Race in Games: Culture, Context, and Controversy

First off, I want to thank everyone who posted thoughtful comments in response to my discussion of Resident Evil 5. A lot of fascinating points have been raised, and a central one is the question of guilt. There’s a reason I chose not to call Capcom racist, but instead focused on the images presented in the recent 3 minute trailer. That reason (aside from not wanting to use the word loosely) is that I suspected there might be something cultural at play. Wired blogger and author Chris Kohler provides some insight:

The problem as I see it is that the game’s Japanese designers don’t have the history that would lead them to understand how this might be read in American cultural context. (more)

In an email message, he went a bit further:

I’ve been going to Japan for seven years, and I’ve seen lots of race-based caricatures used in products or in advertising. They don’t have any history of race-based conflict like America does, and so I think they just don’t have that feeling that it’s inappropriate. By and large there is no malice behind it — I imagine they just feel that race is like any other visual concept, open to use in any creative way they see fit.

I’m fully prepared to accept the possibility that Capcom is not intentionally drawing on painful stereotypes, but that does not mean they’re allowed to be oblivious to them or their impact. To the contrary, as a company that sells into many markets worldwide, it is very important for them to be aware of cultural issues. If they fell down anywhere, it seems likely to be here — understanding stateside racial sensitivities.

Of course, a trailer is not a full, playable game. But trailers are a way for game companies to manage impressions of their games. If a game is presented in a troubling way in a trailer, folks can and should react to that presentation. As has been pointed out in the comments, a number of interpretations are possible, but I would still argue that certain images in the RE5 trailer are problematic as they are expressed presently.

We will have to wait until the final game ships to see what Capcom truly has in store. My hope is that they do something empowering and humanizing for Africa (or Haiti or wherever the game is set). Until then, we can only react to what Capcom gives us. (And, no, I haven’t written off buying the game.)

But here’s the broader point: The videogame is the most powerful medium yet devised, and we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what it can do. Games need to be taken seriously. In a private communication, Karsh Kincaid put it this way:

People may say “oh, it’s just a video game”, but video games are a big part of American pop culture. Moreso than that, these days pop culture serves a huge impact as the popular pedagogy for masses of people in this country and all over the world as they look to understand people of color through the politics of difference.

One commenter referred to Africa as a “fantastic blank canvas for gaming history to write on.” That’s precisely the concern. Research has shown that those in the West have many misconceptions about Africa and other black countries. (Authors like Charlayne Hunter-Gault have worked to dispel them, but there’s a lot more work to do.) So, while it is good that game companies are taking note of black nations, we can’t ignore what the games they make are (and aren’t) contributing to the process of helping the world better understand those places and peoples.

Perhaps (as some have suggested in comments) this is all part of a difficult growing process that will lead to real parity. I, for one, certainly hope so. But that does not mean the impact of games on black people should not be interrogated, discussed, and criticized. And I’m happy to add my voice to that conversation.

22 Responses to “Race in Games: Culture, Context, and Controversy”

  1. 1 Confused

    I find you to be a very intelligent and well spoken individual and I personally enjoy reading your blog, even as a white american, we are both people first. Would you not see popular music that is listened to by majority of young Americans just as influential as the video games? From my point of view I can see how the trailer could be considered offensive to someone such as yourself. I don’t however see how Capcom is drawing on stereotypes as you mentioned. The reality Africa is improving, but it has a long way to go. The game is set in modern day, not the future, not the past. I think it accurately depicts the state of some areas found in the country. Unfortunately we can’t sugar coat everything, and as adults we should not have to.

    It’s also important to note that Capcom has gone on the record stating that lighting will have a major impact on this game. With that said we should keep in mind that from the trailer when we see “blackface” It could be the main characters eye adjusting from coming from a dark room, to the outdoors, or from outdoors, inside.

    While video games are becoming a larger and larger medium. I feel it’s important to tell you that I’ve been playing games for 20 years. I was young when I started and I can honestly say that I do not feel it’s the job of games or any other media to educate children or adults. That is the job of schools and parents. We should first and foremost always hold them responsible for the things that people learn. A well educated person is not going to look at this game and automatically assume that the location or people shown are factual. This is especially true with a game that has zombies.

    I’m sorry to cut my comments short, however I have to get back to work now. If you respond though, I will be more than happy to continue talking about this with you when my day is over. I enjoy learning things from your point of view, as I hope you do from mine.

  2. 2 Confused

    P.S. I meant Africa as a continent, not a nation. (Work is exhausting)


  3. 3 Carlos

    If we tried to identify all the unconscious processes our minds make, we would be in for a surprise when it comes to racial discrimination.

