Monday, April 13, 2009

On Racism: Resident Evil 5

Resident Evil 5 is a racist video game.

While this is a provocative statement worthy of monsters living under bridges everywhere, I would say it just to get under people's skin who feel they must defend their way of life as defined by a hobby spent pretending to be other people and murdering. Furthermore, I would say it just for the reason that for all the controversy that Resident Evil 5 has generated, not one article or review can be found that actually calls this game racist; all that has been found are journalist who find the imagery "uneasy" and say that it can be "disturbing".

This may not be an internet first, but without the support of any known adherents I'm going to make the first move and be the leading hit on any search engine with "Resident Evil 5" and "racist".

Besides the apparent grab for attention, the first question might be "Why? Why does that have to be said? Why do you have to ruin it for everyone?" to which my first response might be, "Because the minority of opinion has to be said to offset the opinion of the majority." Also, because it's right and because most gamers know this but won't accept such an ugly truth.

Let's get our definitions out of the way. Like terrorism, abortion and euthanism, racism requires a specific definition before discussion or else the only thing debaters can agree on is that everyone is speaking too loud and at the same time.

Without using a dictionary or wikipedia, racism is the act of insensitivity towards another race or culture that inflicts pain or suffering. And before readers start changing the channel to FOXNews, this isn't about political correctness; racism has always been around and will continue to do so--political correctness is just a modern movement used to mute expression as a reaction to special interests groups. It's not any good for anyone; normal people are constrained to re-think their thoughts before they say them and the racist people are allowed to hide behind a veil of propriety.

I don't believe in political correctness. I believe that if you want to say something bad and insensitive, you should so that everyone can see what a bigot and ignoramus you are. The use of political correctness as a morality policier means that people will do things for the wrong reasons, making politcal correctness a hollow shell game that will expose attitudes and prejudices thought long eradicated when it one day is not required by society. People should do good things, but they must be allowed to perform them by themselves or else it isn't a good deed or act--it's just a empty gesture that makes going through the day easier.

At this point after mentioning I don't believe in political correctness I take it that I'm supposed to rattle off a couple of South Park quotes to demonstrate that I'm on "your side", but truth be told I don't watch South Park nor any other comedy show that has devolved from generally funny and provoking to a hackneyed mess which is spending too much time preaching and moralizing. This is also not to take me as some sort of aloof divinity above the cares of mortals; I did watch--and enjoy--the South Park movie, after all.

This act of stating Resident Evil 5 is a racist game is most important--not for political correctness--because people, gamers and non-gamers, should see racism for what it is: insensitivity and ignorance. Being a person who is not racist is to be a person that is sensitive and aware; by overcoming one's prejudices and fears you would be contributing to the world at large, let alone one's own capacity to be great.

Also, we should be wary of what racism is not: something that occurs in variations and in small degrees. Someone or something is racist or it is not. Similarily, that's like saying someone is a little bit pregnant, or had caught a little bit of the Ebola virus over the weekend. It's one or the other; what makes this not simple is the fact that no one ever wants to admit to being racist, especially those people who are especially racist.

There are degrees to severity to how deep one's racist beliefs goes--an off-color joke doesn't make you a Ku Klux Klan member, and one racist action doesn't mean you support unequivocal genocide to wipe an entire peoples. However, going back to this definition of racism--that it is an act of insensitivity and ignorance--will inform us that if by your actions you offend at least one person because of their race and culture, well then you sir/madam are racist. It doesn't help the situation that the current society-economic order is full of people who are overly sensitive, leading back to that facade of political correctness that still persists. While this may seem excessive to be responsible for all one's actions and words, really it's not. You, being you, control yourself and do actions and say words; no one else is responsible. This means that you should believe in your words and actions, else your words and actions have little significance.

Let's take it to a common example, one we've all experienced. You're in a group of people and someone makes a racist comment that makes one person in the group uncomfortable. Is this racist? Being a subjective concept, all it takes is for all the people to deny that it happened for it to be "non-racist" for these individuals; if someone objects, this racist act can be passed off as "just a joke" or "just a little racist, but not really". However, these opinions mean little to the individual who became upset not because it broke the order of a "politically correct" world or was morally wrong but because it touched upon something inside of them. That's racism; it's ugly and no one likes it but it's that giant invisable elephant that no one wants to point out. By being silent in this situation is to tacitly condone this type of behavior, and by agreeing that someone/thing isn't racist when it certainly is makes for an act just as bad as the original transgression.

Racism is real; anyone is capable of racism. I realize that talking about it in this way is like getting people to wake to to the invisable cage that's right in front of their eyes, but that's what it is. Many Americans don't identify with being racist because they consider their country the "land of the free" and that racial problems are a thing of the past, and being racist connotes a connection to racial segregation and lynching. However, if you are being insensitive and ignorant towards another race or culture, what else is it called? There aren't two words for racism, and "a little bit racist" simple does not suffice.

Miley Cyrus chink-eye incident? Racist. Relative importance in the grand scheme of things? Not big, as neither is blink-and-you'll-miss-her Miley Cyrus and her Myspace photos. Significance to her fans? None, as this PR blunder that has the potential to offend over one billion people can be passed off as the indiscretion of a young girl who just doesn't know any better.



