Normally I wouldn’t engage PETA in any form of debate. While I don’t doubt its commitment to the cause of animal welfare, most of its statements of late seem aimed at gaining attention rather than moving forward their agenda. That being said, when the organization released a statement condemning the whaling mechanics in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag as an attempt to “glorify” the whaling industry, I found myself wondering how even PETA could be so shortsighted.
Make no mistake: Whaling is and was an odious business that involved the torture of intelligent animals, but the history of whaling is also pregnant with historic value and has a great deal to teach us about environmental conservation. Ignoring the very real lessons of whaling simply because we’re afraid to depict it is a mistake, especially when a game like Dishonored already proved developers can reframe the subject for a modern audience.
First of all, I understand PETA’s concern. I grew up watching whales in Hawaii and have myself worked in ocean environmental advocacy. Thinking about the cruelties of the whaling trade – both to animals and humans – makes me sick to my stomach. But regardless of my distaste for the practice, whaling played an important role in world history. Before kerosene and vegetable oils began to replace it in the 1850s, whale oil was one of the substances that drove the Industrial Revolution. Whale products served so many uses that it seems farcical. A young lady in the 19th century might prepare for an evening out by washing with whale oil soap and highlighting her face with cosmetics made from spermaceti – a waxy oil ladled out of the heads of sperm whales. Afterward, she’d cinch herself into a corset and a hoop skirt supported by strips of baleen, the keratin filter feeding plates whales use to catch krill. Running late, she’d alight into a buggy varnished by whale oil as the footman clicked his tongue and goaded the team with a baleen horsewhip. Her annoyed date might glance at a pocket watch lubricated by blackfish unguents. They’d then attend a party lit by whale oil lamps and clean, odorless spermaceti candles, which burned so bright that in 1860 the British government used them as the base value for candlepower. Ambergris perfume, made from a digestive secretion of sperm whales, would cover the smell of dancing bodies crushed into a small ballroom – it would also be in the wine. The next morning the guests might take concoctions of it to ease their hangovers. But whale products weren’t just necessary for high society life, the rendered fat of oceanic giants kept the spinning jennys of 18th and 19th century textile mills running at peak capacity and fueled the oil streetlights in cities across the globe. Both the public and private enterprise snapped up whale-based products with immense demand.
Global thirst for whale oil was part of what established the United States as an economic power and developed the northern states as an Atlantic trade hub. Whaling began in New England when the colonies were little more than villages huddling inside wooden palisades, but really took off when Quakers hewed to it with an almost religious zeal. At first the colonists practiced drift whaling – stripping the carcasses of dead whales that washed up on shore. Soon they decided that waiting for Providence to provide meat and oil were not enough, and towns started shore whaling, a process that involved launching longboats when lookouts spotted a whale, then killing the creature and dragging it to shore to render the fat. Whalers would quietly row up to the whale and harpoon it with a lance tied to wooden floats. The terrified whale would take off, dragging the floats along with the attached longboat on a “Nantucket sleigh ride,” skimming the mariners across the water at the speed of a modern powerboat. Eventually, when the whale rolled in the waves, listless and exhausted, the whalers would carefully approach and stab it with a wide-bladed killing lance, twisting the point down into the collection of blood vessels around its blowhole. The whale would choke on its own blood, vomiting krill or chunks of squid, “surging from side to side; spasmodically dilating and contracting his spout-hole with sharp, cracking, agonized respirations,” as Melville described it in Moby Dick. “At last, gush after gush of clotted red gore, as if it had been the purple lees of red wine, shot into the frightened air.” I describe this process in detail because historically, this is the 18th century method you’ll be using in Assassin’s Creed IV. Unless you’re air-assassinating them from the mast, of course, or it’s an absurd QTE.