    Unconsciously, your brain is recording blacks as the “bad guys”. The more it happens and the more emotionally charged each instance, i.e. killing black zombies, the more reason it gives the mind to create unfavorable views on blacks. It becomes a “vicious cycle of tainted social information that…results in a self-replicating pattern of racial stereotypes that rationalize and sustain discrimination.” (http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/LOUECO.html)

    This type of video game and other forms of portraying blacks as the “bad guys” will lead you to unconsciously discriminate against blacks. Tapping into your basic survival instincts, your mind will lead you to unconsciously avoid blacks and this has been tested in people. For instance, a “web test [that] measures automatic racial preference for white or black. Of the more than 10,000 who took this test, 80 percent showed a preference for white over black.”

    Mr. or Ms. Confused, and I apologize for being blunt, your name says it all. How can we get reason through you and to millions like you, who just don’t get it.

    Racism is real…and it is not being overly sensitive. We must dig deep into this issue and find ways to resolve this disgusting epidemic in human beings.

  4. 4 Geo aka Confused

    Sorry, the name confused stuck with my previous post from my work computer. Now I’m home so I will change it. It was not intended for this article on my original post.

    First, I understand racism is very real and let me say even though I’m not African American, it does offend me very much as well since I have friends, and even married in family of different ethnicities. I don’t like to see them hurt just as I don’t want to anyone hurt. So let me take a little time and tell you about myself that way we can communicate on a better level of understanding.

    I’m 24-years-old, I’m a male, and live on the west coast. I’m first generation American of Greek ancestory. I suppose it’s worth noting that I do not know as much about racism as I probably should. That does not mean I’m not willing to learn, hence me speaking to you and the author on the subject. My Mother raised me pretty much alone since the age of 5. She has always instilled the greatest morals and values into me since I was young. I suppose I used the name “Confused” because I have never seen anyone of a different ethnicity as anything other than an equal. However, recently reading over a few sites that have been mentioning the contreversy of RE5, I don’t see the same feelings preached toward the African American community to others. I could use examples such as Kym Platt’s comments about white zombies, or the use of Black and white capitalization differences but I feel that wouldn’t make the point that I’m trying to get across. In a world where I feel equality should absolutely exsist I don’t see picking teams as an answer. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m first generation, and yet automatically I’ve been identified by my skin color (not necissarily here, and not by my actual heritage. That in itself is what racism is. An assumption. To assume that simply because I’m white I am somehow an enemy who assisted in a very dark part of the history of our nation is simply wrong. Even your comment of “millions like you” can be misconstrued.

    If all the zombies mentioned were indeed white, wouldn’t the act of discrimination programmed into the brain work that way to? Are you saying that one way is better than the other? I would not assume so. However I would assume what you would like to see would be a mixture of different ethnicities in the game as opposed to just one. To be perfectly honest, if it would make the people upset at the subject at hand feel better, then I don’t see any problem at all with that. I would infact encourage it. But we can’t be narrow or one sided in our views. The only way to truly come together and appreciate each other is to talk these sort of things out with an open mind. The struggle works both ways. Your struggle to equal rights is more difficult than my struggle to simply tell you and get you to accept that I absolutely 100% agree and want to support you and that together we are stronger in spreading a positive message. Even if it’s to one person at a time. We may even learn a lot in the process.

  5. 5 Xantar

    If a trailer is presented in a way that is troubling to you, you have every right to be disturbed and even offended. And it is my responsibility in reading these comments to try to understand them your point of view as best as I can (as an Asian man, I’m naturally going to come at this with a different perspective).

    You do not, however, have a right to tell me that I should be troubled by this trailer as well, and what disturbs me is a seeming implication in both this post and an earlier post that because certain images reinforced stereotypes that you find offensive, I should find those images troubling as well. I don’t, and I sincerely doubt I ever will. Yes, Africans and African Americans have a long, sad history of being portrayed negatively in the popular culture. Yes, on a superficial level, images from the Resident Evil 5 trailer resemble some of those images in the past. Does that bother me? In all honesty, not at all. Maybe it’s because I’m Asian and nobody in my family has faced the same kind of systematic persecution that African Americans have (Asians have entirely different issues). Maybe it’s because as a person who plays videogames, I see these images in the context of Resident Evil’s continuing storyline (which I never took all that seriously to begin with). Whatever the reason, this trailer simply does not bother me, and to ask me to be troubled by the imagery of the trailer is to ask me to be a hypocrite.

