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Blackface Goes HD? The Case of Resident Evil 5

OK, we all know zombies gotta die. And I loved Resident Evil 4. So why do these early images from the next installment of the Resident Evil franchise make me so queasy?

After all, in RE4, you spend the game shooting equally out-of-their-mind Spaniards. But, then, the Spanish haven’t been so egregiously misrepresented as blacks through the ages, have they? Not even close.

From Birth of a Nation to Black Hawk Down, black folk are apparently responsible for some of the most mindless and evil activities you got. Rape, murder, satanic voodoo. With bulging eyes, simian super strength, and a room temperature IQ, we’ve been portrayed as savages beyond redemption. So, when we see images like these, it doesn’t just resonate with the long lived zombie genre, it also triggers memories of so many awful stereotypes — and what those stereotypes have been used to justify past and present. Put down the crazed negroes before they take the white women! And so on…

But perhaps the most troubling part is that these scenes seem to be set in Africa; the “dark continent.” With all the positive steps being taken of late to raise awareness of the good things happening in Africa as well as the urgent need in some parts of the continent, we really can’t afford this kind of step back. We need to find ways to humanize Africans, not dehumanize them.

George Romero’s genre-defining 1968 film Night of the Living Dead is often read as a black empowerment tale. It’s ironic, then, that 40 years later, the preeminent zombie franchise appears poised to give us just the opposite. If LocoRoco’s Mojas were a kind of high tech blackface, Resident Evil 5 takes blackface into the HD era. It’s horror alright, just not the kind Capcom intended.

Find more history of black characters in games at The First 11 Black Videogame Stars. And the full trailer for RE5 at Gamersyde.

 Follow-up post Race in Games: Culture, Context, and Controversy

Thanks to those who have posted thoughtful responses. My main concern here is really for the perception of black countries. Over the years, many of them have been portrayed as uncivilized and recently a good deal has been done to change that thinking (particularly in Africa). But there’s still a lot more work to do.

I do understand the characters presented in the trailer are zombies. Still, I find the proximity of those zombies to old school long lived black stereotypes alarming. And that’s what my post is about.

So, perhaps the deeper question is: How are black countries and those who live in them portrayed in games now? How have they been portrayed in the popular media and movies? Is it on par with other peoples and places in the world? If so, maybe it is time for a game like this. If not, then how do we respond?

Note to commenters: I will delete your comment for name calling or generally being obnoxious. I will not delete your comment for disagreeing with me.

Gaming Hotness 2005

The year started out with big expectations, many for the high tech showstopper that was to be Sony’s PSP. By comparison, Nintendo’s DS seemed cobbled together at the last minute in fear of Sony’s offering. Redeye’s 2004 rant sums up the DS (“dual screen”) consensus nicely. Here’s a taste: “Simply by looking looking somewhere else you can see something else. Short of the imagination to actually innovate, they’ve just doubled their components and told you you’ll be doubling your pleasure, and they’re expecting you to buy it.” (Edge 134) Honestly, I thought Nintendo was in serious trouble. We all did.

How times have changed. A year after launch, innovative new titles seem to be popping up every month for DS while the PSP is scraping by with a pile of afterthought PS2 ports. And sales are following fun. Looking back, then, 2005 was the year of the looking-real-smart-in-hindsight DS. And that explains why fully half of my favorite games last year appeared on Nintendo’s keenly underestimated new handheld. Here they are, alphabetically:

Continue reading ‘Gaming Hotness 2005’

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.

What’s this all about, then?

microscopiq loves art and ideas that are underknown.

Written by an African American living in NYC who is a regular at Chelsea art galleries, a lover of unusual music, an activist, and a student of videogame history. microscopiq is infatuated with tiny stories, minority perspectives, ideas that others seem to ignore. Small is beautiful.

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microhotness grabbed from visions of science

NYC: Ecological Anti-Disaster

green-apple.jpgNew York City is a pretty awful ecological mess, right? I mean, how could the overcrowded, smog-ridden, skyscraper encroached, light polluted, grimy subway entangled behemoth be anything but? Well, as David Owen’s article in this week’s New Yorker (October 18 issue) takes pains to explain, looks can be deceiving. Take the following snip for example:

Because densely populate urban centers concentrate human activity, we think of them as pollution crisis zones. Calculated by square foot, New York City generates more greenhouse gasses, uses more energy, and produces more solid waste than most other American regions of comparable size. On a map depicting negative environmental impacts in relation to surface area, therefore, Manhattan would look like an intense hot spot, surrounded, at varying distances, by belts of deepening green. If you plotted the same negative impacts by resident or by household, however, the color scheme would be reversed.

Why? Largely because densities of people have nice properties like reducing energy consumption in transportation (public transit becomes viable) and at home (lower apartments heat higher ones). Green Apple indeed. Owen says it much more eloquently, though, as he makes the counter-intuitive yet compelling argument (with support from the likes of The Sierra Club) that suburbs are the real ecological disaster.

The article isn’t online, but WNYC’s Brian Lehrer recently interviewed Owen on the topic (realaudio link). For more on the evils of sprawl, see Suburban Nation and Jane Jacobs’ classic.

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