Thursday, August 02, 2007

Race in Resident Evil: A Missed Opportunity For Understanding...

Might Ponygirl mentioned the rising controversy surrounding Resident Evil 5. Apparently, the game trailer is... raising some issues on race. I don't think it should be surprising, when you have a trailer that features a white guy (and, at least in earlier games, a cop) shooting and killing large groups of blacks, that some people are going to stand up and say Hey, this is pretty problematic from a racial standpoint.

Now, I readily believe that Capcom probably didn't intend for this to be controversial. I'd guess that they never even considered the racial implications (at least, I hope). But, ignorance isn't an excuse. I think it's perfectly fair to criticize the content of a game, and all of the social implications of that content. In this case, I think that it's completely fair to point to the game and say "Look, there's nothing wrong with having blacks be zombies in a game, but when you have a game where all of the zombies are black, and the hero is a white guy with a gun killing them, it starts to look a little ugly."

One of the really disappointing, though not surprising, things about all of this controversy, is the way that people have reacted. Rather than taking the words to heart and considering the racial implications and how the game might make people feel, a lot of gamers have gotten really angry about the criticisms and are on the attack. Read through some of the comments in Black Looks post, or at Villiage article. Immediately, people start making accusations of "playing the race card" or how there were "no problems when the 'inhumane savages' are white."

The reaction is just like I desribed before: There's a sense that these people are afraid we're trying to take away their toys, and they're reacting with anger and resentment, instead of engaging the conversation.

A lot of us are gamers. While I prefered Silent Hill to Resident Evil, I love blowing zombies away as much as anyone. I think that Resident Evil did a great job of capturing a sort of action-movie/zombie kind of feel, and I don't really have that many complaints about the games. I don't think that makes them immune from criticism, though.

These criticisms were an excellent opportunity for gamers to engage in some serious dialogue about how race is portrayed in gaming. Video games have a pretty shitty record when it comes to portrayals of race and ethnicity. The only way to improve that is through dialogue, and this was a perfect opportunity. I don't think that there's anything wrong with questioning why most of the heroes in video games are white men, and what that says about gaming culture. I think that it's important to try to move beyond what games have always done. One commenter asked (I'm paraphrasing) "Why should the hero be black?" That's a flawed question: The hero is almost always white. Given that, the real question ought to be, "Why shouldn't the hero ever be black?"

And, ultimately, this is directly related to conversations about privilege. I'd wager that most of the people getting outraged about this as being a non-issue or leveling accusations of this being more politically correct race baiting are white. It's easy to get offended and say things like "Well, why should he be black? Why should this bother you? Why can't zombies be black?" when you don't have to worry about seeing a hero like you, and when the history of violence and oppression that exists wasn't directed against your race.

I love video games, and I really, really want to see them thrive. Video games are a unique form of entertainment media in that they're interactive in ways that no other mass-market media is. As the player, you're directly controlling the way the story unfolds, and that creates potential for really powerful experiences. Unfortunately, video games are facing serious social stigma, precisely because of the ways that people like the commenters in those threads act. It's easy to dismiss games as violent bullshit when people respond to criticism with the kind of disgusting bile that they're spewing there.

It's only when gamers are willing to have serious discussions about the philosophical and social implications of games and gaming that video games are really going to be able to be taken as a serious art form. When the popular voices of gaming and gamers respond to criticism by throwing out racist and sexist insults and refusing to engage in a conversation about the very real, very serious social issues that games bring up, it only serves to further marginalize gaming as a hobby.

Nobody (Well, almost nobody- Jack Thompson be damned) is trying to take away people's right to play video games- what's happening is that people are trying to raise some social awareness about the reality that games reflect. Games don't exist in a void, and there's nothing wrong with raising questions about the situations that they present, or saying "You know, that game has some problematic things happening." These sorts of criticisms are an opportunity to raise your own level of awareness about the lives of other people, and to understand the different realities that people live in. Instead, a lot of people are becoming reactionary and offensive. Someone has said "Wow, there's a troubling racial dynamic happening here, and I don't like it" and people are reacting as though that person said "All video games are evil and should be banned." That comment could have been taken as a chance to engage Kym with why the trailer bothered her, and how the game- indeed, all games- could have been made better. Instead, people got hung up on their personal feelings, and they've ultimately missed the point.


Kristen said...

And, ultimately, this is directly related to conversations about privilege.

I think you hit the nail on the head with this one. Attitudes like this strike me as self-protective.

"Since racism isn't hurting me it doesn't exist. If I acknowledged its existence then I'd have to acknowledge that all the cool things in my life are not just because I am awesome. I can't cope with the idea that I am not in control of my life."

