Critical Intel

Critical Intel
As Usual, PETA is Wrong About Whaling

Robert Rath | 14 Mar 2013 16:00
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But ultimately all these hints are predicated on what the player brings to the game - the knowledge that widespread commercial whaling is an unsustainable enterprise. Living in a post-whale oil world, we can't help but see Dunwall as a city headed for catastrophe even without the rat plague. They've staked their entire progress as a country on the idea that blubber is a plentiful resource that will always be available and easily caught. The very idea that whales aren't an infinite source of power doesn't seem to occur to anyone in the game, even Sokolov, the innovator behind much of the technology boom. The attitude isn't far from the one Melville expressed 1851 when he spent a chapter of Moby Dick dismissing concerns that whales might become nearly extinct like the buffalo. However, the fact that Melville wrote the defense at all proves that already in the 1850s there were those who wondered "whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff."

So, by that token we see that depicting whaling in a game does not necessarily carry an anti-environmental, anti-conservationist or even pro-cruelty message. Rather, immersing the player in a historical or historically-inspired values system that clashes with modern day norms makes the player draw parallels to practices in his or her own time. Dishonored dove into the dark and violent culture of whaling not to condone its practices, but to mirror the cruelty and damage our own society inflicts on our environment as well as other people.

While I have no special knowledge of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, I can't imagine they'd include a whaling mechanic if Ubisoft didn't plan to contextualize it within a larger discussion about the price of colonialism. While it is true that the player never personally hunts whales in Dishonored, I would counter that asking the player to violate taboos is a recurring rhetorical device in modern games. Captain Walker from Spec Ops: The Line commits war crimes, Jason Brody from Far Cry 3 begins to enjoy killing people (as well as endangered species), and Corvo has to decide whether to kill Lady Boyle, or deliver her to a suitor without her consent. The first two cases serve as meta commentary on games as a medium and whether we, as players, behave ethically in action genres. The third is an example of values dissonance, where the act of transferring Lady Boyle like property spurs us to examine sexist attitudes both in the 19th century as well as our own time (after all, Lady Boyle's fate is comparable to many noble women whose families married them off for dowries or political reasons - often to men they didn't like or had never met). I wouldn't put it past Ubisoft to do much the same thing with a whaling mechanic, where the player either finds whaling unpalatable, there's some sort of database entry contextualizing the minigame, or the frequency of whale respawns drops the more the player hunts them.

While I understand PETA's concern about players being able to go whaling in Assassin's Creed IV, their objection is shortsighted and fails to see the potential benefit in educating players about the history of whaling. Not only is whaling a historically important subject when discussing British colonies in the Americas, if Dishonored is any indication, through modern eyes the industry will almost certainly come off as a damaging enterprise in order to play into modern concerns about environmental destruction. Even if AC4 lacks historical context or critical commentary, the thought that the game might "glorify" the practice or lend popular weight to the modern-day attempts to resume commercial whaling doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

Really, PETA should go back to doing what it's best at: protecting Zerglings.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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