Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gettin' punchy; or, Insult Swordfighting, ruining your fun since 2006

Above: Little Mac finds Glass Joe insufficiently grateful for us saving his ass in WWII.

N'Gai's famous quote about the Resident Evil 5 trailer was, "Wow, clearly no one black worked on this game." My thought after winning the minor circuit belt in the new Punch-Out!! was, "Wow, clearly no one French, German, gay, or Pacific Islander worked on this game."

I don't want to get too deep into the weeds on this. Still, it's odd that RE5 could provoke such a firestorm of controversy starting almost two years before its release, and Punch-Out!!, which similarly relies on questionable and outdated images as shortcuts for characterization, has so far been given a pass everywhere I've seen.

Let's just run them down. In Punch-Out!!, you face:*
  • A cowardly, effete Frenchman
  • A stern, militaristic German
  • A fabulous, lisping gay man
  • A fat Pacific Islander
  • A womanizing Spaniard
  • A drunken Russian
  • A magical Indian
  • Others

On one hand, it's nice to see this kind of diversity in a game. On the other hand, how much would it have blown your mind if King Hippo were the womanizer, Soda Popinski the homosexual, and Glass Joe the mysterious sorceror? But that would be ridiculous, you say.

Nobody's playing Punch-Out!! for deep characterization, granted. And the game seems to do a good job of giving Little Mac's opponents flashes of personality during the fights. Their facial expressions and body language are portrayed in a classic cartoon style, exaggerated and expressive. That's why it's so disappointing to see such lazy stereotypes providing the characters' foundations -- ironically, the fighters' very design shows that the designers could have done better. (Still doesn't explain why a defeated Glass Joe falls onto a bed of croissants, or why King Hippo collapses amid a buffet of tropical island fruits.)

Anticipating the objections: Yes, most of these characters have been in the series from the beginning. If tradition were a good reason to perpetuate this stuff, you'd still see the Confederate flag flying from state houses in the South.**

And, sure, this is all in good fun. It's supposed to be funny! Not like Resident Evil 5 at all, which was all booga-booga. That's exactly the problem. Much as some observers thought that RE5 was using loaded racial imagery as a replacement for creating new horror ideas, Punch-Out!! employs stereotypes for humor, without commenting on them, or even seeming to consider them. The joke is that the French guy is a pussy. The joke is that the Disco Kid is a flaming queer. These are not good jokes.

I'm not saying Punch-Out!! would be improved with realistic opponents. But there is one character in the game who shows how you can have silly, cartoonish characters without dredging the bottom of the barrel: Doc Louis. He's a good trainer, and he often gives Mac good tactical advice between rounds. But his inspirational speeches make no sense, and even though his job is to keep Little Mac in shape, he himself is overweight. Doc may still be assembled from off-the-shelf parts, but unlike the other characters in the game, his parts come from different shelves.

*Punch-Out!! roster provided by Wikipedia.

**Oh... wait.

25 comments:

Gary A. Lucero said...

As always, Nintendo gets a free pass. They can do no wrong. They are the Apple of gaming, and although that arguably deserve the blind devotion, the fact that they can get away with stereotyping in their games only proves what idiots human beings are. And yes, that includes me, although I'm no fan of Nintendo at all.

Anonymous said...

You can't be serious. There is no such thing as a 'negative stereotype' of groups in the power structure (Whites and Asians), because its the power structure that enforces consequences of cultural stereotypes. It is extremely offensive, and, to be honest, borderline racist, or at least deeply racially naive, to compare this with the REIV situation. You're White or Asian male, right? Ha, how'd I guess!

Gary A. Lucero said...

Is it really a matter of this being on par with RE 5, or just being over the line? There are of course stereotypes in everything, positive and negative, but Nintendo is a family platform, right? Don't they have to be held to a higher standard?

And I didn't play RE5, and what I played of the demo just made me think it was a poor game. The fact that legions of people thought it inappropriately portrayed blacks is enough to convince me that it offended people.

