More Zombies in Africa

Seth Schiesel has a review of Resident Evil 5 up on the New York Times site. I think it’s worth reading, if for no other reason than Seth never writes, “It’s just a game.”

So Resident Evil 5 exposes the perhaps uncomfortable truth that blacks and Arabs can become zombies too, just like anyone else. Blacks and Arabs do not have a secret anti-zombie gene. And just like all the thousands of white, Asian and Hispanic zombies that have been dispatched in innumerable other games before them, the African zombies must also be destroyed, or at least neutralized.

This supposed controversy is why no one should ever try to come to a serious judgment about a game — which by its nature is interactive — based on a noninteractive snippet like a trailer.

Isn’t it possible that the game isn’t racist, but the trailer is?

Here Seth highlights that once caught up in gameplay, racial references drop off the radar.

There is no question that Resident Evil 5 is mostly about a white guy and his local café-au-lait hottie running around killing a bunch of deranged Africans (as opposed to deranged white people). But this is not a movie. When you are in control of the action the racial or ethnic appearance of your enemies simply stops mattering. The basic mechanics of moving, shooting, using cover, solving puzzles, employing weapons properly and understanding the overall environment are universal, no matter whether the enemies are aliens or Nazis or zombies or gangsters or any of the other categories we use to denote “acceptable to kill.”

I agree to a point. When you play these games, you aren’t thinking very much about anything other than success in the game. But what’s on the screen has an effect. And this effect is probably stronger if it isn’t mindful. The effect is to associate certain things together. With luck, the association would be to associate “Zombies” with “Bad”. But is that what it accomplishes? Are all the zombies rendered with the exact same skin tone? Is there variation? Are there absolutely no white people in RE5′s Africa? I can’t say because I haven’t played the game, and Seth doesn’t tell us because he thinks it doesn’t matter. But it does matter, even if you aren’t paying attention to it while playing. (Again, I say take the Harvard Implicit Association Test to see what I mean.)

My biggest problem with the review is this:

For at least a year some black journalists have been wringing their hands about whether the game, the latest in the seminal survival-horror series, inflames racist stereotypes because it is set in Africa. The answer is no.

The phrase “wringing their hands” is a cheap shot. It delegitimizes the concerns of a people who have, within the lifetime of people living in this country, been shot for the crime of walking into the wrong neighborhood. That stuff really happened, there are people around who personally witnessed it. And I’m talking about humans, not 3000-year-old elves like yours truly.

All that said, Resident Evil 5 could not possibly have been made in the United States. Racial sensitivities and prevailing political correctness would have had American game executives squirming in their Aeron chairs the minute they read a budget proposal for a game featuring African zombies.

Somehow, I seriously doubt that Seth has ever been involved in early-stage development of a video game, at the executive level. And while the US gaming industry isn’t full of people trying to lead the culture (as opposed to making a buck), there is serious potential there. There are probably a few executives and gamedevs out there grappling with how to make a game both address race relations and be lots of fun to play. Where is the game equivalent to Die Hard With a Vengeance? I’ll bet there’s someone out there who will make it.

In fact, I think it already has been made, and it’s called Warcraft and World of Warcraft. Blizzard has completely rethought what an orc is, and helped us to see the world from their point of view. So much do they identify with the orc that they put a statue of one outside their new digs.

The best part of Seth’s review is that he takes gaming seriously. I don’t agree with some of his points, but I would like to see more discussion of this, not less.

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