Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Is Resident Evil 5 racist? It’s hard to say. Is it great fodder for a po-co FIME dissertation? Hell yes.

With the recent release of Resident Evil 5, we head back to Africa, the cradle of life, to find out more about the origins of the series’ mysterious (and oddly recurrent) T-virus. This necessitates, with transparent videogame logic, the requisite zombie horde to be black. Except, when you’re playing as a white man in army fatigues, with a light-skinned African woman at your side, it feels more than a little uncomfortable to go around targeting the dangerous black zombies.

Former Newsweek writer and gaming pundit N’Gai Croal – gaming journalism’s great hope, now pursuing a career in private consulting for developers – took issue with the game’s first trailer, noting his first reaction (“Wow, clearly no one black worked on this game”) and pointing out that the images “dovetailed” with classic racist imagery.

Not that black zombies are necessarily the problem, according to Croal – rather, the game seems to “tap into … racist iconography,” as even the pre-zombified villagers are depicted as somehow sub-human, and lacking in any empathy compared to the white main character. There aren’t even, as he points out, any African characters you can save – men, women and children are all depicted as dangerous, and they all have to be destroyed.

Early review copies of certain $140 (!) games, it seems, aren’t forthcoming for student magazines, but based on a rushed play-through over the last week, not to mention the torrent of videos showcasing scenarios in the game, RE5 certainly hits squarely in a grey area, skipping any overt discussions of black and white. Which is all too face-palmingly convenient, really.

Shade of anti- and post-colonialism will linger here, I think. Zombie films traditionally eschew racial boundaries while propagating the idea of a completely different sub-human state, and Resident Evil games always pit a few brave souls against soulless multi-nationals and their attendant zombies; RE5 blends the thorny issues of race relations and meddling white Americans with the “Othered” zombie. The shock and horror of these zombies isn’t their juxtaposition with unaffected humans – there’s none of that Land of the Dead zombies-in-overalls-pretending-to-pump-gas schtick going on. RE5’s zombies have red eyes and dress in rags, playing up the mythemes of darkest Africa; the savage and the Other.

But the game’s supposed to be scary, you might well argue; and how better to get that across in this setting than tap into those very mythemes? It’s all too bluntly obvious, to be honest. That Africa is being victimised by pharmaceutical companies is a less readily apparent (but much more meaningful) theme; the idea that Africans are the victims of the colonial powers’ grand plans and that anti-colonial feelings exist, are both present and accounted for. And who can blame these zombies for wanting to fight back against cultural imperialism?

The game’s certainly been a latent firestorm in a forum tea-cup, though, and a potential PR nightmare for the developers at Capcom, should the racism arguments either prove to have merit or spill out into the mainstream press. (Capcom, for its part remaining oblivious to the vaguest possibility of scandal, has been promoting the game’s release by leaving a trail of body parts throughout London – the person who collected the most valuable body parts won a trip to Africa. Arms and legs were worth two points each, torsos were worth three, and a head was worth five points. Some body parts, peppered with chicken liver for added realistic gore, went “missing” during the competition, which didn’t faze the organisers in the slightest.)

Resident Evil 5 was released just over a week ago for PS3 and Xbox 360, so the commentariat will be able to make up their own minds and then construct rational arguments about race, colonialism and gaming. Or they can start new flame-wars. Even odds, I’d say.

[This article first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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