Thursday, April 10, 2008

N'Gai speak

You listen.


Look: This Resident Evil 5 controversy isn't going away. The sizable segment of the gaming community that wants it to be simply a non-issue will not find their wishes granted. In fact, N'Gai is more charitable than I am to those who took the post-racial approach to the issue:
There was a lot of imagery in that trailer that dovetailed with classic racist imagery. What was not funny, but sort of interesting, was that there were so many gamers who could not at all see it. Like literally couldn’t see it. So how could you have a conversation with people who don’t understand what you’re talking about and think that you’re sort of seeing race where nothing exists?

I considered it a willful blindness -- but even if it isn't, it's still a blindness. I think it's important for people to make an honest effort to understand better the complaints that Resident Evil 5 is going to get. It's possible to defend both the content of the game and the rights of others to be offended. "Shut up" is not an appropriate or helpful response to somebody who finds this imagery troublesome.

My thoughts haven't changed much since I opined about the trailer last summer, and N'Gai echoes some of them in the Multiplayer piece. I don't think it's necessary to rehash them here. So without going into the specifics of RE5 once more, I just want to make this general point:

Art has always been controversial. Art that challenges the status quo comes under fire from one side, and art that tries to maintain it gets criticized from the other. The conversations we have as a result of this will help to determine what we want the status quo to be, and in turn move the culture forward. Overtly racist portrayals of non-white characters used to be commonplace in American films and TV shows, until people got fed up and said enough is enough. We've made progress.

But there's this strange temptation to assume that we've arrived at a point in history where we've made it past all this stuff, despite the abundance of counter-examples. Forget about RE5 for a second: consider the Cole Train, or the "bizarre b-boy timewarp" of Unreal Tournament III. Why were those character choices made? What was the thinking (or lack thereof) behind them? What does it say about us when we don't notice racial stereotyping, either explicit or implicit? That it doesn't exist, or that we're trying to wish it away?

Art may only be a mirror to the culture that produces it, but it's important for us to look honestly at our reflection from time to time. Either you think video games belong in this conversation, or you don't. I do.

9 comments:

Daniel Purvis said...

Dude. I left a MASSIVE comment for this entry that didn't appear to post. Now, I'm upset :(

It was basically a rant about racism in Australia and how I hadn't seen the connection between historical context and how those connected with the issues view the trailer.

Basically, I had to view the same images but replacing the country with Australia and the villagers as Aboriginals to see how the trailer enrages so many people. Anyways, it's gone now :(

Mitch Krpata said...

You did! You just submitted it to my older post about Resident Evil 5. But it was very good, so I'll copy and paste it here:

-----------------

"I've lived in Australia my entire life, and we have very different issues regarding racism, which also stem from our cultural heritage and involve people of black skin, the Aboriginals who were slaughtered en masse by white colonists.

Recently, our Government made an official apology to Aboriginal peoples for what had been done in the past. It was a huge event, one that Australian people had asked for but you know what, on the street level that really didn't affect the way people view Aboriginals at all.

It's like the whole idea of the "helpful gay" or "helpful black person" etc. When you see our Prime Minister shaking hands with an Aboriginal Elder and are entertained by a dance, you clap and cheer. Oh, it's all good now.

But if you walk out onto the street and see a number of Aboriginal people sitting on a set of steps, you can see people's prejudice return en masse; "These people are homeless, loitering, dirty. Why don't they get a job like those other Aboriginals on television."

The symbolic gesture is used as a coverall for internalised racism; "I'm not racist, I wanted the Government to say sorry. Can't we just move along now, 'they' need to get a job. We're all happy."

Wrong! It's completely wrong. You're not taking into account, as N'Gai notes, the history behind the events. The reason these people might appear homeless is because not less than thirty years ago, they really didn't have a right to own a home. They're still disenfranchised and just because you've said "sorry" doesn't really help those that say, couldn't view the event on television? Did their life improve? Not particularly.

It's interesting, now back on topic, to view this trailer regarding Resident Evil 5. If I view the trailer as an Australian, I don't identify with either either parties, the whites or the blacks, because I don't fully understand the cultural heritage that, and lets be honest, these predominantly American commenters are incorporating in their opinion.

However, if you had said, "right, now we're going to do a game in a predominantly Aboriginal community out near Alice Springs in Australia". Now, I completely understand WHY those images are horrendous and you HAVE to question their integrity in the context of the trailer.

And you know what, we'd have exactly the same division in Australia as the US. A vast majority of people would say, "oh, it's ok. They were innocent and now their corrupted. We're helping, it's just a game." But they're the same people who walk down the street and judge others on the street who don't fit into their interpretation of the "good" or "civil" Aboriginal.

Sorry, this was a rant that really went nowhere, but I hadn't thought about the trailer from this position before. Something I can relate to I mean. The first time I viewed it, I didn't see the racism either but then again, I was looking at the mechanic. More excited for the style of game than the story / culture behind it. I mean, the trailer is never an indication of where the game is going."

