It was a rare victory for gamers. But the “Sexbox” controversy was defeated so quickly because it boiled down to simple fact-checking, and not because of the feeding frenzy it triggered. Often, such flare-ups aren’t so black and white — particularly when the debate is about matters of, well, black and white.
Playing the race card
The subject of racism in games is a touchy one, as it is anywhere. Black video-game protagonists are few and far between, and when they do show up, they’re usually relegated to supporting roles, with a tendency to exhibit stereotypical traits. One recent egregious example is the character of Malcolm in Unreal Tournament III, whose manner of speaking is described in the Web comic Penny Arcade as “plung[ing] beyond parody and irony into some bizarre b-boy timewarp.” Still, it’s hard to get too worked up about such misguided, but essentially benign, portrayals.
It was a different story this past summer, when the trailer for Resident Evil 5 premiered at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles. The unveiling of a new Resident Evil game would have been an event no matter what, but people were especially eager to see how Capcom would follow up their commercial and critical smash Resident Evil 4 (my pick for game of the year in 2005). What we got for version five was footage that looked remarkably similar to version four: a solitary hero alone in a strange land battles with swarms of bloodthirsty natives. There was just one crucial difference: in Resident Evil 5, the “natives” are black.
The trailer shows Chris Redfield (the white protagonist from the original Resident Evil) walking through an impoverished village amid a mood of suspense and dread, even as the villagers go about their business. About midway through, one of the natives is shown undergoing a transformation in which his face pales and blood runs from his eyes. From there, it’s a montage of action scenes in which Redfield, well-armed with a pistol, a shotgun, and a submachine gun, takes on hordes of dark-skinned foes who wield primitive weapons such as axes and scythes.
Some viewers felt uneasy watching the footage, but the firestorm didn’t ignite until a non-gamer objected to what she’d seen. Activist Kym Platt, posting on the blog Black Looks, had this to say:
The new Resident Evil video game depicts a white man in what appears to be Africa killing Black people. The Black people are supposed to be zombies, and the white man's job is to destroy them and save humanity. “I have a job to do and I’m gonna see it through.”
This is problematic on so many levels, including the depiction of Black people as inhuman savages, the killing of Black people by a white man in military clothing, and the fact that this video game is marketed to children and young adults. Start them young. . . . fearing, hating, and destroying Black people.
After gaming mega-sites such as Kotaku linked to the post, gamers laid into Platt on Black Looks’ comments section, until the site admin closed it. Ironically, Platt’s fear that Resident Evil 5 encouraged whites to see blacks as less-than-human was essentially mirrored in how she and the gaming community viewed each other. Commenters who came down hard on Platt for indulging a misguided sense of persecution were evincing exactly the same thing.