Zombies and the White Man's Burden

Zombies and the White Man's Burden

This month's target of internet invective is the Resident Evil 5 trailer. This one has been under a lot of scrutiny of late, mainly because, for the first time ever, the antagonists of a videogame are poor black villagers (never mind that they've been zombified, they're still poor black villagers), and the protagonist is white. For some folks, this is unacceptable, and they see no way to do anything about it. Cue: moral outrage.

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I highly doubt this would have been intentional on capcom's part. For starters they are Japanese, so all the black vs white BS that goes on in america would be pretty bloody irrelevant to them. But mostly, its just really easy to see how they came up with the idea for the game setting.

They take the main character from the RE series and put him in a game. He happens to be white. He's been like that since he was born, or at least created.
They decide that they want bright light to play a big part in the game mechanic, so the game is set in africa. Where it happens to be really sunny a lot of the time.
The game is set in africa, so the villagers are black. I dare you to challenge me on this.
Its resident evil, so you shoot the villagers because they are zombies/possessed/something new and they are trying to kill you.

The word for people who complain about this sort of stuff is "ignorant". For the sake of politeness I won't mention the other words I personally would call these people.

Goofonian:
The word for people who complain about this sort of stuff is "ignorant".

I think it's possible to be informed and still be somewhat uncomfortable with the whole thing. I was uncomfortable slaughtering Spanish "zombies" in RE4, particularly when I learned that the virus infecting them was in fact curable. [Added: For that matter, I was uncomfortable with the realization that I'd slaughtered a comparable number of Latino rebels in Mexico in Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter.]

The RE5 trailer takes that to a whole new level. There's an obvious and disturbing parallel with the real world, here: a white man is massacring black people in an African town to contain an outbreak of an extremely dangerous blood-borne virus. I think what makes people uncomfortable isn't just that it's white-on-black violence instead of white-on-Spanish violence or white-on-white violence, it's that the scenario is terrifyingly plausible.

I'm not outraged, myself. I loved RE4 despite my discomfort, and I largely agree with Russ: inadvertent though it probably was, Capcom's game will be very interesting from a moral standpoint. I'll almost certainly buy and play the game when it comes out, but I'm not willing to condemn those who are upset.

Some people will take any excuse to be offended. I can see why; making yourself a victim, or making somebody else a victim and rushing to their defense, gives you power and sympathy. It puts you on the right side of the conflict. That there shouldn't be a conflict in the first place never seems to occur to these people.

I can see what I want to see in just about anything I look at, if I squint the right way. It's a task made easier by our willingness - our insistence, really - on framing everything we do now with everything we've done in the past. I'm not qualified to speak on the so-called "culture of victimhood" we seem to be living in, but I can't help wondering when the injustices inflicted upon someone's "people" stop being relevant to that individual's own experience.

Malygris:
I'm not qualified to speak on the so-called "culture of victimhood" we seem to be living in, but I can't help wondering when the injustices inflicted upon someone's "people" stop being relevant to that individual's own experience.

I don't know either, but, I think the interesting thing is that a lot of people who complain about a "culture of victimhood" (and I'm not directing this at you, or anyone, just to make that clear) are the kind of people with posters up that read "9-11: Never Forget"

Malygris:
I can't help wondering when the injustices inflicted upon someone's "people" stop being relevant to that individual's own experience.

I think the tricky thing is that, well, to some extent we're all in a 'race' with each other. If my people did better than you in the past, I have a head start on you in life. I mean, like Einstein supposedly said: "The most powerful force in the universe is compound interest"

I think a lot of the reason injustices stay relevant is because those injustices tripped up that individual's people in the 'race' and they're still lagging behind.

I mean, think about it: the British burned our executive residence only about fifty years before the Emancipation Proclamation--is just that fifty years enough to explain the difference between how often we hear about reparations for Slavery as opposed to reparations for the War of 1812? Or does that have more to do with how well the U.S. is doing vis-a-vis the UK, as compared to how well black Americans are doing vis-a-vis white Americans?

Japan's closest ally is the U.S., a country that dropped two atomic bombs on it. The U.S. is also a country where Japan has made a lot of money. I don't think it's a coincidence that the most well-know artifact of Japan's culture of victimhood is a bunch of movies about a giant lizard.

To speak of something a much more personal to me, I don't think it's a coincidence that Gerry Adams became a willing and optimistic part of a government that includes Ian Paisley--and vice versa--during a period where the prospect exists for Northern Ireland 'piggybacking' on the 'Celtic Tiger'.

Right or wrong, it seems how long people hold on to an injustice has a lot to do with how much better or worse the former oppressor is doing in economic terms. Mutual economic prosperity seems to heal wounds far better than time.

Malygris:
I can see what I want to see in just about anything I look at, if I squint the right way.

