Thought/Process: More on Resident Evil 5 and Uncomfortable Echoes
Resident Evil 5 came out on Friday, and a few things happened this weekend. Comment threads around the Web -- including our own -- burned with debate as to how racist Resident Evil 5 may or may not be. The New York Times review by Seth Schiesel bluntly declared that Resident Evil 5 is not racist.
I think Schiesel's review misses the point of the "is it or isn't it" racism argument. Resident Evil 5 is so close to the edge that it's fair to read it both ways -- so dismissing any concerns about racism on the basis of the game's interactive nature feels shallow. Every game stands as a cultural artifact filled with meaning by the people who make them and play them.
That's worth discussing.
For my part, I've never called RE5 racist, and I probably won't. Throwing the word around oversimplifies what I think is a more complex reality. What I will stand by is my assertion that this game will make plenty of people uncomfortable in racially specific ways.
That's worth discussing.
Schiesel?s review says, "When you are in control of the action the racial or ethnic appearance of your enemies simply stops mattering. The basic mechanics of moving, shooting, using cover, solving puzzles, employing weapons properly and understanding the overall environment are universal, no matter whether the enemies are aliens or Nazis or zombies or gangsters or any of the other categories we use to denote 'acceptable to kill.'"
The subtext of race doesn't fall away so easily. Sure, you're concerned with your avatar's survival. And as Capcom's Chris Kramer says, you may be playing to avenge the Majini, who are victims of bioterrorist experiments. But the game's not throwing waves of evil scientists and executives at you to kill. It's throwing zombies at you, and you grow to hate those zombies and where they come from. It's okay to shoot them because the game's cues tell you they're your enemies -- but the history of colonization is filled with propaganda and legislation that delivered similar cues. It's an uncomfortable parallel that doesn't recede just because you're playing a game with similar mechanics to other games.
And that's worth discussing.
I had a chance to speak to Jun Takeuchi, the creative director on the game. I didn't interview Takeuchi so I could "out" him as a racist. I talked to him to see if he understood how some of the imagery in the game would come across to people. In talking to him, it seemed like his priority was to lead the crafting of a piece of entertainment. He said his team went to Africa, did its research, and talked about the game with Africans. All of that doesn't mean that the end user may not feel squirmy at some of the imagery.
Over at MTV Multiplayer, Stephen Totilo's assessment is that Resident Evil 5 relies on stock characterization for the zombified African enemies. That's true, but stock characterizations of any people often rely on stereotypes, or otherwise shallow understandings of different cultures. The unique problem when playing RE5 comes when you consider the legacy upon which it's building.
If you agree with Capcom's assertion that the game actually aims to deliver an anti-colonialist message, then how do you reconcile the Tarzan-movie natives that some Majini revert to later in the game? The ancestral habits into which the Majini devolve line up exactly with the kinds of ooga-booga Africans that the prevailing logic of colonialism said it was okay to kill and displace.
It's clearly not the main text of the game, but the subtext feeds on awful, previously understood notions about not just Africans on the continent, but black people everywhere. There's no sense of scale, in terms of humanity, in RE5. You don't see daily life before it's destroyed by the infection. No bustling market. No kids playing. It opens on guys with machetes. As a result, the fictional country of Kijuju looks like a place that's just ripe for evil to manifest.
Some reviews acknowledge that there's been a storm regarding the racial portrayals brewing around the game, but sidestep addressing those portrayals.
As this debate's carried on, the apologists' retort has taken the form of "What about Resident Evil 4? Huh? Huh? Huh?" Read this quote from commenter ado_rimbo in the thread following Scott Jones' review: "But the point is that Spaniards are whites with an imperialist history, not a racially oppressed minority, so there are not loaded images here that one could be irresponsible with." Read my answer during the Takeuchi interview: "And because there's a history of demonization and subhuman portrayals with regard to people of African descent, there's a certain sensitivity around that."
Spaniards don't have a long, loud history of being portrayed as scary, subhuman savages. The average American citizen that previous Resident Evil games have used as enemies don't have a long, loud history of being portrayed as scary, subhuman savages.
This black videogame journalist has never said that black people aren't fair game for being enemy antagonists in videogames. What's problematic is, the way that RE5 chooses to make them antagonists pounces on fears that were promulgated about black people in the not-so-distant past. Sure, we're all susceptible to zombie virus, as Schiesel's NYT write-up blithely notes, but the subtext of the game seems to whisper: "Yeah, but those Africans don't have as far to go to become savages." This subtext feeds on awful, previously understood notions about black people.
Jim Sterling from Destructoid comes to a nihilistic conclusion: "If anything, Capcom's latest in the Resident Evil series proves only one thing -- that we can never have something involving black people that won't cause a race debate. That's pretty fucking sad if you ask me. If we lived in a world that these anti-racist folks claim to want, then we would be working towards having a game like Resident Evil 5 that could be released without the controversy. If only we were mature enough and capable of seeing a game set in Africa without clicking our heels together and hoping to find some juicy racism to be upset about."
Sterling's rant ignores the fact that you don't have to look too hard. We don't live in a world where racism's been wiped out. We don't live in a world where demeaning stereotypes never existed. The only way to get there is to reckon with things that refer to those legacies -- consciously or not -- when they pop up.
And that's worth discussing.
Videogames strive to make you feel something, but the things you feel aren't always what they intend. The outright dismissals and non-debates surrounding RE5 don't help defend this form of entertainment against people who would demonize and scapegoat it. They don't make other people's responses go away.
I want more black people in my videogames. I don't even care if they're good guys or bad guys, shallow or deep characters. But I do care if they remind me of ugly, racist stereotypes, even if that wasn't the intent.
Let's talk about that.