Suggestions for Talking About Race and Video Games

by Pat M., originally published at Token Minorities

I spent the last few days away from this blog, commenting occasionally and picking a few fights on Internet forums. What makes me far, far more upset than the actual RE5 trailer is the systematic dismissal of this kind of conversation across the ‘net. The best conversation I’ve managed to find on this topic was actually in the Select Button forums, though even they’re prone to a decent amount of idiocy. Even after all this time, reading pages and pages of ignorant garbage makes me feel angry. I suppose that’s a good thing, after all – that I’m not jaded, and that this stuff still motivates me – but it always feels kind of pointless to be angry on a forum. So I thought I’d spend a few days duking it out and see what I came away with, in the hopes that I could come up with a set of general guidelines for race-and-video-game discussions. A long overdue FAQ, if you will, for people to refer to when race issues crop up in generally unprepared communities.

Step 1: Be Open To Discussion

The vast majority of the material people have written in regards to the Resident Evil 5 debacle have been repressive in nature:

“This is stupid.” “You’re seeing things that don’t exist.” “Talking about things like this only makes race issues more prevalent.”

These types of responses are, frankly, immature and counterproductive. Where else in life do we routinely say, “if you ignore it, it’ll go away”? Certainly I can say that, as a person of color, if it were so easy to simply ignore race, I would have done so a long time ago if I had thought that it would make the racial problems go away. But we cannot ignore it. “Ignoring race” is really something only white people get to do – an element of “white privilege”.

CubaLibre at the SB forums posted (in the context of the RE5 discussion) a very succinct and readable explanation of the flaws in the “colorblind” way of thinking, which tends to be at the heart of any attempts to quell discussion:

The problem with this blithe wishful-thinking approach of fighting racism is that no actual fighting is happening. In fact, theoretically it is no different from saying that if we ignore it, it will go away. I’ll admit as much as the next guy that specific, person-to-person racism is, in the modern world, properly stigmatized and marginalized. No pudge-bearing, bull-chested Birmingham city officials are rising out of their swivel chairs and boldly announcing “We ain’t gon let no niggers go to our schools.” People who do say such things are reviled approximately as much as pedophile cannibal rapists. Which, perhaps, is actually overdoing it, but compared to say Jim Crow, I say bravo.

But then, no one is accusing Capcom of subscribing to the Klan newsletter.

Here are the two problems with your/the colorblind theory:

A. The minor problem is, this kind of act-racism (as opposed to rule-racism, my own little coinage as sort of the inverse of the relative kinds of utilitarianism) isn’t actually dead. Neo-Nazis still exist. The Klan still exists. You cannot defeat extremist marginal social elements by resting on the status quo. It needs active combat. When you see something racist, you have to point it out and say “Hey, that’s racist – even if you don’t mean it that way.” Otherwise those extremist marginal social elements slowly gain footholds until they are not marginal any more.

B. The major problem is, it totally and completely ignores the phenomenon of institutional racism, which is far more subtle and insidious, and in fact thrives on exactly that kind of complacency. The reason there’s so many black inmates isn’t because individual cops and judges hate black people and just send them to prison more often. It’s a vicious cycle of anger, disempowerment and retribution that on its face is rational each step of the way. This is the major counterargument to all those “hey it’s Japan they don’t know anything about black people” claim. Well – of course they don’t. They’re an almost totally racially homogenous society. Which is exactly why they’re so saturated with institutional racism (and, let it be said, not a little bit of personal, “real” racism, as well). And exactly why this imagery flew past Capcom Japan (probably over the kicking and screaming objections of the terrified Capcom USA, as someone pointed out above).

Again I’d like to point out that the level of outrage arguably demonstrated in this post isn’t really present here. The point is that this is pretty important. Capcom isn’t some evil perpetrator of the continued oppression of the black man or anything, I’m not pretending to be Louis Farrakhan. They just made a bonehead move, they deserve to be called out on it, and it is absolutely improper, I think, to shrug it off thanks to some middleschool “I don’t consider my black friends different AT ALL” attitude to “fighting” (ignoring) racism.

If you’re truly willing to participate in or host a space for discussion (whether a blog or a forum or what have you), at least have the sense of respect to acknowledge the discussion itself instead of just saying “this is stupid.” The fact is that race is a hard thing to talk about, and if people aren’t willing to respect the participants of the discussion, they might as well just stay out, or no one is going to get anything out of it but hurt feelings.

Step 2: Take The Discussion Seriously

The next most common trap I see these conversations fall into is the “it’s just a game, lighten up” line of thinking. This is really another way to shut the discussion down, but I thought it’s worthy of its own heading – instead of saying “you ought to ignore these issues”, it’s saying “you’re silly for letting this bother you”, which is downright insulting.

The masses of video game enthusiasts prowling the Internet these days generally want their medium of choice to be taken seriously. They want people to give their hobby – or even their job – the respect that it deserves. Games are maturing as a medium, and not just by pushing higher polycounts, but providing deeper experiences that resonate with our own human experiences. In other words, games are texts, and texts reflect meaning.