Well, then, is there any combination of ethnicities that you don't think would be appropriate in a RE franchise game? I can think of a few examples that would cause a similar outcry, though perhaps for somewhat different reasons:

Arab protagonist and Jewish zombies;
Arab protagonist and American zombies;
Russian protagonist and Chechen zombies;
American protagonist and Native American zombies;
Indonesian protagonist and East Timorese zombies;
Japanese protagonist and Chinese zombies.

I think context matters. I'm not suggesting that Capcom should change the setting of their game or that they shouldn't have set it there in the first place, though. I'm simply suggesting that we shouldn't be surprised by, disappointed in, or dismissive of the outcry.

If the outcry is justifiable, then me being dismissive of it is equally justifiable.

Fortunately, it doesn't matter how much people whinge because racism has very little to do with "protecting the children", so there won't be any political interest or ESRB scandals. The game won't get banned in Australia/Germany/England and I will get to play it and remain happy while I ignore all the people writing there opinions in to the tabloids.

Goofonian:
If the outcry is justifiable, then me being dismissive of it is equally justifiable.

I haven't said your dismissiveness is unjustifiable. I don't think it's particularly useful, though. There's a discussion to be had here, if we're willing to get down off our "you people don't know what you're talking about/are just seeing what you want to see" high horse, and I think we as gamers need to realize that just as much as the people who are spouting ill-informed outrage from high horses of their own. [Added: I think it's interesting that Malygris referenced a perceived culture of victimhood, because in a way we gamers have one ourselves. It seems to me that in some contexts we collectively think of ourselves as a pariah community, gaming with pride while the rest of society looks on with disdain. Efforts to regulate the sale of videogames to minors and the backlash against said efforts are one example. We sometimes respond to perceived attacks with scorn. I don't think this is particularly useful or productive.]

Like I said, context matters, and discussing some games in their broader social context can be pretty fruitful. Having said that, I think the discussion will be even more interesting once we've had a chance to actually play the game.

a side note that I'm not quite sure how to relate directly to this: Does anybody else feel that gamers on the whole are being a little foolish for simultaneously suggesting that this isn't an issue, and that because it's a game, and that it's got a story that provides the reasoning we shouldn't be worried about it? Aren't we always trying to get people to understand that games DO matter, that they are a SERIOUS medium, that the messages in games have value? If we do intend to suggest that games are important and need to be taken seriously on one front, we also need to accept that if individual games can be taken offense to we need to address why.

I personally sincerely doubt that Capcom has any intention of making the game a vehicle for white people to shoot black people in. I don't think that that is the issue at hand, I think the true reason people are uncomfortable is because like Ajar said, it's all too plausible. Do the diseased have the right to live at any cost? (including the non-monetary effects of a economic collapse from treating those people?) *Shrug* It's a wonderful area for debate and discourse. While I think that the average person shouldn't be offended by it, people are still offended by "A Modest Proposal", and that one was intentionally inflammatory. Those who are offended should still be given a chance to voice their reasoning and explain their points of view as they are no less valid then my own.

Cheeze_Pavilion:
Right or wrong, it seems how long people hold on to an injustice has a lot to do with how much better or worse the former oppressor is doing in economic terms. Mutual economic prosperity seems to heal wounds far better than time.

I'm not sure this argument holds water in regards to race relations in the US. The former oppressor of American slaves is, and always has been, doing quite well economically. If what you mean to say is that it's tied to the sharing of that wealth, then you may be on to something.

TomBeraha:
I think the true reason people are uncomfortable is because like Ajar said, it's all too plausible.

I think I have to disagree with you there. In this case it seems to me that the outrage is caused (or at least fueled) by a very small group of people who think that capcom is making a white person shooting black people game. And as is always the case, its the vocal minority that make the headlines.

You make a good point about whether we need to decide if we want games to be taken seriously or not, but I don't necessarily think we should be limited to choosing one side or the other. There is room for games that address serious issues and there is room for "popcorn games", so to speak. Given the history of the series, I'd be extremely hesitant to put a Resident Evil in the serious basket.

Ajar:
I think it's possible to be informed and still be somewhat uncomfortable with the whole thing. I was uncomfortable slaughtering Spanish "zombies" in RE4, particularly when I learned that the virus infecting them was in fact curable. [Added: For that matter, I was uncomfortable with the realization that I'd slaughtered a comparable number of Latino rebels in Mexico in Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter.]

I've been thinking about this quite a bit and the conclusion that I've come to is that your right. It is very possible to be informed and still uncomfortable. Infact, I think that is a good thing. It means you have a conscience, and explains why you might choose the good path in KOTOR despite the evil path potentially being more fun. BUT, there is an enormous difference between realising that a game contains morally questionable content and feeling wrong about playing through said content, and actually getting to the point of public outrage. No matter how serious the content may be, it is still just a game. And you can bet your a** that nowhere in the game will it suggest, imply, or even hint that any morally objectional game related activities would be ok in the real world.

edit: On a side note, the virus (it was more of an infestation really) in RE4 was only curable in its early stages. My understanding was that the villagers were well past the point of no return.

