brainless hordes (and zombies too)

One signal of the mainstram media’s refusal to acknowledge the artistic potential of the video game medium: even when a reputable publication reviews important and controversial title, it assigns a hack to do it. What would we have done without this insightful analysis from the NYT?

Let’s get this out of the way: Resident Evil 5 is not a racist game.

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.

What’s frustrating here, is not Schiesel’s conclusion.  Its how he refuses to take the game’s critics seriously. By fixating on whether or not the game is “racist” or “not racist” Schiessel, and some of the game’s critics, miss the point: one can enjoy the game and not feel guilty for doing so, while still thinking critically about the way that racial perceptions inform and are informed by the presentation and gameplay mechanics.  But when he tries to take the discussion to that level, Schiessel goes way off:

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.

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.

Two problems there. The first stems from a version of what LM has called “the Freedom Fallacy“. He is specifically referring to designers’ insistence that games design should always serve to expand player choice rather than authorial vision; I think “Freedom Fallacy” does just as well to describe the assumption by reviewers and audiences that the defining aspect of gameplay is control. For every decision a game lets you make, there are thousands that it never puts on the table. Games are interactive, but that hardly means the user has unmediated “control of the action.” It’s not as though an RE5 player could choose to complete the game without shooting black people.

The second problem comes from the utterly bizarre assertion that increased control makes ethnicity and race less salient. Arguably, the fact of limited control and the need for player participation for the action to resolve incentivizes players to identify with the acts and motives of their character in a way that movie audience might not. This is why the defense that, for example, the previous game was set in Spain, doesn’t cut it. Teenagers in the developed world don’t think about Africans the same way they think about Spaniards. As a result, they’ll bring different schema to the table when playing the game.  Lou Kesten’s fair review gets it right, I think, when he says that “the racial imagery is more loaded than its creators probably realized” – the controversy isn’t about whether or not Capcom execs “are” racist, it’s about the social consequences of their product.

Unfortunately, any conversation about that product is going to fall back on two underdeveloped vocabularies: the one we use to talk about race, and the one we use to talk about video games. Both need sophistication.


~ by staticandme on March 16, 2009.

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