With Friday’s release of “Resident Evil 5” (rated M, $60 for Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3), gamers can plunge headlong into a simmering controversy over whether the game’s racially charged imagery is in poor taste.
Unlike the first several “Resident Evil” titles, the current installment is set not in the United States or Spain, but in a fictional African nation. And, like the very first “Resident Evil,” it stars American Chris Redfield. When the first trailer of the game surfaced at E3 in 2007, some journalists were alarmed that the initial glimpse of the game showed a white protagonist mowing down hordes of black people infected with the T-virus. (The virus turns the people it infects into mindless, bloodthirsty zombies.) To gamers who’ve played previous titles in the series, the trip to Africa seemed like a natural evolution of the story. And, obviously, zombies in Africa would be predominantly black.
Perhaps concerned with the potential reaction of the nongaming public upon the title’s release, a handful of writers, notably Newsweek’s N’Gai Croal and MTV’s Stephen Totilo, expressed nuanced discomfort with the trailer. Criticisms ranged from the way the trailer presented uninfected Africans to Totilo’s grappling with the idea of playing a game where the people you’re fighting — impoverished Africans — are those for whom endless infomercials and news reports have conditioned middle America to feel, as Totilo puts it, “sympathy and charity.”
More recent pushback from people who’ve played large parts or all of the game have focused on more specific issues, such as an in-game movie where black African zombies descends upon a screaming white woman. (It’s worth mentioning that, while I’m interested in these discussions, I haven’t yet played “Resident Evil 5.” I plan on withholding judgment until I eventually do.)
With the Internet being the Internet, the arguments put forth by Croal, Totilo and others have become distorted. Rather than an intelligent discussion of whether the game’s racial imagery is in poor taste, we get a bunch of mouth-breathing forum posters who haven’t played the game essentially trying to shout down anyone who’d dare criticize their beloved pasttime. No matter how well-reasoned a critique of the game has been, the comments associated with the articles just repeat the same tired point about how the game is set in Africa, so it has to have black zombies. Oh, and that no one complained when the last game was set in Spain that it was racist against Hispanics. And that “Resident Evil 5” is made by a Japanese company, and they don’t have the same racial issues there that we do in America.
But those who would try to shout down intelligent discussion about a game’s racial imagery need to mellow out. The issue at hand is more complicated than whether the game or its creators are “racist.” And no one is insinuating that “Resident Evil 5” is a Ku Klux Klan simulator or that those who enjoy playing it really just want to commit virtual genocide. If you’re one of those people who plays games to get away from racism and society’s ills and is bothered by seeing weightier issues covered in the gaming press, well, move along and let the grown-ups have their discussion. And don’t whine the next time you hear someone denigrate video games as an artistic medium. You’ve lost the right to complain.