Resident Evil 5 Controversy

Only one of these scenes is controversial.

I’ve been thinking for a while about how best to address the controversy surrounding the recently-released Resident Evil 5 trailer. The trailer, which depicts Chris Redfield (a white male) shooting black zombies in what appears to be Africa, has raised more than a few eyebrows. Kim Platt is one of many people who find the trailer disgustingly racist, and you can read her thoughts on the matter at her blog Black Looks. Racism is such an inflammatory topic here in America that I’ve thought pretty long and hard about how best to discuss this matter here without the debate degrading into personal attacks. I think that the problems that this country has with racism and bigotry are extremely important to discuss, but the internet has proven to be full of really offensive people, so I hesitated before posting this. Still, it’s such an important topic that I don’t think I can really ignore it.

Briefly, I want to describe the criticism against the trailer as I understand it. As Platt puts it, the trailer 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.” I’m going to set aside the “marketed to children and young adults” part of her complaint for the moment, as it’s a common stereotype that many non-gamers hold and doesn’t really pertain to the real discussion here. Platt is echoing the reactions that many people have when they see the Resident Evil 5 trailer: a white guy shooting mindless black dudes is not socially acceptable in American society.

There are a few things I want to say about this controversy. We have had a pretty interesting discussion about this on the forum, and I want to sort of collapse my rambling posts from that thread into something more coherent here.

The first thing I want to talk about is culture clash. When I first moved to Japan in the late 1990s, I slowly experienced the sensation known as culture shock. In my case, it was a feeling of being perpetually off-balance, and it was caused by curious juxtapositions or behaviors of people in Japan that I couldn’t quite explain. I made the mistake most people make when they visit a foreign country: I mistook superficial similarities in my own culture and the Japanese culture as proof that the people in Japan operate pretty much the same as people in America. I saw neat buildings and neon lights and people going to work every day and figured that Japan was pretty much like America except that they drive on the other side of the street. Culture shock began to take hold as I realized that while Japanese people do many of the same things Americans do, they don’t necessarily do them for the same reasons. The critical mistake I had made was the assumption that I could look upon some superficial Japanese thing or event and somehow divine what the motivation behind it was. I can do this in America, but I eventually realized that I can’t do it with any level of reliability in Japan.

Since then I’ve become a lot more conscious about how things I consider to be “common sense” may not actually be all that common outside of my home country. And that is why I don’t believe that the people who made the Resident Evil 5 trailer are trying to be racist, even unconsciously. It’s true that depicting a white man shooting African villagers is unacceptable in American society, but this video isn’t the product of American people. America has a terrible history of racism, slavery, and subjugation, and our continued struggle with these issues as a culture is reflected in this controversy: clearly, the video invokes images that remind people of a not-so-distant past where this sort of thing may have happened not to zombies, but to real, living people. But the people who made the game that this video comes from have none of that history; Japan has its own set of problems with racism and xenophobia, but they are not the same shape as America’s.

I think that people like Platt find the trailer so disgusting because they assume that anybody with common sense would understand that these sorts of images are bound to offend, and therefore they conclude that the people who made the video must be intentionally trying to offend–it seems like unabashed racism. But I think Platt has made the same mistake I did back in Japan: she assumes to understand Capcom’s intent because she assumes that the cultural signals she is receiving are the same ones that were intended to be sent. But this isn’t necessarily true; when dealing with a different culture, I don’t think you can make any assumptions about what “common sense” is. And if you don’t understand the motivation behind the work, I don’t think you can justify the extremely serious allegation of racism.

Please note that I’m not trying to argue that the RE5 trailer isn’t offensive. People take offense at things based on their personal sensibilities, and I’m not about to tell anybody that they are wrong to be offended by anything. It’s your personal prerogative to be offended about whatever you want. And frankly, I do understand what Platt is talking about; the trailer does invoke images that make me uncomfortable, but because I don’t really know what the creators of the trailer are thinking, I think that discomfort says more about me and my culture than it does about them.

