Delayed Responsibility

I Shouldn't Be Gaming Right Now… But I Am!

Seth Schiesel and the Opening Hours of RE 5

Posted by deckard47 on March 16, 2009

This won’t be the last time this happens (and hey, I’m doing it too), but Seth Schiesel decided to one up everyone else and lay down the law on RE 5 and racism. Things do not, unsurprisingly, go well. What follows is a large portion of his article, a bit of analysis, and then some linking and discussion of relevant posts/discussions:

For at least a year some black journalists have been wringing their hands about whether the game, the latest in the seminal survival-horror series, inflames racist stereotypes because it is set in Africa. The answer is no.

The series, which began in 1996, is about a virulent bioweapon that turns people into zombies and other gross, pustulant monstrosities. In what has already become perhaps the most hackneyed theme in gaming, the player’s job is to save humanity from (yet another) zombie apocalypse. Other games in the franchise have been set elsewhere, like the United States, Spain and South America. In the new installment, released Friday for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, the action shifts to Africa, where the local population in the fictional region of Kijuju has fallen victim to the Las Plagas virus.

So Resident Evil 5 exposes the perhaps uncomfortable truth that blacks and Arabs can become zombies too, just like anyone else. Blacks and Arabs do not have a secret anti-zombie gene. And just like all the thousands of white, Asian and Hispanic zombies that have been dispatched in innumerable other games before them, the African zombies must also be destroyed, or at least neutralized.

This supposed controversy is why no one should ever try to come to a serious judgment about a game — which by its nature is interactive — based on a noninteractive snippet like a trailer.

There is no question that Resident Evil 5 is mostly about a white guy and his local café-au-lait hottie running around killing a bunch of deranged Africans (as opposed to deranged white people). But this is not a movie. When you are in control of the action the racial or ethnic appearance of your enemies simply stops mattering. The basic mechanics of moving, shooting, using cover, solving puzzles, employing weapons properly and understanding the overall environment are universal, no matter whether the enemies are aliens or Nazis or zombies or gangsters or any of the other categories we use to denote “acceptable to kill.”

Resident Evil 5 is certainly violent, but it does not feel especially gratuitous in its depiction of violence against African zombies. The point of the story is that the indigenous people have become the innocent victims of evil white people.

All that said, Resident Evil 5 could not possibly have been made in the United States. Racial sensitivities and prevailing political correctness would have had American game executives squirming in their Aeron chairs the minute they read a budget proposal for a game featuring African zombies.

Not so in Japan, apparently. The Japanese development team at Capcom, which developed Resident Evil, professed surprise at the racism concerns when black game writers in the United States started criticizing the game based on preview videos more than a year ago. To help the Japanese team understand, perhaps they should consider what the response in Asia would be to a Japanese game in which the player slaughters zombified Chinese villagers.

So… Where to start? Aside from the fact that the tone of his article is annoying and superior (“handwringing” and “cafe au lait”… Classy, Seth), there’s a lot to disagree with here. First, he couldn’t be more wrong about how “When you are in control of the action the racial or ethnic appearance of your enemies simply stops mattering.” This might be the case during certain sequences where you don’t have time to think, but there’s no escaping it for long. As soon as you do, Chris and Sheva find a butcher’s block, topped with a dead animal and buzzing flies. The game’s little pseudo thought bubbles will say something like “The smell is awful. Why would this be here?” Errr, because it’s a butcher shop and the butcher is dead or a zombie, Chris? A butcher shop with meat in it isn’t “racist,” but the peculiar, Othering of normal occurrences (like a butcher shop having, you know, meat, and knives, and, God no, flies!) so that they fit into a frantically horrified conception of village life in Kijuju (the carefully, hilariously “West African Town” where the game starts) is appalling.

It’s made worse by the fact that this kind of shit is all over the place in the first two chapters (before you leave the villages). Some of the initial establishing shots are careful to emphasize the flies that are everywhere. Because, you know, flies and filth are particular and endemic to these kinds of places (/end sarcasm, please tell me you knew)… Likewise, (and how Seth can ignore this is beyond me) if you are going to depict this kind of situation, you need to have a strong authorial voice, one that presents the events either as “objectively” as possible, or one that clearly directs the player and takes a side. Art does not exist in a vacuum. Neither do any forms of media. You cannot make this game and portray these events and not telegraph your feelings as regards the proceedings. And Capcom hasn’t; from every “creepy” slaughtered animal to every collection of skulls and candles in a shack (“It must be some kind of ritual,” Chris sagely advises us), Capcom’s intentions are transparent. They work very hard to show you that this particular West African Town is poor, dirty, and dangerous: that even before people exhibit signs of infection, they are vicious, violent, and skulk around the heroes. Furthermore, their houses and places of business are even more alarming, filled with “bizarre” practices (like killing and eating animals!) and “rituals.” What’s amazing is that people just see this as “an effective way to scare the player.” Stop and think, why is it “scary.” If you believe that Resident Evil 5‘s setting is scary, then you might as well come out and say it: what’s really scary is poor, “African,” people who froth at the mouth and look at you funny ( and again, here, I’m being hyperbolic, for which I apologize)!