It's amazing how much some people are invested in the idea that they have "made" their lives good...

Cara said...

You know, whenever I hear the phrase "playing the race card," I want to pick up a baseball bat and start smashing in the face of the person who said it.

Luckily, I am only violent in my mind, and incredibly non-violent in actuality. Otherwise, there'd be a hell of a lot of white (mostly, but certainly not entirely male) dead republicans.

Also, you're 100% correct. About everything here.

ShelbyWoo said...

These criticisms were an excellent opportunity for gamers to engage in some serious dialogue about how race is portrayed in gaming. Video games have a pretty shitty record when it comes to portrayals of race and ethnicity. The only way to improve that is through dialogue, and this was a perfect opportunity.

Another great pro-gaming post. You are correct as usual.

While I preferred Silent Hill to Resident Evil, I love blowing zombies away as much as anyone.
That was my first thought when I read the title of the post. I love killing zombies en masse, but playing Silent Hill, particularly the first time, is an experience.

Mighty Ponygirl said...

I just wanted to thank you for doing such an awesome job in comments on that thread. I love having you on Feminist Gamers and always get a little giddy when I see that you've responded to our trolls.

Roy said...

kristen: Absolutely. I think it's a combination of self-protection and willful ignorance. I think some people aren't even necessarily self-protecting, they just never get past that first line: If they don't experience racism firsthand, directed against them, then it doesn't exist. It's the same logic people use to deny other forms of bigotry: Well, nobody I know hits women, so sexism doesn't exist. And I don't hate gays, so homophobia doesn't exist. Ultimately, though, I think you're right, a lot of it is tied into making themselves feel good about how they've made their own lives good, and other people have made their own lives bad.

Cara: You and me both. It's the same way I feel about people saying "you're just being PC." Some people disagree, but in my experience, the people most likely to accuse other people of being too PC are people are heavily invested in maintaining the right to be a bigotted asshole. They're not really concerned about people being PC so much as they're concerned about someone calling them on ugly attitudes.

Shelbywoo: Oh, yeah. Silent Hill scared the bejebus out of me in a way that RE never did. RE (the second one, especially) did a great job of making me feel like I was in a zombie movie or an action-horror movie. Silent Hill made me feel like I was in an H.P. Lovecraft novel. RE makes me jump sometimes, but they're usually cat-in-a-box jumps. SH freaks me the hell out.

MP: Aw, thanks! It was a great thread, even for how it turned out, and I'm glad you mentioned it, because I won't have found Kym's post otherwise. Great stuff.

Tom said...

First off let me say that I'm not convinced by the claims of racism surrounding this game because everyone who has leveled this claim has completely avoided asking what should have been the first very important and very simple question.

"Why did they choose to set the game in Africa?"

Instead of giving the developers any credit as creative, intelligent individuals the immediate assumption was that their decision making process regarding the setting was no more involved then putting on a blindfold and then throwing a dart at a map of the world.

Certainly dialog should be fostered and a part of that dialog should be a consideration of what the zombie fear means and how that relates to Africa. We, as gamers, should give developers the benefit of the doubt when they produce controversial content.

Roy said...

Tom, that's not true, at all. First of all, I said that there was a troubling racial dynamic in the trailer, which is different from saying that the game is horribly racist. Second, I think that several of us have mentioned wanting to know why Capcom chose to make the setting in an African nation. That they chose Africa doesn't give them a pass, it raises the question.

I think you're missing the point. I absolutely think that Capcom have creative intelligent people working on these games. They may have had a specific reason for picking the location they did. That trailer doesn't give us that information, though.

I don't buy the "give them the benefit of the doubt" thing, though. Not a bit. Video games have a notoriously bad history when it comes to reinforcing negative stereotypes, and playing to white men, so you'll pardon me if I'm not inclined to assume the best anymore. If Capcom had a great reason for the setting, it's on them to prove it, not on me to assume it.

Tom said...


I never suggested that you claimed it was "horribly racist." I said that the question of "why" wasn't asked - and it wasn't, not seriously. You yourself admit that "it's on them to prove it."

Regarding the "why" of the setting, you say that it's "not on me to assume it" and yet you also say that you "absolutely think that Capcom have creative intelligent people working on these games." If you think that and respect gaming as a medium then shouldn't you consider more seriously why they chose the setting? Doesn't your admission that they are "creative intelligent people" earn them the benefit of the doubt? If not, then what would earn them that privilege?

My objection is that no one even considered that there are very valid reasons for setting a piece of modern zombie fiction in Africa. Certainly people want to know why Capcom made that choice but they want it to be explained to them. People believe that Capcom needs to justify their actions. I don't necessarily hold that to be the case.

