In February, Eurogamer's Dan Whitehead wrote the preview of Resident Evil 5, a game that had been under no small amount of scrutiny for what appeared to be blatantly racist imagery in its trailers. He noted:
One of the first things you see in the game, seconds after taking control of Chris Redfield, is a gang of African men brutally beating something in a sack. Animal or human, it's never revealed, but these are not infected Majini. There are no red bloodshot eyes. These are ordinary Africans, who stop and stare at you menacingly as you approach. Since the Majini are not undead corpses, and are capable of driving vehicles, handling weapons and even using guns, it makes the line between the infected monsters and African civilians uncomfortably vague. Where Africans are concerned, the game seems to be suggesting, bloodthirsty savagery just comes with the territory.Whitehead's comments were welcome: from a game journalism industry that too often acts as cheerleader instead of gadfly, they represented someone willing to point out both racism and the shallow terms on which the debate has typically been conducted--in a preview, no less, usually the most vile and sycophantic of press vehicles!
Later on, there's a cut-scene of a white blonde woman being dragged off, screaming, by black men. When you attempt to rescue her, she's been turned and must be killed. If this has any relevance to the story it's not apparent in the first three chapters, and it plays so blatantly into the old cliches of the dangerous "dark continent" and the primitive lust of its inhabitants that you'd swear the game was written in the 1920s. That Sheva [the game's African co-protagonist] neatly fits the approved Hollywood model of the light-skinned black heroine, and talks more like Lara Croft than her thickly-accented foes, merely compounds the problem rather than easing it. There are even more outrageous and outdated images to be found later in the game, stuff that I was honestly surprised to see in 2009, but Capcom has specifically asked that details of these scenes remain under wraps for now, whether for these reasons we don't know.
There will be plenty of people who refuse to see anything untoward in this material. "It wasn't racist when the enemies were Spanish in Resident Evil 4," goes the argument, but then the Spanish don't have the baggage of being stereotyped as subhuman animals for the past two hundred years. It's perfectly possible to use Africa as the setting for a powerful and troubling horror story, but when you're applying the concept of people being turned into savage monsters onto an actual ethnic group that has long been misrepresented as savage monsters, it's hard to see how elements of race weren't going to be a factor.
All it will take is for one mainstream media outlet to show the heroic Chris Redfield stamping on the face of a black woman, splattering her skull, and the controversy over Manhunt 2 will seem quaint by comparison. If we're going to accept this sort of imagery in games then questions are going be asked, these questions will have merit, and we're going to need a more convincing answer than "lol it's just a game."
Unfortunately, Eurogamer's actual review of the game, posted today, was not written by Whitehead, and it contains no mention whatsoever of the racism he noted. In fact, it hardly even mentions the African setting at all, or the nature of antagonists, devoting most of its column inches to gameplay mechanics and comparisons to RE4. Sample line: "...Resi 5 embraces the action element without concession. Whether it goes too far, of course, will be a matter of serious discourse." Oh, is that where the 'serious discourse' is heading these days?
(On a side note, when you're reading through a review expecting some kind of racial commentary and not finding it, tech terms like "reskinned" take on a whole new meaning, as does the story-related phrase "viral shenanigans.")
There are perfectly valid reasons for Whitehead to have not been assigned the RE5 review--he may not have been in editorial rotation, wasn't interested, or had other matters on his plate. That said, there's really no excuse for Eurogamer to have dodged the issue completely. Any editor worth their salt should have looked at the piece and asked where the follow-up analysis was (especially since it's only 2 pages long, one page shorter than Whitehead's preview). It's also surprising from a revenue perspective, given that EG is ad-supported, and the preview garnered a high amount of incoming coverage from aggregators like Joystiq. Given those points, the absence of commentary on racism in the review raises questions: Did Capcom complain? Did advertisers threaten to pull out? Did Eurogamer chicken out? Or did they simply drop the ball?
Eurogamer's failure is most depressing, I suspect, because many of the progressive voices in the gaming community had hoped for better from them, based on the preview and the strength of their writing stable as a whole. A recognition that critical questions have merit, and that by extension serious analysis is possible (and desireable), is something that's been sorely lacking in mainstream industry coverage--both in general and with regards to this game in particular. EG had a very real chance to provide some actual 'serious discourse' and yet chose not to do so. Is it any wonder that the mainstream gaming press can't be taken seriously, when even its better examples behave this way?
