Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Post About Video Games: Shocking, I Know...

Happy hump-day everyone. I'm back from Boston and enjoying the wonderful hot and humid weather that is such a trademark of Michigan in August. It was already over 80 by 8:00 this morning, and it's huuuumid. Lovely.

So, last week, in my post about Resident Evil 5, there were some pretty interesting comments. I started to respond to them when I realized that what I was typing really deserved a new post, so here it is.

Tom said:
If you accept that video games are valid expression and you accept that they can be, but often are not, art then you should treat them with at least the same respect you treat feature films. If a zombie film from a creative team with a decades-long pedigree was going to be released would you similarly be calling on them to explain themselves without stretching your intellect in an attempt to understand the why? Would you similarly demand that their justifications be given to you on a silver platter?

My view is that there are very valid reasons to set a piece of expressive zombie fiction in Africa and I don't feel that the scenario presented is ipso facto wrong. I am very aware that, mishandled, the scenario presented could be incredibly offensive however there isn't enough evidence yet available to validly make that claim.

There are a few things there, and I wanted to take a moment to address them. Tom's second point first. I'm not going to deny that there might be a reason why Capcom chose the setting they did, but I don't see why I should assume that there is. I want to know what the very valid reasons might be, because I haven't seen anyone say why it might be so important to set a game with a white guy killing lots of people in a nation full of black people, and in a nation with a long history of racialized violence and genocide. What are those very valid reasons? None of us have played the game yet, but apparently there are very valid stories that involve a white military figure killing lots of black people in an African nation so much so that we shouldn't even be expressing concerns? If we accept that it could be very offensive, why shouldn't we be asking "Why did you choose this setting? Did you realize what you were doing here?"

Let's step back for a second and clarify: The game might have a really great story and it might somehow take the troubling racial dynamic into account in some way. I'm not sure what story it could tell that's going to make the image of a white guy in military get-up killing lots of black people... um... not bad... but, I understand that I haven't played it yet, and that there's still that possibility. But the suggestion here is obviously that we shouldn't complain. Nobody seems willing to say what the very valid reasons are, but they're there, and we shouldn't complain.

I don't see why that should be the case, though. First of all, games are expensive, and if Capcom expects people like me to drop $50+ on a game, I think that I have every right to ask the sorts of questions that are going to determine if I want a part of that game or not. Second of all, I feel like I should reiterate the difference between "this trailer has some really troubling racial things happening" and "Capcom are a bunch of racists!" Most people I've seen are saying the former, and that's very different than the later.

A lot of this is, I think, an objection to Tom's first point: Video games are a valid form of expression, and may even reach the level of art. Because of that, we should treat them with the same respect that we do film. Tom suggests that we shouldn't be demanding explanation of the trailer, and that we wouldn't from a film-maker.

While I agree with Tom that video games can absolutely be artistic expression, I disagree with his conclusion. (I also disagree with his comparison, but more on that in a moment.) Being a form of artistic expression does not remove any obligation for explanation. One problem here is that Tom ignores that troubling history of race in video games. Capcom has a long history of making great games, sure. Nobody that I've seen has been particularly critical of how great the gameplay might be. It's generally accepted that Capcom have handled the play mechanics of the RE series with a capable hand, and that this game will probably be high quality in that regards. That says nothing about how well they handle issues of race, though.

So, ultimately, yeah, if I saw a movie trailer like this, I would have serious reservations about it. Even if it came form someone like George Romero, I'd be concerned. Would I be curious? Sure. But I'd absolutely expect a director to say something about race when talking about the movie. Does anyone think for a minute that he wouldn't mention race and the history of oppression and violence inflicted by whites on the black community if that were his movie trailer? He'd be insane not to mention it. And if he didn't, I'd be really concerned, and I'd be asking a lot of the same questions I'm asking now- why was that location chosen? What messages are being presented? Were you even aware of racial depictions, or was this an oversight? When you make a game or a film that involves certain types of images, I don't think it's unreasonable to ask "Why did you make it that way?"

I think that there's a big difference between a film and a game, though. Resident Evil 5 isn't a film. It's a game, and any comparison between it and a film misses a very important element- interactivity. Video games are the most interactive form of entertainment media I can think of. You don't just watch a game, you play it, and that's a powerful and important distinction. I don't hold games to the same standards as film, because they're not the same. Video games have different strengths and weaknesses than movies do. And, ultimately, I think that something that makes a powerful film might not necessarily work as a game.


baby221 said...

You said in one post what I would've said in one sentence: "Dude, people do criticise films and television and other visual media for racial representation."

That, and you might want to head over to the official blog, where tekanji's written a post based on a similar argument that's a pretty good read.

Roy said...

Heh. I am a bit verbose sometimes. I think you'd find that few people consider me "a man of few words." =P

Thanks for the suggestion, though. I love, but I hadn't read their take, yet.

Anonymous said...

Half of the feminist blogosphere criticized Black Snake Moan and Captivity before they were released. Film do come in for the same criticism.