I also think it is fair to fault Capcom for not being more sensitive to their target audience. They should have anticipated this sort of response, and while I don’t think it’s fair to call them racist, I do think that the label of insensitive and clumsy is appropriate. Resident Evil is not their only problem either: they recently removed an Islamic phrase (link requires Gamasutra account) from one of their other games after they received complains from Muslims. But I think that there is a huge difference between racism–the purposeful propagation of a negative or dehumanizing stereotype–and inadvertently offending people because of cultural insensitivity.

I also want to talk very briefly about the trailer itself. I want to note that this entire controversy is based on about 30 seconds of footage from a game that we know nothing about and that isn’t scheduled for release until 2009. I also think that people too quickly overlook the content of the game itself. While it might seem like shooting zombies is a pretty straight-forward video game premise, it is worth remembering that Night of the Living Dead, the film that spawned the zombie genre as we know it today, is a pretty damning commentary on race relations in America. Given how little we know about Resident Evil 5, I think it’s a bit premature to make judgments about it, especially considering the roots of the zombie genre.

One last point to make here. After Kim Platt wrote about her reaction to the Resident Evil 5 footage, her blog became the target of angry gamers who left a barrage of extremely offensive comments. To the people who posted those comments: you are the problem with this country. It’s not video games that perpetuate racism, it’s assholes like you! People like you give the rest of us gamers a bad name, and you are actively contributing to one of the central problems in America today. What century do you think this is? Shame on you.

17 thoughts on “Resident Evil 5 Controversy

    I think its such a shame that she has closed comments on her blog because the eloquence with which you make your point was nothing short of poetry in context with the verbal abuse she took as a result of posting. I do however think that many of her complaints were poorly concieved not least becasue she doesnt appear to demonstrate any knowledge of the series, lest mention the fact that in RE4 we spent twenty hours shooting holes in hispanic characters with little cultural furory. That and she mentioned that the game was being marketed at children demonstrating a typical generation gap view that video games are still the reserve of children, no wonder that this will almost certainly be certificated 18 in the UK. Even worse her supporters started taking quotes from webboards out of context like the one from Heaven Guilds, find it in the comments list towards the bottom, whilst ineloquently done if you follow the link you can see that the message board contributer “cor” is making fun not a serious racial slur as it is made to look, nevertheless the slew of quotes such as “stupid fucking black hooker playing the race card as usual” were nothing short of pointless hatefilled mindless biggotry the internet is all too full of and doesn’t constitute the larger voice of the gaming community whatsoever. Trawling further more through the quotes one did move me however.

    “I just wanted to state a few things, I am an African American who is tired of racism. All you are doing Kym is pointing out the fact that you have racism to whites within your first response.


    Yes… I am more comfortable with the zombies being white. In fact, ALL zombies should be white from this day forth.”

    Bigotry begets bigotry. Secondly the game is not aimed at children, if you think for one second a game as violent as this is aimed at children you have lost you sense.

    I would to ask you a question… Have you ever even been to Africa, or any of the African countries? What is it you did there? Have you helped try to restore economic growth in the countries there? If not you should be instead of enforcing more racism than needed in the states.”
    Posted by Jiro, comment 79.

    This goes along the same line as a point I have always held close to my heart that positive discrimination equals negative discrimination, for the sake of anybody who doesnt come across my post in the forum here are some of my musings about the ills off positive discrimination in a supposedly egalitarian society.

    “I dont want to stir up a hornets nest but sometimes I feel positive discrimination can lead to negative discrimination because your singling someone out because of the colour of their skin. A couple of Christmases ago Birmingham city council announced that the Christmas celebrations would be called “Winterval” so to avoid discriminating the Muslim and other minority communities, as a result the white majority community became angry at the Muslims despite the fact that they had never requested the name of Christmas to be changed, instead it was the work of over zealous councillers trying to score points and inadvertently singling out the exact same community they were trying to currie favour with. My point is that this is a very small minority of black people voicing concent that has been blown out of proportion by eager white people to start a debate. If we stopped positvely discriminating people I imagine you would decrease negative discrimination because the issue of race, culture, beliefs or sexuality aren’t being placed on a plimth alienating the majority.
    In relation to this RE5 has had a race issue grandstanded by a small minority of people the subsequent backlash has been negative and offensive comments placed on Kim Platts blog, the women mentioned on the homepage. The people who posted those messages are total dickwads and gives us, the majority, a bad name as Chris himself said, then again had a debate not been made there would have been no platform for said idiots to make grotesque comments. Being over zealous one way is damaging in reverse, we will only get racial equality when people stop putting emphasis on race, as far as I’m concerned this is as racist as shooting up the hispanics in RE4, I hope Capcom stay their ground otherwise yet again culture will have been sanatised in the face of madass political correctness which is the biggest attribution to racism in modern society.”

