Race is an issue that is never too far from the surface of American society. Video games, though, are not an arena in which we normally expect race to raise the passions of people who otherwise view the hobby as a form of escapism. Enter Resident Evil 5—the next iteration of the revered Resident Evil franchise—which has made a huge splash in the gaming world despite being a year from release. While massive pre-release hype is normal for a game of RE5’s caliber, the particular reason for the hype is anything but standard fare.
Resident Evil 5 first turned heads with a stunning trailer at July 2007’s Electronic Entertainment Expo in Santa Monica, California, the video game industry trade show. As usual, the graphics were amazing, causing fanboys and critics to sing the praises of Capcom’s newest entry into the survival horror franchise. Eventually, however, the content of the trailer began to raise questions among those inside and outside the gaming community.
The trailer features Chris Redfield, a white character who is one of the main protagonists of the Resident Evil series, walking through a decrepit and ghostly African town. The black residents are lethargic and creepy, shuffling along without any sign of intelligence. Chris does not interact with them but acts only as an observer. While this image of the shambling, ghostly African might be troubling to some, what came after is even more compromising. The residents soon turn into zombies, a staple of the Resident Evil games, and as always, Chris has to survive their onslaught by killing them.
While the premise of the trailer was virtually identical to past games in the series, the imagery was very different. The footage featured a white man gunning down hordes of menacing, violent, and insatiable African men and women with bloodshot eyes and animal-like teeth. Needless to say, the trailer attracted the attention of many due to this imagery rather than the stunning graphics. Behind the seemingly innocuous concept of zombie killing, people saw historical imagery of the savage black monster that recalls Birth of a Nation and the Antebellum fear of slave uprisings. Many viewers felt Capcom had tapped into the American-European fear of “the other.”
It wasn’t too long before Microscopiq, a blog dedicated to progressive gaming and art, picked up on the troubling imagery in the trailer and published a blog entry titled “Blackface Goes HD? The Case of Resident Evil 5.” Then, Black Looks, an African women’s blog, picked up on the Microscopiq story and decried the trailer for being “problematic on so many levels, including the depiction of Black people as inhuman savages” and “the killing of Black people by a white man in military clothing.” By the end of the summer, the story found its way to GamePolitics, a gaming culture and politics site.
While the GamePolitics story did not give an opinion on the trailer’s imagery, readers’ comments caused a firestorm of controversy to sweep across the gaming community as racist language and heated discussions on the issue of race in video games proliferated across the blogosphere. From Kotaku to 1up—two of the most prominent gaming Web sites—the gaming world was ablaze with anger, and typical comments used dismissive and racist language to belittle the concern that not only outside observers but also fellow gamers voiced. It became clear that even in the gaming community, race is a divisive issue that brings out the worst in many people.
The issue eventually died away until last month, when N’Gai Croal, one of the most respected games journalists in the industry, raised concerns over the trailer in an interview with MTV’s Multiplayer games blog. Croal, who is African American, said of the trailer, “Given the history, given the not-so-distant post-colonial history, you would say to yourself, why would you uncritically put up those images?” He also addressed a common defense of the trailer: in Resident Evil 4, the player killed Spanish zombies, and Resident Evil 5 isn’t any different—just a change in scene and ethnicity of the enemy. Croal said, “The imagery is not the same. It doesn’t carry the same history, it doesn’t carry the same weight. I don’t know how to explain it more clearly than that.”
While the responses to Croal’s assessment of the trailer have been much the same as the responses from last summer, many other bloggers in the community have gone out of their way to support him. In a way, they have offered an ultimatum to the gaming community: this is a defining moment for games and gamers, a point at which they can determine the course and cultural relevance of the industry. Either they can continue to act as immature and insensitive denizens of the Internet or they can engage in an intelligent, thoughtful discussion of race in games that will push gaming beyond its image as a form of escapism.