Something to Chew on: Racism, Zombies, and the Mainstream Media

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In celebration of the soon to be released Resident Evil 5, I’d like to us all to take a moment and think about the controversy that has been stirred up since N’Gai, gaming’s most distinguished African American, criticized the game’s first trailer by saying that clearly no black person worked on the creation of the game.

I know I know, you’re thinking: “Not another racism commentary about RE5…”, but I offer you what I hope to be a new perspective on the topic that will hopefully settle this discussion until the actual game itself makes up all of our minds for us.

You see, the game was designed by Capcom which is a Japanese company. I love Japan, I even spent a year living there as an exchange student when I was 16 years old in a small city called Saga (near Fukuoka and Nagasaki).

The post-war Japanese mentality is very progressive, both socially and technologically. They are open to all kinds of crazy shit, as can be seen through the countless video clips from their television shows, or from Katamari Damacy, it all depends on what you’re into. However, despite their open-mindedness and otherwise cheerful dispositions, the Japanese are not exactly the most multicultural of people out there. Hell, even other Asians visiting or living in Japan feel incredibly foreign. Perhaps as a consequence of this, or of something completely unrelated, the Japanese people aren’t exactly the most culturally… how to say, sensitive.

In the Americas we’ve been dealing with divisive ethnic lines for centuries, and have ourselves only recently made strides (worth bragging about) with the election of the most-loved politician since Kim Jong Ill (without needing to be brainwashed into it either!). However in Japan, historically speaking, things didn’t go down that way.

I’ve seen so many Japanese comedy sketches that depict Africans in the most insulting of ways, not seen since the early days of motion videos dating back to when white Americans would have blacks dress up and humiliatingly dance for the black and white cameras to give white people kicks. Do the Japanese actually mean to harm the world’s black population in the same kind of way? I don’t think so, considering that there are probably fewer than 1000 actual black people in all of Japan, which itself has a population of 130 million? How can they possibly know how sensitive of an issue pointing a gun at a group of shanty-town dwelling Africans can be to a people with whom they’ve had little to no historical contact with?

By now you’re probably saying, “Oh so you’re calling the Japanese racist, but then defending them for making a game that revolves around surviving the mad ravings of a group of stereotypically starved Africans, taking place in a stereotypically shitty little African town, by a people who are stereotypically know to be affected by a devastating disease?!’ you’d accuse me. Well, Gosh no. My point is this: to every story there is context and subtext, in the case of the Resident Evil Series the context is survival horror against all odds, while the subtext is, you guessed it, mother fucking Zombies. In the case of RE 5, we have a follow up game to one of the best games of the last generation of consoles, based upon the premise that has always been at the heart of the Resident Evil series: suspenseful action, trite puzzle solving, bad controls, Zombified dogs, and a wicked amount of fun.

In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Jamin Brophy-Warren is clear when he points out that RE5 is ‘not a game about killing Africans.’ This is a good sign that the mainstream media sort of understand what’s going on. However, what they are still missing out on can be seen in his last paragraph, where he complains that Chris Redfield takes no time to contemplate the consequences of colonialism, his role as a white male in Africa, or other intelligent and insightful aspects of Africa’s post-colonial struggle with underdevelopment, poverty, and HIV/AIDS.

While this is a fair point, Brophy-Warren misses the point that I made above: the game was made by fucking Japanese people! What the hell does the average Japanese developer, out to make a solid game that can exceed the expectations set by its predecessors, want with a balanced story line that takes into consideration the feelings of Africans when his goal isn’t to create a fun game about killing blacks but a fun game about killing zombies?

Anyone who wants a solid narrative on the consequences of colonialism should go out and read J.M Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (even if you aren’t interested in that topic, read it anyways, it’s fucking amazing).

Probably without even realizing it, N’gai was totally right: there were probably zero black people actually working on the story line, plot layout, code development, or art design of this game.

Some people might think that I am dismissing the video game genre as being a carrier for a driving narrative, story line, or as an intellectual medium in general. I will be the first to say that if I were in the gaming industry, which I wish I was on account of my love for games, I would be the biggest promoter of moving games away from mindless violence and graphical self-indulgence towards the implementation of complex, character driven story lines that engage us in the same way that Coppela did with The Godfather, Herbert did with Dune, or Houser and Humphries with GTA IV.

I just don’t think that all development studios can make games like Rockstar has, not just yet anyways. I feel this is mainly because our industry, though growing exponentially fast, is still going through the process of maturing, just like its primary young/middle-aged adult audience.

Someday I believe that we’ll see more story driven games that tell a tale that we can relate to and learn from. I honestly have faith in the intelligence of game designers and the eventual balance between narrative and gameplay that will be imperative for making excellent, stand-out games as have companies like Rockstar and Bioware.

The mainstream media will need to recognize this fact if they are to make real assessments of games and their content, and will also need to realize that a game that involves the shooting of zombies does not carry with it inherent racial undertones simply because those zombies are black. What if the viral outbreak happened in China, or India, or (God forbid) Israel? Zombie Jews! Could you imagine?

If anyone should get pissed off, it should be the white people. I have no proof of this, but 25 years of playing games and watching movies has led me to conclude that white people are the most shot at in both of these media…so all you white boys and girls should be the ones complaining, not us visual minorities!

All jokes aside, I’m glad that people are aware that there exists a potential for racism in video games and are watching out for it, but non-gamers who don’t understand the medium should seriously consider their reputations before claiming a game contains ‘full on sex scenes’, ‘racist killing of blacks in Africa’, or ‘missions aimed at the murdering of prostitutes’. The gaming industry simply needs time to grow up and find itself, and while they’re at it, come up with a better way of describing itself other than by using the denigrating word ‘game’.

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