Daily Archives: March 28, 2009

Resident Evil 5 Racism From Someone Who Hasn’t Played It

“I didn’t see any racist imagery in it”
“No one says anything about the Spanish people in RE4”
“Why does it matter what color zombies are?”
“Why do people have to read so much into things?”
“Games are escapism”
“They didn’t mean to be racist”
“This is made by the Japanese so why would they know about racism?”
“Someone who thinks this is racist is racist”

These are all comments that I’ve seen on places like gamepolitics, Kotaku, and Joystiq. I’ve been putting off writing about this because I really don’t know if it will do any good and I don’t want to get into some flame war. I imagine that the people who have made up their mind probably won’t change them very easily. However, with N’Gai Croal leaving Newsweek, it came up again and it seems like it will keep coming up. That coupled with a website story about an “expert” talking about the game has made me decide not to hold my tongue any longer.

For anyone who doesn’t know what I’m talking about, I’m talking about Resident Evil 5. More accurately though I’m talking about people’s reactions to Resident Evil 5 (more accurately than that I’m writing about people’s reactions to people’s reactions to the Resident Evil 5 trailer). I haven’t played RE5. I don’t have any current gen consoles so I probably won’t be playing it any time soon. But that’s ok because most of the online discussion has been about the trailer.
Now, at this late date it is kind of hard to understand what people are talking about because there have been several trailers for RE5. The one that people first picked up on was an early first teaser trailer which didn’t really show much.

Even a later trailer which showed more included the questionable lines, “there’s no reason here… no humanity.”

There is a lot more known about the game now than there was back when this first started. There have been countless articles and blogs written about the issue. N’Gai Croal got caught up in it when MTV’s gaming blog asked him about it and he gave his opinion about the trailer. Despite the fact that he didn’t bring it up and didn’t write about it himself, when people commented on him leaving his position at Newsweek, RE5 was inevitably brought up

I’m not going to say the game is or isn’t racist because, as I said, I haven’t played it. I’m not going to say the trailer was racist either. I do think that the early trailer did contain some imagery that was troubling in terms of its depiction of race when presented in isolation the way in which it was. The trailer has imagery that perpetuates stereotypes that everyone in Africa is poor and all of Africa is a desert.

Reading through the numerous comments on some of the stories some common themes seemed to come out. Most of the comments were pretty kneejerk and reactionary. It seems as if any criticism of videogames calls out the internet fanboys and the mere suggestion that a trailer for a game might be a bit racist is a horrible thing and requires vehement defense. One of the oddest and yet more common comments was something along the lines of “Anyone who thinks this is racist is racist themselves!” Ummm, what? So thinking something might not be the best way of depicting race makes you racist? That’s just bizarre.

Another common comment was “it is just a trailer.” Well that is true but that trailer just didn’t happen. They picked those scenes specifically because they wanted them to represent their game. When that trailer came out, no one knew what the game was like. All we had togo on was that trailer.

“They didn’t mean to be racist” No. I’m pretty sure they didn’t. So does that make it ok? I didn’t mean to break the law so I won’t get arrested? More importantly, people often use the excuse of “they didn’t mean it” as a way of forgiving something or dismissing criticisms. However, can we ever really know someone’s intention? We don’t have telepathy so all we ever have is perception. Even if someone says they don’t mean it, how can we know that they aren’t lying? No, intention isn’t ever possible to discern with total certainty and so all we have is perception.

“This is made by the Japanese so why would they know about racism?” Sadly, the USA doesn’t have a monopoly on racism. No they probably don’t know much about the history of racism in the USA. But Japan has a history of racism all its own, just ask Korea. Also they are pretty ignorant of other races. Japan is really homogeneous in its people. So they don’t have much experience with people of other races so they aren’t aware of it. Heck, blackface is still acceptable in Japan. And people of African descent aren’t the only ones stereotyped. In 2005 the UN called racism in Japan “deep and profound.”

More recently, a videogame site asked an anthropologist to look at Resident Evil 5 and lead their article with the pull quote: “‘It’s silly to call it racist’, says leading anthropologist.” I’m sure that Glenn Bowman, the anthropologist in question, is an excellent scholar but the fact is he is not an expert on videogames or even media in general and I think that really undercuts the authority of his opinion. The reason for this is that he, like myself, did not actually play the game so neither of us knows what it is like to play it. Perhaps more importantly, he doesn’t say anything about the camera angles used and I really think that this is what people are latching onto when they have a negative reaction to the trailers.

Because I’m talking about the trailers, perhaps the most appropriate way of looking at them is through the lens of films studies — yes, I of all people, am advocating applying film theory to something from the videogame world! Let’s be honest, these are little movies. Based on the comments and articles I’ve read and podcasts I’ve heard (and Rebel FM’s episode where they Discuss RE5 is pretty good), people are responding to these films as if the camera didn’t exist and looking only at the world presented within the game and not the camera angles, lighting or editing. Ignoring the fact that these are computer generated and not actually filmed (which perhaps make the filmic elements more important since all of them were purposely chosen and nothing within it “just happened” or was “already there.”), all camera work is subjective. Camera angles do not just “happen.” They are chosen and they are created. They picked camera angles to make the Africans look threatening. They used shadows to make the distinction between human and zombie blurry. They edited it in such a way that nothing was fully shown. We cannot just ignore the kino eye in these situations.

When attempting to look at these trailers critically it is a mistake to allow ourselves to be sutured into the game. The Resident Evil games have always taken cues from cinema and replicated dramatic camera angles and so especially when it comes to this game series we must not allow ourselves to pretend that we are there and that this is not a constructed work.

This is especially important when countering the claims of those who argued, “No one says anything about the Spanish people in RE4.” Look at the trailers for Resident Evil 4. None of them use camera angles, lighting, or editing in anything like the same way that the early trailers for RE5 do.

In the end, like I said in the beginning, I’m not saying that the game or the trailers are racist. I am saying that a lot of the things people have written aren’t taking the manufactured and, dare I say it, “cinematic” nature of the trailers into account.