    Let me be clear that I do understand there is racism in the world and that portrayals in the media have a way of creating and reinforcing stereotypos along racial boundaries. In that respect, Asians have a problem, too. Morever, I know from the few psychology and sociology courses I’ve taken that for some reason, the human brain is wired to notice race. Upon meeting another person, the first thing our brains notice are the other person’s gender and his or her race. It’s really kind of discouraging the more we look into the workings of the brain to see these kinds of things.

    But let me add that I find the analysis of the Resident Evil 5 trailer up until this point rather problemmatic. By your own admission, what we are talking about here are the images from the game in their own right and not the game itself. In other words, we are taking the game out of context and analyzing those out of context images to question our responses and Capcom’s culpability on perpetuating stereotypes. I just don’t find that to be a reasonable analysis. Almost anything can appear offensive and prejudicial if taken out of context, and in my opinion, the way to respond to this is not to continue taking images out of context in order to analyze their impact but to do the very opposite. You say that all you want is to have a conversation about the game’s images, but I find that to be disingenuous. Until we understand the context of the scenes in this trailer (i.e. when the game comes out and we’ve played it), I don’t think we can have a reasonable discussion about the game and its imagery. By definition, we will be speaking from a position of fundamental ignorance, and that doesn’t seem helpful to me except as a pointless academic exercise.

    @ Carlos

    Please forgive me for being equally blunt in turn. Maybe Confused has a lot to learn about racism. Maybe a lot of people do. But if that’s so, saying things like, “How can we get reason through you and to millions like you, who just don’t get it” is not going to be helpful. Racism is a very emotionally charged issue, and if you really believe that a lot of people “just don’t get it,” sniping at their intelligence isn’t going to accomplish anything except breed resentment and make you look immature.

  6. 6 Jason

    Xantar, I agree that saying we precisely understand a game’s content based on a trailer is not reasonable. However, saying we can judge nothing about a game from a trailer is equally unreasonable. Trailers are created by game companies to communicate about their games. They have control over how they represent games in those trailers and we are allowed to react to that representation. In fact, game companies hope we react to that representation since trailers are an advertising tool. If one can watch a trailer and say “that’s cool!”, one can also watch a trailer and say “that’s troubling.”

    Capcom should be careful how they communicate about RE5 because of the particularly painful history of black stereotypes in the US and around the world. The images in this trailer may not bother you, but I’m not so sure that will be the case for everyone.

  7. 7 Carlos

    Xantar – By the same token, attacking my character, i.e. as immature, does not help resolve the bigger issue of racism.

    Victimizing those who don’t understand racism…well your audacity to consider them as victims, in light of the issue we’re talking about, just shocks me. If comments like mine are seen as “sniping at their intelligence”, well I hope it serves as a wake up call. Unlike the risk of “sniping at their intelligence”, the important risk here is people continuing to discriminate against a race that has suffered the most brutal forms of discrimination and are enduring today remnants of this era, i.e. video games that portray them as horrific zombies.

    Geo – As a first generation American, your parents probably experienced some form of discrimination and perhaps you have as well. However, unlike other immigrants such as Hispanics or Africans, you’re considered Caucasian and thus your family was most probably accepted with less reluctance by Americans.

    You’ve expressed an interest in learning more about racism. I personally feel that one way to understand it is to pay close attention to how people socialize around you and other races every day. Try to compare the way people act based on race and start forming patterns in their behavior. In a perfect world, people will act the same around all races. Since we’re not in a perfect world, try to notice how much a person changes their behavior (when they are around their same race and different races). Ask yourself, are they more or less talkative? Are they more relaxed or nervous? Do they seem more genuine or hypocritical? Do they seem more or less friendly?

    As Prof. Glenn Loury argues, it is important that we distinguish between racial discrimination and racial stigma, the latter which is more prevalent today.

  8. 8 Xantar

    I see your point, Jason, and it’s a good one. But I’m also not sure what you want Capcom to do other than “be careful” (whatever that specifically means). The game has zombies. It takes place in Africa. Capcom cannot help putting images of African zombies in their trailer, and by their very nature, African zombies are going to resemble images that have been historically used to oppress African Americans. What else exactly are they supposed to do?

    And moreover, if Capcom has a responsibility to be sensitive to the painful history of black America, don’t we have a reciprocal responsibility to understand the context of their games? You have been very open-minded about the trailer and the game, but unfortunately I cannot say the same for everybody who has been troubled by the trailer. Kym Platt, for example, has admitted she knows nothing about videogames beyond solitaire and refuses to educate herself on the subject. I’m afraid a lot more people are like Ms. Platt than like you.

