Racism in AAA games: Resident Evil 5 (PS3)

This is the first in a set of posts on racism and some AAA games I’ve been playing recently. Key question: why do triple A games rely so heavily on stereotypes that continue to dehumanize black people and people of colour?

Today’s post is all about Resident Evil 5 (2009), which holds the dubious honour of sparking a race debate in the videogame world  – such was its impact that Capcom USA now vets the company’s Japan-made games. RE5 garnered a lot of conflicting assessments. On the one hand, you had critics like N’Gai Croal who argues that the imagery in RE5 was inflammatory and tactless (see below). On the other hand, you had people like Chris Hudak who called the racism allegations “stupid”: “If you are aware from the outset that the game takes place in Africa and yet you are still troubled by any skin-tone-related aspects … there exists the possibility of simple, congenital retardation on your own part.” Hmmm. Well, needless to say I disagree. 

God, it must be so hard being the only civilized person in miles *reloads ammo*

God, it must be so hard being the only civilized person in miles *reloads*

When RE5 was first revealed, the trailer rapidly turned into a mini-internet sensation; clearly set somewhere in Africa, the trailer sported a white protagonist shooting black characters. When game critic N’Gai Croal saw the trailer of this game, this is what he had to say:

It’s like when you engage that kind of imagery you have to be careful with it. It would be like saying you were going to do some sort of zombie movie that appeared to be set in Europe in the 1940’s with skinny, emaciated, Hasidic-looking people. If you put up that imagery people would be saying, ’Are you crazy?’ Well, that’s what this stuff looks like. This imagery has a history. It has a history and you can’t pretend otherwise. That imagery still has a history that has to be engaged, that has to be understood. … If you’re going to engage imagery that has that potential, the onus is on the creator to be aware of that because there will be repercussions in the marketplace.

What does Croal mean by ‘this imagery has a history’? Utilising “Africa” – this monolithic, fictional representation of what is actually a highly diverse continent – is nothing new. Resident Evil 5 is one in a long line of the many literary and cultural artifacts that have created a continent that exists only in the mind of westerners. I doubt the developers left their offices to actually visit “Africa”. The shanty towns, the tribal gear, the machete wielding locals, and the voodoo practices is like a box-ticking exercise – these cliches are so embedded into our psyches that writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s wrote a satirical guide on (what else?) How to Write about Africa.

Published in 1719, the fictional story of an Englishman shipwrecked on an island was (at first) thought to be a real account. The representation of the "natives" - and particularly of Friday - has been the subject of a lot of literature. Unfortunately, people still can't seem to tell reality from fiction, and still believe some of the nonsense Defoe came up with.

Published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe, is a fictional tale of an Englishman shipwrecked on an island which was initially thought to be a real account. The representation of the black “natives” – and particularly of Friday – has been the subject of much analysis over the years. Unfortunately, there are still people regurgitating the tropes Defoe came up with.

But this isn’t just about history – it is ethically irresponsible to create a game which reproduces myths and stereotypes that continue to circulate and cause real discrimination and real political damage. The 21st century is a time when images of black bodies are utilised by charity organizations as emblematic of poverty, or by the media (well meaning or otherwise) as victims of police violence and, at the same time, criminals. The consumption of such imagery is highly complex, but you can watch videos the history of racism and its legacies (highly recommended), or read about it if you’re interested.

One of the issues I take with Chris Hudak’s argument about “skin tone” being the problem for people looking at RE5 is that he seems to willfully misunderstand what racism is. Just to clarify, a symptom of racism is prejudice against black people and people of colour on the basis of skin colour; racism is an ideology or systems of oppression which manifests itself in a multitude of ways – economically, culturally, socially, etc. (I like Kat Blaque’s video on this topic, in which she states that if racism was simply prejudice against people with dark skin, it would be great compared with the reality.)

So now we’ve got the theory out of the way, let’s look at the game itself. What’s in Resident Evil 5 that’s so offensive? As with previous games in the Resident Evil series, an outbreak of a strange virus causes people to turn into zombie-like creatures. I rarely discuss graphics, but in the case of RE5, the realistic graphics are very relevant. The realism was so disturbing I actually had to turn away on several occasions, and was left feeling uneasy and uncomfortable throughout the first few levels. It was harrowing, and not in a good way. I didn’t want to play as the white, male, colonizer, repeating the atrocities of centuries on a nameless African country. It’s like if Robinson Crusoe had machine guns and a grudge. (Sheva Alomar is definitely Chris Redfield’s Friday.)