-----------------

Mitch again: The more think about this whole thing, the more I think the problem is that people seem to consider it a good thing when they don't recognize racial stereotypes for what they are. We're at a point now -- in America, at least -- where prejudice takes the form of, say, praising a black dude for being "articulate," with the implication being that such a person is rare to find. That's not colorblindness, it's ignorance.

jeffk said...

The problems is that.... Okay, our current president is barely functional when it comes to, you know, talking. So listening to Barack Obama speak is thrilling for me because I would love to have an articulate, intelligent person in office for a change. But I can't say that, because I'll be labeled a racist. The man isn't articulate in the context of his race, or even in the context of politicians - he's articulate in the context of his species. But a genuine compliment, in this case, will almost always be interpreted as condescension, if not mocking cruelty.

I'm aware that, as a white guy who grew up in a white neighborhood, I see the world in a very particular, somewhat sheltered light. But I do worry that there's a tendency to overcorrect, to see racism and malice where they don't exist, and that it could be doing more harm than good in terms of race relations.

That isn't really specific to the RE5 trailer, though - I cringed more than a few times watching that, and not because of the scorching-hot survival-horror action.

Brad said...

I think your comment from last year re: gamers not taking games as seriously as Ebert takes movies is extremely astute. I can understand how some would argue that placing a zombie action/horror game in would mean that most of the zombies were black; that it is simply a quirk of the demographic. But! How they refuse to look for any subtext--none of which is terribly hidden--greatly disturbs me. Especially the idea that something is not racist until someone says that it is, because talking about racism itself recalls racism. I'm not looking forward to the mainstream coverage that this game might get. It seems like criticism will be deserved in this case.

Mitch Krpata said...

JeffK, I see what you're saying, and you're right: Obama is an uncommonly adept public speaker. I just think it's common courtesy to be aware that that particular terms come with some baggage. While Obama may be articulate according to the dictionary definition, that word has acquired some connotations that tell me it's better to use a less loaded synonym.

Along those lines, some friends and I have a running gag about the different adjectives sports announcers use to describe athletes. White athletes are always "gritty, lunchpail guys with a lot of heart and hustle," while black athletes tend to be "naturally athletic." There's really no evidence for either of those claims in most cases, but that's just what the perception is. Again, none of that's born out of malice. That doesn't make it right.

Brad, certainly the "heads in the sand" defense seems to be the predominant one. Saying that racism only exists when people point it out is not something I'm comfortable with. And I agree that we're in for a lot more of this when the game comes out. Hopefully the context of the full game will actually alleviate these concerns, but it's going to take playing the game with a critical eye to do that. That's why I'd like to see the gaming community get out ahead of this one.

Daniel Purvis said...

Hey, there's my post! Could have sworn I was posting it on this but heck, at least it wasn't lost entirely!

Thanks for the repost.

Scott Gunsaullus said...

It seems to me that Resident Evil is simply following the social commentary of the zombie genre that George Romero popularized. Like Romero's zombies, the subjects of horror in Resident Evil personify very real horrors of modern life; war, poverty, disease, etc.

Many parts of Africa are a real life horror show. In the back of the mind of Western observers are two hidden fears. First, that we in the developed world are responsible for Africa's attrocities. Second, that the blowback from our collective sins in the third world will eventually consume us all.

In that context, the fictionalized horrors of Resident Evil in Africa are grounded in the real world. So much so, that these few preview images are striking a nerve. That's good, I think. Maybe more people will THINK about what's going on.

Mitch Krpata said...

Scott, I am optimistic that the storyline will cover that kind of territory. Part of the reason the trailer has stirred up the controversy it has is because there's so little context. They're trying to sell the gameplay, which is understandable. We could find, when the game comes out, that there's nothing even suggestive of racism in the game. If that's the case, we can chalk up the trailer to boneheadness and move on. But I'm still pretty distressed what has struck me as the prevailing response to the accusations of racism.

Rambling Johnny said...

I cringed the first time I saw the RE5 trailer because I know some peoples would freak out on it! But I figured Leon in Africa what did you expect?

The trailer look a lots like Rwanda in the 90s and that was not really a good place to be no matter who you are.

In a way since Capcom stop doing RE with non human Zombies it was bound to happen sooner or later. The gameplay and graphic of RE4 made the redneck villagers look and feel a lots more human than in previous version. The drawback for that good a graphic experience is that you can't pretend they are not human. Capcom got away with it because in RE4 at least there was no overly racist connection to be made. The setting that Capcom choose for RE5 decide how the weirdos who attack you will look.

Now some would choose to say it was a racist move to put RE5 in Africa. I prefer to say that the biggest social and political commentary made on Rwanda and Darfur ever.

We choose to ignore the slaughter that was taking place in Rwanda and in Darfur. Well guess what RE5 put your face right in it so you can't ignore this genocide anymore!