The Racist Underbelly of the Witcher Fandom
How Gamergate’s rhetoric bled over into the discourse surrounding the show.
The toxicity of modern fandom is a sharply diagnosed phenomenon at this point, but few in its tone and etiquette resemble that of the Witcher fandom. The adaptation of the books by author Andrzej Sapkowski into video game form was heralded as an unapologetic celebration of European culture–with all the heavy racial content such a statement carries. Pushing for more diversity in subsequent adaptations was going to be a tall order, and sure enough, showrunner of the Witcher TV series Lauren Hissrich had plenty to prove in the face of potential backlash.
Prior to the TV show’s release, liking or hating it was already priming itself to become a culture war issue, wherein being skeptical of the final output correlated heavily with a particular kind of prevalent culture critique–it’s none other than Gamergate. The usual titles and thumbnails were made to protest the casting announcements, which when combined with the sheer force of harassment mobs, made Hissrich temporarily depart social media. After the show made its debut on Netflix, and despite reservations expressed by some of its critics regarding pace and structure, what Hissrich came up with was largely faithful to the source material, and even took liberty to reference the video games whenever it could–but if dormant, that resentment emanating from the desire to have gotten a whiter adaptation of the Witcher never really went away.
To understand why the Witcher occupies such a complex spot in the media apparatus, it’s worth looking at the moment its critically-acclaimed video game adaptation — the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt — came out in, and how its pro-consumer stance was misconstrued for implicit support of the Gamergate movement. In 2015, the gaming industry was under harsh indiscriminate criticism from players for having adopted predatory consumer practices–loot boxes, microtransactions, and expensive DLC with measly content were the norm. When the Witcher 3 released, it defied all these conventions, and it signaled to a specific contingent of the online gaming community that yes, CD Projekt RED had heeded their calls, and they’re displaying their commitment by railing against corporate greed in the gaming industry.
Downstream from that, was the upset with journalists. The media class was perceived by Gamergate as the harbinger of unsolicited diversity into the gaming medium, and even when they received the Witcher 3 with universal praise, the race-ambivalent attitude of Gamergate soon became muddled with general criticisms of the franchise–and thus was born an anti-diversity current within the Witcher fandom.
Despite these concerns, the Witcher fandom remains confidently one of the most diverse in modern pop culture. The emotional themes of the video game franchise were able to resonate with so many players, that the provenance of fan works cut across cultural differences, and in a way, helped the fandom reclaim the franchise from any subtextual color blindness it might’ve pushed forth. However, that still didn’t dissuade malicious actors from seeking to fracture the fandom by stoking racial resentment within.
Lauren Hissrich has been particularly clever about handling these issues, and in her bid to not be at odds with the Witcher fandom, she pioneered a novel, but very interesting form of public acknowledgement of criticism, which made her immune to any claims of disregarding feedback. Still, that Hissrich has to navigate this complex web of potential harmful reactions by a fandom that could be weaponized on command via an eye-catching video title or thumbnail, is in itself a tragedy. Much like what the Star Wars fandom has been through, it seems as though there’s little reason to believe anything other than diplomacy will make fans feel at ease–act with indignation, and you may be terminally chased off of social media like Kelly Marie Tran was.
The Witcher series cast and showrunner deserve all the praise here–Hissrich and Henry Cavill have been able to harness a particular kind of ‘nerd identity politics’ that made the fans shrug off their ideological objection to diversity, just because the personnel involved expressed mutual excitement about the material they were adapting. You can see this in interviews where Cavill will detail in great length his history with PC gaming, and how that turned into a passion for role-playing games, which then ultimately culminated into him playing the small screen adaptation of the character he’d fell in love with in virtual form.
The show has gone on to be an audience favorite, and was reportedly Netflix’s best-performing pilot series to date. But much like Star Wars, cross-cutting political differences isn’t enough to sully the waters of fandom any less–if the dissent to the showrunner’s creative decisions is much less pronounced now, it’s bound to continue casting a shadow on the future of the series. In a post-Gamergate era, the online discourse surrounding nerd culture items would be hard-pressed to evade toxicity–if the Witcher was able to cross over from being a niche property into becoming pop culture produce, the reason it exists at all is undoubtedly a dedicated fandom that has kept the video game franchise in wide cultural circulation since 2015. The Twitch streams are aplenty, the lore analysis community is still vivid, but under all of that, is the immutable feeling that the Witcher — much like the gaming medium — lost its splendor when it became no longer niche.
These are issues that the Witcher fandom will have to resolve internally, but that process won’t start until the existence of said issues is acknowledged. As wide-appealing across different demographics as the Witcher is, the community stands lots to gain from tackling issues of racism within its premises, lest they spill over into a Gamergate-like schism that spoils the waters for any potential newcomers into the space. As CD Projekt RED looks to expand the appeal of its adored adaptation beyond the press of buttons and pull of triggers, it needs to come into full contact with what its silence on these issues has helped foster–there’s a beautiful sense of camaraderie in Geralt’s adventures that is hard to overlook, and it’d be a shame if anyone felt excluded from tagging along as he roams north of the Yaruga river, making friends of beasts most-fearsome, and fighting evils most-deceitful.