This is brought home hard when you realize what other “scares” the game has in store. It doesn’t have any, aside from the not-badly done “partner has to hold the light source” section in the mines. The game is really about two things (that much Joystiq, Kotaku and Eurogamer are right about): it’s about action, and what the designers hope will scare you in their portrayal of these people and their homes. It’s so obvious I can’t believe that Seth wouldn’t mention it.

Resident Evil 5 is certainly violent, but it does not feel especially gratuitous in its depiction of violence against African zombies. The point of the story is that the indigenous people have become the innocent victims of evil white people.

Alright, let’s first notice that he’s right about this first bit. The game has you treating the infected as you always do in RE games: they die, or you do. You kill them exactly as they did in RE 4, and they you (in fact, the animations look extremely similar). What he doesn’t discuss is how the game depicts the “African” zombies’ violent nature and activities, as well as the spaces they inhabit within the game. It doesn’t matter that they are all infected close to the start of the game, according to the narrative. How can you ignore the scene where a white woman is dragged off kicking and screaming, only to be found infected with the virus, (here I’m going to use a very pointed term, for which I apologize) no longer pure? There are other characters who you’ll see killed by the infected humans (and other enemies), but none are treated in this way. Has no one at Capcom or at the NYT read any books, or taken any classes on racist depictions of non-White “races”? Have you ever watched a movie or read a book, guys? This kind of bigotry extends to even minor actions. When Chris finds an African villager who has just been infected, he wearily approaches him, but quickly withdraws when the man screams in pain as the virus takes over his body. When Chris finds the white woman, he grabs her, and supports her, before she turns into a vicious infected.

All that said, Resident Evil 5 could not possibly have been made in the United States. Racial sensitivities and prevailing political correctness would have had American game executives squirming in their Aeron chairs the minute they read a budget proposal for a game featuring African zombies.

Not so in Japan, apparently. The Japanese development team at Capcom, which developed Resident Evil, professed surprise at the racism concerns when black game writers in the United States started criticizing the game based on preview videos more than a year ago. To help the Japanese team understand, perhaps they should consider what the response in Asia would be to a Japanese game in which the player slaughters zombified Chinese villagers.

So after all that, he then admits that this kind of game could never have been made in the US, but he chalks it up to “racial sensitivities” (which are, you know, too sensitive) and political correctness (oh no, that old devil!). Strangely, he then goes on to point out that had the game been set in a more highly charged political and social setting (vis a vis Japanese viewers and gamers), there might have been more problems for the design team. It’s strange that he makes this point (which I think makes sense), but completely avoids following through on it. It’s almost like he’s echoing that old ignorant forum argument “well, in Japan, they’re a bit ignorant and racist of these things, so it’s alright, they didn’t mean it.” Really? So it’s alright because they didn’t mean it (and refuse to acknowledge its existence)?

I’d also like to take a moment to argue that point. If they aren’t aware of the racism within their game, why would they carefully construct Sheva in the way that they have? She’s there for a reason, and it’s to deflect flak from people calling them out on the problems with RE 5‘s depiction of violence, white military intervention, and every day life in what the designers see as “Africa.”

Now obviously I’m not going into as much detail as I should for a lot of this. I’ve only played up until just after the fight with the bearded El Gigante (really, Capcom, you gave him a beard, darkened him a bit, and gave him some “tribal” trappings, that’s it). I can’t speak to the ways in which the Othering of the African infected is continued, increased, or lessened in the later portions of the game.

What I can say is what I’ve said: the game consistently, forcefully presents Kijuju as a dangerous, primitive, scary place, where good, nice white people really don’t want to be caught hanging out around. It’s so regressively, unthinkingly racist, it’s almost hard to explain or view in its entirety (and I haven’t even finished the game). There’s no point at which it’s self-aware, post-modern (shit, it doesn’t even get up to modern), or aware of the history of Colonial, Imperial, Neo-Colonial or military trends and actions in various parts of Africa (And I say this because the game is set in “West Africa” like I’m “Irish” or “English”).