Maybe we just don't care about offending certain people, such as gays?

Mitch Krpata said...

I'm kind of flummoxed by anon's post. Are you saying that gay people aren't discriminated against? That there aren't popularly held stereotypes about Asians, especially Asian-Americans, in this country? That because the notion of "whiteness" in America has achieved a kind of monolithic status, there aren't numerous, prevalent caricatures of white people from other countries, especially European countries? Your point about the "power structure" was well taken, but that's something I was trying to stay away from in the post. Instead, I'm talking about the laziness of relying on these stock characters when they could have been a little bit more imaginative and, yes, sensitive.

Gary, I don't think it's on the same level as RE5, for the reason that I think anon was trying to explain. And I'm not deeply offended or anything like that. I think it's weird that nobody else seems to have picked up on it.

Mitch Krpata said...

I can really see this comment thread getting out of hand quickly. Let's all make sure to click on some ads while we're here.

spitfire said...

I'm pretty sure it's impossible to make a game funny and still offend no one.

It is human nature to group things. Stereotypes (especially comedic ones) are just another way of grouping. If the game had "real" characters it wouldn't be cartoony, and it certainly wouldn't be Punch Out.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Mitch,

I didn't play RE5 nor will I ever play Punch Out. I've owned every console made in the last 10 years except for the NGage (or whatever it was called) but all I own currently is the 360 and an iPod Touch.

I have no real context for Nintendo having discovered video gamess as an adult in the 1980's and played them on the C-64, Amiga, and finally on the PC (in the 90's).

That doesn't mean I can't comment on this but I won't say I have experienced either game in a way that would allow me to say I've seen those stereotypes for myself. I have heard at least one podcast (which one escapes me!) that did point out what you have about the stereotypes in Punch Out, so there is some recognition of the "problem".

I said people are idiots because I don't think we discriminate in any consistant manner, or that what we find objectionable today is always something we find objectionable tomorrow. Sure, some things are always off limits, but we all have some tolerance for stereotypes, especially if they amuse us or make us laugh.

In the end it will either be an issue or it won't, and ultimately these things tend to be settled in a pretty arbitrary manner.

Where are the ads? You have ads?

thesimplicity said...

HEY DUDES I POUNDED A SIXER AND PLAYED THE ORIGINAL BACK IN THE DAY SO HERE ARE MY THOUGHTS

I think the main problem is that this is an almost 20 year old game with a large fanbase. It was created when these sorts of things weren't quesioned. If Next Level games were to change these characters, they'd not only have an uproar among fans, they'd be painted as revisionist. The characters in the Punch-Out Arcade would still be insensitive, which is a bit different than RE5's scenario of getting flack during a stage when such feedback would be addressed.

Not saying it's right, but it is a standpoint to consider.

Gary A. Lucero said...

thesimplicity, yes, that's something to consider, and if this was a Mature rated (or even Teen) it might not matter. It's an Everyone 10+ game, which means lots of kiddies will see these stereotypes and think they are okay.

Parents should be able to trust these ratings. If a parent let's their kid blow off limbs and participate in other questionable content in Fallout 3, for instance, so be it. But shouldn't Punch Out be one of those games you just buy and not worry about?

Ryan said...

I do think gamers and game designers alike are going to have to at some point take a good long look at how homosexuals have been portrayed in games. Although, Punch Out! might not be the best game to tie such a discussion to.

Apolo Imagod said...

It's interesting for me to see this post because I felt this way about the original Punch Out. It always bothered me a little the way foreign cultures were portrayed in the game, and found it a little offensive.

However, I loved that game... and I'm sure I'm going to love this one. And I totally agree with you that if RE5 was treated the way it was, then so should Punch Out. In fact, I find Punch Out more at fault than RE5 if you ask me... Why? Well, I'm not sure the so called 'racism' in RE5 was done with any intention... in any case it was just a case of the designers overlooking how certain groups were going to react to a game set in Africa, which would necessarily portray members of certain race predominantly in one position or another (in this case Zombies). On the other hand, the stereotypes presented in Punch Out, for the sake of humor, are completely intentional. And yet, just because it's Nintendo doing it, it seems to be fine...

