Machete Death in Africa
Does it matter that Vincent Merken and I cut down a crazed, diseased, machete-wielding black man in an African shantytown?
We did it in the Resident Evil 5 demo, playing co-op on Xbox Live; I from the U.S., he from Belgium. Vincent played a hulking bruiser of a white guy, while I played a small, lithe woman who could pass for what‚ Southern Africans call ‘coloured’-a person of mixed race.‚ Together, we hacked at our enemy with our huge knives until he melted into a mass of brown bubbles.
Does it matter why we did this? Or how our characters looked when it happened? Or how we responded to doing it? Would it matter if the man had tentacles sprouting from his face? And why’d we use knives, anyhow?
Answering these questions requires an outlook as cosmopolitan as the game itself, which portrays the outbreak of a contagion that transforms humans into monsters in the small, fictional, sub-Saharan nation of Kijuju. Resident Evil 5 depicts people of many different races, being careful to render them and their surroundings as realistically as possible, while maintaining an atmosphere of sci-fi horror. Both gaming and mainstream media have begun a debate over whether the game’s depiction of black Africans makes use of racist stereotypes.
The debate matters because of the game’s stature. Capcom’s Resident Evil series belongs to the canon of gaming. Its games have sold more than 34 million copies and won wide critical acclaim. Resident Evil 5, the twentieth game in the line, has raised its already high profile with its move to Africa. Imagine‚ one of the innumerable and wildly popular World War II shooters suddenly changing its setting to Vietnam, circa 1969. Very few games feature the Vietnam war, for the same reason that few games feature Africa’s problems with disease, poverty, violence, and exploitation: both subjects evoke shame. Players accept this reasoning on Vietnam; they seem to have more difficulty with Africa.
Also controversial, though less charged, is Resident Evil 5’s control scheme, which remains virtually the same as the one featured in the first game in the series, 1996’s Resident Evil. The hype around the game has placed it under assault from all sides, from both gaming and cultural perspectives. Responding to these issues means placing that murderous moment shared by Vincent and me into context-in both game and real-world terms.
Resident Evil 5 will take a beating. Players will attack the game without mercy, and so will the media. Vincent and I will play the game to death, testing its limits, while critics will decry the game’s handling of its African setting. Both approaches are perfectly justified, because both rely on a certain kind of cosmopolitanism.
There are two senses of ‘cosmopolitan’. One refers to a person who acclimates easily to foreign situations; the other to a morality that ignores cultural boundaries. The first concerns Resident Evil 5’s gameplay, the second concerns the way it portrays black Africans.‚ Understanding this game requires‚ both viewpoints. For this reason, I came calling on Vincent.
Who is Vincent Merken?
Let me tell you about Vincent Merken.
In the vast library of Resident Evil esoterica available on the Internet there is an extraordinary document known formally as “Resident Evil-Plot Guide” and colloquially as “The Resident Evil Thesis”. We’re talking over 115,000 words of Resident Evil plot analysis. Begun by Dan ‘President Evil’ Birlew and overtaken by Thomas Wilde, the text covers the series up to the 2007 port of Resident Evil 4 for the Wii, but just one section concerns us here: an examination of wild theories called “The Weirdest of the Lot”. Birlew and Wilde debunk a rumor that you can unlock Street Fighter’s Akuma as a playable character in Resident Evil 2:
According to Electronic Gaming Monthly, if you beat the game in under an hour and a half, using *only* the handgun and knife, Akuma would become playable. Vincent Merken did it, for he is ninja, and it didn’t work.
Yes; contemplate that passage for a moment, and it will reveal to you the Meaning of Merken and of Resident Evil. From the start, the series has won fans for its flexible gameplay. You can play Resident Evil games in myriad ways-using only the weakest weapons or rushing through the game as quickly as possible. Vincent belongs to a community of players who have pushed this play to extremes. Ripping through Resident Evil 2 at that speed with such limited firepower is downright amazing. This kind of achievement requires both mad dexterity and long study of the game’s mechanics.
Ok let me get this straight. You played RE5 with your friend and enjoyed knocking off the zombies. Then you turn around and write an article like this focusing more so on the fact that you did not just kill zombies but black zombies. You can use any form of wording to twist people to think that you are right but you are not. The simple fact that you did not take objection to RE4’s setting but now you are up in arms over RE5 is quite interesting. I think real issue is you cannot enjoy a game for what it is because your so overly sensitive about race because you have white guilt. If you feel better shooting white/spanish zombies instead of african, then by all means, don’t play RE5 and don’t write articles concerning race until you come to terms with your own.