Something that should be noted is that the game obviously codes these villagers as Poor, Vicious, and Animalistic, but it’s not alone in this. Resident Evil 4 may have been about “Spanish” villagers, but it could have been set in any poor village in any part of the world. It could have been set in America, but that would have challenged the designers’ and gamers’ views of what “poverty” can mean in America. I don’t care about the whole monarchy connection, the significant elements of the initial stages of RE4 hinged on the player’s fear of poor, vicious, strange villagers. It’s not like poor rural people are strangers as villains in the horror genre (they’re often used by directors and writers as the receptacles for various societal fears and repressed urges). It’s just that RE 4 was the first game in the series to so clearly emphasize their poverty and “uncivilized,” inhuman ways. It doesn’t matter if you, as a developer, don’t bother to humanize those who haven’t been infected. It doesn’t matter if the developer says “they’re all infected.” The onus is always on you (designers and artists) to  show the humanity of these people, otherwise you slip dangerously close to the trap that many zombie movies fall into: using zombies as a convenient “inhuman,” “cleansable” population. I could argue this point at length, but I have (luckily for me), found some illuminating posts over at Racialicious. Check it out, in order:

From yesand…:

Zombies and the undead have always been code for “ethnics”, and so have other monsters (see lord of the rings and 300, and sooo many more).

when it comes to indiscriminate killing of humanoid figures, zombies have long been a favorite target. They’re not really human, so it’s ok to kill them in the thousands. Sound familiar?

lots of these games/movies/stories are like “Birth of a Nation 37: Resurrection.” These inhuman _____ violated your planet/hometown/family, so now you have the license to wipe out the entire species/race/homeland of these monsters that did this to you.

This is true (and really, so many genres use zombification, infection, or brainwashing as a way to dispose of unwanted Others). Now read this, on why people should be thinking about the fact that this is the first Capcom game with a significant POC presence, as enemies and as main characters:

From Antonio:

The really interesting thing to think about is how utterly absent people of color are from the lengthy RE cast. Resident Evil 5 will be the eighth game in the series and just about every game features a main playable character as well as a “secondary” one. Not one of those games has a PoC in one of those roles. The only exception I can think of is Ada Wong’s ‘extra’ levels in RE4 (and a number of criticisms can be made about her character, like the ridiculous cocktail dress).

[Edit: I now realize that you could play as Americans Mark Wilkins and Jim Chapman, both black men in RE: Outbreak. However, they are not the main characters, I would argue, just two among a cast of equal supporting players] Why exactly do we suddenly have a PoC main character, when it obviously wasn’t an important part of earlier games? Because, let me tell you, there are black people who live in small mountain towns in America!  And someone clarifying my point about RE 4:

From Ayo:

Instead I felt like i was killing “backwards” spanish villagers, with their flaming torches and incoherent speaking in broken spanish(another very un-zombie thing to do is to actually speak).

I can’t speak to the clarity of the Spanish used in that game, but everything else about that village and its inhabitants screamed “poor,” “low,” and “primitive.” Also, like the villagers in RE 5, the villagers are “simple folk,” who their leaders hoodwink and infect with the help of of their lack of intelligence and (of course…) superstitions.

[and I’m not going to get into Sheva and the way her Blackness and African-ness is coded as opposed to the way the villagers’ Blackness and African-ness is coded, because that’s another whole long-ass post]

Now the whole reason I started this linking business was to find a post I remembered about how post-Night of the Living Dead, Romero was alarmed at how zombies were being used to make the slaughtering of marginalized people acceptable. I can’t find it, I’m sure it’s in the responses to one of the recent posts about RE 5 at Racialicious, but I can’t find it. Sorry, but it’s there. This poster made the point that Romero directly worked against this trend. In the original Dawn of the Dead, an early scene depicts S.W.A.T. members (I think) “cleansing” or “clearing” a ghetto. It’s made clear that the soldiers shoot people who are obviously (or show every appearance of humanity) not zombies. They’re “being sure,” and it’s acceptable for them to kill these people to be sure, because they’re black. Resident Evil 4 and 5 do this, and they’re not trying to make a point like Romero was. For these games and these designers, it’s acceptable.

Obviously, this is a big topic, and it’s going to take a while for people from all spectrums of the gaming press, gaming blog world, and other groups to chew it over. I’m not going to link to too many other blogs, because I’ve already linked to several in the past (Acid for Blood and Racialicious, in this case), but also because all of the posts I’ve cut and pasted were from this one Racialicious post. If you want more, go to those sites (aaaaah! and Shrub, which I’m dumb and forgot) and look at their posts on RE 5 related stuff. Just know that there’s tons more, most of which I don’t know about, probably, so if you’re interested in the topic, hit it all up.