Russ Pitts:

Cheeze_Pavilion:
Right or wrong, it seems how long people hold on to an injustice has a lot to do with how much better or worse the former oppressor is doing in economic terms. Mutual economic prosperity seems to heal wounds far better than time.

I'm not sure this argument holds water in regards to race relations in the US. The former oppressor of American slaves is, and always has been, doing quite well economically. If what you mean to say is that it's tied to the sharing of that wealth, then you may be on to something.

Yup--I meant something closer to the latter, that if the victims are doing roughly about as well as their former oppressors, there isn't much talk of that victimhood. In America, you'll rarely hear anyone talk about the period of 'No Irish Need Apply' or the period of indentured servitude because, well, most Irish people are doing pretty well in America.

If you really wanted to throw fuel on the fire, you could bring up the old bit about "Why do only some ethnicities need protection from being turned into zombies and gunned down by video game characters?"

Cheeze_Pavilion:
Yup--I meant something closer to the latter, that if the victims are doing roughly about as well as their former oppressors, there isn't much talk of that victimhood. In America, you'll rarely hear anyone talk about the period of 'No Irish Need Apply' or the period of indentured servitude because, well, most Irish people are doing pretty well in America.

But aren't the victims in this case - black Americans - also doing fairly well for themselves? Or is there still a perception of imbalance between blacks and whites in America?

Malygris:

But aren't the victims in this case - black Americans - also doing fairly well for themselves? Or is there still a perception of imbalance between blacks and whites in America?

I would say blacks are doing less well than whites in America, both in perception and reality.

Fairly well? Maybe. Qualitatively less well? Certainly. While I think absolute prosperity plays a role, I think there's a much bigger role being played by relative prosperity.

I would say that black Americans aren't doing nearly as well as, um, 'green' Americans, so.

Ajar:
American protagonist and Native American [enemy];

Um, pretty sure that every single "Western" game could show you there's little to no outcry when it comes to this.

I think Russ's point of Zombies (and all video game enemies) being the "Other" is spot on, and it's ok to Americans when the "other" is Arabs, or Germans, or French, or Russians, or Spanish, because there's no sense of guilt that's built up. However, if it's Jews or Africans / Blacks, there's massive outcry.

For example, how many essays and blogs are there about the Iranian game where you shoot Israelis? Compare that to those looking at the Arab killing in Americas Army, or Tom Clancy games.

Or how many essays and blogs and reviews mention CJ is black? Does the unnamed one in GTA III get constantly referred to as white?

An interesting thought from reading FunkyJ, Does the act of including a black person or a Jew in a game and identifying them as such make a political statement regardless of your intentions?

If the author intended to say it, then it's a statement, and you're safe to assume the author thinks that. If the author did not intend to say it or to not say it, it's an interpretation, and it's much more likely that the opinion is one that the audience fixates on (whether they agree or disagree with it) - though it's still quite possible that some Freudian shenanigans are afoot on the part of the author. If the author specifically intended to not say it, then it's some combination of an ulterior motive and zealotry on the part of the audience.

Bill, when you say "Freudian shenanigans", all I can think of is sex. Was that your intention, my fixation, or some combination of an ulterior motive and zealotry on my part?

More seriously... I once took a class for fun that analyzed the absurd. I spent an entire semester being asked questions like "What did Lewis Carroll really mean by the caucus race with the walrus and the other creatures?" Unless the author specifically states something as their intention, I think its ridiculous/absurd to try and determine what they really meant. At that point, all that is left is what it means to you, which reflects FAR more on yourself (fixation may be a little strong, but its close) than it does on the author.

Although, to the flip side, I'm reminded of Grand Admiral Thrawn, who acheived significant strategic victories by studying his opponent's art, and gleaning the unsaid secrets of his opponent's mind that subconsciously ended up in the art.

I draw a bright line between the zombie hordes and the living of any race.

When the zombie hordes are knocking down you're door and someone shows up to blow their heads off, you're not going to care if he's a cracker.

White people have more in common with black people, than either do with flesh eating undead.

That's about all I have to say on the subject.

Gedrin:
White people have more in common with black people, than either do with flesh eating undead.

That's about all I have to say on the subject.

Amen brother. Can't we all just get along long enough to survive the zombiepocalypse?

Russ Pitts:

Gedrin:
White people have more in common with black people, than either do with flesh eating undead.

That's about all I have to say on the subject.

Amen brother. Can't we all just get along long enough to survive the zombiepocalypse?

