Dismissing & defending claims of racism in video games

1 Aug

The video game community is quick to dismiss the occasional claim games are becoming racially charged, but many fail to fully understand the issue, posting shallow arguments on popular gaming blogs.

bold left 4 dead 2In response to an article in the Houston Chronicle citing Left 4 Dead 2 as an example of racism in video games becoming “the norm”, Chet Faliszek, a writer for L4D2, said, “when two of the characters in your game are African-American, it’s a weird thing to be accused of [racism]. (src)”

Faliszek is correct in that, as far as anyone can tell, his game is in no way racist, but his argument is in the same vein as those of countless posters on Kotaku: shallow and flawed.

Willie Jefferson, author of the article in the Houston Chronicle, claims Left 4 Dead 2, Resident Evil 5, and Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood signify an increase in racist undertones, but his argument against L4D2 is more about social awareness and sensitivity regarding Hurricane Katrina.

Set in New Orleans, players will have to fight their way through hordes of zombies – with several of them who appear to be African-Americans. When I saw the first trailer for the game, all I could think about was Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath. Setting the game in a city that was scene of dead, bloated bodies floating by so soon afterward was a bad call, IMHO. The city has had enough to deal with — Valve, you should have spared them, even if it’s just a video game.

Both Jefferson’s arguments that L4D2 is racist because it depicts black zombies and that the people of New Orleans simply cannot handle a game featuring violence in their city are flimsy. I’ve lived an hour away from the city my entire life and have been there numerous times before and after the storm. Currently, there isn’t a sense the city needs to be “spared.”

Left 4 Dead 2 is only inserted alongside Resident Evil 5 in Jefferson’s argument for dramatic effect so his objection to Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood‘s confederate protagonist seems more significant. I haven’t played Juarez, so I can’t judge Jefferson’s opinion, though I doubt the game is so shocking it forced him to drop the controller. I have, however, played Resident Evil 5, a much more popular game with much more infamous claims of racial undertones plaguing it. Jefferson’s mentioning of RE5 is only used as a segue into his Juarez rant.

Resident Evil 5 puts gamers into the heart of Africa, blasting zombies. I bet you’ll never guess what color they are.

If game developers and the like are going to use history and certain locations, they should be prepared to suffer the backlash that comes from it. It could be perceived as being racist – and turn some potential customers off.

The wording of Jefferson’s facetious bet invites the popular argument “It’s not racist to feature black zombies in Africa.”

It’s in this sense that Faliszek’s defense of Left 4 Dead 2 is flawed. He tries to justify the game’s objective of killing zombies, some of which are black, in New Orleans by pointing out the fact two of the protagonists are black as well. Just by trying to justify his game, Faliszek is giving too much credibility to Jefferson’s claim.

Left 4 Dead 2 doesn’t need to be defended as Jefferson is the only person I’m aware of to have such an opinion about the game so well publicized, but even if the game did need defending, the justification that it’s okay as long as black people are killing black people doesn’t counter the original argument. Jefferson just needs to be told, probably by a resident of New Orleans, that there’s nothing insensitive about killing zombies in a video game taking place in the city.

Jefferson’s second statement goes overlooked (probably because the rest of his argument is shallow and flawed) despite being very true.

bold re5 racism

Anyone who backs such an argument is totally missing the point. Of course, Africa is predominantly populated by black people. Of course, it would be ridiculous to feature another race in an attempt to be politically correct. And of course, Resident Evil 5 is not a video game interpretation of a real event. Why then did the game, belonging to a series known for its hordes of local zombies, have to take place in Africa, a continent predominantly populated by black people?

Resident Evil 5 is not racist, but it is an irresponsible move on Capcom’s part that could have been handled much better.

At one point, there had to have been a meeting or series of emails between the creative staff behind RE5 in which the African setting was approved. It’s not hard to imagine the idea being brought up because of the huge departure it would be for the series, which typically took place in more urban environments and had recently visited Spanish farming villages and castles. Of course, there had to have been discussion on the depiction of the game’s enemies, local African villagers infected with parasites which turn them into violent beasts. The game didn’t have to take place in Africa.

Many people bring up Japan’s separation from America’s racial history to justify Capcom’s portrayal of RE5‘s black zombies, but it doesn’t take much research to discover our country’s troubled past dealing with racism, specifically racism aimed at African-Americans. Capcom went a step further, however, and featured enemies wearing grass skirts and armed with throwing spears, all to achieve a themed set-piece which amounts to a small portion of the game.

Anyone who has played through RE5 should be able to tell you the game is not racist. Such a claim would imply the game’s designers purposely injected racially insensitive elements not only to shock and offend players but to express their hatred for all people of African descent. This is a bold claim that obviously isn’t true. Nothing, not even the game’s occasionally insensitive depiction of Africans, carries with it a underlying message of hatred.

Resident Evil 5 just tries to be a fun, action-packed game in a new environment. Again, the game isn’t racist, but irresponsible with some of its imagery.

There is another aspect of the RE5 argument that is often stated, but even more flawed than defending the game because it takes place in Africa: the idea that killing Spanish enemies should carry the same weight as killing African enemies.

Obviously, Jefferson blew the instances of what he believed to be racism out of proportion, but it is a fact that, at least in America, racism aimed at African-Americans carries far more weight than that aimed at people of Spanish descent. A white man tearing through the Spanish countryside, guns blazing doesn’t conjure up the same racial images of a white man doing the same in an African village.

Again, it’s not inherently racist to depict either situation, but one can be construed as such much more easily, and in a medium so misunderstood by those who don’t associate with it on a regular basis like most people with more than a passing interest in video games, it’s irresponsible to carelessly raise a lightning rod on top of the industry like that.

bold re5 glare

I’ve never played a racist game, one that was designed with a message of racial hate like I mentioned above. While I’ve seen numerous examples of insensitive images and portrayals through the years, I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of such a game either. To my knowledge, there’s nothing in the video game world that goes beyond what we see and usually accept in movies and especially hear in music. Video games are part of a young medium, misunderstood by many and susceptible to all sorts of accusations.

The worst thing we as fans of the medium can do is express our opposition to flimsy arguments with equally flimsy arguments.


One Response to “Dismissing & defending claims of racism in video games”

  1. insurance appointment setting August 14, 2009 at 12:24 AM #

    You make an incredibly valid point, and yours is the sort of level headed approach to a situation that we should all emulate.

    I must sheepishly admit I was one of those angry fans and used every argument u debunked in you article. Thank you for being coherent and logical, in the future i hope to keep more of my debates logical and level headed like yours

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