I have theories as to why this is, but I have no interest on being involved in a flames war...

Gary A. Lucero said...

Apolo Imagod,

I don't think we've reached flame war level yet. I think you have some great points though, and I also like how you admitted that the original was a favorite game.

I play Fallout 3 a lot, it's one of my all-time favorite games, but it's content still disturbs me. I wonder what those guys at Bethesda were thinking in making a game that is so offensive.

I don't think Fallout 3 plays on stereotypes a lot, but there are certain things where that does come into play, and you know that much or all of the objectionable content was intended. But then again, it's targeted to a mature audience, and RE5 is too.

Again, this is a E10+ game and it I think it should be held to a higher standard.

Mitch Krpata said...

Whoa, lots of comments to respond to.

Spitfire, I agree that something usually isn't funny unless it's offending somebody. The thing I'm taking issue with is how easy and lazy the jokes are. I like to be surprised.

thesimplicity, you're absolutely right. There would be a revolt if too much was changed. I still wish they had tried tweaking our expectations a bit, but I get why they wouldn't, or couldn't.

Apolo, the new Punch-Out seems exactly as fun as the original. It's really good. I think besides the fact that everything is presented in a humorous light, the fact that Punch-Out has such a big cast of characters helps. It's not like they're picking on somebody in particular.

Gary, if you're not seeing the ads, that might help explain why I don't make any money off them...

hvylobster said...

To be honest, I'm not seeing an effeminate archetype in the Disco Kid. What I see is a nacissist who can't get over how buff he is. So am I supposed to be offended by a gay body builder stereotype? You could make a tenuous arguement that it represents an offensive objectification of the male form, but then it would be an issue sexual objectification (which is not an issue unique to gay men), not a problem of offensive stereotypes.

This is not in the same league as RE5. In RE5, you are a white man sent to Africa to shoot black people (who happen to be zombies, but you wouldn't know that by looking at them). In this case, its light-hearted caricatures of groups of people who are either on top of the power structure (white/asians), or are represented in stereotypes that are not coherent enough to be offensive (see Disco Kid and Great Tiger[Tiger would maybe conform to western orientalism, but the realities of globalization have largely swept away the image of "mysterious" central Asians. An offensive caricature in this case would probably resemble American caricatures of Mexicans])

hvylobster said...

ok, so having watched more videos, i will concede that there is a touch of effeminacy in Disco Kid, but I stand by my point that his main character trait is narcissim. Again, an incoherent stereotype that doesn't conform to any sort of negative image of gay men in pop culture. I guess it would make sense if someone played Punch-Out in a vacuum completely separated from the culture at large and thus formed their images of certain groups based on the portrayals in the game, but should we really be worried about what messages games send to theoretical people?

Gary A. Lucero said...

hvylobster,

I'm not really worried about how this affects kids and I'm personally not taking up the cause, but I think it's an interesting thing and I'm glad Mitch brought it up.

What does worry me is that a particular developer would get a free pass and no one would question their decisions. I see my favorite developers bashed for every little thing but people like Nintendo, Blizzard, and a few select others are rarely criticized.

I know that's over simplified, but I guess I just like it when people mix a little reality in with the
enthusiasm.

hvylobster said...

I wonder why people are less willing to think about Punch-Out... is it because its such a well-known classic? By all outward signs, the Wii version seems like a faithful reiteration of the series' formula, so maybe people are more willing to ignore the stereotypes (though I doubt that many consumers actively recognize them). Maybe the cartoony setting lets people shut off their brain more easily. I guess that would be the problem: people see "gritty realism" and connections to reality are unnavoidable, but we've been raised to think of cartoons as comedy and/or entertainment so analyses dissipate before even being imagined.