After writing a post on a misogynistic shooter and being linked by the slavering hordes from gaming site Kotaku, Brinstar probably could have been excused from taking a long break from blogging, and possibly the written word as well. Instead, she put together an examination of how her own views have expanded during her time online. It's a thoughtful (and thought-provoking post), made even more so by the fact that Brinstar doesn't really need to prove her bona-fides on feminist gamer commentary to anyone. She writes:
It wasn't easy to have my perspectives challenged. I cringe when I look at what I've written in the past. I feel embarrassed about how I used to think about certain things. It shows that I had a lot to learn then, and that I'm still not finished learning. I have expanded my daily readings to include general feminist and anti-oppression blogs to deepen my understanding of oppression and privilege and how it impacts everyday life, and I continue to have my assumptions, perspectives, and privilege challenged.Those are hard words to write, and I admire her for writing them.
Brin's post sparked some thoughts of my own on the topic of progressive issues in gaming, and the roles that individuals--particularly those operating from a privileged position--can play. Because there is certainly a place for allies when it comes to sexism, racism, and any number of other problems facing the games community, but only if they can act in a constructive, considerate manner.
The distressing aspect of the gaming discussion that takes place online is that it's not representative of the demographics, or often the viewpoints, of the actual, real-world gaming population. We know, for example, that many woman play games. We know that people of color are gamers. Obviously there are LGBT gamers. But in the online community, these categories are, I think (note: I may be entirely wrong), underrepresented. Two problems result from the disparity: first, the face of gaming is (erroneously) portrayed as that of straight, white males; and second, it means that when minority viewpoints do try to enter the debate, they often face a withering tide of angry or ignorant comments from places like Joystiq or Kotaku.
So there's definitely a place for the straight/white/male members of the community to provide support on these issues--and indeed, many have. I hope that I've been of some assistance in the past, and obviously I hope others will add their voices in support. But looking back, just as Brinstar did, I cringe a little sometimes at what I've written, and I recognize that there's also room for improvement and education as to what an ally's role could, or should, be. Especially because it's very easy to cross the line from being helpful and supportive to being a voice that muddies, distracts from, or even completely derails the debate. I worry about that, lately.
I thought about trying to put together a list of educational links for potential allies, but I suspect it's a little presumptuous of me. Also it seems like a lot of work, particularly when Shrub.com has such a good collection already assembled on their right sidebar, under the 101 and 303 sections. Two items that stood out to me are Men! Feminism needs you! (Not your privilege...) at The F Word, which specifically addresses blog commenting without being a jerk, and 12 Helpful Suggestions for Men Regarding Conduct in Feminist Spaces, which looks pretty standard as far as these things go. Both are aimed mainly at participation by men in communities for women's issues, but they also serve (with a little mental effort) as good, common-sense primers on interaction with progressive debates ranging from disability to racism. From the "12 Helpful Suggestions":
3. Listen. This would be really nice. Please respect our feelings and our experiences.I think that's my cue to wrap things up.
Corollary to Rule 3: When in doubt, shut the hell up. If you're not sure you're "getting it" take a step back, resist the urge to hit that "respond" button, and try to think about what women are saying - before you act.
The controversy over Resident Evil 5 being set in Africa, not to mention featuring a White character mowing down infected Black zombies (we hope they are zombies), has a lot of resonance. It's one of those topics that brings out the worst of the online community, and makes some of us despair. Josh covers the reasoned perspective well, I think, but I think an anecdote may explain why I both fear the worst and hope for the best.
I didn't play RE4 until about six months ago, long after it won so many awards and got ported to everything under the sun. I enjoyed it while playing, although I found myself oddly reluctant to load it up in the first place. It's a game with relatively few areas of tedium, and a number of amazing, memorable scenes. It also had a great horror movie feel, and a hilariously-overwrought level of gore: Belle walked through several times, and would always express her disgust at the exploding heads onscreen, long after I'd become inured to them.
But what I remember most from the game, and what I think was its most powerful moment, was at the very start, when Leon (the main character) first walks into the village. At that point, he (and the player, by extension) has already defended himself against a crazed misanthrope or three, but still has no idea what's going on. Entering the village proper means confronting a new set of villagers--the woman model makes an appearance for the first time, as do the alternate male villagers. So it's not just the same cookie-cutter experience of video game bad guys.
