Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Resident Evil 5 and racism

Okay, I'm going to wade in here. This may end up being a somewhat disjointed post, but I've been following the meme around the blogosphere and the story is the same anywhere it goes. As far as I can tell, the whole thing started with a post by Bonnie Ruberg on entitled "Resident Evil 5: White Man Shoots Black Zombies." It's a pretty interesting take -- in particular, Ruberg suggests that the parasites or T-virus of Resident Evil mythology could be playing out here as an allegory to the AIDS situation in Africa. That post was linked to by a blog called "Black Looks," which was then picked up on Kotaku. The Kotaku post currently has 671 comments and is still going strong.

That's the background. What's fascinating to me is the response from commenters. Readers of the Voice, Kotaku, and Black Looks are all united in their firm convictions that Resident Evil 5 is not racist. Most responses tend to fall in one or more of the following categories:
  • The enemies in Resident Evil 4 were white, so why wasn't anyone upset about that?

  • Lighten up, it's only a game.

  • There's no such thing as racism anymore;

  • But if there is, it's black people who are racists.

  • Women who complain about racism are racists themselves, or need to get laid.

  • It's so hard to be white these days.

I would back up each of those points with actual quotes, but it's too depressing to keep wading into those swamps. Seriously, just scan the Kotaku thread. I'm not cherry-picking here. The latent racism getting stirred up is really something to behold. Hardly anybody seems to see the contradiction.

Certainly, I didn't come away from the Resident Evil 5 trailer thinking it was racist. That's because I had the benefit of knowing the context. If you had to sum up the entire series in one sentence, a good one would be: "A powerful organization infects an innocent group of people with a virus that turns them into monsters." That's an over-simplification, but it's basically accurate across every Resident Evil game.

In particular, the fifth installment seems to borrow most heavily from Resident Evil 4. At the end of RE4, there's a short series of stills that shows the happy villagers going about their lives until the arrival of Lord Saddler. It is the first time we are meant to feel pity for them. It doesn't really make up for having mowed down about a thousand of them over the course of the game, but it does show that they are victims in their own way. I feel confident in predicting that the premise of RE5 will be much the same, and that before the game is over you'll find that Umbrella Corp. has been victimizing these people because they thought they could get away with it.

This is, of course, another example of video games wanting to have it both ways: you get the adrenaline-fueled thrill of combat and kill a ton of people, but it's okay because you actually saved all the people in the town afterward. RE4 isn't quite so explicit in that regard, but it's true that video games tend to resort to this kind of fascist mindset. Pick your cliché: "might makes right," "burn the village to save it," and so on.

It's the same across way too many games, and publishers keep getting to duck responsibility because they're only video games. It's ironic that people want Roger Ebert to take games as seriously as he takes movies, when they themselves do not take games as seriously as Roger Ebert takes movies. Read Ebert's review of Dirty Harry and try to imagine any video game reviewer on the face of the planet subjecting a game to that level of scrutiny. Did people tell Roger Ebert he was being overly sensitive? That he should relax and just enjoy the movie? No, they gave him a fucking Pulitzer Prize. If you agree that games should be part of the cultural conversation -- and I do -- then you don't get to draw up a list of exemptions every time somebody says something you don't like.

It's easy to see why someone unfamiliar with the Resident Evil canon would be taken aback by the trailer. What you see are mobs of frenzied black people swarming the good-looking, militaristic, and, oh yeah, white protagonist. Take that at face value. The solution, of course, would be to educate people who express concerns about what the series is really all about. It may not totally change their minds, but at least they might see your point of view.

Here's what I don't think works: telling someone that they're the racist, or that they need to lighten up. Or extrapolating one person's opinion to be the shared opinion of every black person in the world. Or saying that talking about race in games is distracting attention from the real issues. Or pretending that there's no such thing as racism. Anyone who's ever spent five minutes on Xbox Live is all too aware that racism in the gaming community is a legitimate issue (it's also a major reason why I spend as little time on XBL as possible).

In fact, this entire ugly episode has made it more clear than ever that games really are a mirror to our culture. A few comments about a game that doesn't come out for two years has sparked an extremely revealing conversation. There's no way of knowing to what degree the commentariat represents the prevailing attitude of gamers in general. Even so, the latent hatred and resentment that's been unleashed is really something to see. Only now it's cloaked in a sense of white victimhood. Racism hasn't really gone anywhere; it's just gotten better at hiding.

One can only hope that the light is what kills it.


Tyler said...

Hey, can you set your blog so that the whole post shows up on the RSS feed?

Mitch Krpata said...

That's a good question.

Reggie Donovan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

You probably should have written this for the Phoenix

Daniel Purvis said...

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.

Nigel G Mitchell said...

Well said, my friend. I especially like the point that gamers want to be taken seriously, but can't handle a simple criticism of their cherished games. This truly does open a can of worms that I'm not sure should have been opened. I think the makers of RE5 will regret their decision, because people are talking more about racism than the actual game. They want people to say "Cool, that looks like a fun and scary game" not "Let's have a dialogue about the relationship between white and black relations in our post-modern world."