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 There are even more outrageous and outdated images to be found later in the game, stuff that I was honestly surprised to see in 2009, but Capcom has specifically asked that details of these scenes remain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?
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?
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.
*a play on an old Maoist slogan.
Last year at some point I noted a particularly nice turn of phrase by the writer at Broken Saints: "This is the sound of four lines dropping." It's the kind of clever reference to Tetris that evokes both the concept (oh, how sweet it was to engineer those four-minus-one-block lines) and the peculiar honk of a Gameboy. You have to have a certain level of cultural penetration to make a reference like that. Most gamers probably get it, and according to Nielsen an increasing amount of non-fanatics are seeing games as a common cultural experience, similar to books, television, and movies (via Brinstar).
What nobody seems to be asking is: a common cultural experience for who? The Nielsen study conveniently breaks it down by gender and race, and tells us which groups have greater potential for video game purchases, conveniently sidestepping the class issue. See, with console prices going up even in the cheaper realm of handhelds (the DS is $5 to $10 more per game than the GBA, and don't get me started on the PSP), I'm beginning to wonder if this hobby isn't becoming a cultural experience for the rich, leaving the poor behind.
Most modern culture, at a basic level, has a cost of entry. You have to buy a TV to watch anything from Seinfeld to PBS. DVDs are extra money, and so are movie tickets. Libraries are basically free, but you have to pay transportation costs to get there. It's not fashionable to discuss the digital divide in this country, but (as I've pointed out before) minorities and the poor have far lower access to computers and the Internet--and my inner Socialist notes that those facilities in particular grant great opportunities for leaving poverty. The gap between rich and poor is wider as the technology grows more current and more powerful.
Can you be a member of the wider mainstream culture without taking part in these media artifacts? To some extent, yes. Having access to several information streams can even compensate for a lack in others: I don't watch much TV, but I catch up on shows I like via Netflix, or read about them at Television Without Pity. If you're missing too many streams, however, you may end up a bit culturally out of sync. I'd propose that being able to connect with your work cohort culturally at a certain level is a significant factor (among others) in advancement through white-collar employment. You need to have a common cultural ground to communicate with others, to understand their position, and to appeal to them.
In a country with a shrinking middle class, I worry about the non-material factors separating the rich from the poor. Videogames may not be a primary cultural experience yet, but they are increasingly useful as metaphors and as an introduction to other technological interfaces. In the same way that the expense of compilers and documentation creates a high proportion of White, upper-class software developers, a rising cost of videogames may begin to prune the population of gamers as well. If the more thoughtful community is really going to treat gaming as a cultural artifact, an art form, and a force for good, we need to pay attention to which audiences can afford that good--and which ones are being left out in the cold.
I've already gotten one letter from a reader over at The Escapist, so I guess it makes sense to open a discussion thread after all. Please feel free to use this space for comments. I'll try to check in, but since I'm in France the chances of any real meaningful discussion are, after all, pretty small. Keep it clean though, kids.
If you're visiting from The Escapist, you might want to take the time to look through the Gaming category, where (among other items) you'll find my belated series on integrating Electroplankton into a live music context, as well as thoughts for Corvus's Round Table and some other random reviews and perspectives. I happen to think my writing outside of the the video game context is also pretty keen, but it can cover a pretty broad range sometimes.
France is great. The food's wonderful, the people are perfectly willing to work around my bastardization of their language, and I finally found a charger for my PocketPC (HP loves their proprietary connectors) so I'll be able to do some serious writing. Maybe I'll post some travel notes after all.