The first time I played this level, I didn't even take a shot. It was disturbing--the characters onscreen move erratically, but they're not traditional zombies. They carry tools around, and speak in gutteral Spanish--still people, in other words, ones rendered with surprising realism. I had an innate reaction to the ambiguity of it: you don't just shoot people in the head! That's wrong! And then, of course, they slaughtered me like a Christmas turkey.
After that, I dehumanized them enough to play the game without worrying about real-world legalities and ethics. But it's still unsettling to think about it. Neither Leon nor the player has any indication that the Ganados are anything other than extremely territorial farmers at that point, and yet they're terminated with extreme prejudice. To some degree, I liked that about it, because it made me re-examine just what those video game ethics really meant.
The fact that RE4 could provoke that kind of feeling is impressive and artistically pleasing, and it gives me hope that the fifth game might also give me something to think about on more than a simplistic, fictional level. But RE4 also never again really touched that kind of political or social awareness, leading me to think that Capcom probably didn't actually mean to do so sustainably, and may not have any plans to recognize how genuinely unsettling (at best) its African references could be.
Although readers at Wired and Joystiq have gotten sidetracked by the inclusion of Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, this list of Black protagonists in videogames is interesting. As I wrote in Guns, Gangs, and Greed, one striking feature of these lists to me is always that so few Black protagonists (from an already limited set) are either A) original intellectual property, meaning that they were created for the game instead of being licensed characters or based on real celebrities, or B) female. The industry's got a long way to go.
Coincidence is a funny thing. I'm not updating much right now partly because I'm trying to stay ahead of schedule with an article for The Escapist, centered on race and gaming. And of course, as I do research, interesting stories keep popping up. I don't want to spend too much time talking about it before I'm done, but I found this Washington Post story on San Andreas (found via Joystiq) to be fascinating and relevant. It talks about the experiences of two sets of gamers playing GTA: a Hispanic family in South Central LA, and a couple of upper-class kids just down the road from me in McLean. The perspectives are excellent, and I think it does a lot to sum up not just the collision of race and entertainment, but also the disconnect between the rich and the poor in the US. Note the closing lines:
With the help of a tattoo artist, a screenwriter and a rap photographer from Los Angeles, "San Andreas" was actually developed in Scotland.
Says a lot, doesn't it?
In less provocative territory between games and culture, Jeff reminded me that Q Entertainment (Rez, Meteos, Lumines) will include a sequencer in their next game. Which is pretty cool for people who thought Electroplankton was too unstructured--but the test will be how it lets you store and share tunes.
Located at The Red Critique, by Rob Wilkie. I will have comments on it soon, but I didn't want it to get lost amongst my vast and impenetrable rhetoric.
The magazine itself, by the way, professes to be run by some serious communists. Not socialists, but actual profit-is-theft, fighting-for-150-years communists. They describe the actions of people like me as "strategies of appeasement, reconciliation by negotiations, and the pragmatic compromises of the North-Atlantic bourgeois left." That is pretty awesome. Honestly, I'm a little jealous.
Had a long meeting this morning and passed some of the time thinking about this Electroplankton project. I realized I've been going about this all wrong--I'd been thinking about ways to use the DS as a processor/sampler, but that's no good. Part of what shook me out of it was picking up my harmonicas for the first time in a while, an instrument that requires a microphone for amplification, and which doesn't treasure fidelity in reproduction. The other revelation was remembering that I already have an extensive rig for live sampling and looping, from the pretentious solo project.
Instead of trying to use the DS as a replacement for equipment I already have (or trying studio tricks that I don't fully understand), I should be putting it in front of the pedals I've learned to use skillfully, sampling it and looping it. In other words, doing what I've been saying all along and treating EP as an instrument, not as an oddly-shaped rack unit. Immediately I have a whole new concept on how to put this song together, revolving around the ability to loop one plankton, mute the DS and switch to another. The ideas are coming in fast, and I can't wait to get home and try them out.
I've been asked to contribute to an Electroplankton-based musical compilation. They're fine with letting me sample my bass, and I can do anything in "studio" that I need to do. Most of the other pieces are apparently going to be very electronica in nature, so I'll probably stand out--this is my chance to put my money where my mouth is with all of those guides and see if I can actually make some music with it. It'll be distributed by torrent--I'll put up more info when I've got it. This post is partially to motivate myself, because I've been putting it off.