Regardless (and to repeat myself), it should go without saying that I’m just stating my views on Schiesel’s article, and the portion of the game I’ve played. There are plenty of other people who have posted and will post about this topic, all over the place. I hope that this hasn’t been to lengthy, or too annoying. I know it’s been way to parenthetical. I’ll write some kind of review of the game when I finish it, but I didn’t think I could write a review without getting all of that out of my system first, so that’s why this is here now. I will also, as your tireless servant, link you to new articles on this topic as they come up.

So, it’s time to stop, because this is too long, and I’m not done yet, and there’s so many other things to be pissed about. Until next time.

Since I’m an asshole, I forgot to finish with this before: this post is in part a result of playing RE 5 for a few hours, but it was also inspired by a conversation I had with my girlfriend about RE 5, RE 4, and other things. As some of you may know, I use devilishly clever pseudonyms for all of my non-Internet acquaintances, for the most part. She hates most of them that I’ve tried when talking about her (as opposed to my other friends, who just don’t get a say!). So, thank you, M, this would have less long and interesting a post without you.

P.S. Two things. There’s a ton of other links on Brinstar’s article at Acid for Blood, from a lot of different perspectives, on RE 5. I’d check there, because trying to google the topic gets you 3 or 4 pages of Kotaku/Youtube/ worse places telling you how the game isn’t racist because that clever English guy said it wasn’t.

Even more P.S.

I hate how Sheva says “partner”… Does this mean I hate people with vaguely British accents? Because her accent makes Ewan McGregor’s accent in Revenge of the Sith look like the most grounded, authentic accent ever (even James’ McAvoy’s “I’m on the run from Interpol” accent in Wanted is better than hers). I hate how Chris and Sheva say “partner” like it’s some kind of weird talisman. I also hate how they make Sheva say it 1,000 fucking times as a repeated sound clip. Wait, is she my partner? I’m not sure if I understand what that means!)

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5 Responses to “Seth Schiesel and the Opening Hours of RE 5”

  1. Anonymous said

    Nice pointing out of Romero’s intentions in the original Dead films – it’s amazing how these aspects are completely ignored when RE borrows so much from those movies, yet none of the social awareness. (Well, there was that strange anti-American imperialism sentiment in RE4 that nobody talks about either, so I guess I’ll give them that.) We don’t have to go all the way back to I Walked With a Zombie but the use of ethnic peoples has often been an important part of modern zombie lore.

  2. oliemoon said

    Thanks for this fantastic analysis of the NYT piece. I am so tired of these arrogant gamers/journalists swaggering in and claiming authority on issues that they are woefully unequipped to discuss. It’s so refreshing to find more people critically discussing RE5 from an anti-racist perspective.

    I’d also like to take a moment to argue that point. If they aren’t aware of the racism within their game, why would they carefully construct Sheva in the way that they have? . . . and I’m not going to get into Sheva and the way her Blackness and African-ness is coded as opposed to the way the villagers’ Blackness and African-ness is coded, because that’s another whole long-ass post

    To expand on this point a bit, given the lightness of her skin compared to the infected Africans in the game, I absolutely do not believe that they were not aware of the race issues surrounding their game. It is no accident that Sheva’s skin is fairly pale and the infected are much, much darker. No way. On some level, they knew what they were doing and they knew what messages skin tone and color were going to send in their game. I do not think Capcom was intentionally racist, but I don’t buy for a minute that they were completely unaware of the forces shaping their deliberate design choices.

    I’d check there, because trying to google the topic gets you 3 or 4 pages of Kotaku/Youtube/ worse places telling you how the game isn’t racist because that clever English guy said it wasn’t.

    Of course, what you won’t find if you Google Bowman and RE5 is that he has explicitly stated that he is not an expert on racism and that he doesn’t even know why he was selected by VideoGamer.com for the interview in the first place over at Acid for Blood.

  3. Sam said

    Shit, I feel like you’ve done all the hard work to make sure I don’t have to feel guilty about playing this game with you when I get back. Not that I would have felt guilty just about playing it, you know. Social guilt weighs on me like gravity on zeppelins–I’m ponderously lighter-than-air.

  4. deckard47 said

    You are ponderous, but not quite lighter than air (yet!). By the time you get here I will have hopefully completed the game. That way I can provide you (and you WILL be playing as Chris the morlock!) with upgraded weapons and the like. Because, let’s be honest, you’re going to need the extra edge, I can’t do all of the heavy lifting myself. Hope Angleterre is treating you well, NH is coldish, but not awful.

  5. Simon Ferrari said

    This post is much better than my “Seth Schiesel is a dick” comments to my friends. Of course, I also though Croal was a dick. I’m an equal opportunity mainstream print videogame criticism hater.

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