By 1715 when AC4 is set, New Englanders had killed their population of near-shore grey whales and were venturing out in sloops into the offshore grounds. Whalers stripped the blubber from their kills at sea and stored them in barrels, hoping the frigid New England air would preserve it until they reached port. However, declining whale fisheries meant that by 1750 (long after Edward Kenway scoured the Caribbean) whalers hunted further offshore, aided by a tryworks – a system of brick ovens and cast iron pots that rendered the oil aboard, meaning whale ships could undertake longer voyages. As whale fisheries dropped under the pressure, Nantucket and New Bedford men chased the creatures into the Caribbean, Arctic, South America, and eventually into the unexplored depths of the Pacific. This not only extended the economic power base of the new nation through its domestic and international whale product market, whalers served as vast unsanctioned and unofficial exploration fleets that helped initiate American expansionism. Already by 1775, even before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Edmund Burke spoke in Parliament about how Royal Navy vessels seemed to find American whalemen wherever they went. “No sea but what is vexed by their fishery,” he complained. It only escalated from there. In 1853, Commodore Perry threatened to bombard Edo if Japan refused to open its ports to foreign trade – a demand that came about partly because Yankee whalers wanted to sell product there.
But by the time of the Perry’s Expedition, the U.S. whaling industry was already headed toward a crash. Not only would kerosene increasingly replace it as a lamp fuel, but worldwide whaling by Americans as well as the British, Japanese, Basques, Norwegians and other Europeans were quickly exterminating its primary asset base. One estimate puts the number of whales killed during the 19th century at 236,000, which is a terrible burden for an animal that exists in fairly small numbers and reproduces slowly. Technological innovations like harpoon guns and industrial whaling made pressures on the population even worse. Two hundred years after commoditizing whale oil, humanity had destroyed the whale population, plundered its corpse, and moved on to the next great commodity. It’s this part of whaling history that’s so compelling to game developers. Living in the age of petroleum, it’s more than a little tempting to comment on our current relationship to crude oil by looking back at the mistakes we made in the whaling trade.
For evidence of this introspection, I direct you to Dishonored, a game that made whaling and whale oil a primary component of its world building. Citizens of Dunwall, by and large, see whaling as an extremely good thing. Not only did it propel the city’s technology forward hundreds of years, but the whale oil industry created large numbers of jobs and a cheap source of energy. However, as players living in a time where whale oil is no longer a major commodity, and the public is well aware of the harm whaling does, we sense a dark undercurrent to the industry. Even before the appearance of the rat plague, jobs in Dunwall’s whaling industry were dangerous, filthy and unglamorous – just as in real life. One book found in the game states that the Greaves Whale House operated off of child labor with minors filing “tragic” roles. And even the most cursory speed run through the game leaves the impression that whale oil didn’t do much for the lower classes except provide perilous labor and street lighting – everything else seems to be government-owned weapons. In addition, the fact that charms and runes carved from whalebone hold magical properties suggests that the whales populating the Isles have an unknown spiritual power, and that in destroying them the people of Gristol are eradicating something precious and irreplaceable. Some books in Dishonored, along with statements by Granny Rags, even infer that the godlike Outsider’s true form is that of a leviathan.
Dunwall’s whaling culture itself, which is how the player mostly learns about the industry, drips with darkness and violence. Song lyrics frequently talk of murder and even the relatively fresh whale carcasses seem unclean and stinking. Incredible as it seems, that isn’t made up for the sake of the game – real whalers spent their lives in a deadly, lonely and terrifying profession, and their culture developed a preoccupation with death. They hunted the largest creatures ever to live on planet earth with little but spears and open boats. Raging whales could crush longboats with a slap of their tail or even sink a ship if they rammed it hard enough, as happened to the whaleship Essex in 1820. Crewmen had to crawl inside the heads of sperm whales to ladle out the precious spermaceti, meaning they were literally surrounded by death. A popular couplet, half prayer and half dockside toast, sums up the bloodiness and fatalism of the whaling profession: “Death to the living, long life to the killers. Success to sailors’ wives and greasy luck to whalers.” If a player read that couplet in a Dunwall tome, it’d fit right in, but seem a little over the top. This isn’t “glorifying.” If anything, it’s extremely negative.
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 RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.