Is Capcom's Resident Evil 5 survival horror video game racist, unintentionally or otherwise?
Everyone's asking, now that we're down to the final pre-release beats.
Never mind that the bad guys in the game are technically multiracial, and — if your definition of racism is also color-bound — multihued.
The last critical salvo on this touchy issue came in April 2008, when a handful of writers leveled incendiary charges at Capcom. Like Bonnie Ruberg, who wrote "it's not just that these zombies are black, but that the uninfected black villagers are zombie-like too," or N'Gai Croal, with his famously over-the-top "clearly no one black worked on this game." Even I pondered the possibility.
Now even non-gaming-entities like The Atlantic are weighing in, stating they have "no idea what the frack Capcom was thinking." Not, it turns out, in reference to the game itself, but rather Eurogamer's description of it:
One of the first things you see in the game, seconds after taking control of Chris Redfield, is a gang of African men brutally beating something in a sack. Animal or human, it's never revealed, but these are not infected Majini. There are no red bloodshot eyes. These are ordinary Africans, who stop and stare at you menacingly as you approach. Since the Majini are not undead corpses, and are capable of driving vehicles, handling weapons and even using guns, it makes the line between the infected monsters and African civilians uncomfortably vague. Where Africans are concerned, the game seems to be suggesting, bloodthirsty savagery just comes with the territory.
Really? And we know they're meant to represent "ordinary Africans" (whatever that means) because it's...what...in the fine print somewhere?
I think Eurogamer's dangerously confused here. That, or my own read, playing through the same sequence, is utterly blind. I simply assumed something had happened to the "ordinary" villagers, viral infection or no, in turn giving rise to their hostile posturing.
What I didn't assume (and what Eurogamer implies) is that Capcom wants you to think — regardless of extenuating circumstances — that Africans are somehow innately, inherently, and/or genetically feral. "Bloodthirsty savages," as Eurogamer puts it.
Let's see. Paranoid stereotyping, check. Assumptions of wrongdoing with flimsy, subjective evidence, check. That way madness lies? A slippery slope of tenuously connected albeit technically impossible to disprove allegations? Check and check.
Let's be very clear. As RE5 opens, you're told that something's happened in a fictional African village. There's been an "incident." Something out of the ordinary's occurred (as opposed to the "ordinary" suddenly rising up and evilly asserting itself).
With that in mind, and the knowledge that Resident Evil is a survival horror series wherein ordinary humans of all sorts are manipulated by extraordinary forces into doing things beyond their control, which makes more sense?
That Capcom's exploiting racist stereotypes (bizarrely culled from multiple ethnicities) to create a sense of dread?
That Capcom wants you to think something's gone badly wrong in this village, and — as in past games — that something's responsible for the inhabitants' rancorous behavior.
Eurogamer attempts to defang potential criticism of its position by playing the legacy card.
There will be plenty of people who refuse to see anything untoward in this material. "It wasn't racist when the enemies were Spanish in Resident Evil 4," goes the argument, but then the Spanish don't have the baggage of being stereotyped as subhuman animals for the past two hundred years.
Which, if you want to start tallying up who did what to whom, and when, and for how long, is all kinds of crazy. No one "owns" victimization at the hands of historically barbaric practices like slavery. Exploitation and subjugation is hardly the purview of a single ethnicity. Appealing to historical proportionality to dismiss one type of "negative" portrayal, e.g. the Spaniards in Resident Evil 4, while criticizing another, e.g. the multifarious "African" ethnicities in Resident Evil 5, is also both insulting and asinine.
At one point, Chris Redfield delivers an anti-capitalist screed, generalizing "highly competitive and stressful" behavior to "Americans."
Racist? Country-ist? Culture-ist? Continental-ist?
There's certainly a long and storied history of anti-capitalist, anti-American imagery.
But is that what we've come to? Every image that "has a history" off limits? Every perceived slight a prelude to inquisition?
Let's hope not.
Matt Peckham is tired of all the cultural wheel-spinning distracting otherwise perfectly decent folk from tackling legitimate problems. He'll let you know if that changes at twitter.com/game_on.