I thought this was an interesting read, the opposing concepts of cosmopolitan and parochial gamers especially – another axis to go with completionist vs tourist. And it’s always good to see people approaching the medium with maturity, like the good folks at Multiplayer and Mr Croal.
This game is in no way racist.
First, you’re in Africa, so there obviously will be black enemies. If you’re saying having black enemies in a game is racist, you’re saying having a game in Africa is racist, and that’s stupid.
Second, these are infected villagers. Their skin color is insignificant because of that fact. They are trying to kill you and you are protecting yourself. If some black guy was trying to stab me, and if I killed him out of self-defense, that wouldn’t mean I was racist.
Very interesting. While playing through the demo, I didn’t notice the skin color of any of the crazies that were chasing after me. To my gamer mind, I was being overwhelmed by parasite infected crazies. That’s it. Ethnicity and cultural environments didn’t come into any natural analysis on my part.
I understand many people are trained to be more sensitive to racism and racist themes than others through exposure to such through life experiences or their educational systems. I think, generally speaking, it’s very important to have an understanding of the atrocities that have occured historically and the horros that have been done between humans due to superficial differences between people that are, in actuality, all part of the same race – the human race. However, the kind of alarmist perspective that seems to be expressed in this article, in my opinion, aids to undermine any efforts of establishing a color blind society going forward.
I think we should be careful not to use the training we have received to point out racist themes in material where racist themes do not exist, lest we risk impressing upon the minds of upcoming generations that there ARE inherent differences between people of opposing skin colors. Interestingly enough, Sue Clark with the British Board of Film Classification has been quoted as stating, â€œAs the whole game is set in Africa it is hardly surprising that some of the characters are black, just like the fact that some of the characters in an earlier version were Spanish as the game was set in Spain. â€¦ We do take racism very seriously, but in this case there is no issue around racism.â€
Although I believe Sue’s statement was in regards to only a few scenes of the game, I think you should take her words into consideration. I wonder if you felt any similar pangs of sympathy for the plight of the impoverished peasants that were slaughtered in droves by Leon in RE4. Spanish nationals were depicted as dirty and bloodthirsty, impaling a police official on a spike over a fire pit in the middle of their village. Did you have the same thought process while considering that material? Were the Japenese developers of Resident Evil unfairly or insensitively portraying a culture in that game?
The argument from Spain is a bad one–that’s why my piece doesn’t address it. Spain and Africa are not the same place; they’re not even the same category of place. It’s silly to expect RE5’s setting to have the same connotations as RE4’s.
I’ll explain why in more depth, but first I want to make something clear: this article addresses Resident Evil 5, not Far Cry 2 (also set in Africa and featuring black enemies).
Nowhere do I make the contention that merely setting a game in Africa is wrong. Nor do I ever say that it’s wrong for a game merely to portray black enemies. In fact, I’ve never even seen anyone make either of these arguments about RE5.
No one is arguing that blacks deserve more sympathy than whites.
I know this is hard to grasp, but let’s try to keep this idea in our heads as we move on.
First, RE4 does not take place in Spain. It takes place in “rural Europe” and the locals speak, I am told, Mexican Spanish. The distinction is important, because RE4 does not attempt to reflect any actual place in modern Spain, nor any actual conflicts in Spain.
RE5 does try to depict actual places in Africa, and it appropriates an actual conflict that took place there. The shantytowns of RE5 mirror actual African shantytowns–an oft-stated goal of Capcom’s. RE5 also took inspiration from a cinematic depiction of a real battle between Americans and Somalis.
RE4 does not ask us to consider the meaning of Spain when we play it.
RE5 is set in Africa precisely because it is the origin of humanity. Capcom wants us to consider the meaning of Africa when we play RE5.
This is why the argument that no one should care about the depiction of Africans in RE5, because no one cared about the depiction of the Spanish-speaking peasants in RE4, is a bad argument.
It’s not a matter of feeling bad for people because they’re black. I don’t know where anybody gets this idea.
It’s a matter of a game developer and a game audience who are both remarkably clueless about how RE5’s depiction of Africans fits nicely with the tradition of racism in the West.
Attorney General Eric Holder said that we are a nation of cowards when discussing race. Mr. Huling proves him wrong by showing that, if judged by his article, we are a nation of idiots. I would elaborate, but I doubt that Mr. Huling would understand.
