‘Resident Evil 5’ Reignites Debate About Race in Videogames

Jamin Brophy, Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2009

Is it racist for white people to shoot black zombies?

This Friday, Capcom’s new release “Resident Evil 5,” from producer Jun Takeuchi, broaches that question. The franchise, which first launched in 1996, has sold more than 12 million units and earned nearly a half billion dollars in revenue, according to research firm NPD Group. It’s even been spun into a modestly successful film trilogy starring Milla Jovovich. The latest entry in the series follows Chris Redfield, the hero of the first game, as he tracks the cause of a deadly virus plaguing villages in West Africa.

{snip} [Now] that the game is facing an official release, it has spurred a new debate about race in videogames.

Opponents of the new game will have plenty of ammunition. Although there are Arab zombies in “Resident Evil 5,” the majority of the undead are Africans. As a player, you are often forced to use a machete to hack your way through your attackers, using the same kind of weapons that were used in atrocities in places like Rwanda and the Congo over the last two decades. Killing African zombies can earn you gold treasure–in addition to the loot you find in barrels and vases in the different African villages. And while Chris’s partner, Sheva Alomar, is from the region, she’s light-skinned with straight-hair, and is introduced to players during a cinematic sequence highlighting not her face, but rather, her rear end.

Mary Flanagan, a professor of digital media at Dartmouth College, argues that the fact that the game’s zombies are of color is a significant detail. “It’s not to say we can’t allow for transgression, but there are so few depictions of Africans in games,” she says. {snip}

{snip}

Mr. Kramer [says Chris Kramer, a spokesman for Capcom] also contends that Americans are more sensitive about issues of race in the wake of President Barack Obama’s election. “There are probably some cultural awareness levels that are not there [for Japanese developers],” he says.

Part of the problem is the dearth of people of color in the videogame industry as a whole. {snip} One attendee joked that there were more black journalists covering the industry than non-white members of the industry itself.

The main characters in videogames are not particularly diverse either. There have been exceptions; {snip}

{snip}

Some games have chosen to give players more control over their player’s appearance. In last year’s popular action role-playing game “Fallout 3,” players are allowed to choose their ethnicity and are given a set of tools to customize their character’s facial features. {snip}

To be clear, “Resident Evil 5” is not a game about killing Africans. Your job, as a player, is to save villages that have been victimized by a biochemical terrorist group. The first fearsome opponent you face is a blonde-haired female and you are rescued several times by another troupe of African soldiers. And ultimately, the game suggests that the barbarism depicted in the game is a result of your enemies’ zombieness, not their African identity. In short, Africans don’t beat you to death with their hands–zombies do.

{snip}

But discussions about colonialism are only dealt with obliquely in the game–Chris never reflects on his position as a white male in Africa nor does he discuss race with his African partner, Sheva. The game presents only one option to survive against African zombies: kill every single one.

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