So, I am back at my desk at MAXIMUM FORCE (kinda), and after halfassedly stirring controversy by being a jerk last week, I feel somewhat grateful to have sidestepped the furor about the "racist RE5 trailer." It's actually the second wave of furor, following the first one largely prompted by Bonnie Ruberg's Village Voice piece. Now revived, it seems, by N'Gai Croal of Newsweek's recent comments on the imagery, which you can find in detail at MTV Multiplayer.
I know I'm late to the party, but I did want to weigh in on this. Now, let me preface everything by saying that gamers, as an audience, are used to having our medium attacked in unfair, black-and-white terms (no pun intended). For example, while everyone will concede that making the industry more friendly to women -- both as development professionals and game consumers -- is important, I think it's a stretch to call gaming "sexist." But that's exactly what happens a lot of the time, whenever the mainstream media finds a sexy picture of Taki or something. Even I, a fervent game fan to say the least, sometimes wonder if certain titles aren't little more than cheap, meatheaded violence, and whether such things aren't so good for us -- but again, a stretch from saying games are "obscenely violent."
Criticism of the industry is most often sensationalized, coming from the mainstream media, and ignorant enough to threaten the future role of games in our culture. Because of this pattern, it's easy to understand why we've grown sensitive to criticism of games in any measure. But following Croal's opinion on Multiplayer, the unequivocal condemnation from at least a chunk of the audience was so alarming that Kotaku Managing Editor Brian Crecente was prompted to comment on the negativity and incivility of the response on his site.
The large majority of angry responses I read on Kotaku over the end of last week were angry because of the idea that if the RE5 trailer is "racist," a game with all-white zombies would be "racist" too. Many of these commenters said that because they consider all human beings to be equal, they had no issue with the trailer as favoring one race at the expense of another.
I'm not sure why so many people assumed Croal was saying "Resident Evil 5 is racist." Certainly if any person fully equipped of his vision were to look at a black man and a white man standing side by side, that person would say, "these two people are of different races." Differentiation does not equate to discrimination; to recognize that some ethnic groups have adjacent social and cultural histories that others do not is not "racist."
Even the word "discrimination" is misleading, as that word simply means to tell the differences between one thing and another. Racism attacks differences; tolerance embraces them. The idea that tolerance means we're all utterly the same is fallacious; progress means to value equally the unique experiences of different cultures or ethnic groups.
It's best to read his opinion in his own words, but Croal's basic crux was that there is a painful social and a historical context associated with the imagery of Resident Evil 5. He was surprised that such a large number of people claimed they could view the controversial trailer without making that association.
Is it possible that some portion of the gaming audience is of an age that they did not experience the same concerns about cultural sensitivity that older gamers did growing up? I wonder -- do they really not see a problem, or are they so inaugurated to the defense of gaming that they refuse to see it?
So do I think the trailer is "racist?" No. As many of the angry commenters pointed out, whether the game is in Haiti or Africa, the population of those areas is in reality, in large majority, black. It would have been odd to throw bunches of white people or Japanese people or Italians or something in there just for the sake of diversity, true.
I think, though, we have an opportunity here to explore the power of games to prompt thought and discussion on humanity. This unsettling portrayal of this ethnic people as savage, frightening and "other" does indeed have roots in the history of civilization. And while we endeavor on a daily basis to value all of humanity and to dispel with unconscious prejudices, for a good many of the population, fear of those not like oneself is still a reality, even when they're not imminently aware of it.
Again, I do not think the trailer is inherently discriminatory, racist or wrong. But I find it deeply uncomfortable to watch. Do I, perhaps, have unresolved issues about people and cultures much different than mine? If I chose to accept the reality of the history behind these images, what obligations would it create for me in the present? These are hard questions to answer -- and I love that a video game trailer is asking them of me.
I'd love if we could use the context of RE5 to explore and discuss our reactions to certain things and how they do or don't translate to our real life awareness and behavior. Atrocious things have happened in human history; every noble nation has had its shameful moments, and religion could be said to have done as much evil as good. Croal is correct that we cannot pretend these things haven't happened -- but what matters is the context in which we employ the information, and what we do with how we respond to it.
The true ignorance, to me, would lie in overlooking the implications, the context of the imagery. Those who love and defend video games should be praised for their zeal, but they should not be allowed to be blind. Resident Evil is not a historical documentary; it's a fiction for the purpose of creating fear. But that doesn't make the methods it uses to create fear irrelevant; moreover, I think we should want our games to display certain realities of our experiences rather than invent worlds, invent cultures, to distance us from the things that truly unsettle us.
(For the record, I don't really identify with a single ethnicity or another; I'm a mixed bag, as far as heritage goes. My dad's half black, which makes me a quarter and subjects me to lots of "what are you?" Dad is black enough, though -- as black as "black presidential candidate" Barack Obama -- that he had maybe some additional challenges getting opportunities when he was young in that era and entering the workforce; people used to tell him, "You speak really well." Nonetheless, I don't have a particular agenda here; I'm not coming at this from the perspective of a black person, but neither am I someone who's had no experience with diversity.)
[Note: I know regular SVGLers don't need to be told this, but I'll say it anyway -- race is a charged topic, but let's keep discussion civil.]