Okay, I think I see what you’re saying, but please correct me when I horribly misrepresent your argument – because I’m a little slow.
For you, the problem appears to be that Resident Evil 5 is, essentially, Resident Evil 4 in Africa. It’s okay to depict caucasians that haven’t suffered extensively from colonialism and that have not historically been depicted with racial stereotypes of being violent, mindless animals as just that, and it’s okay to send in a caucasian protaganist to kill these seemingly mindless, violent, bestial caucasian crazies. However, when the setting is changed to Africa, suddenly the same depictions take on more significance because of the history of Africa, which the game developers are intentionally invoking.
Although I can entirely agree that a sensitive audience may make those connections, I still disagree that there are actual racist depictions being made. I do not think the developers are in any way evoking racist imagery. I think those that find racist imagery in this game are already looking for it – in a sense, drawing conclusions based on their own prejudices. And ultimately, I simply do not believe that Resident Evil could take place in an African setting and still meet your criteria of acceptability, because the game itself requires that residents of the area become infected with an evil (hence, a residing evil.). And for me, that’s a pity.
“First, RE4 does not take place in Spain. It takes place in â€œrural Europeâ€ and the locals speak, I am told, Mexican Spanish. The distinction is important, because RE4 does not attempt to reflect any actual place in modern Spain, nor any actual conflicts in Spain.”
Agreed. However, I think it would be appropriate to suggest that killing a group of Europeans speaking a dialect of Spanish, the native language of Spain, conveys the impression of killing Spaniards. These details ground the setting in a real location. It creates an immersive environment which intentionally evokes thoughts of Spain and the Spanish.
You are correct that RE4 does not attempt to reflect any actual place in Spain. It depicts fictional locales in actual Europe. The distinction between a country (Spain) and what is conventionally considered a continent (Europe) is important. The same type of distinction is made in RE5, though it seems that you suggest it is done so criminally.
“RE5 does try to depict actual places in Africa, and it appropriates an actual conflict that took place there. The shantytowns of RE5 mirror actual African shantytownsâ€“an oft-stated goal of Capcomâ€™s. RE5 also took inspiration from a cinematic depiction of a real battle between Americans and Somalis.”
RE5 tries to depict *fictional* places in actual Africa. Africa, the continent, is the broad setting. The fictional country of Kijuju is where the action takes place. The game does not take place in an “actual” location any more than Resident Evil 4 takes place in an actual location. The shantytowns of Kijuju in RE5 resemble actual African shantytowns for the same reason the rural villages and castles of RE4 resemble actual European settings. The game developers want to immerse their audience in a realistic setting and ground the atmosphere in a realistic location.
I also don’t know that it’s appropriate to suggest that the developers of RE5 took inspiration from Black Hawk Down or appropriated actual armed conflicts in designing RE5’s gameplay, unless you can cite me to a source that states otherwise. From the articles I have read, RE5’s developers referenced Black Hawk Down to illustrate to an audience that has not yet played the game what that audience can expect with regards to the frenetic pace of the gameplay and the feeling of being overwhelmed, isolated, and ill-armed to defend oneself.
If the reference was made in poor taste based on the subject matter and the debatable depictions of the antagonists in the film, so be it, but that doesn’t evidence that Capcom was attempting to bring those controversial elements from the film into their game. In RE5, the crazies are attacking because they are plagued by a parasite. They are human beings suffering from an ailment that is not human, and it is the same ailment that infected the Europeans from RE4. The parasites are the underlying cause of the seemingly in-human and unreasonable actions of the antagonists in RE5. BHD did not express any underlying cause for the portrayed behavior of the Somalis, which was its failing.
“RE5 is set in Africa precisely because it is the origin of humanity. Capcom wants us to consider the meaning of Africa when we play RE5.”
I think you may be reading a bit too much into the setting, here. I don’t recall reading anything from RE5’s developers stating that Africa is used as a setting “precisely” because it is the origin of humanity. Admittedly, I could have missed something, so please feel free to cite your source.
From my perspective, Africa is used because 1) Capcom has already used a large variety of locales for its Resident Evil series, and a desert environment provides a fresh, new atmosphere and new environmental challenges that an RE player has yet to overcome; and 2) it provides a compelling setting for the style of gameplay that Resident Evil requires – namely, hordes of lightly armored melee wielding infantry. These are the same reasons Capcom chose rural Europe for its previous RE title. The types of depictions made regarding Europeans are nearly identical to the types of depictions made regarding Africans. Essentially, Capcom has ported RE4 to Africa, and you believe it was done so in poor taste.
