The Theory of Gaming

July 18, 2008

Resident Evil 5 and Race in Games

Filed under: game design — Tags: , — spotpuff @ 11:36

Recently there was some controversy over Resident Evil 5.  The game takes place in Africa and Chris Redfield, the white protagonist, was shown in the game trailer shooting a bunch of black zombies.  My first thoughts when I saw the trailer were “Wow, that looks great” (I enjoyed RE4) and “People are going to be mad about this”.

Now, people are going to be mad about anything, but race is always a touchy subject.  For those familiar with the Resident Evil series, you’ll know it’s about zombies.  Nasty zombies.  The kind that sprout tentacles and monsters from their heads and then try to eat your brains.  Having a white protagonist attacked by a horde of mindless black zombies is going to be about as well received as a Muslim person praying on an airplane.

There’s been the typical backlash by special interest groups and gamers (do gamers count as a special interest group?).  Those taking offense point out there’s a history of negative stereotypical portrayals of black people in video games and other media.  Gamers point out there’s been numerous other Resident Evil games portraying whites, hispanics, and other ethnic groups as mindless zombies, and no one really seemed to care about race then.  The only reason people are up in arms now is because the zombies are black this time.

Race is a tricky subject to address in any medium, and I use the term “race” with some reservation simply due to the fact that I don’t believe the traditional definition of race makes any sense; humans typically view race as based on physical appearance (skin colour, facial features, hair, etc.), but definitions based on geography, nationality, genetics and socio-economic status also exist.  None of the definitions really make any sense to me and a lot of them conflict with one another.

The question I ask of people is: is it possible to include black people in games without upsetting a lot of people?  When you look at video games, there hasn’t really been a “traditional” role occupied by black characters, unlike a lot of other media like film and theater.  You can’t really do blackface in a video game.  Well, I guess you could, but it would be ridiculous.  I can understand the concern on the part of black people with regards to adding another negative portrayal to them in video game form, even if the “traditional” discriminatory practices haven’t been prevalent in that medium yet.  It would be wise not to retread on past mistakes.

Video games have included black characters in many different roles, from gangsters to scientists (GTA & the half life series).  Granted, there haven’t exactly been a lot of black characters in video games, and the tendency for white video game designers to casually make them caricatures of people seen on Black Entertainment Television doesn’t exactly show that the video game industry can be responsible about this sort of thing. I don’t want to see affirmative action in video games, with token black characters filling out stereotypical roles, but given the scope of most video games (they’re centered on a small group of characters) that tends to be problematic without seeming somewhat patronizing. It’s like the stock photos you see on the internet: one out of every three people will be black, one out of three will be a woman, and sometimes they’ll add an Asian woman in just to be safe. Granted if enough black characters are added to video games, maybe we can finally get to the point where it won’t seem like a black character was added simply for the sake of having a black character in the game. For example, in Half Life 2, the character Alyx Vance is the main heroine, but it doesn’t feel forced since we know about her father, Eli Vance, from Half Life 1; it makes sense that he has a daughter and she’s part of the human resistance.

Unfortunately, examples like that are few and far between. Video games are, after all, made by real people who live in the real world, and who are surrounded by hip hop, television, films, and other media from which to take cues on how black people act. Games like 50 Cent: Bulletproof certainly don’t help matters, but really in these cases video games aren’t doing anything other media forms haven’t already done with regards to portrayals of black characters.

Video games do, however, have a tradition of hiding many character’s appearances or traits from the player. Gordon Freeman and Samus Aran are two such examples.

Samus Aran’s revelation as a woman character was a shock to pretty much everyone when they beat Metroid. Everyone just assumed the character was a man. That’s the way our society is; women serve only to be damsels in distress or objects of desire in video games.

In the half life series, the player never, ever sees what they look like. Gordon Freeman is only seen on the box art of the game. Mirrors do not exist in the half life universe, and reflective surfaces reflect everything but your face. The character Chell from the game Portal, also by Valve, is similarly hidden although using some careful portal placement allows you to see what your character looks like.

In that sense, there’s no reason similar approaches can’t be taken for black characters in video games. Hopefully they don’t go the way of women characters becoming hyper sexualized and typecast, but eventually if enough black characters are added to games it will become commonplace enough that it will stop becoming such a big issue. Outsiders and special interest groups won’t feel the need to attack the industry and gamers won’t have to defend it.

On the other hand, you just can’t make some people happy. I’d be the most naive person on the planet to think people would stop criticizing video games. They’ll keep criticizing video games for being too violent, too sexist, too racist, too casual, too hardcore or too addictive no matter what you try to do. So to all the game devs out there: hang in there and keep doing what you’re doing, keep touching on social issues, and your fans will keep playing.


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