I know I’m pretty late in coming to this conversation, but I was just reading more about N’Gai Croal’s comments on the Resident Evil 5 trailer, and some responses to it, and I feel like I have to put my oar in. MTV Multiplayer has a great interview with Croal on race in games that focuses particularly on the RE5 trailer. I think he concisely sums up my objections with the trailer when he says “This imagery has a history. It has a history and you can’t pretend otherwise.” Obviously—anyone who’s read some critical race theory or any intelligent writing on portrayals of race in popular culture can attest to this. Croal should be commended on calling a videogame developer on its careless and damaging BS.
And then there are some responses to the commentary like Timothy W. Young’s article “The Color of a Game; A Commentary on Resident Evil [sic]” for My Wii News. I feel compelled to respond. I want to preface this by saying that I’m a big Resident Evil fan too, and have been since the inception of the series. I loved RE4 and I think it’s great that Capcom is keeping a similar gameplay vibe in RE5. I’ll even say that I’m looking forward to playing Resident Evil 5, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve used racially-charged imagery responsibly. I want to look at these three quotes from Young’s article in order because I think that they represent three (problematic) arguments I read repeated in the endless comments and talkbacks on these posts.
So let’s start off with this quote from Young’s article:
“Capcom (a Japanese company) isn’t making a game for white Americans to play so that they can expel the fears that they have towards “the black man” by mowing down mindless legions of them. I say mindless, but if they are anything like the Spaniards in RE4, they will be anything but mindless. Just thinking about it makes me conjure up feelings of how I longed for rows of dumb zombies in previous games of the series. Sorry, for the digression. I’ll get back to my point now – you can’t honestly believe that Capcom’s goal was to produce racist propaganda.”
I agree: no, you can’t. Many gamers who respond negatively to the criticism of RE5’s trailer seem to think that the critics are implying that Capcom is a racist company who has deliberately created a racist product for some nefarious agenda. I’m sure Capcom’s intentions were golden but these gamers don’t seem to consider the idea that intentionally or unintentionally, Capcom is propagating racist imagery—here I’ll point you back to the MTV Multiplayer interview with N’Gai Croal, who talks about how the Africans in the trailer are “othered.” Intentions aren’t the issue. Young presents a slightly more reasonable argument when he backs off the “You idiots are saying that Capcom is deliberately racist” line in the next paragraph:
“Ok, then it was Capcom who, instead of being out-right racist, was instead insensitive. How dare Capcom show African villagers in an African village. Hell, take the image of Chris Redfield walking through the village, replace him with *insert famous white celebrity here* and you have a common occurrence on television.”
As Croal points out in his interview, it’s not an issue of putting a white man in an African village. It’s not really even an issue of having a white man killing black people. It’s an issue of how these Africans are presented: wild-eyed, violent, lurking in the shadows. As for his argument that we often see white male celebrities in a similar setting, he’s half right. Yes, we’ve seen Brad Pitt strolling through an African village, but we haven’t seen Brad Pitt haunted by othered black specters, giving and receiving violence to black stereotypes.
Another choice quote from the Young article:
“The moment we, as gamers, start attacking games, is when Jack Thompson and the other pinheads start winning. Just pick up the controller and play the game.”
Yeah everybody, “just pick up the controller and play the game.” Don’t think, don’t question, don’t try to be reasonable or foster intelligent discourse, just “play the game.” This binary thinking—you’re either a gamer who’s with us, or you’re an anti-gamer with Jack Thompson—is damaging: it doesn’t allow for multiple perspectives, it squashes critical thought and insults and chides the voices of those who attempt to present a thoughtful perspective. Here’s a similar quote:
“Of course, now I must ask myself the question as to whether or not I am a racist because I enjoyed the trailer. I also enjoyed Black Hawk Down and Schindler’s List. Maybe I am a racist after all. Or maybe, just maybe, I can take a form of media entertainment for exactly what it is: entertainment.”
This is an obvious variation on the “it’s just a game” argument, and this is harmful. For starters, Young’s assertion that entertainment can’t be racist because it’s just entertainment doesn’t make much sense. “Hey, it’s just a movie,” you could imagine some early-twentieth-century equivalent of Young saying in defense of The Birth of a Nation. Entertainment has power precisely because it’s entertainment—we’re told not to question it, that it’s an escape, that reading too much into it is overanalyzing. Well wake up and smell the racism: if the RE5 trailer is (I assume unintentionally) echoing Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a work of fiction that epitomized an era of imagery that degraded and dehumanized Africans, should we ignore it because it’s mere entertainment?
Which brings me to my second problem with the “it’s just a game” argument. What I find interesting about the “it’s just a game” argument is that it’s used by the same people who want videogames to be considered an art form like cinema or music, but when somebody tries to complicate their understanding of the issues surrounding the medium they immediately try to downplay the negative effects by claiming that “it’s just a game.” They want it both ways. Hell, I’m guilty of this too; here I am writing this borderline-rant about an insensitive videogame trailer and the discourse surrounding it, yet any time my girlfriend questions my love for violent games like GTA or Half-Life 2, I respond with “Hey, lighten up, it’s just a game. I’m just blowing off steam.” The it’s just a game argument is one of the issues that’s derailing intelligent videogame criticism. How can people treat videogames like intelligent art worthy of analysis if videogamers only do some of the time?
So what do you all think? The Resident Evil 5 trailer has really stirred up some interesting stuff in the discourse around videogames and videogame criticism. Agree? Disagree? Check out N’Gai Croal’s interview and Young’s article, then tell me what you think.