    Where does it end? By its very nature, Resident Evil 5 is going to offend SOMEBODY SOMEWHERE who takes its imagery out of context. How far do we really want Capcom to go to avoid hurting the feelings of such people? In this case, many black gamers have said there was nothing offensive in what they saw in the trailer. Is that a sign that they are ignorant of history or a sign of progress? I’m not sure how to answer these questions, but what I do know is that at some point in time, the line we draw in the sand has to move or else progress becomes stagnant.

  9. 9 Sir Cedric

    “Featuring eyes that shine with a hybrid of madness and lucidity, the townsfolk don’t appear to be along the lines of the rotting, shambling undead found in earlier Resident Evils. The emphasis on the next generation of the not-zombies’ mental clarity is stressed by villagers rallying around an apparent leader speaking to the masses through a megaphone.”

    “Once on the scene, Chris encounters a new form of enemy. Takeuchi described the game’s enemies as something of human form that has intelligence. However, the foes are neither zombie nor ganado (in reference to the creatures from RE4).”

  10. 10 Xantar

    Carlos – when did I ever make anyone into a victim? I was just pointing out that insulting Geo is not a productive way to participate in the conversation. He seems to have taken it pretty well, but others might have just gotten offended and left. And if our goal is to promote an understanding of racism, that seems like a pretty counterproductive result to me.

    And moreover, it was never my intention to attack your character (how could I since I don’t know you?). What I did say is that your aggressive responses give the impression that you would rather have moral superiority than true understanding. And that makes you look immature, even if you really aren’t. Please understand that I appreciate all the other points you’ve been making in this conversation, but I wish you could avoid occasionally adopting a tone that’s likely to alienate others.

    Those are just my thoughts on the matter. If I hurt or offended you, I apologize. If I’m misunderstanding you, please set me straight. And if you choose to respond to this, I’m not going to say anything further. This is the kind of conversation that simply bounces back and forth going nowhere, and as I said, I have no interest in participating in such.

  11. 11 judy

    You are definitely right when you talk about “misconceptions about Africa.” When I told people, excitedly, that I was about to spend a Fulbright year teaching law school in Senegal, there would be a pause, then someone would say: “There’s a law school in Senegal?” My answer: “Sure: how else would they train their lawyers?” And the follow-up question: “They have lawyers in Senegal?” (After several of these conversations, I changed my initial comment, to say that I would be teaching at “one of the law schools” in Senegal…) The second comment, from everyone: “But isn’t it dangerous there?” I always asked them what they knew about Senegal that I didn’t. And of course, they had no information about Senegal at all…just an general sense, I think, that a country with a lot of black people had to be dangerous. (To give you a sense of the level of danger in Dakar, where I lived, you should know that lots of people there have guards for their houses. In a very poor country, there is always a temptation to steal. So I did have a “guard” for the Fulbright house, and these were his “weapons”: a whistle, to call the other guards to come help, and a slingshot!) Anyhow, you are doing important work. Keep it up. The stereotypes about Africa are all negative, and I think we need to both recognize them when we see them, and then think about why this is so.

  12. 12 yes

    Just adding to what Judy said about Senegal. People think that Africa is a very dangerous crime-rife continent, there are countries with high crime rates, but there are also others with very low crime rates, dozens of times lower than the US’.
    According to INTERPOL Senegal’s crime rate is lower than Japan’s, which is already reknowned as a safe country. Just shows you how much people don’t know about Africa. Personally, I feel safer in Senegal than in New York…

  13. 13 Curt

    My lingering question is: Why has Capcom, both Japanese HQ and the American Capcom blogs, chosen not to respond to this issue? The only reasons I can come up with are not complimentary to the company. Arrogance? Dismissive? (I.e., only hysterical blacks, after all.) Delighted with the sh/tstorm they’ve kicked up? This is another situation for the Naked Conversations list of companies who blew it when they could have turned it around for themselves.

  14. 14 Guagentua
  15. 15 Carlos

    Judy – I feel sometimes people form these preconceptions out of carelessness. Some people may feel the information they hold about a country or race is enough to draw conclusions. They may also feel that it’s not worth the effort to inform themselves accurately about a country or race. Unfortunately, the media makes this problem worse by giving us limited news about the world. I feel that this can change with people making an effort to educate a chunk of our population about our misperceptions of races.

    Just like we have had national campaigns against smoking or promoting safe sex, I feel we need a national campaign against racism.

    Xanter- I appreciate your response. Racism is a serious problem that is regularly not given the proper value it deserves. If the topic where about rape or murder or terrorism, few people would disagree that these are horrible occurrences that have happened in the past and can very likely happen again. We all see them as tragic events and, as a society, we do everything possible to prevent them from happening again.