  2. as per usual. Part of the problem is people can find offence pretty much anywhere. Did the hispanic population react with outrage and digust at the latino / olive skinned mindless /crazy cultist in RE4?

    In racism, motivation is important, but motivation is often a grey area because they are so personal and often private, its hard to really interpret.

    Personally, I have no more problem shooting a black zombie than a white. In fact, one could argue that were i more comfortable shooting a white i was infact racist in an anti white way. Its this kind of difficulty in defining motivations that create problems in mass media.

    Excellent article Chris, as ever you are fair, lucid and offer both points of view honestly.

  3. It’s just where it takes place, and where the next batch of parasites seem to be taking over. It wasn’t meant to be racist, some people just take things to seriously.

  4. There must be some sort of bug going around.
    Odd coincidence, but I recently had an argument about a work of art with very similar faux pas!

    Suffice to say, it ended pretty much the same way. :/
    Though offense was not intended by the artist, they had failed to explain the theme of the work and a lot of people came away with the wrong impression, including myself (for the same cultural reasons you mentioned in your article).

    I agree with you on all points. I hope this awkward promo doesn’t overshadow the title.

  5. Agreed. As of right now, it is very hard to judge something that hasn’t even been fully realized and is still in development (why is this taking so long anyway?) Within the context of the series, I would hope not to find racism, as it hasn’t made an outright appearance before. But it is good we are able to speak out on these things freely; perhaps, in the future, with less hatred all around. Yea, right, that’s going to happen.

  6. You’re pretty spot on. I also think the offended outcry will always bring out the racism more than the supposed offensive material will ever manifest. It’s also a good way to draw unneeded lines of separation.

    I am not a robot.

    I did a few posts about this topic in the forum.

    A couple of points I’d like to make here:

    I do believe that entertainment (whether music, music videos, video games, movies) *can* influence some people’s actions and/or views. I don’t dispute that.

    So to a point I can empathize with that lady’s concerns.

    When I was playing Resident Evil 4, though, I did not develop a hatred of Spainish people.

    Further, as I was shooting the Spanish people in the game, I didn’t jump for joy from the motivation that they were Spanish, or that they had brown skin.

    My excitement and entertainment came from the fact that I was shooting zombie-like creatures – who just happened to be Spaniards.

    The zombie-like monsters in RE4 could’ve been pasty- skinned white Americans, and I would’ve been just as enthralled.

    When I get to play RE5, my reaction will be the same:

    “Oh look, how fun, I get to shoot down zombie-like creatures, woooo!”

    and not,

    “Oh yeah, I can’t wait to shoot me some black people!”

    On a parting note, in previous games, CapCom has (and other gaming companies have) used admirable characters who were black. Did that lady take that into consideration?

  8. “And that is why I don’t believe that the people who made the Resident Evil 5 trailer are trying to be racist, even unconsciously.”

    did you mean aren’t? i’m left pretty confused by your post

  9. I am reminded of the sombering quote by the ever profilic Anon:

    “If you look hard enough, you can see the devil and his works everywhere.”

  10. I think the only reason racism exists in the majority of our country still is because of people like her who look for things to be offended by. The idea of the trailer being racist never even entered my mind until I saw this article, I just thought it looked like RE4 except in Africa instead of Europe.

    By the way, I like how she capitalizes black but not white …that seems pretty racist to me.

  11. I guess it’s the same set of ‘rules’ that keep popping up…”Women can’t be sexist”…and “Minorities can’t be racist”.If it was reversed–Uniformed black hero vs. hoards of white hillbillies —Would anyone complain? Worse yet is the fact that everything that gets written up in print/tv about this stupid arguement is that it becomes ammo for the Anti-Videogame bunch…Another reason for the nanny-types to protect us from our own poor judgement…We really need to put this to bed quickly and quitely before it gets worse —and we end up with no RE5 at all…

  12. Spot on. When I saw this game, I was so ready to play it. I was so excited about the new RE and just wanted to dive into it and play.. THEN, I read somewhere its about a white guy shooting black people. I just stopped and said, “oh..”

