Of Race and Resident Evil 5

by Latoya Peterson

Resident Evil 5 is set in Africa. This was done intentionally, according to producer Jun Takeuchi, as Africa is considered the birthplace of civilization.* Since that is where humanity began, the development team thought it would be interesting to explore the origins of the T-Virus basing the plot in Africa.

And just like that, another twist is added to the increasingly infuriating puzzle that is Resident Evil 5.

The game is not even scheduled to be released until 2009 and already the controversy has raged on for close to a year.

In a fifteen minute video,
(h/t Ikue) the Capcom blog features game producer Jun Takeuchi explaining some of the ideas surrounding the plot and updates to the gameplay. (Note: Resident Evil is the US title; the game is called Biohazard in Japan.) Unfortunately, there still is not much insight to be had. Chris Redfield is still the main character and this is definitely his story playing out against an exotic backdrop.

Nothing close to the kind of insight I was looking for from Capcom. As such, I am still withholding a judgment call on the game until I actually play. (Which, dear readers, will actually be a huge struggle for me – I am not great at first person shooters and I have never been a fan of survival horror. While I enjoyed watching the past few games, playing them will be an exercise in frustration.)

However, I was directed to a wonderful article on the MTV Multiplayer blog, in which N’Gai Croal of Newsweek’s Level Up blog spoke very frankly on images, racial history, and gaming.

Here’s an excerpt:

There was stuff like even before the point in the trailer where the crowd turned into zombies. There sort of being, in sort of post-modern parlance, they’re sort of “othered.” They’re hidden in shadows, you can barely see their eyes, and the perspective of the trailer is not even someone who’s coming to help the people. It’s like they’re all dangerous; they all need to be killed. It’s not even like one cute African — or Haitian or Caribbean — child could be saved. They’re all dangerous men, women and children. They all have to be killed. And given the history, given the not so distant post-colonial history, you would say to yourself, why would you uncritically put up those images? It’s not as simple as saying, “Oh, they shot Spanish zombies in ‘Resident Evil 4,’ and now ‘black zombies and that’s why people are getting upset.” The imagery is not the same. It doesn’t carry the same history, it doesn’t carry the same weight. I don’t know how to explain it more clearly than that.

[...]

Even if you are familiar with the franchise, if you are familiar with those images and their historical weight, you look at it and say, “Man, that’s kind of messed up.” Then you look at the music that was used in the trailers, that’s one of the things that was sort of funny in so that you had those people who were saying, “It’s not even Africa, it’s Haiti or somewhere in the Caribbean.” The music that they’re using in the trailer is very reminiscent of the music used in Black Hawk Down** which was set in Africa — Somalia. That actually was one of the things that was most disturbing because it sort of had a feeling as like, “Wow, what research did this team do? Did they only watch Black Hawk Down and give it this kind of vibe?”

I don’t want to put down the Capcom team that’s working on it. I hope they did more research than that. But based on that trailer, it’s very difficult to tell. And Black Hawk Down was a very problematic film among a handful of critics and particularly among African-American viewers and African viewers when it came out because of the sort of narrow focus of its portrayal.

That’s the whole thing where only Chris Redfield appears to be human before they turn into zombies; the humanity of other people is in question. It’s like you barely see their faces, he doesn’t really interact with them, he sort of walks through this thing and it’s sort of, “Is he there? Is he not?” It’s a very strange thing, and it taps into sort of this very racist iconography. I think that’s the only way I’m describing it. I’m not saying that was their intent. But it seems that a lot of people who were up in arms about the trailer couldn’t see that and didn’t want to engage it.

I highly encourage you to read the full piece.

The fallout starts on the MTV blog, but gets picked up by Kotaku and Destructoid. Comment chaos ensues to the point where Destructoid posts a different perspective and Kotaku tells its readers to quit it or else.

(Also of interest: Pat M. over at Token Minorities weighs in with a fun quiz! And there is a good discussion/games as art perspective here.)

There are many issues to get into concerning this type of subject (including Japanese game development and the transmission of global images) but for right now, let’s just start by actually examining the basic arguments.

1. How do you perceive the trailer? (Please indicate if you are familiar with the Resident Evil franchise.)

2. What conclusions do you draw about the content of the game?

3. Do you think that marketing companies have a responsibility to adjust trailers and promotional materials for the markets that they enter?

4. I have noticed that quite a few gamers of color have accepted the RE5 trailer as not racist because the gameplay and basic plot points are consistent throughout the series. To them, race of the villagers/zombies/las plagas controlled fiends would naturally change to suit the environment. Do you accept or challenge this line of reasoning?

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*I am aware this is contested, by a number of groups for various reasons. For the intents and purposes of this piece, we are working with Takeuchi’s statement.

** The issues surrounding Black Hawk Down are briefly summarized here.

Related Reading:

Blackface Goes HD? The Case of Resident Evil 5

Video Games and the Usual Amount of Racism
Denial and Delusion – Why Public Conversations about Race Fail Before they Begin