Moving Gaming Forward: Having Meaningful Conversations About Social Issues

by Racialicious special correspondent Latoya Peterson, originally published at Cerise Magazine

Watching some of the carnage unfold in the blogosphere conflicts surrounding the released trailer of Resident Evil 5, one thought kept echoing in my mind:

This conversation is going nowhere.

A few members of the gaming community, while pondering a very valid point about the issue of racism in gaming, inadvertently raised the hackles of developers and designers alike when taking on one of gaming’s best loved franchises.

Jason over at Microscopiq ended up with 365 comments on his dissection of the released RE5 trailer, where he asserts:

After all, in RE4, you spend the game shooting equally out-of-their-mind Spaniards. But, then, the Spanish haven’t been so egregiously misrepresented as blacks through the ages, have they? Not even close.

From Birth of a Nation to Black Hawk Down, black folk are apparently responsible for some of the most mindless and evil activities you got. Rape, murder, satanic voodoo. With bulging eyes, simian super strength, and a room temperature IQ, we’ve been portrayed as savages beyond redemption. So, when we see images like these, it doesn’t just resonate with the long lived zombie genre, it also triggers memories of so many awful stereotypes — and what those stereotypes have been used to justify past and present. Put down the crazed negroes before they take the white women! And so on…

But perhaps the most troubling part is that these scenes seem to be set in Africa; the “dark continent.” With all the positive steps being taken of late to raise awareness of the good things happening in Africa as well as the urgent need in some parts of the continent, we really can’t afford this kind of step back. We need to find ways to humanize Africans, not dehumanize them.

Valid points, but they still raised the ire of some gamers, who wrote things like:

Resident Evil 1 – white people are zombies
Resident Evil 2 – white people are zombies
Resident Evil 3: Nemesis – white people are zombies
Resident Evil Code: Veronica – white people are zombies
Resident Evil Survivor – white people are zombies
Resident Evil Gaiden – white people are zombies
Resident Evil: Survivor 2 Code: Veronica – white people are zombies
Resident Evil Zero – white people are zombies
Resident Evil: Dead Aim – white people are zombies
Resident Evil Outbreak – white people are zombies
Resident Evil Outbreak File #2 – white people are zombies
Resident Evil 4 – white people are zombies
Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles – white people are zombies

Resident Evil 5 – ZOMG AFRICANS?! RACISM

Please, I’m sure the majority of ALL people won’t give a flying crap
- Slython

Or perhaps the argument put forth by Ivrese, also on the Microscopiq blog:

I’m sorry, but where exactly are you going with this?

Are you saying that it’s alright for white people and spanish people (which can potentially be classified as latin people, since they were historically conquered by moors and have darker skin than white europeans) and suchlike to be given the flesh-eating zombie/mutant treatment, but because blacks have historically been victimised due to the colour of their skin, it is now not okay to give black people the same kind of position, and thus they deserve to be elevated higher than said whites and spaniards?

I’m sorry, but not only does this classify you as racist towards whites and latins (and possibly towards the Japanese as they make the game and not white people), but this type of politically correct BS is what has caused the world to become far more unstable and dangerous than what the naive pc-minded numpties originally set it out to be. For pity’s sake, you’re doing far more harm than good with these kind of comments, and I hope that the potential backlash that you’re about to receive here makes you realise that you’ve taken things too far to the extreme and have completely destroyed any kind of equality you were originally hoping to obtain.

Arguments on the other side of the debate were just as ignorant and short-sighted. Not only did many of the arguments presented against Resident Evil 5 come from admitted non-gamers, but racial activists on Racialicious.com threw in their best stereotypes about gamers and the gaming community:

If anyone’s still under the illusion that the gaming community is not packed with utterly moronic misogynistic racists, raging responses to racial critique of Resident Evil at Black Looks and elsewhere should easily dispel that silly notion. It seems pretty clear that large swaths of the gaming community are disturbed adolescent sociopaths.

Kai

Calling them sociopaths serves to portray them as marginal elements, when the awful reality is that they are all too mainstream. The reaction to these comments about the problematic racial portrayal in RE5 is a symptom of the fact that gaming is still a white, heterosexual male bastion. Any attempts by minorities to be included is met with a backlash by the dominant social group, and the reality is that this is not limited to gaming. I work in software engineering, and similar comments were spammed in a woman’s tech blog where she writes about usability (a field which is seen as a woman takeover, and an attempt to ‘dumb down’ computer software… because ‘real men’ love arcane command line shortcuts, or whatever). The purpose is to bully someone who the dominant group sees as ‘uppity’, and to show them that even if they’ve been ‘accepted’ within the group it is still the exclusive playground of white hetero males, so the person should shut up and agree with the dominant group’s position.

BlackBloc

[T]he thing is when you spend the majority of your life living in front of a computer living off your parents, your world view is shaped accordingly.

….

and don’t even think about being able to reason with these degenerate amoebas. because from their dark little space in the basement beside the boxes of daddy’s collectible ‘remember 9-11!’ plates, the only voice that will ever penetrate their skulls is the sound of mommy shouting ‘dinners ready!’ from the kitchen…

Neil

Here’s the deal: We are not speaking the same language. We are coming from different perspectives.

Most gamers (many of whom have not been exposed to race activism and gender activism) are left wondering: why are people complaining? Then they come to a conclusion – it’s liberal, PC bullshit.

