Video games and the usual amount of racism

by guest contributor Andrea Rubenstein, originally published on OfficialShrub.com

For day three of International Blog Against Racism Week, I want to look specifically why games, such as many of the prior Resident Evil ones, haven’t received as much criticism as, say, Resident Evil 5 has.

So, why aren’t critiques of the prior Resident Evil games easy to find? Well, there are a few reasons. As discussed in my previous post, gaming as a field of study is still in its infancy. Gaming blogs discussing issues like race are still few and far between. Despite the re-release for Gamecube, the previous games are (in internet terms) rather old.

And, finally, the last reason I can easily think of, which is what I will be discussing here: The previous games didn’t gather much discussion because they had only the usual amount of racism in them. What do I mean by that? Well, keep reading to find out.

I. The “usual amount of racism”? WTF?

When someone first mentioned this, i was disgusted that humankind could possibly feel there were racist overtones to the game.
[From Resident Evil 5 is a tool for racism!! by Big Stu]

Given the general state of the gaming blogsphere — which can be rightly called, if I’m being charitable, ignorant on matters of race — most people stumbling onto this blog will probably have a defensive reaction. “Games aren’t racist!”, “How dare she attack my beloved Resident Evil with her bleeding heart liberal lies!”… and probably worse, if I go on some of the actual responses to the issue (the one quoted above is one of the nicer ones, really).

The trailer of Resident Evil 5 (which can be seen here) is what sparked calls of racism. The main reason for the strong reaction is that the game is set in Africa but the protagonist is a white American. The trailer shows him killing hordes of black zombies. Further discussion on race in Resident Evil 5, which includes links to relevant posts, can be found here.

So, if Resident Evil 5 gathered controversy because it exceeds “the usual amount of racism”, then what defines “the usual amount”?

It starts with a primarily white universe*. If you really look at the worlds that the majority of games, even today, are set in, you’ll most likely notice a pattern: protagonists, antagonists, and random NPCs will tend to be white more often than not. You can read more about this trend, which is not confined to video games, in the post Why is the Universe full of White people? over at Angry Black Woman Blog.

The usual amount of racism doesn’t stop with the relative invisiblity of non-white characters, though. It extends to the concept that every non-white character that exists does so in a marked (versus the unmarked white) state. The marking of a character can be through comments drawing attention to the character’s race and/or through the use of clear racial stereotypes. See On Indigo Prophecy, Part 2: So Bad, It’s Racist for an example of this.

Ultimately, the “usual amount of racism” is things that, when viewed as separate entities, don’t seem that bad. Because of this criticism can be easily countered, and typical arguments include “there’s a good reason that the protagonist is white”, or “but the use of [racial stereotype] is done in a way that makes the character look cool, so it’s actually a good thing!“, or even, “why can’t you just be happy that the character was included at all?”

II. So why isn’t there any discussion?

With all the recent FPS’s set in the middle east, no one is saying anything about islam haters in games.
[From Resident Evil 5 Trailer, comment by Kuaz Omega]

This question comes in many forms, the most typical of which are “why aren’t you discussing white-on-white violence?” or “why aren’t you discussing [x minority] on white violence”.

The answer to the assertion of “white-on-white violence” not being discussed is that, of course it is. What do you think all the media attention gamers hate is all about? White-on-white violence in video games is talked about all the time. Sensationalist media, studies (good and bad), bloggers talking about the issue… it’s right in the faces of people who use the arguments, but they don’t see it as “white-on-white violence” because white is an unmarked state. The media only mentions the race of the characters in question when it’s a non-white person involved — such as with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas — and therefore people only see “violence” when really it’s a discussion of “white-on-white violence.”

As for “[x minority] on white violence”, who can name a recent game that was widely distributed and played in the West which featured a non-white character killing primarily white people? Even counting the aforementioned GTA game, in which there were plenty of non-white people to kill in addition to the white ones, the number likely does not come close to reaching double digits. Beyond just recently distributed, how many games like that that have been made for a Western audience in total can you think of? Now compare that to the number of games featuring other kinds of violence and you have your answer as to why the “[x minority] on white violence” hasn’t received much attention.

III. So… usual racism, no discussion, what’s up with that?

Off the top of your head, name 5 black video game characters. Now, exclude any characters that were not main characters. Now exclude any that appear in a sports game or hip-hop based game. Finally, exclude any characters that embody stereotypical representations of African Americans. (Yes, that means excluding CJ from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.) How many are left in your list?
[From Denial and Delusion - Why Public Conversations About Race Fail Before They Begin by Latoya Peterson]

As for the answer on why games that display the usual amount of racism don’t get much attention, the simple answer is that even the people who are actively anti-racist are resigned to accepting that level of racism in games. Games that go above and beyond the call of duty tend to get praised — just as games that exceed the “tolerable racism quotient” tend to get slammed — but those that are bad, but not as bad as they could be, get a sigh, a head shake, and everyone but the most dedicated anti-racist game blogger move on to other subjects.

Indeed, when these subjects are taken on it tends to be not from a game-specific angle, which (especially considering the rabid fans that come out of the woodworks, as we’ve witnessed with Resident Evil 5) is generally considered to be fighting a losing battle, but rather from a general one that talks about trends and their effects. While there’s nothing wrong with the white American Jill Valentine being the protagonist (along with her white male partner, Chris Redfield) of Resident Evil 1, it becomes a bit more suspect when all of the protagonists in the series are white. Then take that in the context of not just the Resident Evil series, but Silent Hill, Max Payne… the default avatars in FPS games being white, protagonist races in strategy games tending towards the light end of the skintone spectrum, RPG protagonists having white markers and/or the absence of non-white markers (primarily in skintone and hair choices). What all that begins to add up to is a trend.

One game does not make a trend. One game that displays the usual amount of racism can be easily dismissed — even more easily than a game with blatant race issues, such as Resident Evil 5. Because of this, unless one is citing it in reference to a trend, or building evidence to support a known trend, most bloggers are not going to go into the minutia only to deal with cries of “you’re making a mountain out of a molehill!”

IV. Conclusion

So, in conclusion, one of the reasons that the other Resident Evil games haven’t yet gathered any criticism from bloggers is that they contain only the usual amount of racism. The lack of criticism doesn’t indicate a lack of a problem, nor is it in any way a valid way of deflecting criticism off of the problems in Resident Evil 5.

For a more in-depth look at racial inclusiveness in games, please see Latoya Peterson’s Racial Inclusiveness in Gaming article in Cerise. I also highly recommend reading through the links provided at the end of that article in order to get an idea of the current state of anti-racist theory in video game critical theory.