Playing with Race
Capcom and players of Resident Evil 5 and, by extension, the whole gaming community, have entered into an old and sophisticated conversation about racism.
Racism as it exists today in the West comes from slavery. When abolitionist movements began to arise, when we came to recognize freedom from enslavement as a fundamental human right, racism appeared as an argument for slavery. People invested in the slave trade held that black slaves either deserved their status or benefited from it, because of their natural inferiority to whites, and their argument took many forms, including art and literature. Racist fiction depicted blacks as savage, as sub-human, as monstrous.
This tradition continued after slavery to the modern day, in film, television, and, yes, in video games. Though racism no longer functions as an argument in support of slavery as a living institution, it does work in favor of myriad contemporary injustices.
The consequences of this brand of racism differ from place to place. Japan never participated in the African slave trade. Europe did-and perhaps Belgium most egregiously-but in a way very different from the United States. Belgium colonized the Congo, enslaving and murdering indigenous people to facilitate trade, first in ivory, then in rubber. The Belgians killed something like 10 million Congolese, and the repercussions of this violence persist to this day. While Vincent didn’t find the early Resident Evil 5 ads or the demo all that alarming, he agrees that their imagery would not likely have appeared in a Belgian game. “If you look at European developers,” he says, “they would have some sensitivity about this.”
Imagine the sensitivity of Americans, then. Belgium doesn’t have Congolese making up 12% of its population. Belgian slavery happened outside of Belgium. American slavery happened here. Where I grew up, in Rhode Island, you can still find manacles in the sub-basements of old homes where slaves were kept. Historians in the U.S. hurry to record the memories of elderly people who still remember meeting American slaves. The consequences of slavery persist in lived experience here. Because of all this, racism has become one of our strongest taboos, stronger perhaps than that of sex.
Capcom did not fear this taboo, and it should have, just as most game developers fear to portray Vietnam. Some topics require great caution. While making his Vietnam war film, Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola said, “my greatest fear is to make a really shitty, embarrassing, pompous film on an important subject-and I am doing it.” Resident Evil has always given us shitty, embarrassing stories, only now the game is about important subjects. Capcom doesn’t seem to realize they’re doing this.
Resident Evil 5 uses Africa’s troubles-its shantytowns, its military conflicts, its history of exploitation by the West, its burden of disease-to create an atmosphere of horror. It uses Africa in the way that Suito Homu used Japanese folk tales. These are not equivalent inspirations. Capcom makes entertainment out of aspects of colonialism and slavery that remain a source of shame for much of the world.
The transgression of taboos and the exploration of shame can serve a society well, especially in art, but such things are explosive. Vincent suggests, reasonably, that we show patience with Resident Evil 5. “We have to wait until March 13th to see if Capcom has been successful in treating the material well,” he says. Unfortunately, the game itself forms only one component of the Resident Evil 5 phenomenon.
Videos, demos, and advertising for the game show black Africans as monsters. Capcom has broken taboos, and we can already judge the company’s handling of them. Further, Resident Evil 5 is a game; it places highly charged material into its audience’s hands. Interactive media depend on participants to make them what they are. The way people play this game matters. Let’s not be naƒ¯ve: journalists will play Resident Evil 5 on-line with kids and record the behavior they witness. The debate will not end with the material on the game disc.
What will happen with Resident Evil 5 and race is the reverse of the gameplay question. When you take up the controller, you enter the house of Capcom. You choose to play by their rules or you don’t play. When Resident Evil 5 showed certain images of black Africa, Capcom entered the world’s house. The game and its players have plopped on the couch and put their feet up. The only question that remains is: how will they behave? Like ladies and gentlemen? Or like rubes?
We all know it’s mostly going to be the latter. “For the 2% deep discussion, there’s going to be 98% rofls and lols and all of that idiocy,” says Vincent. True. The gaming community is almost singularly unprepared for a debate about games and race, but ignorance will prevail on all sides. More than one mainstream critic will refer to Resident Evil 5 as a ‘first-person shooter’; far too many will lack any understanding of the history of the series. Nonetheless, it will be glorious when the wrath of journalists, politicians, and academics comes down on this game. Anyone who pays attention to issues of race and who has a public voice is going to make mincemeat of RE5 and its fans, who can take solace in the thought that they have some experience with being eaten alive.
Ultimately, gaming will benefit from the controversies of Resident Evil 5. The debates over this game confirm the medium’s standing in society and underscore how it functions. Games do not escape reality. They deny escapism through their difficulty and the limits they place on players. They also contribute to culture. Playing a game communicates something about the player to other people.. I’m not all that bothered by Vincent’s and my laughter at our little butchery. We’re approaching the game cautiously, seriously, and with humor. But we do have more to think about than how we’re going to rack up as many neck-breaker maneuvers as possible. That’s how it goes living in the real world.