    However, we do not treat racism in the same way. Even though people have been traumatized and will be traumatized as a result of racism, have died and die as a result of racism, have been massively extinguished and will be forced into oblivion as a result of racism.

    My point, I feel that your thoughts fall short of giving the issue of racism the importance it deserves. There are many people who share your views and, unfortunately, these views do not help with attacking the problem of racism in our country.

  16. 16 Aparna Pappu

    I meant to write a response to the original post but figured I ought to read the responses first. That project somehow never seemed to reach completion as the number of responses kept growing. Anyway a few things that came to me
    – people who felt that just by saying they are black and that if they think it’s ok to show Africans in that context it is ok are so wrong. they are black. they are _NOT_ african. being african itself is so complex – ask someone from Botswana and they will quickly dissociate themselves for Nigerians and so on and so forth. My point being sitting here in a wealthy western country that is part of a group of countries that has for so long exploited Africa gives you no right to say that is ok to show Africans in that context.
    – the other common response – ‘it’s just a game’ – only the privileged would say _only_ a game is as powerful a medium as a newspaper, a tv show or a hollywood movie in perpetuating stereotypes. so what if you showed spaniards being zombies – who cares – aside from the fact that spaniards in their colonizing past have been worse than zombies the fact is they are a first world country and have no need to be defensive in a situation showing them to be less than perfect. Showing Africans in that context is incredibly insensitive, unfair. How many africans will play this game? Too few to write back on this blog and tell you what they think. So you are ok taking potshots, speaking on behalf of people that don’t have a voice on the same platform? This still sound like ‘just a game’?

    Anyway that’s my 2 cents. Thanks Jason for bringing this up in this context. People in the US have no clue about how lucky they are that they can sit here and debate the merits of the nationality of zombies in a game that plays on a platform that costs as much as it does to feed at least one family for an entire year in some parts of the world. If I were Samuel L Jackson I would say ‘shut the fuck up’ to all those who thought it did not matter.

  17. 17 annata

    Carlos you pointed rape and murder as difficult issues and though they are, there are many videgames where the protagonist kills and games where he even rapes!Killing games are obviosly the most popular games everywhere not only in America!So it is ok to kill Aliens white people but not blacks?And what do you expect of a game that plays in Africa!That the enemy is the white fellow!i do’t know much yet about the precise location this game will play!But i imagine it to be a little village like in Re4, where there surely are no white people!Like in Re 4 there where only Spanish people!

    There was a Statement that Games form patterns in the mid of the gamers!That is the same argument Anti killing gamers here in europe uses to ban Shooter!Everytime a teenager gets a Gun and kills someone!Which doesn’t happen so often as in America!

    Shooters don’t raise Killers and a Shooter where you kill black people! doesn’t raise racist killers!

    The envoirement like family friends and even politics are the fundamentals of racism, sexism, or being hostile against homosexuals!

  18. 18 annata

    Ps: everyone is crying about erverything!Religious Lunatics about Games that show God in a way they don’t belief in,women made into sexobjetcts,!For all those whiners!Resident evil or Biohazard as it’s called in America is a killing game!You kill People Be it black or white or any other colr i don’t care!As long as the game is good and the story gives me enough reason to kill i kill it!I also like games which give no reason to kill but thats not Resident evil!

    As for those people who think games make an social impact!That maybe in america but in our country schools and the envoirement raise our children!It’s changing but thats another issue!Games are Entertainment and as long as its fun who cares what colors those pixels are!Resident evil 5 is no Casestudy about african society!It’s an fictional Horror game!

    No Zombies don’t exist perhaps religoius americans belief in Zombies and therefore it’s more realistic to them!Perhaps Americans can’t distinguish Games from Reality!In this case i agree it’s racist!But as long as it’s not the intention to explicitly kill black people because they are black and black is … no idea fill in what you like!It’s not racist at all!

    It’s a game!It’s not real, Zombies are not real, Mind controlling Parasites are not real so who cares!

    You should try to change your envoirement so that you get the respect everyone deserves!So that white people can shoot black people and blacks can shoot white people in Videogames and are not called racist, but Gamers!!

  1. 1 PureVideoGames » The missing context: Race and Resident Evil 5
  2. 2 Official Shrub.com Blog » Blog Archive » Racial issues in Resident Evil 5: Link Roundup
  3. 3 “Expert” Consulted on RE5 Racism Issue: Not an Expert on Race After All at Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture
  4. 4 “Expert” Consulted on RE5 Racism Issue: Not an Expert on Race After All | Acid for Blood

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