Resident Evil 5 is different, Capcom should have known better but just didn't. Japan has a different racial balance than the United States, which is a country split into white and black segments of society. Resident Evil 5 could never have been made in the United States, but Japan lacks the charged racial animosity of the USA's checkered past; that so, Japan likely doesn't construe Resident Evil 5 as a racist piece of art, but then that just shows the rest of the world the kind of insensitivity and ignorance Japanese will hold for other cultures.

Resident Evil 5 is racist on many levels; it's actually a shame because it is a fun game. Much of the criticisms deflected by video gamers have been with pointing out Resident Evil 4 wasn't labelled racist with its depiction of Spanish zombies, and also that Resident Evil is a game where you shoot zombies, and in this case Resident Evil 5 is a game where you shoot zombies that happen to be African because the game occurs in Africa. These are all pretty weak arguments coming from a community that emphatically states that "video games are art" except in cases like these which prove to be inconvenient in which case it is stated "lol its just a game don't take it so seriously".

With these justifications in check many gamers set their conscience at ease and can get back to shooting, punching and stabbing Africans (who are zombies, let's not forget that). Despite the status of video games being works of art that can convey complex themes and concepts as well as the growing use of high end technology to render highly detailed graphics, video games like Resident Evil 5 have remained simplistic and the rejection of racism in this game keeps in line with this thinking. This is because thinking only ruins fun; if one were to question the depiction of Africans in this game the game play would suffer from your pondering. Video games need constant interaction with the gamer to keep fun and immersion high, but these interaction are small and superficial compared to, say "Guernica" by Picasso, a painting that you can only "look" at.

Resident Evil 5 is racist in many ways, most above all it is racist in terms of cultural appropriation. Leaving the dictionary behind along with the pipe and cardigan vest sweater, cultural appropriation is taking the elements of another culture and exploiting it for your own gain and personal use. A famous example of this is the use of "blackface" in vaudeville whereby white entertainers pretend to be black singers by adopting make-up that exaggerated the facial features of blacks. A more recent and hilarious example would be the prevalance of "wiggers", white teenagers who are so infused into black urban hip hop culture that they look and act black and fool nobody.

Resident Evil 5 is guilty of cultural appropriation all throughout the game. Africa (and whatever fictional country of Endovia Resident Evil 5 takes place in) is only a backdrop to place this current iteration of the franchise. Much like traditional James Bond movie of old, Resident Evil 5 simply uses Africa as a tool to bolster exotism and wonder. For example, the city environment is doubtlessly well researched and rendered beautifully for an ugly, downtrodden slum. However, zombies aside, we never learn about these Africans and why they are so poor; by not answering these question Resident Evil 5 propagates stereotypes of poor Africans who can't help themselves until the presence of a foreign power come to help them.

Comparisons from this game to "Black Hawk Down" (2001) are apt because both video game and movie are content to portraying a single point of view that is at odds with the culture it appropiates to convey an enjoyable experience. Black Hawk Down is a movie based on facts--all from the US soldiers that took part in the fighting. It's a great movie to discuss issues of honor amongst men and courage, but not a great movie to discuss questions like why the US was there in the first place, why wasn't an alternative plan pursued to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, and why was the local Somali populace so angry and militant against the US troops. Black Hawk Down is an excellent and action packed movie of a humongous military blunder that killed so many and cost so much; this type of portrayal is in line with the idolizing of American failures into American heros, like General Custer's last stand or Apollo 13's failed attempt to reach the moon.

This cultural appropriation can be seen in the "Marshland" level. Using a flat-bottomed boat, the protagonists navigate through a marsh to various village, upon which are beset by African zombies. What makes this culturally offensive is that these African zombies are dressed up in tribal warrior gear; the move to define these enemies as evil and different from the heroes is to use their culture to highlight this difference. African culture, though by no means homogenous, is used not to promote or explore itself but rather just as a means to convey the end goal of a exotic, fun experience. Perhaps Africans do put on war paint and war masks and, to this day, still fight with spears and arrows; but when another culture steps in and portray Africans in this light it reeks of insensitivity and ignorance. It's no wonder that Capcom officials were surprised at the controversy; it seemed before the first trailers were released for Resident Evil 5 no Capcom employee had ever met or talked to a black person (refering to Ngai Croal's quote).

This cultural appropriation could have been stemmed if Capcom were willing to let us sympathize with the African natives there; a very effective way to do that would be to provide subtitles for the language that they speak in the game (Swahili? Endovian?) Nevertheless, not doing so has effectively pushed the image of African people ever further into the "other", or the "unknown". In that case, we have mobs of mindless African zombies who possess some intelligence and culture that is never made availible to us. As authentic as the language may be, the video game only allows us to shoot them and never ask any questions.

