarianism thrives and we live peacefully with our fellow humans in a world of puppies, rainbows, and Starship Troopers-style communal showers?

Hint: it’s probably not Option B.

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The Borderlands series first emerged in 2009, a top-tier title from the otherwise mid-tier Gearbox Software. A slick fusion of first-person shooter and Diablo-esque role-playing game, the game was marked by its emphasis on co-op gameplay and its striking cell-shaded art style.[1] For these reasons, the series has become a tremendous success and one of the most iconic shooters in the modern video game canon. It’s a success that is largely deserved[2]: the world of Borderlands is a vividly realized portrait of an outer space madhouse. Its primary setting, the faraway planet of Pandora, is Mad Max through the lens of absurdist humor, populated by a frenetic cast of zany sociopaths from numerous walks of life. Borderlands 2, by far the most successful game in the series to date, is particularly standout. Its environments are sharp, colorful, and varied, from arctic tundras to volcanic outposts, and its script is punctuated by morbid wit, notably in the form of its antagonist, the megalomaniac Donald Trump/Patrick Bateman hybrid[3] Handsome Jack.

Beyond its sprawling main campaign, Borderlands 2 is host to some of the most creative and diverse expansions put forth in a video game. Want to take a break from the core story to go on a swashbuckling pirate adventure? Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate’s Booty has you covered. A Valentine’s Day themed expansion based on Romeo and Juliet? Load up Mad Moxxi and the Wedding Day Massacre. Feeling like a stroll through a meta fantasy world where the protagonists take a break to play a tabletop role-playing game? There’s the hilarious and surprisingly touching Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dungeon Keep. Through a commitment to the explosive variety and lunacy of these expansions, Gearbox manages to make a hundred-plus hour game feel constantly new and engaging.

And then there’s Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt.

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Much like Borderlands 2’s eight other narrative expansions, Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt is a themed DLC that seeks to apply the Borderlands formula to a pre-existing narrative trope. Rather than take players on a quest to save Christmas or put them through a Hunger Games parody, however, Big Game Hunt decides to send its cast of good-hearted sociopaths on a pseudo-African safari. The plot is simple: the player character(s) embark on a safari to a previously unexplored region of Pandora, led by the posh and British-accented Sir Hammerlock. Their goal: hunt the biggest game that they can find. Being a narrative action game, of course, Hammerlock and his cohorts encounter antagonistic devotees of Handsome Jack along the way. Par for the course so far, but in this African-inspired tale, the game’s antagonists look like this:

savages 2

savages1

These are the Savages – yes, they’re called that in the game – barely clothed black men that rush the player with bones, shields, and grunts. Savages are paired with the Witch Doctors, who don tribal masks and cast voodoo-esque spells on the player. The player, meanwhile, must gun the Savages down in order to progress through the expansion’s mercifully brief story. Not content to merely incorporate the already troublesome imagery of safaris and big game hunting into its narrative, Big Game Hunt fully embraces the most evil elements of colonialism by cutting the racist imagery of 1933’s King Kong and pasting it into the middle of a 2013 video game.

Normally, racism in a video game might manifest itself is subtler, the kind of thing that can be more readily attributed to (still harmful) ignorance rather than active malice. A character creator tool might be balanced overwhelmingly toward Caucasian features, or perhaps a game series relegates its playable black character to a downloadable expansion while openly promoting a white guy on the box of its bigger budget retail release.[4] Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt has no time for the nuances of modern racial ignorance; instead, it hearkens back to a time where media openly supported the portrayal of people of color as barbaric and uncivilized and where tripe like Birth of a Nation’s story could seriously be considered acceptable.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that at no point in its narrative does Big Game Hunt seek to challenge the images and scenarios that it presents before the player. Instead, it plays it disturbingly straight in an otherwise goofy game: the Savages are savages, with no nuance to their character – hell, there’s no character to speak of beyond “kill” when it comes to the Savages. They single-mindedly rush the player and attack until it’s time to shoot them and collect their loot. In tandem with this is the player’s infallibility as the good guy in this scenario. Unlike in the main game, where, for example, the player’s sense of heroism is challenged when Handsome Jack pleads for them not to kill his daughter (they do), Big Game Hunt offers no pushback and instead merely tries to frame everything that is happening as B-movie camp – all well and good when the player is shooting down monstrous beasts, but far less tolerable when the monsters in question are a horrific caricature of black men.

