Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It's not just gamers

Lest you think the majority reaction to the Resident Evil 5 trailer is unique to the gaming community, Ryan pointed out the latest column by the ESPN ombudsman. She's discussing reader feedback when issues of race and sports intersect:
From my earliest days on this job, I noticed that whenever race was introduced into the discussion of sports -- whether on TV or ESPN.com, whether through polls, town hall specials, opinion shows or columns -- I would receive mail accusing ESPN of fueling or even creating racial divides in an attempt to drive ratings or page views.

The first time I noticed this reaction was in the weeks surrounding the 2007 Super Bowl, when I read mail from viewers who thought ESPN had made too much of two black coaches leading teams to the NFL championship game. That so many viewers thought ESPN was making a big deal of nothing surprised me greatly, because from the vantage point of my advanced age, this historic first was unquestionably a big deal.

I didn't know whether to feel encouraged that younger fans thought race was a nonfactor, or discouraged that history I still think of as recent and relevant seemed so ancient to them. At the time, I wished ESPN had presented more context for understanding the significance of this first.

Substitute everything about the Super Bowl with Resident Evil 5, and you basically have what we've been dealing with recently. On one hand, I'm a bit relieved that these sentiments aren't confined to the gaming community. We're not uniquely oblivious. But on the other hand, it's probably worse that it's so widespread.

Let's not overlook the generational component to this. Far from wanting to have an open, national conversation about race, it seems the younger generation wants to ignore the very idea of race itself. This is probably a better attitude than some that have prevailed in the past, but it's still not, you know, a good thing.

In the past week, I've read numerous thoughtful and sensitive posts about RE5 and racism more broadly, but Leigh Alexander made one point that I think is especially worth repeating: "Racism attacks differences; tolerance embraces them. The idea that tolerance means we're all utterly the same is fallacious; progress means to value equally the unique experiences of different cultures or ethnic groups."

We can't sweep under the rug the uglier parts of our shared heritage. We shouldn't. We should learn from them. To go back to that ESPN.com column, the ombudsman started off by talking about the uniformly positive praise she'd received about a documentary ESPN had produced called Black Magic, which was about black college basketball in the civil rights era. For whatever reason, when it was presented in a purely historical context, viewers did not accuse the network of "playing the race card" or seeing issues of race where none existed. Yet they're so certain that anybody who speaks about racial issues today is doing the same thing. Why?

The ombudsman seems to get to it in her conclusion:

The harsh reality is that unless ESPN's handling of race-related issues is near perfect, as it was with "Black Magic," it is not likely to get credit for trying. ESPN will keep encountering a phenomenon that has been dubbed "white fatigue" -- an impatience that wishfully equates issue-exhaustion with issue-resolution.

It should not take an elaborately researched two-part, four-hour, commercial-free primetime documentary to remove the rancor from the discussion of the intertwined history of sports and race in America. Columnists should not have to face "fire her" campaigns for trying to connect the dots between past and present. ESPN should not have its motives impugned every time it falls short of perfection on racial matters. The bar is set too high. The only alternatives are to clear it or take the lumps trying. Walking away from it is not an alternative.

Very well put. I think we face this same choice. As I said before, this controversy isn't going away. How we choose to deal with it will say a lot about who we are as a community, and could mark a real chance to elevate the status of games in popular culture.

As fate would have it, I've been working on a long-form piece for the Phoenix about videogame controversies, and the re-ignition of the Resident Evil 5 firestorm has meant that I've been thinking and writing about this non-stop for about a week now. I look forward to sharing this story when it runs in another week or two, but until then, I hope this is the last I have to say about it.

I mean, we're supposed to be having fun here, too.


Korey said...

Great post. I look forward to reading your Phoenix piece. It's easy to forget that race is a bigger issue than video games, that it's still a serious, controversial topic in nearly every aspect of the social arena.

I just can't understand the apparent hordes of people who deny that race is a problem or that it's something to be ignored and it'll go away. As Leigh said, getting past race is about embracing and understanding differences, not thinking of everyone as the same. It's good that there are a growing number of blogs like yours that prevent thoughtful, intelligent writing about these types of issues.

Korey said...