“Itâ€™s a matter of a game developer and a game audience who are both remarkably clueless about how RE5â€™s depiction of Africans fits nicely with the tradition of racism in the West.”
Or it could be that the Eastern developers of the game view Africans in the same light as they view other human beings. In RE4, Europeans were made “evil” by a parasite. In RE5, it’s Africans. And I think it’s a shame that “black Africans” are still not considered human enough to be depicted in the same manner as other ethnicities or people groups in art without those depictions being labeled as racist and offensive. Maintaining these kinds of double standards for human beings from different cultures will continue to perpetuate the ideology that some cultures and ethnicities are inherently “different.”
Reality is fire. You must play with it carefully.
That’s the theme I want to keep in mind.
“I also donâ€™t know that itâ€™s appropriate to suggest that the developers of RE5 took inspiration from Black Hawk Down”
Capcom has cited the film ‘Black Hawk Down’ as a major inspiration of RE5 for years. There are innumerable interviews that document this.
In the Black Hawk Down battle, a small number of white American soldiers kill a surprisingly large number of black Somalis. After the fight, Somalis displayed the bodies of Americans whom they’d killed.
Anybody playing the game should see the influence of the film right from the start. Capcom went further than the obvious and actually took pains to highlight the ways in which they drew from the film to make RE5.
Once you invoke a real event as an influence on your fiction, you have to deal with all of the connotations of that event. Capcom chose to use Black Hawk Down and to advertise that they had done so.
“The shantytowns of Kijuju in RE5 resemble actual African shantytowns for the same reason the rural villages and castles of RE4 resemble actual European settings.”
Capcom sent a team to Africa to document locations. They used thousands of photos of real places where real people live to produce the environments of RE5.
They did not do this for RE4. Hardly anyone in Spain lives in a castle or a peasant village with farm animals running around the main street.
Millions of people in Africa actually live in shantytowns. I’ve been to such places in Nigeria and Algeria. Capcom portrayed the built environment with some accuracy.
They used these locations to provide the game’s atmosphere.
None of this is inherently wrong. But the shantytowns of RE5 evoke real places in a way that the village and castle of RE4 do not. Again, this invites the player of RE5 to connect the game with African realities. Capcom made realism an explicit goal of RE5’s design.
This sets up Capcom for a fall.
“I donâ€™t recall reading anything from RE5â€™s developers stating that Africa is used as a setting â€œpreciselyâ€ because it is the origin of humanity.”
Google “Resident Evil 5” origins humanity Takeuchi.
Jun Takeuchi is the chief producer of Resident Evil 5. He spoke with Famitsu and explained, â€œWe settled on the fact that we really wanted to show the origins of the virus. So for the setting we thought, how about the place where humankind was born? Well, Iâ€™m not a scientist, so I donâ€™t know how things might change in the future, but we thought we would use Africa, which is now called the birthplace of humanity, as the model.â€
“I think itâ€™s a shame that â€œblack Africansâ€ are still not considered human enough to be depicted in the same manner as other ethnicities or people groups in art without those depictions being labeled as racist and offensive.”
You’re saying that you wish stereotypes didn’t exist. This is a noble sentiment. It is a wish for things not to be as they actually are.
But things are as they are. And, yes, black Africans are considered humans.
Last year, a Republican organization came up with the idea of ‘Obama bucks’–a mock currency that placed Obama’s face on a bill with various icons–fried chicken, watermelon, ribs, etc. These icons come from a tradition of racist American stereotypes abut blacks.
If Obama were Mexican or Chinese, these icons would make no sense. History determines which stereotypes apply to which people–and we have to deal with the reality of this history.
No one has ever argued that, because Belgium is a fly-blown pest-hole and Belgians are near-mindless brutes, we have a duty to invade Belgium and enslave the Belgians in order to save them from themselves. This argument has been made many times in the West about black Africans.
To suggest that we don’t have to deal with the context of this history when we depict black Africans is like going to Siberia with the expectation that everyone there speaks Swahili.
“I simply do not believe that Resident Evil could take place in an African setting and still meet your criteria of acceptability, because the game itself requires that residents of the area become infected with an evil (hence, a residing evil.)”
This is the most important point.
I’m not saying it’s impossible; I’m saying it’s incredibly difficult. Some people can juggle the nitroglycerin of racist stereotypes. Look at Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. Or Public Enemy’s Night of the Living Baseheads.