Anonymous said...

hm... I am a german guy, and I can laugh out at that german stereotype. You should be able to laugh about yourself... we are all human and sometimes we need a kick (stereotype) to think about ourself... sterotypes depend on context.

In RE5 you are killing/shooting black people. That is something totally different. Okay, you have the Zombie/Africa context, but that is not the point in RE5.. RE5 is serving racial fantasies

cheers,
George Brof

Anonymous said...

@Gary A. Lucero Nintendo did not develop this game. Vancouver's Next Level Games did. Nintendo's role is as the publisher and property owner. It may not seem like a big distinction, but it is for the things being discussed here, which are all conscious decisions of the developers. Not Nintendo.

Tim said...

But, most recent Anonymous, the vast majority of the characters from this game were in the original or in its sequel, both of which were developed by Nintendo (or at least the first one was). For all intents and purposes, they are Nintendo's decisions because Nintendo made the original decisions over 20 years ago. Next Level wasn't going to screw with what was already there. Disco Kid is about the only judgment call they made as far as stereotyping goes (which, granted, isn't a small decision, but the other offensive stereotypes weren't theirs).

sp said...

If the PunchOut/RE5 comparison doesn't work, you could always look at another Capcom game: Street Fighter. In Street Fighter IV, you have a fair amount of stereotypes as well.

And to all those people who are complaining about RE5, where were you when RE4 came out. I mean, a white American man killing Spaniards? Don't you think that brought up a lot of bad memories of the Spanish-American war of 1898?

If killing African zombies in Africa is in poor taste, why is killing Spanish zombies in Spain okay? IF RE6 is set in Japan and involves killing Japanese zombies, what would people say? What if it was set in Israel or Pakistan and involved killing Jewish or Muslim zombies? If Racism is defined as "Prejudice or discrimination based upon race," then saying Spanish Zombies are okay, but African zombies are not is the very definition of racism.

Often times, in the RE5 Racism argument, people often bring up the need to include context into the discussion. Allow me to suggest that we leave context out of the conversation: if killing zombies of one sex, religion, or ethnicity is okay, then killing all zombies is okay.

Tim Mackie said...

@sp: Click the first link in the actual article. It explains pretty well why RE5 is different from RE4.

sp said...

@Tim Mackie: Aw, therein lies the flaws of browsing at work. Video Game sites are blocked; I'll have to check it out at home.

Rob Zacny said...

I'm not sure what I think, because I see two opposing things here.

First, as N'Gai pointed out with RE5, the images had a history. Casting blacks as primal, ape-like, and menacing was used to justify all manner of atrocities and discrimination against that population. They're unacceptable because they call to mind the worst abuses of white America and played a huge role in fostering distrust and suspicion of blacks that continues to this day.

You simply can't say that the stereotype of the fat Pacific islander or the surrendering Frenchman has played anything like that role. So some stereotyping really is worse than others.

The flip side is that our culture permits a lot of bigotry under the guise of "good fun". How many wildly effete, lisping, and fabulous gay men populate comedies? How many Hispanics do you see mowing lawns and washing dishes in TV and movies, and being basically simple, Catholic peasants? These stereotypes don't try to make these groups appear subhuman, but they're still examples of very narrow and lazy pigeonholing. Yet they're widely permitted.

Tim Mackie said...

Not just white America, either, though. We can't forget European imperialism in Africa. South Africa comes immediately to mind... But I definitely see where you're coming from. It really isn't simple at all. I tend to fall more on the "Let's avoid stereotyping" side of things, but I say that with full knowledge that I have my own prejudices as well, no matter how hard I try to fight them.

One more thing I'd like to add: I am personally sickened by the amount of positive feedback that reviewers are giving this game for the 'charm' that is derived from these stereotypes. I'm considerably more sickened by the fact that if I hadn't read this post, I probably would have agreed with them.