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Once the initial shock of how offensive Big Game Hunt is subsides, it is hard to be left feeling anything but disappointment, because contrary to everything that one might garner from playing this expansion, the Borderlands series is actually quite laudable for its efforts to depict diversity and approach themes of social justice. Borderlands 2 is written by Anthony Burch, co-creator of the video game themed sketch comedy series Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin? Initially little more than a series of juvenile jokes curbed from the most tasteless Comedy Central shows (understandable, given that Burch was literally a kid when he developed the series with his sister, Ashly[5]), HAWP has evolved into one of the industry’s sharpest critiques of racism and sexism in video games, with episodes devoted to themes of representation in games and exploring manifestations of racism and cultural appropriation. Burch, himself a person of color, is clearly aware of how social inequality manifests itself in the video game industry, and he is a skilled comedic writer with an interest in more than just scatological humor.[6] While the development of Big Game Hunt was unlikely Burch’s idea, he nonetheless is responsible for delivering a script that unironically embraces notions of the savage against the civilized man and does nothing to challenge the awful and misguided ideas on display.

It’s all the more disappointing when one looks past Big Game Hunt to the sort of representation that can be found in virtually every other piece of Borderlands media. Borderlands features one of the most refreshing depictions of sexuality in games: numerous characters are openly non-normative and queer, with several playable and non-playable gay individuals populating the game world. Additionally, the franchise features many prominent and diverse people of color in its cast. Roland, a playable character in the first entry and a significant presence in Borderlands 2, is a commanding leader whose actions are among the most heroic in the game. Captain Scarlett, a punk rock pirate with queer leanings, is a charmingly disarming villain whose cheeky apologies as she betrays the player only serve to make her more endearing. Even Sir Hammerlock, poster child of colonialism that he is, is an openly gay black man, an absolute rarity in games. Beyond mere representation by numbers, Borderlands also addresses issues of social inequality with sarcastic wit: a side mission in Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dungeon Keep explores and pokes fun at the “boy’s club” mentality of gaming subculture and lampoons its exclusionary nature. With such moments present throughout the broader Borderlands series, Big Game Hunt’s existence only becomes increasingly upsetting and outright perplexing.

To Borderlands 2’s credit, when the Savages reappear in Sir Hammerlock vs. the Son of Crawmerax, a short “the gang goes to the beach” story, Burch’s script makes an attempt at bringing the socially aware lens of the rest of the series to its one alarming blight. As Hammerlock waxes poetically about the uncivilized nature of the Savages, he is interrupted by one of the Savages, who angrily protests, “I graduated from Eden-5 Megaversity with Honors! Check your privilege, dick!” It’s a refreshing moment of self-awareness that runs counter to Big Game Hunt’s disturbing degree of blindness to the issue. Granted, given the fact that the Savages still attack the player with the same, well, savagery of Big Game Hunt, it is a rather hollow gesture, though still a noteworthy moment of repentance.

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Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt is nothing short of a disaster. In its quest to live up to the series’ penchant for ridiculous, trope-filled scenarios, it digs up a cliché so inherently toxic that it can do nothing but replicate the racism that is inherent to the very idea of safaris and savages.[7] If anything positive can be said of the expansion – and that is a very tall order – it is that it serves as a cautionary tale regarding blindness to social issues in game development. Even a series like Borderlands, which abounds with positive representation and social commentary in a way that few big-budget games dare to do, can fall victim to a case of tremendous ignorance on the part of its developers. Past performance does not guarantee future results, after all, and game developers, much like any artist, must remain vigilant in the making of their art, ensuring that toxic stereotypes do not infiltrate an otherwise talented team’s vision. Taking a moment to step back and inquire how a person from a background other than your own might interpret your art will never make your art worse; all it can do is offer a chance to correct an egregious misstep.

Having diversity on development teams can be a great step in ensuring that a game is not created within a bubble of ignorance. Beyond that, simple vigilance in creating can do wonders in ensuring a quality end result. Just as developers test to ensure that a game maintains a stable framerate or doesn’t contain a gamebreaking bug, so too should they work to assure that their narrative universes are not plagued by scenarios that alienate audiences based solely on immutable qualities of their physical person. With such a mentality continuing to rise to prominence among game developers and critics, I maintain a cautious optimism that the errors of Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt will become a relic of the past, much like the exploitative themes and concepts that the expansion draws its inspiration from.

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[1] Which was totally stolen, by the way. Gearbox and its CEO, Randy Pitchford, fall somewhere between Ted Cruz and the lying guard from Labyrinth on the trustworthiness spectrum.

[2] If one ignores the questionable business practices behind its development.

[3] So, just Donald Trump, then. (Author’s note: can you tell that this was written immediately after the South Carolina GOP primary?)

[4] Not to mention equating white supremacists with Black Panther-esque activists throughout the narrative of that same big budget retail release.

[5] a.k.a. the voice of Life is Strange’s Chloe and Borderlands 2’s own Tiny Tina.

[6] His takedown of Metal Gear Solid, co-written with Ash, remains one of the best long-form feminist critiques of a video game to be published.

[7] It doesn’t help that it is far and away the worst expansion in the series from a gameplay perspective. The levels are bland with far too little structure, the side missions are more of a painful grind than anywhere else in the game, and the enemies are stupidly frustrating bullet sponges.

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