If you’re going to play with this kind of charged imagery, it helps to know what you’re playing with. You can easily lose control over your material. Look at Dave Chappelle. He quit his show because he thought that he was losing control over the stereotypes he was invoking.
A game has to be extra careful, because it gives so much control to the player. More than the developer’s intentions or even the content of the game disc matters when it comes to games.
So that’s what it’s really all about. The article provides a framework for the debate. I’m laying out what should be taken into consideration when judging the game. That’s why I went so far into the history of the series and so far into the history of Western racism. I’m providing background for both sides of the debate, as a way to get people to take it seriously.
And you are taking it seriously.
Well, it appears that we both have our own opinions on this and I don’t expect to see much in the way of compromise going forward, so I’ll try to respond in brief.
You have some well stated foundations for your opinions and I think you bring up some very valid concerns. Namely, that a developer needs to be aware of the connotations of potentially charged imagery with regards to the portrayal of racial characteristics. However, I still don’t think there are any actual issues within the context of the Resident Evil game world. Once I obtain the full game and I have more material to examine, I may alter my stance, but I don’t see cause to do so at this time.
RE4’s depiction of rural Europeans was not racist because people did not come away from the game actually thinking that rural Europeans were being depicted as being dirty, blood thirsty savages. The main reason, in my opinion, is because the Europeans were not depicted as naturally behaving as blood thirsty savages – it was a symptom of the infection of the parasite. We weren’t killing Europeans, we were killing Las Plagas.
(I understand you feel the lack of focus on detailing specific locations in Europe within the game supports this, whereas I feel the lack of focus was more likely influenced by financing and the limits of technology. With next-gen sequels, developers have to go bigger and better, and they are incentivized to do so. More accurate representations of a setting in RE5 register as only that, to me. The setting remains fictional.)
Likewise, with the RE5 demo, I did not come away from the game actually thinking that Africans were being depicted as frenzied, blood thirsty savages. This is not depicted as their natural behavior, the behavior is a symptom of the parasitic infection. These symptoms are nearly exactly the same behavioral characteristics that the European Las Plagas exhibited. I was not fighting Africans, I was fighting Las Plagas – or, in the RE5 terminology, the Majini.
The concept that the images being presented may dovetail with traditional western racism is never processed. And I have to wonder, if an image is not perceived as a racist stereotype by an audience, and if the image is not intentionally presented to be racist, is any racism actually ocurring?
For me, the answer is no.
“Youâ€™re saying that you wish stereotypes didnâ€™t exist. This is a noble sentiment. It is a wish for things not to be as they actually are.”
When stereotypes are being used as a blanket attribution of an inaccurate characteristic to a people group, then sure, that needs to be called out. But if we’re recognizing images as stereotypes only because we’re looking for stereotypes – if stereotypical images are not intentionally being expressed nor being presented in a damaging manner – does pointing to that image, calling it out as a stereotype, and producing a complex argument detailing how it can be perceived as a stereotype seek to undermine the stereotype, or reinforce the stereotype?
I must say that I am VERY impressed by the intelligent debate being had here between REH and Rogue. Mush more intelligent than most internet forums I’ve read. I must say that I definitely side with Rogue on this particular topic though. He’s already laid out all of the things I was thinking as I read this article…and done so in a much more concise manner than I would/could have done. Kudos to both of you for your intelligent and mature dialogue on such a sensitive topic.
My two cents:
I agree that the realism of the scenario being depicted is more of a sign of the expected advancements in game design. I think that consumers currently crave realism. The more accurately a game depicts a real environment and real people, the more consumers will latch onto it and love it. You can’t set this game’s story in Africa without portraying this level of realism.
I also still don’t’ understand where the claim of racism is coming into play here. The game so accurately depicts real people and places in Africa, and their living conditions, then what’s the problem? The rest of the story is obviously fiction. Are people claiming that BECAUSE they are black, they are being killed? I think not. It’s obvious they are being killed due to the threat they pose as infected zombies. Are they infected BECAUSE they are black? No, It’s been proven in every other game throughout the series that this infection has no racial preference. So what exactly is racist about the game? Is it somehow depicting black people in some untrue and negative stereotype? Where?
I must also admit that I have not yet played the game myself, so I can only base all of this on the articles I’m reading about it while bored at work.
im playing RE5. there’s caucasian zombies in it too… hmmmmmmm…