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.

"If Capcom had a great reason for the setting, it's on them to prove it, not on me to assume it." Why is it black and white? Don't assume it, consider it.

As a note: I'm not annoyed that "you all are trying to keep from letting me play my games!" The RE5 trailer didn't interest me because I'm tired of sequels, recycled gameplay dynamics and dull, generic characters. The only thing of note that I said about the trailer was, "Hmm, they're setting a zombie game in Africa. That's an interesting choice."

David said...

Thank you Tom for stating the obvious in what people have had a difficult time initially grasping.

I'm usually the type to sit on the fence about topics of interest but too many posts from gamers, and more importantly non-gamers have spurred me to stand up and inform some while question others.

Resident Evil 4 was set in Europe. After a few moments playing through the game one could quickly determine that the setting is rural Spain and that the enemies were, in fact, hispanic. Why wasn't there even a blip on the racism radar? There are so many "answers" the protagonist can respond with. Is it because RE5 portrays poor people? Is it the usual 'black vs. white' issue? Is it the authoritative stance?

To shed some light, let me start by informing the oblivious; the Resident Evil story-line - dating back to the original game released on the Playstation more than 10 years ago - is about authorities investigating what has become a plague in certain towns. It did not have a black character. It never did. There was never a need or reason in a story that is continually unfolding as the 5th installment rolls out. It is as simple as that. It didn't bother me that '50 Cents' Bulletproof' video game had himself and his fellow rappers depicting what gang life is about. Chris Redfield, a surviving character from the original Resident Evil game, is sent to yet another country to investigate. That's it. Oh, and he's white. A white policeman.

The country Chris is lef to happens to be populated by people of another race. Poor, hispanic villagers in RE4 is A-ok, but the darker the skin of the enemies get the more it becomes a no-no? Or is it the darker the skin, the poorer they are, and the more authoritative the opposition? Being part hispanic I had no problems with RE4. So we come full circle then. Would wounds heal if the main character were black? A wealthy black character who decided to become a cop is sent to Haiti (yes the setting is Haiti not somewhere in Africa. But that doesn't matter because it is the colour of skin that is the issue.) So we have a rich black officer (or a black middle-class tourist, or a local convenience store owner in a Haitian village) who notices a problem and needs to survive the onslaught of zombies that have overtaken the area. Is this a better alternative? It has nothing to do with the Resident Evil story-line, but dammit, at least it won't stir controversy. How about Resident Evil 6? Taken place in a zombie-infested Ireland town, with Ving Rhames and his shotgun. People of lighter skin would be busy pointing the finger, except they wouldn't. They will be busy playing the game, not looking for the latest controversy to throw arms up in.

Another issue that irks me is the 'problem' that kids will play this game. I have no question kids will play this game. When I was younger, a friend and I obtained a copy of the adult adventure game 'Leisure Suit Larry,' and I watched violent movies when my parents had no idea. What mattered was what my parents taught me with the time that they had with me. I knew right from wrong, good from bad. Why is it so tough today? It is as if these mediums (games, music, movies) need to educate, or be diluted, or 'not be so politically incorrect' as to make a parent's job easier. If there is hate or aggression in a child, I'd worry about the trees than the surroundings from where the apple lays. The same goes for gamers with foul-mouthed, racist comments. A typical argument is that parents can't be there to police their kids all the time. This isn't as much of an argument as it is an answer to my question. Again, just as what my parents have done, it is the time you have with your children that will matter when they are out in the world by themselves. The ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) is a step in the right direction as it educates parents about the video game but it isn't going to fix the entire problem. Neither will changing a character to black, or zombies to white, or one setting to another. If you are raised well enough to see passed the colour of skin then there should be no worry.

I am a gamer, but I don't feel threatened by the controversy. In the end it is just a stupid game. I can't play it? Oh well, I'll go play soccer with some friends. I'm more threatened as a human that there is such controversy to begin with. So easily, and without proper knowledge. As with any issue, there are extremists at both ends. Angry gamers lash out with racist-laced comments are not ones to argue with. Narrow-minded individuals who see black vs. white stem from both sides of the fence. It is just a video game. It doesn't mean video games get a 'free pass' for being in the virtual world. Censorship should police media but to a certain extent, and the attention on this game is the least of what we should be worried about.

btw, without reiterating what Tom has already said, to suggest that a trailer should be more informative is laughable. A trailer is a tease, a glimpse of what lies ahead. If you need to be more informed about the general RE story after watching the trailer then you aren't informed enough to even begin to discuss the issue. Why jump into the deep end without learning the basics?