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Race (Not Racism) in Resident Evil 5

Posted by Nick Dinicola on March 20, 2009

I haven’t beat Resident Evil 5 yet, but I’ve played far  past chapter 3, the chapter I imagine some people would have the most to complain about. In a strange way I feel like I’m watching this controversy from the outside. While I can see why people would get offended, while I can understand their arguments, I just don’t feel it.

In chapter 3 we fight the infamous tribesmen, Africans dressed up in their traditional tribal garb. I had briefly seen a video of them before I got the game, so as I ran around their empty village scrounging for ammo I kept thinking, “When are they going to attack me?” When they did attack me, it was intense. I ran out of ammo and had to run around looking for more. I ran up a ramp and used it to funnel the tribesmen into a line so I could take out more than one with each shotgun blast. Eventually I killed them all, and it was only afterward, looking back, that I realized some people might have been uncomfortable playing that, some people would probably see that fight as racist.

I don’t think Resident Evil 5 is racist. It doesn’t even say anything about race, let alone suggest that one race is better than another. Anyone who plays it understands this, but people that don’t play it, people that just see it being played, that just see me running through an African village killing tribesmen, will have a different take on it. From that perspective, watching a savage looking African native being killed by a white man is sure to look racist to some. The game does have some loaded imagery throughout it, there’s no getting around that fact. The way the infected rush you is almost animal like, and could be perceived as an attempt to make black people look subhuman…or they could just be another gaming enemy, no different than the Ganado, Covenant, Helghast, Chimera, Locust Horde, Splicers, Necromorphs, or crazy bums. The controversial imagery is there, but whether or not that imagery is specifically racist is up to the individual. I don’t think Resident Evil 5 is racist in any way, but I do think it contains some images that could offend some people and lead them to decry the game as racist based on those images alone.

What I actually find worse than knee-jerk accusations of racism in Resident Evil 5 is the knee-jerk reactions by many gamers to condemn anyone who criticizes Resident Evil 5. To argue that “No one complained when we were killing Spaniards in RE4,” or “The game is set in Africa so of course the zombies will be black,” is to completely miss the point of the issue at hand. The controversy over RE5 is not just that it’s a white guy killing black guys, but it’s how those black guys are portrayed. The “savage native” stereotype is prevalent throughout the game, and to ignore that imagery and dismiss it because RE5 is “just a game,” is a disservice to the gaming community as a whole. This is an important discussion, this issue of race in games.  By asking “Is Resident Evil 5 racist?” we’re taking a critical look at the game. Suddenly it’s no longer “just a game” but a symbol of our cultural values and isn’t that what we want? Don’t we want games to be taken seriously? People who derail the discussions of  race in games with strawman arguments (So you can never have a game set in Africa?) or ad hominem attacks (Anyone who thinks RE5 is racist is just a racist themselves.) are wasting this great opportunity to talk about games not just as games, but as something culturally relevant, as art.

And to think all this was spawned by a Resident Evil game. I don’t think anyone could have that one coming.

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