Once someone posts something that remotely resembles a serious criticism of a game, however, the entire audience dumbs their hobby down, claiming that it’s not a big deal, and we really shouldn’t be so upset about it. “It’s just a game”. Chris Dahlen writes a fascinating post that talks a little bit about this:

But when is a game ever just a game? We love to watch sports and trounce our friends in Halo because while the game doesn’t matter, the players do. Everyone comes into the match with a story, a history, and something to prove. The Yankees and the Red Sox aren’t just two teams that play some games every year. It may not be fair that the Olympics are colored by politics – but nobody (in the US) had a problem with it when our hockey team crushed the Soviets’ in 1980. You don’t see people bitching (today) about Jesse Owens “playing the race card” at the Hitler Olympics.

In the same way, fears that Resident Evil 5 is either racist, or unfairly accused of racism, all have a place in how we deal with the game. Because whatever’s happening with Resident Evil 5 will just get more common. If every video game were Pong, we wouldn’t have to deal with the representation of human beings in games. But games are only becoming more cinematic. They’re depicting more realistic people who have clearer ethnic identities and worldviews and more dialogue in which to hit more buttons with the ever-growing audience of players. Pretending this stuff shouldn’t matter is naive.

Sports fans already knew this; gamers are still learning. If you judge by the comment threads, even the most ignorant football fan has a more nuanced grasp of race than the average Resident Evil 5 fanboy. They’ve accepted race is a factor. And they realize, if only through their passion for a hometown team, that a game is never just a game.

Stop selling your beloved medium short. These conversations about race and video games do not mean we hate video games – they mean we love them enough to take them seriously, and we want to make them better. We want them to grow up. If you genuinely believe that the conversation isn’t worth having, then don’t have it. But don’t waste your time and energy telling people that they shouldn’t have it either. They don’t appreciate it.

A corollary to all of this is the infamous “go worry about real problems. If you’re upset about racism, then do something about racism instead of just talking about it.” Not only does this assume that the initial other isn’t engaged in anti-racist activism, it also implies that “just talking about it” isn’t “doing something”. The fact is that, as demonstrated by all these horrible conversations going on, that talking about it IS doing something about it. How would we even know what to “do” if we didn’t talk about things first? Certainly the plentiful resistance to talking about race and racism among so many of these Internet spaces is indicative of exactly how much work needs to be done “just” to talk about things. Don’t get me wrong – there is a time to stop talking and do. But the video game world just isn’t there yet.

Step 3: Understand The Terms Of The Discussion

First, take a deep breath.

Now listen.

In any given conversation about race and media, people generally aren’t calling for censorship, or a boycott, or a rally, or a hunger strike. In fact, in the discussions about RE5, people really aren’t calling for much of anything, except for other people to talk about the images they see in the trailer and acknowledge that it’s got potentially volatile, insensitive imagery. During most of these discussions, the worst that people demand is a letter of apology, and that’s usually when things are really exploitative (think Abercrombie’s racist T-Shirts or a restaurant advertising with naked Asian female bodies). Most of the time, it’s enough for people just to want to talk about things.

So stop getting so frickin’ defensive, already. We’re talking about a game, not bashing.

Greg Costikyan has a good explanation of the difference between a game review and game criticism over here:

Criticism is an informed discussion, by an intelligent and knowledgeable observer of a medium, of the merits and importance (or lack thereof) of a particular work. Criticism isn’t intended to help the reader decide whether or not to plunk down money on something; some readers’ purchase decisions may be influenced, but guiding their decisions is not the purpose of the critical work. Criticism is, in a sense merely “writing about” — about art, about dance, about theater, about writing, about a game–about any particular work of art. How a critical piece addresses a work, and what approach it takes, may vary widely from critic to critic, and from work to work. There are, in fact, many valid critical approaches to a work, and at any given time, a critique may adopt only one, or several of them.

Some valid critical approaches? Where does this work fall, in terms of the historical evolution of its medium. How does this work fit into the creator’s previous ouevres, and what does it say about his or her continuing evolution as an artist. What novel techniques does this work introduce, or how does it use previously known techniques to create a novel and impactful effect. How does it compare to other works with similar ambitions or themes. What was the creator attempting to do, and how well or poorly did he achieve his ambitions. What emotions or thoughts does it induce in those exposed to the work, and is the net effect enlightening or incoherent. What is the political subtext of the work, and what does it say about gender relationships/current political issues/the nature-nurture debate, or about any other particular intellectual question (whether that question is a particular hobby-horse of the reviewer, or inherently raised by the work in question).

If I’m not clear on this, the set of questions in the previous paragraph are not intended to be an exhaustive list of all possible questions that criticism can address; criticism can, in fact, address any set of questions of interest to the writer (and ideally, to the reader) that are centered on a particular work of art.

This basically sums up the basis of the RE5 discussion. NOT censorship, NOT bashing. In fact, we’re not really even talking about RE5, so much – we’re talking about the real world, and the reflections that the trailer had upon the real world. Consider it a credit to the medium that it inspires this, and not an attack. And since it’s not an attack,
YOU DON’T NEED TO FEEL DEFENSIVE.

Ahem.

Next up will be an intermediate-level primer on how to talk about these things successfully.