Hoisted from Comments: Psychochild on RE5 and Legitimacy

Psychochild has a very good comment on an earlier post:

This could be an emotional Rorschach test. The scene in a game shows a bunch of black people beating a bloody sack, do you:

1. think they’re killing an innocent?
2. think they could be killing a threat?
3. withhold judgment?

Part of the problem with that scene is that horror movies and (especially) horror games thrive off of ambiguity. Not knowing if that body ahead is a real corpse or a motionless zombie is what makes the Resident Evil games so suspenseful. But, you take that ambiguity and apply it to a different area and suddenly you’re stomping on culturally sensitive areas.

Of course, this could also be a calculated PR stunt by Capcom. Put a bunch of questionably racist stuff in the game, let the mainstream press get in a tizzy about it, and get free coverage for your next big game. If this is the case, then it definitely goes against the struggle for legitimacy for games. Sadly, it’s not easy to rule this out as a possibility, given the depths that game-related PR and marketing has gone to before.

On the other hand, I’m a bit worried that all this discussion might be happening just because it’s a game. There might be perfectly acceptable explanations for the apparently racist scenes; as people point out, the white woman being dragged to her presumed death by the black zombies is actually a character from an earlier game. Even though the scene of the “black brutes dragging away the helpless white woman” is filled to the brim with racial issues, particularly in the U.S. It is a known technique to use a provocative image like that to challenge people’s assumptions; I think it can be done well as long as it’s appropriate to the story.

I firmly believe that art includes the ugly parts of life as well as the beautiful. And does anyone doubt that games can include “not-fun” stuff on the way to being fun?

In thinking about this issue, I find it useful to distinguish between the concept of “racism” and “bigotry”. Racism I define to be the existence of associations on the emotional (non-thinking) level that are clustered around racial characteristics. That is, if you find black skinned characters to be more scary or more likely to be violent, you harbor racist associations. Here’s the thing: most people do, and that includes me. If you don’t believe me, try taking the Harvard Test of Implicit Associations.

The test gives you a simple task, pick quickly between two words that align with something “good” and something “bad”. Maybe those two words exactly. But they try to confuse you by showing two pictures underneath those two words. And then they measure how many times you screw up. So, to be a bit more explicit, they measure how many times you clicked “bad” by mistake because “good” had a picture of a black person under it. It’s very, ahem, sobering. At least they didn’t measure my implicit associations with dwarves.

But bigotry takes those implicit associations and makes them explicit and entrenched. The kind of PR stunt that Psychochild refers to is a form of bigotry, or maybe it’s the commercial equivalent of trolling.

Not being a bigot involves a process of awareness. Be aware of your biases, and evaluate the evidence against those biases, as well as the evidence for them. Allow for the possibility that you might be wrong.

I tend to evaluate art in a statistical way. One single act, cutscene, or character choice doesn’t conclusively show racism, or more importantly, bigotry.

Let’s take Tolkien, for instance. The racial context of LOTR includes the Southron men, allies of Sauron, being darker-skinned. Was that racist or simply geographical? It is quite likely that Tolkien had some racist associations, after all, I do, and he lived in a time of much greater segregation.

But I categorically reject the notion that Tolkien was bigoted. Many of the subplots and themes of LOTR deal specifically with overcoming prejudice. That’s the meaning of Legolas’ and Gimli’s friendship. And of Frodo’s determination to show mercy to Gollum, as set against Sam’s better judgement. In the end Frodo failed, but do we think he was wrong to try. And Faramir has a speech wherein he says that the Southron men are just men caught up in something larger than themselves, who would likely rather be at home tending their fields or sitting by the fire. We see this lack of bigotry in Faramir as virtue, and we suspect we would never hear such a speech from Boromir.

On another recent post, Psychochild wrote:

If you make a black NPC then draw a attention to it, this can more appalling as not having any black characters at all. It’s also complicated by the fact that many NPCs in MMOs aren’t really fully-realized characters, but rather vending machines for quests or items or they are walking bags of xp and loot. The color of their skin really doesn’t make a difference in terms of gameplay. But, if you ignore skin color and everyone’s white, that can get you slapped with the “racist” label.

I can understand the reluctance of some game devs/writers to get into the racial issues, especially in MMO’s. The point about many NPC’s not being fully realized is well-taken. There’s an important rule in writing: Write what you know. Most gamedevs, though not all, are white, and probably haven’t been around blacks all that much. (Watching music videos and movies doesn’t count, y’all) They are fearful of giving offense and want to avoid controversy, and want to not be racist, or to be called racist. Or they want to use racial controversy to gin up sales.

I urge developers that want to push the medium to, well, to get out more. Go to a black church, or a barbershop. Read some black bloggers, or some black novelists. Ta-Nehisi Coates loves comic books, WoW, and D&D, and he likes to have discussions about race, that might be a good start. The most important thing I think I’ve learned from reading him is that there is no single “black” point of view. No more than there is a “white” point of view.

Recently, I was nearly done checking out at a Borders bookstore when I realized, “hey, this guy at the register is black!” Before I started “getting out more”, I would have been proud of the fact that I didn’t notice. However, the consequence is that the black middle class becomes invisible, and our notion of what “black” is and what it means is skewed by the “squeaky wheels”.

It doesn’t have to be black, either. It could be Asian-, or Mexican-Americans. Or something else. Learn it, bring it to your work. MMO’s have a natural advantage in that they are generally able to be a lot more responsive to their customer base. Which could result in them being a bit more experimental, and to engage in honest dialogue with their customers.

One of the great appeals of MMOs is the opportunity to “be someone else”. I’ve written before about research that demonstrates that having a taller avatar influences your behavior. Which implies to me that MMO’s and games in general could be a wonderful vehicle to experience a different point of view.

And have fun.

One thought on “Hoisted from Comments: Psychochild on RE5 and Legitimacy

  1. very useful read. I would love to follow you on twitter. By the way, did you guys hear that some chinese hacker had busted twitter yesterday again.

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