April 12, 2008
While I’ve been blathering on about Zelda music, MTV Multiplayer’s Tracey John has been posting a series of fascinating interviews with black professionals in games. The interviews cover a broad range of topics, from affirmative action to industry discrimination to the presentation of blacks in video games themselves, and I highly recommend them.
There’s one post in particular that I need to talk about, though, and that’s the one with Newsweek journalist N’Gai Croal’s thoughts on the trailer for Resident Evil 5. (We’re going to get a little NSFW from here on out; you have been warned.)
You can watch the trailer here. It features protagonist Chris Redfield gunning down an African village full of zombies.
I’ve excerpted some of Croal’s argument below, though I strongly encourage you to read the whole post to put it in context.
I looked at the “Resident Evil 5″ trailer and I was like, “Wow, clearly no one black worked on this game.” Because I wonder, and I haven’t sort of really dug into it that much, but I wonder what sort of advice Capcom gave them. The point isn’t that you can’t have black zombies. There was a lot of imagery in that trailer that dovetailed with classic racist imagery.
There was stuff like even before the point in the trailer where the crowd turned into zombies. There [sic] sort of being, in sort of post-modern parlance, they’re sort of “othered.” They’re hidden in shadows, you can barely see their eyes, and the perspective of the trailer is not even someone who’s coming to help the people. It’s like they’re all dangerous; they all need to be killed.
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.
Now, Croal is a smart guy, as fans of his blog Level Up are aware. I’m sure he was fully aware that his comments would ruffle the feathers of Resident Evil fans. (That, at least, explains the abundance of weasel words — “I haven’t sort of really dug into it that much,” “sort of being, in sort of post-modern parlance,” etc.) But the cards are stacked against him from the beginning because he has the audacity to try to make a nuanced point.
If you read his argument carefully — and I again encourage you to look at the whole thing — it’s obvious that his beef is not with Capcom, or even with Resident Evil 5. He’s specifically concerned with the trailer’s usage of a particular kind of imagery (racial othering) as seen through the lens of a particular discipline (postmodernism). He also clearly doesn’t want to stop the game from being released; he is suggesting that more care ought to be taken with its use of racially charged images. In short, it’s not the kind of argument that can be easily distilled.
Naturally, that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying. Here are a couple of comments from the discussion of Croal’s comments on Joystiq.
Im so pumped for this game and if they ban it or something I will be pissed. I already didnt liek N’gay Troll and now he wants to do this to me =(
This is so gay. No one is going to buy this game for the sole purpose of offin’ some brothers…even if they did who cares? Its not like the rest of us are. Those same people will go around killing black random people in GTA IV, or any other game allowing such play. The rest of us just want a bad ass game thats fun to play. If its set in Africa, who gives a damn? The main character has been around and was already white. No matter what color he is people will always have a problem. game on, bitches.
And here’s a couple from Kotaku’s 1000+ comment snafu.
This is PC bullshite. By throwing a fit and claiming that black people should be treated different than white people, YOU are perpetuating racism, N’Gai. Disagree? Try looking up the definition of racism first. Heck, I’ll do it for you:
“a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.”
Sorry, N’Gai, you’re racist.
If the people in the game were white, there would be NO discussion.
N’Gai Croal = Whining punk bitch.
Sorry we cant kill white zombies exclusively Mr.Croal. Do we really have to cater to this generation of black people just because white cops hosed down their great grandparents during the Civil Rights movement?
Well, that about speaks for itself, doesn’t it?
To be fair, there are a few intelligent, well-reasoned comments here and there. But there are many, many more that are as bad as, or worse than, the ones I’ve selected. Kotaku editor Brian Crecente even took the opportunity to reflect on the viability of his site’s commenting policy. So what’s going on?
I think there are two issues. The first is something Penny Arcade famously described in the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory — that anonymity encourages poor behavior. On the Internet, when someone’s gut reaction is pure, sputtering anger, he usually has no incentive to filter himself.1 The upshot is that the level of discourse takes a nose dive as discussion devolves into name-calling and ad hominem attacks. (Joystiq and Kotaku are partially at fault here too; they both quoted Croal out of context with the sensationalist headline “Clearly No One Black Worked On This Game.” In hindsight, that was not the way to kick-start a debate.)
The second issue, and the more important one in my view, is something common to all video game fans — our need to justify our pastime. With games under near-constant attack from the media and government, we tend to be unduly suspicious of anyone with a critical agenda. Claims of racism, sexism, indecency, violence, or game addiction are shrilly decried by the gaming community for fear of censorship. In other words, I don’t think the Joystiq and Kotaku commenters care what Croal’s opinion of Resident Evil 5 is on a personal level; they’re just worried that his public criticism will somehow affect their ability to enjoy it.
That, I think, is the wrong approach to take. Video games are not yet at the point of widespread acceptance — gamers are still thought of as a distinct subculture in a way that, say, moviegoers are not — and intelligent discussion from mainstream journalists like Croal helps elevate the medium beyond its current marginalized status. By shouting down any and all criticism, especially using the tone that many of the Kotaku and Joystiq commenters adopted, we present an ugly face for the gaming community that confirms the worst of society’s stereotypes.
- There’s a ton more to be said on this topic, but it’s beyond the scope of this blog. For more on creating accountability in online communities, I recommend the recent post “Can $5 Improve Reader Comments?” from the Freakonomics blog. (Be sure to scroll down and read the comments.)