You may remember that my Composing series kind of ground to a halt, after I wrecked the microphone input. I have tools now to get better access to the guts of the DS, but I'd rather not use them, and the headsets I brought back from France are basically useless. As far as I can tell, they actually connect both mike contacts to the same wire, which leads to a nasty high-pitched hum. However, someone drew my attention to the fact that the iPod third generation wired remote has almost the exact same connector, albeit with more sleeve contacts on the 3.5mm plug. Unfortunately, Apple sells its remote for the mind-boggling $40, so it's a bit hard for me to get one for experimentation. If anyone has one and can just verify for me that the plug does indeed fit, I'll see if I can score one off eBay.
There are several Electroplankton that can use the microphone for input. Nanocarp responds to claps and note patterns. Volvoice warps a short recording through a variety of filters. And Rec-Rec, which is rapidly becoming my favorite, actually acts as a four-track tape loop with variable speed, all fed from the microphone input.
However, if you're really interested in using Rec-Rec musically, you won't want to use the built-in microphone. It's too noisy, too weak, and positioning the console for use and recording simultaneously is much too difficult. Instead, you need to access the front headset jack that Nintendo has thoughtfully built into the DS.
Now, as far as I am aware there are no adapters for the headset jack available in the US as of this time. The only commercial possibility I've found (which might be vaporware) is here, but would require you to mail-order it from England just to cut it apart. Even so, don't set that possibility aside just yet.
Your other option, until headsets become available domestically (my guess: possibly soon, with Nintendogs out, but more likely at the end of the year when Animal Crossing and Mario Kart hit), is to make your own adapter. This is not hard, especially if you know how to solder, but you do need to be careful. Both the onboard mic and the headset jack share a circuit, so if you short one you will also short the other, and then you won't be able to use any microphone input.
So in order to run my bass into the DS, I just bought a standard 1/4" jack and some wire. I soldered mine together, but that's just because I'll take any excuse to break out a soldering iron--those who don't want the hassle can use a crimp-style connector, or possibly just buy a guitar cable and cut one end off. That's the easy part. The hard part is finding a way to make the connection with the contacts inside the DS mic port that A) won't touch the wires together, creating a temporary short that transmits no sound, and B) will make reliable contact, possibly staying put even if the DS is bumped or carried around. My first attempt at a solution was to buy a set of motherboard jumpers, which looked to be about the right size to hold the ends of the wires. Unfortunately, the port is just slightly too narrow.
Reading comprehension test: under no circumstances should you try the bare-minimum approach shown in Figure 2, which is just the wires looped over and jammed into the mic socket. The reason for this is that the contacts for the socket are very, very delicate. Really, they're just thin metal leaves. If you bend these contacts too far with brute physical force, you will short the entire microphone bus, and no audio input will be possible at all, although everything else will still run fine. This is, of course, exactly the mistake I made. In order to fix the short, you'll need to have one of Nintendo's crazy three-pointed screwdrivers (available from Lik-Sang), and even then the port may be flush with the motherboard in a sealed assembly--I can't tell from pictures of the internals. Since I don't own the screwdriver and at that point didn't want to risk any more damage, I took the DS to an EB Games and traded it in for a new one. Clearly, this requires not just a tolerance for blatant dishonesty (or as I prefer to say, contempt for The Man), but it'll also run you some cash for the trade-in value. Either way, it's not a satisfactory outcome.
The whole debacle makes me unlikely to try such a connection again right away, but if I were to do so I would stress using materials that will give easily, and won't force the contacts. You might try using thin stranded wire, but keeping the hot and ground separated will be difficult. Another option is a set of metal leaf contacts similar to the DS's own connection, but you'll still need something to hold the wires. That's why I stated above that you might not want to immediately dismiss the idea of importing Big Ben's headset if possible, as linked above, and tear it apart for your audio connection. It solves both problems with a homemade adapter: the contacts are safe, and the integrated earphone connection keeps the whole assembly firmly attached.
The worst part of it all is that I had a lot of fun using the microphone input before I realized the problem I'd caused. The DS either has a very hot preamp or expects very low-powered input (more likely) because my passive single-coil bass was almost overdriving Electroplankton, and my pickups aren't that loud. You might have to put a volume pedal at the end of the signal chain to bring it down, particularly if you're using effects like chorus or distortion. Once the volume is at the right level, the signal is fairly clear, although it's hardly going to be hi-fi. A more sophisticated adapter (or someone with a better soldering technique) might get better returns.
If you have better luck accessing the microphone, or you know of a better way to put this together, please let me know in the comments or by e-mail. As we'll see when I finish putting together my Rec-Rec article, the ability to record directly into the DS is probably key to Electroplankton's most powerful tool.