As a racial activist and a gamer, I see both sides of this argument. On one hand, I know and understand the issues with representation of dark-skinned people in the media. I agree that this kind of portrayal is potentially harmful and the last thing Haiti (or Africa) needs is more negative press.

However, from a gaming perspective, I understand why this issue would be so confusing and offensive to gamers. First of all, the RE series has a standard plot, which does not deviate – zombies (or Las Plagas) taking over people. Clear the area. Find the source. May or may not eliminate source. Repeat. The treatment of the Haitians in RE5 is consistent with the treatment of all other peoples in the other RE games. It would be one thing if all of the RE games had focused on rehabilitating the zombies, and then suddenly, RE5 is about busting caps in black-zombie/plagas ass. But it is not. Resident Evil is about clearing the area – black, white, or Spanish, it’s normally one person (man) against an entire army of mutated humans. (For now, let’s leave aside the argument on Video Games and the Usual Amount of Racism.)

So, if RE5 is consistent with all other Resident Evil games, most gamers (many of whom have not been exposed to race activism and gender activism) are left wondering: why are people complaining?

Then they come to a conclusion – it’s liberal, PC bullshit.

In short, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

Racial Activists:
We need to consider how our message is delivered. Just because we are actively engaged in an ongoing exploration of race and how race impacts society, that does not mean that everyone else is undergoing the same exploration. It is almost as if we started the conversation on level three (advanced racial subcontext with historical guidelines) and most of the gaming community is working on level one (what, we still have race issues?).

What are we trying to accomplish?

Calls to protest Capcom are ringing a bit hollow – after all, most of the people who are protesting these depictions were not going to shell out the fifty dollars for the game anyway. Why should Capcom be concerned about non-gamers, when the gaming community is hotly anticipating the release of the title? Also, I can easily see our good intentions backfire – instead of Capcom and the game development community actively analyzing the depictions of minorities in games, it would be much easier to decide not to include representations of minorities in gaming at all. After all, when you do try to include minorities in a game, all they do is protest, right?

And gamers are going to be unreceptive to messages from people outside the industry. We already have enough issues with the ESRB, family interest groups, and Presidental candidates – and that is just dealing with violence in gaming. Do we really have time to listen to yet another interest group that has not played the games they are complaining about?

I believe activists have an obligation to critically examine areas where we want to advocate change and develop a strategy for becoming a catalyst for change. It is all too easy to condemn someone else’s behavior. It is far more difficult to actually persuade someone to agree with your opinion.

Gamers:
If we want video games to be taken seriously, we need to understand that we are then opening video games up to societal criticism.

As a gaming community, we need to address two key areas: denial of social issues in our created worlds, and the lack of civilized conversation. If we want video games to be taken seriously, to be seen as art, to be on the same level as TV or film or novels, we need to understand that we are then opening video games up to societal criticism. Fantasy realm or not, the development of games and the characters used in the games are a reflection of the collective mind of the gaming world. There is nothing wrong with the expectation that a simulated environment would be subject to scrutiny and criticism.

We also need to learn to leave the Xbox Live-style trash talk in the live chat forums. Making ignorant comments about the race and gender of others while shielded behind your screenname and IP address is the type of behavior that keeps gaming from being seen as a legitimate community and art form. To the outside viewer, many gaming boards do look like they are overrun with angry, puerile adolescents and not the passionate, articulate adults I meet in real life. We need to learn to embrace differing viewpoints, and create areas where we can have a safe space for discussion.

So, the logical question is where do we go from here?

Personally, I’d like to issue a challenge.

For the Gamers:

Critically listen to an argument that is made in the gaming community about your favorite game, and instead of refuting the comments, acknowledge where the person is correct. Take the time to analyze what you are playing, and use the resources of the internet to expand your knowledge base. Why are there race, class and gender issues in gaming? Would you play a game where the protagonist was a different gender or ethnicity than what you have come to expect? Why or why not? Exploring these answers within yourself is the first step to understanding these issues in the context of society.

For the Race Activists:

Realize that you may need to re-examine your tactics and motives. Ask yourself: what is more important? Is it to feel intellectually superior to others? Or is it to have others understand your message?

When the RE5 controversy first broke, I pulled one of my coworkers aside. He is a white male, aged 28, owner of all three consoles and a DS Lite. He is the target market. I showed him the trailer for RE 5 and he was completely stoked. (And yes, stoked is the only word that fits.)

“I have got to play this game,” he said, eagerly queuing up the trailer to rewatch the final few scenes.

I showed him some of the commentary online, including the Microscopiq post. His reaction was predicable.

“That is so stupid!” He went on a quick rant about stupid PC nitpicking and quickly changed the subject to other games that were coming out.

“Hmm,” I said, steering the conversation. “I understand what you mean. I’m not sold on the RE5 argument either. What really gets me though is the lack of playable minority characters. That’s just racism by omission. There aren’t really any heroes that are major characters that are not white. And the main characters who are not white are always caught in some sketchy gangbang scenario, or historical fiction.”

He acknowledged that, and we moved on to discussing anime.

The next day at work, he reappeared in my cubicle.

“I couldn’t think of any.”

“Any what?” I asked, having forgotten parts of the previous day’s conversation.

“Any black characters that were playable heroes. They are always thug characters. Isn’t that weird?”

Yeah, isn’t it?