Resident Evil 5 and Racism.



There has been a reasonably serious controversy (among people who are reasonably serious about these sorts of things) brewing about the new Resident Evil since an extended trailer was released in 2007.  The storyline is similar to the other titles in the series: the main character, an inevitably grizzled and impeccably badass American man, is sent to investigate a small town whose inhabitants have all been infected by eel-like parasites and turned into zombies.  The catch?  In RE5, that village is in Africa, and there were a lot of people (me included) who were made uncomfortable by the footage of a white man shooting hordes of savage black people (with machetes!) in the face.

The game came out a week ago Friday, and with its release have come reviews both defending and attacking the game.  Here’s Seth Schiesel, writing in the New York Times:

Let’s get this out of the way: Resident Evil 5 is not a racist game.

So Resident Evil 5 exposes the perhaps uncomfortable truth that blacks and Arabs can become zombies too, just like anyone else. Blacks and Arabs do not have a secret anti-zombie gene. And just like all the thousands of white, Asian and Hispanic zombies that have been dispatched in innumerable other games before them, the African zombies must also be destroyed, or at least neutralized.

This is true enough, but is, it seems to me, a little beside the point.  I think that Evan Narcisse, who writes for Crispy Gamer, gets closer to the problem:

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.

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.

Now, I haven’t played RE5, so I’m not going to comment on the specifics of is-or-isn’t-the-game-racist.  But there’s clearly a lot of racially-charged imagery in the game, and I think that this was a pretty massive miscalculation by Capcom, who designed the game.  A couple of points:

First, lets talk about zombies.  The main appeal of zombies – and in particular, zombie video games – is that they take people and move them squarely into the uncanny valley; that is, from being human to being something human-like but distinctly not.  Consider this helpful graph:


The distinct alien-ness of zombies is what allows the player to kill them with such complete impunity, and with a total lack of guilt.  People, however evil they may act, are still people, with mothers and fathers and thoughts and so on.  But zombies are soulless, parasitic killing machines!  They’re evil incarnate!  You’re actually doing the world a favor by putting a well-placed bullet squarely inside their craniums.

But by introducing this sort of imagery into the game, the creators have (by all accounts inadvertently) reintroduced the guilt.  They have destroyed the very principle that allows their genre to succeed.  And that supersedes any improvements in gameplay or graphics or story.  If the player is thinking too much about the people they’re killing, the game can’t succeed.

The other point I think is interesting about this is that the designers at Capcom, who are Japanese, were reportedly rather confused when people began talking about the racial aspects of the game.  This is rather clearly a cultural thing; I don’t think it’s possible, as an American or as a white person, to watch that trailer and not admit that there are things there that could be found offensive.  But I think that this should be taken as a very serious lesson by the entire Japanese video game industry.  Video games are the only media form in which Japan dominates the American market.  There are subsets of people who are fans of Japanese television or films or music, of course, but millions of people with no particular interest in Japanese culture still play Japanese video games.  So I think that they should be far more mindful of these sorts of things in the future, especially given the ways in which video games are often held up as markers of a continuing cultural downfall.  (See: Grand Theft Auto.)  There’s something to be said for knowing your market, and I can’t help feeling that, somewhere during the lengthy development of RE5, somebody should have thrown out the idea that maybe playing on distasteful cultural stereotypes wasn’t the best idea ever.