That Notorious “Resident Evil 5″ Trailer And The People I Met In Africa

What is the purpose of a video game trailer?

I think it is to evoke two responses. First: “That looks cool!” (Said because you’re seeing Mario jump around in outer space; Raiden using his ninja skills; or really wet-looking water in a hot new Xbox 360 game) Second: “I want to do that.” (Said because you too would enjoy jumping in space, using ninja skills and skulking through wet-looking water.)

This is different than the broader range of responses a movie trailer can inspire, which can go from “that looks cool” to “I won’t enjoy this but I feel like I should know about it.”

This is a new theory of mine. I developed it this week, while trying to figure out why the new Resident Evil 5” video game trailer bothers me even though so many hardcore gamers say it’s no big deal. (See the comments section on Kotaku, for instance, to understand why vocal gamers mostly say it’s not racist.)

Early yesterday I sent a bunch of questions to “RE5″ publisher Capcom about the trailer. I wanted to know what they thought of the reaction and whether they wanted to provide any extra context to the scenes depicted in the trailer. Despite my repeated attempts, they declined to comment.

Nevertheless, I have intended all week to explain why I find the trailer troubling. And it doesn’t have much to do with whether or not it’s racist. But it does involve those kids in the picture up top.

I’ve watched this trailer several times and I keep having the same difficulty. It doesn’t make me say “That looks cool!” And it certainly doesn’t make me say “I want to do that!” Maybe a subsequent trailer will. But not this one.

My problem is that it presents a fantasy I don’t desire. It looks like it’s an advertisement to virtually shoot poor people. I know “Resident Evil” games are supposed to be about hiding from and shooting zombies — this one probably is too. Shooting zombies is something I can get behind, just as I can support video game fantasies of shooting Nazis or even causing mayhem in a big city. But when I see a town of what looks like impoverished African villagers — the very image of global poverty, the very spectacle that since my youth has been coded in me to evoke sympathy and charity — I don’t want to pull the trigger.

And what makes it even harder to get excited is that I’ve been in a place like that. About two and a half years ago, I spent 10 days in a small town called Mumbwi, in the east African nation of Tanzania. Check the map right here. I was there to build houses with a group of American volunteers and a town full of enthusiastic Tanzanians. It was a fascinating experience. My then-girlfriend (now-wife) and I stayed in a hostel right in town. We laid brick with the locals. We went on walks with them. We went to soccer matches that everyone got dressed up for (that’s where we snapped the photo atop this blog; we took the one with the woman and kids in a nearby town).

People in Mumbwi didn’t have much. One sign of that was their clothing. We saw lots of people in old Tupac and 50 Cent shirts. I remember one woman who wore an English-language “World’s Greatest Dad” T-shirt. The town’s main priest, Idaso, wore a rayon Batman shirt. (I asked him if he knew who Batman was. He didn’t. But I was able to laugh with some other guys about our mutual “Macho Man” Randy Savage impressions. “The Madness! The Madness!” one guy kept saying, as we laughed and laughed.)

The racial politics in Mumbwi and nearby towns weren’t what I expected. As a white person I was treated like an exotic celebrity. Kids rans after us shouting the name for such pale-skinned visitors: “Wazungu!” One day the half-dozen of us American volunteers were brought to a political rally where we, belatedly, discovered we were honored guests. Despite our protests people brought us chairs to sit in, while political supporters rallied around us and proclaimed things in Swahili that included the words “George Bush” (followed by cheers). At the rally a man in a red Vodaphone T-shirt did an extraordinary hip-shaking dance. And two teenage boys did their best 1993-era Dre and Snoop, as one rapped while the other stood behind, looking at the ground, swaying, swaggering, and repeating the occasional word from his friend’s verses for emphasis.

I see these people when I watch the “RE5″ trailer. I see the citizens of Mumbwi in the sights of that game’s hero “Resident Evil 5.” I don’t see them at his side. I don’t see them under his protection. I see them down the barrel of his gun.

I need to see more. I hope to see more. But right now I see poor people I used to know. I see the global sign of poverty down the barrel of a gun. It doesn’t look cool. What it depicts so far? I don’t want to do “that.”