Oh, more civilizin' to be done *reloads*

Oh, more civilizin’ to be done *reloads*

So, first you fight off crowds of enemies in the shanty towns – and then come the spear-wielding “natives” (I’ve not played beyond this so I don’t know what stereotype comes next). The hordes of black bodies you’re forced to plough through, many in dusty T-shirts or in tribal gear, are a mindless, rebelling, barbarous people who your job is to “civilise” or kill.

One of the most difficult aspects, for me, was the juxtaposition of African bodies with the language of contamination. The HIV epidemic was at the forefront of my mind whilst playing. The idea that the “virus” could be sexually transmitted came up in one memorable scene when a white blonde woman is screaming for help on a balcony. She is dragged inside by a man and we don’t see the moment she is “infected”. This is an over-determined trope – the rape of white women in dangerous Africa. The implied sexual violence is bolstered by the language of infection and contamination: after she is attacked, she is “infected” and “contaminated”. (See timestamped video below)

Okay, but what about Sheva? Surely the inclusion of a racially ambiguous character who claims to care about “Africa” justifies it all? Well, no. Rather than view her as a kickass (girl, obvs) sidekick who makes everything above board ethically, I see her inclusion as a calculated move by the developers to get them off the hook from the usual charge of reproducing colonial violence and racism. She’s there, basically, to mitigate the protagonist’s obviously neocolonial endeavours. And, handily she’s a GIRL and that means WE’RE NOT SEXIST EITHER.

Just to prove that there are alternative and creative ways to explore sensitive topics, Kindred by Octavia Butler is an excellent sci-fi take on slavery in North America. And in the realm of videogames, Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee is

There are creative ways to explore sensitive topics: Kindred by Octavia Butler is an excellent sci-fi novel about slavery in the States. How about a videogame adaptation courtesy of Capcom?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we can’t enjoy games or books that have racist elements, a point we’ve argued previously on the blog (see Adrian’s excellent post on Arab stereotypes in Ocarina of Time). Regardless, even if you don’t really care about racism or ethics in general, isn’t it a little boring? Does playing as white man running around “Africa”, shooting the natives, never get old? Isn’t the white man running around “Africa” shooting natives a tired formula? In my view, RE5 is encumbered with the symbolism of “Africa” – this would be a far more playable game had the developers thought of something new, rather than rehashing old trope and stereotypes. Would not recommend.

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7 comments

  1. Red Metal

    It’s stuff like this that makes it so easy for outsiders to assume that the gaming community has a problem with racism (along with nearly every other social disease one can think of). After all, if the elders (creators) aren’t acting in a responsible manner regarding these problems, what chance do the kids (audience) have? I wonder how much of this can be attributed to these people not getting out enough?

    Loathe as they are to admit it, the stereotypes gamers have been inflicted with over the years weren’t the result of a conspiracy to discredit them. Instead, the media thought they exaggerated the perception only for gamers to swagger on in and inform them that they didn’t exaggerate enough. I don’t get it – if someone thinks you’re a monster, why would your first inclination be to prove them right?

    Despite this, I don’t think it will last. There’s only so much of this that can happen before the sane people make a unified effort crack down on this bad behavior. This was a very interesting post. It’d be cool to see you tackle other games and see how they fare on the subject of racism. Do you plan on writing about other social issues as well?

    • veryverygaming

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment! I do plan writing about other social issues in the future – my next post will either be about GTA5 or Fallout 3 and racism, but I’m interested in thinking through feminism and games (because I have quite a difficult relationship with feminism, particularly modern manifestations).

      And I totally agree with you about how the media demonises players, and that it can often be because of lazy research and bad writing in games themselves! I think this is a lot to do with the way people think of games as somehow different to books and film. You don’t read articles decrying women as perverts because 50 Shades of Grey was so popular, for instance! And there are many games that do difficult issues well, like Abe’s Oddysee (the evils of mass food production) or Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance (slavery).

  2. moresleepneeded

    I have not played this game and was not aware of the racist imagery. I can understand how people can suggest it is difficult to set a game in Africa or use black characters without being accused of racism, but why is the main character white? If people complain that games set in Africa would be expected to use black characters, why is the main character not also black? Why is there also a random blonde woman whose only contribution to the game is to be attacked?

    • veryverygaming

      Exactly, critics who complain about accusations of racism are missing the point. Obviously a game set in Africa is likely to have black people in it… so why not the main character too? Surely that’s equally likely. But somehow Chris Redfield is excused as if it’s to be expected for a white man to shoot black people left right and centre in Africa.

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