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August 7, 2007

Filed under: gaming»society»class_and_race


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.

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