Earlier this week, I posted an interview with gaming journalist N'Gai Croal of Newsweek.
During our conversation about the portrayal of black people in games, we talked about the controversy surrounding the "Resident Evil 5" trailer that debuted at last year's E3.
It depicts a white protagonist going into an apparently poverty-stricken village (the location is unspecified) and killing throngs of black zombified men and women (see the trailer yourself).
Croal's reactions were so detailed and thoroughly-described that we decided to highlight them in their own post.
Multiplayer editor Stephen Totilo wrote about his uneasiness upon viewing it, and commenters from other outlets discussed whether or not the trailer was racist. Some agreed with Totilo, but quite a few people disagreed. Earlier this week, developer Morgan Gray explained that he didn't have a problem with it either.
Croal's first reaction to the trailer was, "Wow, clearly no one black worked on this game." He explained his thoughts on the trailer and how he would have preferred Capcom to treat it:
"It's like when you engage that kind of imagery you have to be careful with it. It would be like saying you were going to do some sort of zombie movie that appeared to be set in Europe in the 1940's with skinny, emaciated, Hasidic-looking people. If you put up that imagery people would be saying, 'Are you crazy?' Well, that's what this stuff looks like. This imagery has a history. It has a history and you can't pretend otherwise. That imagery still has a history that has to be engaged, that has to be understood. ... If you're going to engage imagery that has that potential, the onus is on the creator to be aware of that because there will be repercussions in the marketplace."
Here are more of his thoughts on the matter...
(As with all of the articles in this series, we strongly suggest you read the piece in full before commenting.)
Multiplayer: I wanted to ask you about the "Resident Evil 5" trailer...
Croal: I looked at the "Resident Evil 5" trailer and I was like, "Wow, clearly no one black worked on this game." Because I wonder, and I haven't sort of really dug into it that much, but I wonder what sort of advice Capcom gave them. The point isn't that you can't have black zombies. There was a lot of imagery in that trailer that dovetailed with classic racist imagery. What was not funny, but sort of interesting, was that there were so many gamers who could not at all see it. Like literally couldn't see it. So how could you have a conversation with people who don't understand what you're talking about and think that you're sort of seeing race where nothing exists?
There was stuff like even before the point in the trailer where the crowd turned into zombies. There sort of being, in sort of post-modern parlance, they're sort of "othered." They're hidden in shadows, you can barely see their eyes, and the perspective of the trailer is not even someone who's coming to help the people. It's like they're all dangerous; they all need to be killed. It's not even like one cute African -- or Haitian or Caribbean -- child could be saved. They're all dangerous men, women and children. They all have to be killed. And given the history, given the not so distant post-colonial history, you would say to yourself, why would you uncritically put up those images? It's not as simple as saying, "Oh, they shot Spanish zombies in 'Resident Evil 4,' and now 'black zombies and that's why people are getting upset." 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.
"The audience isn't demanding much change. They like the games they're playing."
I think the audience isn't demanding much change. They like the games they're playing. They're by and large comfortable with the amounts of stereotypes in their games. You know because another thing that you sort of have gamers run into in situations like this is that, "Oh it's just a game." [laughs] You know, if it's just a game, then why do we care about how culturally relevant they are? I care about how culturally relevant they are. I take games as seriously as other art forms.
If there were a movie that had those images, I'd question it. I'd really want to know what's going on in this movie. Like where is this coming from? So we hadn't seen much of the game. It was just a trailer. If it had been me in that situation, I wouldn't have put out a trailer like that. I think it's very easy to misunderstand what that game is about based on that trailer. And while I would certainly withhold final judgment, if that's all the game is, I'd be concerned about that.
Multiplayer: It's funny how some people argue that it's "just a game," but also get really upset of any criticism of it...
Croal: Absolutely. It's very difficult in this country, in many countries, to have a conversation about race. Everyone brings to it their own history, their own perspective. Some people are engaged in it, some people aren't. I think some people are concerned because some people think there is a double standard. Some people say that when it’s images of only black people then people get concerned. Some people feel like their hobby is under attack; it's being misinterpreted or misunderstood. Again the portrayal of Africa, or the Caribbean, since we don’t know where it’s being set, as sort of this dark, dangerous continent filled with people who only want to do you harm goes back a long, long way. And based on the images put up on the trailer, what else are you supposed to take from it? Especially if you're not familiar with the franchise?
"It's very difficult in this country, in many countries, to have a conversation about race."
Even if you are familiar with the franchise, if you are familiar with those images and their historical weight, you look at it and say, "Man, that's kind of messed up." Then you look at the music that was used in the trailers, that's one of the things that was sort of funny in so that you had those people who were saying, "It's not even Africa, it's Haiti or somewhere in the Caribbean.” The music that they're using in the trailer is very reminiscent of the music used in Black Hawk Down which was set in Africa -- Somalia. That actually was one of the things that was most disturbing because it sort of had a feeling as like, "Wow, what research did this team do? Did they only watch Black Hawk Down and give it this kind of vibe?"
I don't want to put down the Capcom team that's working on it. I hope they did more research than that. But based on that trailer, it's very difficult to tell. And Black Hawk Down was a very problematic film among a handful of critics and particularly among African-American viewers and African viewers when it came out because of the sort of narrow focus of its portrayal.
That's the whole thing where only Chris Redfield appears to be human before they turn into zombies; the humanity of other people is in question. It's like you barely see their faces, he doesn't really interact with them, he sort of walks through this thing and it's sort of, "Is he there? Is he not?" It's a very strange thing, and it taps into sort of this very racist iconography. I think that's the only way I'm describing it. I'm not saying that was their intent. But it seems that a lot of people who were up in arms about the trailer couldn't see that and didn’t want to engage it.
I think, again, the point is not that Capcom can't or shouldn't make a zombie game set in what appears to be an impoverished country where the majority of residents are black. I'm not saying that. But what I am saying is that if I was Capcom, I wouldn't have suggested to put out that trailer. I would have said, "You know what, this has tremendous capacity for being misunderstood, and we want to signal that this is not what you might think it is" -- and they didn't do that. That's what I'm saying.
"This imagery has a history. It has a history and you can't pretend otherwise."
It's like when you engage that kind of imagery you have to be careful with it. It would be like saying you were going to do some sort of zombie movie that appeared to be set in Europe in the 1940's with skinny, emaciated, Hasidic-looking people. If you put up that imagery people would be saying, "Are you crazy?" Well, that's what this stuff looks like. This imagery has a history. It has a history and you can't pretend otherwise. That imagery still has a history that has to be engaged, that has to be understood. If you're going to tread, if you're going to engage imagery that has that potential, the onus is on the creator to be aware of that because there will be repercussions in the marketplace.
I don't know how Capcom feels about it. I think releasing that game is going to be very difficult. I think there are people and organizations who aren't very understanding of games that if that imagery is brought to them they're going to be like, "Wait, hold up. I don't know how you could put that out." Then you have to say, "Does Wal-Mart want to deal with that? Does Target want to deal with that?" I'm not saying that censorship is the answer. I'm saying that the same rights that allow Capcom to put the game out are the same rights that allow people to bring pressure on people who might release that game. This is why it is important to whoever works in the American office of a company like Capcom to be able to show this is the history, this is where this comes from, this is where we need to be more sensitive. I'm not sure they've done that yet.