Africa is portrayed as a world of poor Africans who can't take care of themselves. Africa itself is portrayed as a lush virginal paradise just waiting for prospective exploiters. The game currency is bolstered by jewels you will find just lying on the floor or on cave walls and ceilings. Vast secret underground lost villages exist to be discovered and plundered of treasure and gold. The two different worlds of Africa--the poor people and the rich environment--don't make sense together and seem to imply that Africa is a world waiting for Westerners to come and use it to its full potential, something native people there can't seem to do.

Another racist issue in Resident Evil 5 is the use of imagery and issues that are still connected to racism and other problems. The imagery of a rampaging, savage mob of Africans is problematic because it was used not too long ago polarize Africans and legitimize entertainment and serve as arguments from anything from the slave trade to racial segregation. Any person living in the world today knows that Africa as a continent has suffered under Western colonialism; the image of a mob of African zombies does tie in with this checkered past. Furthermore, the theme of a virus running rampant throughout the continent of Africa isn't fictional, it's real and it's called AIDS. If its not called that it's called Ebola; these are just two of many viruses that threaten the continent. Running around and shooting people in the head trivializes the struggle going on there. Further inflammatory material to the problem is that not one infected person is saved from their illness, nor is any attempt made to do so. If you become a zombie the prescription is a bullet to the head, something sick people in Africa too poor to buy a PS3 don't need to hear.

It doesn't stop there; while its great to have many arguments to support your thesis, after a while it's like beating a dead sacrificed goat. Chris Redfield's B.S.A.A. partner is Sheva Alomar, a native of Africa born to African parents who enlists in the B.S.A.A. to avenge her parents and her countrymen (for the last time, I don't know the name of the fictional country this takes place in. Kijuju? Endovia?) Perhaps in a move to de-emphasize the game's "great white hunter" bias, Alomar is presented as an African and a hero to show balance to the games's depiction of Africans. The problem with Sheva Alomar is that she doesn't look or sound African. If she really is a black person, then she has to be the whitest black person God rolled up God's sleeve to make on the sixth day. Alomar is a black woman with very light, fine skin, straight hair and a tiny nose. She doesn't dress like any African in the game. Besides speaking perfect British English, she never speaks any African dialect. If Alomar is truly indeed black, then she is designed to be beautiful in terms of white beauty, not black beauty. She is more like Chris Redfield than any of the countrymen she apparent sympathizes with.

By far, the biggest case of cultural appropriation is the second unlockable Sheva Alomar outfit. After shooting 30 B.S.A.A. emblems, the player is rewarded with an Alomar outfit that consists of a tiger print bikini and tribal war paint. This is nothing more than the use of sex as a reward and simplifying African culture to primitive savages stereotyped for their sexual prowess. I'll say it another way if you don't get it: rewarding a player with the Sheva tribal outfit is to reward the player with sex and the subjugation of another culture. Honestly, if you have to ask why such imagery is racist and could possibly be insensitive to any African alive today you probably don't understand other people exist in the world besides you.

It seems troublesome that a video game so advanced in technology be so backwards in cultural awareness, but then it's telling that this type of imagery could exist in video games but could not possibly exist in films or television. And, it still doesn't stop there. No, because Josh Stone, Delta Team captain and the only other "good" African survivor left to represent all of Africa, is really nothing more than a subserviant house negro. Initially a helpful character that saves the protagonists, Stone eventually devoles into the errand boy who gets to have no fun but just pilot boats and helicopters and open doors (his figurine depicts him at his iconic best: wide eyed, afraid, and behind a computer console). While this type of supporting character is required to let the protagonist be the hero (like Tom Arnold's character in "True Lies" (1994)), this further doesn't paint Africans in a positive light; instead they are passive people waiting for instructions from Westerns to tell them what to do.

The goal of repeatedly stating and ultimately proving Resident Evil 5 is not to say that it's a bad game, though is quite a simple one; instead the idea to have gamers take a long look at this game and find that fundamental design concepts in this game are racist, and are issues that need to be avoided or addressed in future similarly themed games.

You don't have to be a racist to enjoy this game, but it helps.


Review of game play in point form:

Good:
* on Veteran level provides a fun challenge (so long as you don't "farm" ammunition on earlier stages)
* great graphics and cutscenes, breasts and asses are depicted hyper-realistically
* Chris Redfield punching a rock has to be the best videogame climax in years
* "COME ON! COME ON! COME ON! COME ON!"--two player co-op is fun and ensures replayability

Bad:
* racist but blissfully self-unaware
* simplistic game play that has you running around in circles avoiding an enemy with no discernable strategic skills and breaking the most well rendered crates in Resident Evil history
* too easy, no suspense, predictable story
* will serve as the KKK's most favorite video game for some time to come
* ridiculous names like "Wesker" and "S.T.A.R.S." prove Resident Evil has a mindset that is stuck 10 years in the past

Played to completion on Veteran mode only on Xbox 360

Rating: 1 and a half stars out of 3 - worth experiencing to decide the racism issue yourself

1 comment:

  1. Even if the developers didn't realize it, I felt that the imagery of it all was far too strong not to be accidental. Then when they introduced Sheva, and I saw how light-skinned she was, it became very weird. Then, the tribal outfits... The whole thing revealed itself to me in the same way it seemed to have revealed itself to you.

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