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March 9, 2009

Filed under: gaming»society»class_and_race


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.

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 There are even more outrageous and outdated images to be found later in the game, stuff that I was honestly surprised to see in 2009, but Capcom has specifically asked that details of these scenes remain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."

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!

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?

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