Flame wars and hypocrisy: More on Resident Evil 5

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.

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~ by Ian D. on June 8, 2008.

4 Responses to “Flame wars and hypocrisy: More on Resident Evil 5”

  1. The only time I buy the “it’s just a game” argument is in defense against the “if you play violent video games, you will become more violent or desensitized toward violence” argument:
    Fictional De-sensitization Towards Violence

  2. I think my favorite part of this post is when you say “put my oar in.” It’s probably a good thing you’re done teaching Harris, that’s all I have to say.

  3. I have read the blogs and more importantly the response of many. There are basically 2 camps. 1) people that decided re5 is racists and 2) people that decided its just a game. The threads usally goes like this…

    – most people that decided its racist say its racist because it portrays black people being killed by a white dude.

    – people that decided its not racist points out that zombies are killed and not people. The game is in Africa and black people hence black zombies will be inevitable.

    – most people that decided its racist will say that because black looking people are being killed by a white man opens up wounds of slavery and the topic should never have been touched at all.

    – people that decided its not racist will sometimes point out that past RE games featured white and Spanish people being killed by a white dude and no one was complaining.

    – people that decided it is racist may tell them that these races in the past has forfeited their right to complain by being silent or that a white dude killing a Spanish person dosent really open up a big as a wound as a white person killing a black(zombie) person.

    That said, I think both camps has valid points. But what intrigues me most is why of all the games ever produced re5 is seen as the hottest target of racism. There are others that could have you know, take red steel for example – a white guy(Scott Monroe) goes to japan and tries to marry Japanese girl(people never interpreted that as imperialism), kills Japanese people (and none zombies at that) and disgraces Japanese tradition by, in a way, inheriting an ancestral samurai sword. No one even brought this topic up none the less mentioned that 2 whole cities in WW2 were nuked killing thousands of innocents in minutes; and yeah, by white men. And to tell you bluntly if RE5 opens wounds Red Steel should have as well. But somehow it didn’t.

    Don’t you find it more disturbing that people have scrutinized a game we hardly know about yet, has not yet been released and we have never really looked into million dollar sellers that potentially has the same cultural impact if not more so? I wonder why that is? Is it because some people have placed the past behind them while others have not? Is is because of lack of diligence? Or is it something else? You tell me because I really want to know. I am not black, white or Japanese. Looking at all of this fiasco from a bird’s eye view is not only enlightening as it is entertaining but it also gives the rest of us a clearer, more insightful picture of humanity and world view.

  4. The forum kids don’t seem to realize that you are allowed to acknowledge and discuss the imagery in the trailer without condemning it as Teh Racist. I love the go-to dismissal point: nobody complained when you murdered hundreds of Spaniards last time! Case closed, issue addressed.

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