But what if there's a zombie, a Nazi, and a member of a hostile alien race, each inside a mass cloner in a secret underground lair perfect for launching an invasion against the surface dwellers. If you have two bullets, which two do you shoot? If you have only one bullet?

Which is closer to being an innocent human: a normal human zombie, or a Nazi werewolf?

Cheeze, it's perfectly obvious!

I'd shoot _________ and _________, because the _________ were just misunderstood!

Really, feel free to stick any of your three in any of the blanks. It's irrelevant.

All I can think of are games like Stubbs the Zombie, or that crazy web-based MMOG where the zombies are player controlled, and have a culture, or even the Ender's Game series (Ender, Speaker, and Xenocide specifically) where people give the flipside. And really, National Socialism has been demonized far beyond the extent that the majority of its members reached. Yeah you had some real lunatics in charge, but does that really embody what Nazi-ism was?

Imagine if some hypothetical Republican leader did something absolutely horrible, and took the rest of the government with him, and the world was shocked and dismayed forever, to the point that Republican took on the connotations of Nazi. Its not the GOP's fault (except maybe for nominating a loon).

Geoffrey42:
Imagine if some hypothetical Republican leader did something absolutely horrible, and took the rest of the government with him, and the world was shocked and dismayed forever, to the point that Republican took on the connotations of Nazi. Its not the GOP's fault (except maybe for nominating a loon).

Are we still being hypothetical here?

This conversation is long over according to Gideon's law, and not that we've requisitely (but subtly) compared Bush to Hitler it's safe to say the information content is now zero.

Russ Pitts:
Are we still being hypothetical here?

Of course we're being hypothetical. I certainly don't think Republicans are as bad as everyone thinks the Nazis were. Then again, apparently, I don't think the Nazis were as bad as everyone thinks they were. Probably not a good bellwether.

@Archon: In all honesty, while the parallels to certain current presidents set the stage for my hypothetical, I do not place G.W. Bush in the same level of hell as the leader of the Nazi party. And since I have Democratic leanings, I'd rather hypothesize about the future demonization of Republicans. If you asked me for my most hated Republican, off the top of my head, I would say Lincoln. Go figure.

I'm not familiar with Gideon's Law, and I can't find it in wikipedia, but I'm going to guess you meant Godwin's Law? What I can't figure out for the life of me is how the thread that shall not be named managed to get as far as it DID without Nazis, or Hitler. Heck, we're still on the first page of comments for this one!

I think this is an excellent article, and that you make a lot of great points - namely that this game could really bring us face to face with the moral conundrum we've long ignored in video games - the real difficulty of kill or be killed.

But I'd be careful not to overestimate "how far we've come" with regards to racism in society, or how quick you dismiss cries of racism as "crying wolf at passing shadows", because unless you are a member of an aggrieved minority group - one who has experienced racism, there are things that you simply won't notice, and that they will.

Going back to RE5 - this game has SO much potential. And until we see what it's about, I think people should remain quiet about how racist the game is or isn't. We just don't know yet. If they chose to, Capcom could even go a little political with this, and bring to light the FACT that Africa has historically be a testing ground for all kinds of disgusting shit - a government or company (like Umbrella) exposing poor African villagers to some kind of sinister agent (like a bacteria or virus) is totally within the realm of reality. That shit has happened and CONTINUES to happen to this day.

If this game touches on that kind of thing even a LITTLE, then I'll be satisfied, and think that Africa is exactly the place where the game should be set. It would also help matters if they included an important African protagonist (and while I'm wishful thinking, a female protagonist that is NOT a love interest, but an independently viable character) to offset the already mainstream consensus that Africans - zombified or not - are uncivilized and backwards.

Of course none of this will change the fact that racist gamers will use RE5 as their outlet to finally be justified in "killing niggers". But that's not Capcom's fault...

---Godheval
http://www.godheval.com

Godheval, Thanks for the kind words. Your points about racism are well taken. I have nothing to add to that.

In regards to RE5, I, too, hope there's a little more than an accidental or (typically for Capcom) clumsy reference to world events. But if all we get out of the game is a bitter twinge at the thought of putting the gun to people who don't really deserve it, then I think it will be a good day for games. That kind of thing (accidental or not) has been a long time coming.

I cannot believe that peoples 'moral outrage' is so displaced that they are focused on a fictional event portrayed in a video game. While actual events that cause the murder and suffering of millions of 3rd world citizens go relatively unnoticed. Blood diamonds, genocides linked to military dictators, famine, to name a few. Please notice that none of these are caused by the infamous gun-toting 'white devil'.

Why don't these people stop moaning about a game they morally object to. Stop buying it, which is the only protest the game industry will listen to, and spend the money on a cause to help fight human suffering. I don't even care which cause they support.

I know i sound like a bleeding heart liberal. But believe me you won't find me in line to donate to Oxfam.

Stop whining about a stupid video game, its not even real. There are much worse things going on.

 

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