Sorry. I meant "promote" intelligent writing. Not prevent. That's just wrong.

Mitch Krpata said...

And it's another example of how we're going to have to decide whether games are a serious form of artistic expression, worthy of these types of conversations, or if they're all "just a game."

SVGL said...

It's "just a game" when people need it to be, and it's "art with integrity" when they'd rather. I think a huge part of the problem here that is somewhat unique to gaming is how defensive the audience is.

Gaming's been unfairly attacked or miscategorized by society at large. But some portions of the audience have taken defense to the extreme of a refusal to apply even constructive criticism, or the slightest bit of self-scrutiny.

Like, N'Gai's statements gave Capcom the benefit of the doubt. They did not call the game "racist", say it shouldn't be made, or blame Capcom for anything other than perhaps being unwise about the way the trailer might make the game look. But from the community backlash, you'd think he'd been a completely irrational Black Panther or something.

Just because we've been constantly maligned doesn't make us bulletproof. Honest discussion and self-assessment, regardless of whether or not the result is desirable or simple is the only way gaming's gonna grow up.

rabidkeebler said...

Now I could understand if these images from RE5 were slaves, or if they were throwing fried chicken, or if the n-word was used during the trailer. But they weren't

The premise for being offended in the first place is already on shaky ground. This is compounded by the fact that, if taken as true, then these images will never EVER be acceptable. Even 100 years from now a game creator will not be able to use Africa as a horror backdrop because some will say that they are offended.

Plus I'm surprised more people aren't saying "Why in the world did you instinctively think about the image like this?" Croal's statements are due to how 1950s movies portrayed Africa. That meant he had to actively search out these images to know what to be offended by. This should be a warning sign within itself.

Mitch Krpata said...

Leigh, well said. I fully agree.

Rabidkeebler, you raise an interesting point, something I was thinking about to myself earlier. In order to understand the historical baggage of those images, you'd have to be fairly well versed in certain historical episodes. It's no wonder a lot of people aren't -- our generation is growing up in a world where this sort of thing simply isn't commonplace. I think that's what people get at when they say they just don't see any race at all. They simply don't know what it's like to live in a world where racial bigotry is acceptable.

But on the other hand, is that kind of historical ignorance actually a good thing? To use a possibly labored analogy, imagine if you had no idea what the swastika stood for, and wore a shirt emblazoned with it. If people were offended, would you be angry at them? Would you wonder why they were so upset about this symbol that, in your eyes, carried no negative connotations? Would you accuse them of bringing up issues of anti-Semitism where none existed? It wouldn't be so easy to dismiss.

Again, nobody's saying you can't set a game in Africa, not even N'Gai himself. Just that the imagery in that trailer seemed to evoke an outdated and irresponsible view of Africa as the "dark continent." Those who don't learn from history, and all that.

Anonymous said...

good article thanks...

Georgia's Work at Home Journal said...

"Leigh Alexander made one point that I think is especially worth repeating: "Racism attacks differences; tolerance embraces them. The idea that tolerance means we're all utterly the same is fallacious; progress means to value equally the unique experiences of different cultures or ethnic groups."
In many areas of our culture, an attempt is being made to play down the racial card and work together in building business and improving society. After 30-40 years of "peace" I think your statement which I quoted above is the only thing that make sense to a new blogger who is not really " into" sports. Focussing just helps to keep issues alive.

Greg Newman said...

I would like to see a story or a special report about dialing 911 from your cell phone. It is 12:14am Sunday morning, I was driving home on the 60 freeway and I saw a driver swerving in and out of lanes, I keep my distance and dialed the local CHP office from my cell phone (I though it would be smart to have their local number on my phone because I know what a problem it could be getting through to 911 during an emergency) well, needless to say that didn’t work, then I dialed 911, no luck, then 311 I got a message from the Mayor (as soon as I heard that I just hung-up). What A shame, the drunk driver could kill someone tonight and I could not even get someone on the phone to report it. I strongly urge your station to air a special report on this, reference all the fees we pay to our cell phone carriers, fee after fee and for what?????? THEY DON’T EVEN PICK-UP WHEN YOU NEED THEM! This is a great story; I hope you guys make some waves with this!

Anonymous said...

hi I read your story!!!