Race and Responsibility

Found via Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Bill Harris writes a post about that racism-referencing Resident Evil 5 trailer, as recently pointed out by a much-demonized man named N’Gai Croal. I think Harris is right when he says that the trailer is racist, but that its creators probably aren’t.

What was N’Gai referring to when when he mentioned “classic racist imagery?”

He was talking about The Brute.

The Brute caricature was created in the U.S. in the post-slavery era, and it portrayed every black man as a dangerous animal–dangerous because he was no longer controlled by slavery.

Like Harris, I don’t think that Capcom or the people who made the trailer intended to seem racist, or imply that black folks are monsters. The fact remains, though, that when dealing with situations like a white guy going to Africa and killing a whole bunch of black folk, the author has a responsibility to be really, really careful about how the work presents its content.

Harris offers in a later post a way that the trailer could have avoided its problems:

There are all kinds of ways you could shuffle those images around, but the central element of the trailer [should not be] the mob–it [should be] the unbearable agony of becoming a zombie. And the people in village are the innocents. They’re not ominous. They’re victims.

Do the trailer that way and Chris Redfield isn’t going in to fight a bunch of black mobs who are portrayed as disturbingly sub-human–he’s fighting the horror, the unspeakable horror, of men who are undead.

When Return to Castle Wolfenstein depicted Nazis experimenting on people and turning them into undead monsters, it specifically did not portray the monsters as baby-eating Jews. The developers evoked the horror of Nazi experimentation without turning the subjects themselves into monsters; indeed, there’s nothing stereotypically Jewish about the resulting creatures, and they are clearly under Nazi control.

In making this trailer, the authors failed at their responsibility in approaching their delicate setting without implicitly celebrating racist colonialism. There are any number of ways in which they could have done better: I personally would be interested to see one in which the black villagers were bleached by the zombie plague. A game about a white guy killing black folks turned into white monsters who terrorize the other black folks wouldn’t be free from the danger of racism, but it would certainly generate a more interesting view of the situation than a white guy killing black monsters.

Games are art. Artists have a social responsibility to try and prevent their work from promoting or encouraging ideas they believe are evil or undesirable. Art is a major factor in how we see the world, and games, with their immersive qualities, can be more effective than most in shaping those views. No game is going to turn a healthy individual into a murderous racist, but it certainly might reaffirm racist views in people who play it.

5 thoughts on “Race and Responsibility

  1. I agree with you on the point of artists having a social responsibility re: evil ideas, but I question your later statement, that “[a]rt is a major factor in how we see the world”. How heavily is my world-view influenced by my distaste for impressionist paintings? Seems more like my taste in art is informed by my world-view. Which you seem to agree with, according to the last sentence of the post, but I’m curious as to how much you think it goes both ways.

  2. Art has two roles in influencing our world-views: it can make arguments, or it can reinforce a particular view. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was persuasive enough that Lincoln attributed it as starting the Civil War. It made arguments about the nature of slavery that changed peoples’ minds. The Birth of a Nation, on the other hand, probably didn’t change anyone’s mind, but it reinforced undesirably positive views of the KKK and of blacks as monsters of a certain, specific sort — and probably helped educate a new generation in those views.

    So your world-view influences your taste in art, but art also influences your worldview. It’s more likely to influence those who have not formed a hard decision, and with the current target audience of video games, that makes the onus of social responsibility especially strong on video game developers.

  3. “It’s more likely to influence those who have not formed a hard decision” — True, yes, but people are often only inclined to take in “art” that holds an opinion similar to theirs in the first place. I, for instance — the very epitome of open-mindedness, *grin* — am less likely to pick up a book extolling the virtues of the KKK than I am a book containing some new slant on feminism that isn’t man-bashing.

    The same applies to video games. I’m less likely to pick up a game like RE 5 than, say, Sims 3 or Spore. One seems to “promote” killing barely-zombies while the others “promote” creation and cute-and-fuzzy interaction. I’m a fan of cute-and-fuzzy. And creation.

  4. Lissa: I concur that people are unlikely to pick up a game that seems to hold a view they disagree with. That gives a more pragmatic reason not to evoke racist imagery: if you only appeal to the Klan demographic, you’re probably going to sell fewer games. I think that the trailer is poorly conceived because it can be picked up by racists (subconscious or no) and used to reaffirm their racist ideas of African (or Carribean, it’s unclear) villagers.

    One thing I haven’t mentioned is that, because the game isn’t out, I don’t know how well it handles the problems brought up in the trailer. It’s entirely possible that the problems in the trailer aren’t present in the game.

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