    See I never saw any of that in the trailer.. I just saw my favorite SHG Chris Redfield back and shooting zombie things…

    Sad really that this turned into a race thing especially for people like me who were blind to see the color. I with more people just saw the game like I did and not about an underlying meaning of hatred.


  13. To get this out of the way: I didn’t find the trailer snippets offensive in themselves, but a) as mentioned, they do show just a teensy part of the game, so judging at this stage is difficult, and b) that the scenario presented could be preceived as racially charged did cross my mind. (Microscopiq and the Young, Black Professionals Guide raise some good points that make me not want to dismiss the issue so lightly or soon.)

    I must object, however, to the argument that Japan cannot be held responsible for how its cultural oddities color its products in the eyes of its overseas customers. Every culture has perceptions and beliefs that don’t translate well outside its borders; to hold Japan’s peccadillos as deserving of special consideration and indulgence is, well, exoticism, really. A company with a multinational presence has to be conscious of how a product is received in its various markets, and the U.S. is a particularly large market for Capcom. (Globalization is an extraordinarily hot topic in business today; every business-related subject I’ve taken in my B-school has devoted good tracts of class time to adapting one’s products and practices to a multinational market. No, I don’t attend a Japanese university, but that works into the point; given how borders have broken down in the past ten years, you *have* to be savvy in international marketing in order to sell, so I doubt they’re getting different information across the Pacific. The bottom line speaks to everyone.)

    Again, I’m not asserting that RE5 contains racist material. If it *did*, however, the “lost in translation” argument would be no defense. For a company to insist that it operates in a bubble and has no responsibility to gauge reception of its product in a major foreign market is not only willfully ignorant but, today, economically irresponsible. If RE5 contains material that is largely deemed racially offensive in the U.S., we have to take it as the result of a calculated business decision by professionals (placating the larger public vs. giving their target customers unfiltered product), not the innocent issue of babes in the woods.

  14. To be honest, I don’t think it’s racist in the least. How come it was okay for white people to kill white zombies, but not black zombies? I think these people need to realize that not just white people can be racist. Good points you raise, nonetheless.

  15. > Synonymous

    I’m not arguing that Japan (or any other country–I don’t think my argument is specific to Japan) should be given a blanket pass to be racist because they are from a different culture, I’m arguing that we should be careful to understand the intent of any work we label as racist.

    For example, black rap artists can use the N word in their songs without being racist because we understand that their intent is not to degrade black people (which is a reasonable assumption considering that they are black themselves). Another example is that many Brits use the word “Jap” innocently (without any intent to slander Japanese people) because they are unaware of the connotations that word carries in America. If somebody from the UK mistakenly offends somebody in America with their use of that word, it would be fair to label them ignorant of American culture, but I don’t think it would be fair to call them racist.

    My argument is that we must strive to understand the intent of all works, including this game, before we can decide if it is racist or not (though I think I’ve been careful to note that such a litmus test is not required to brand something offensive). The second part of my argument is that understanding intent across cultural boundaries is really much harder than we might think, so we should be doubly cautious when reacting to works from other cultures.

    So, in the case of this Resident Evil 5 footage, given that the segment is short and that the creators are foreign (and therefore do not necessarily share the same sensibilities that we do), I think we should not be so quick to jump to the conclusion that the work must be intentionally designed to degrade black people.

  16. I understand what you’re saying, Chris, but I think it still boils down to the same conflict. As you’ve noted, the average Japanese person (or rapper, who produces for an exclusively Japanese audience) might not be able to gauge the offense others outside his borders would take to certain thoughts, words, or artistic choices. The average multinational company, however, MUST have processes in place to do so in order to ensure the viability of its product in the global market. Asserting that _they_ are naive in regards to different cultural standards does not fly; their bottom line depends on it.

  17. First and foremost, let me say that I am a white American girl, and I of all people feel more comfortable shooting white zombies. Why? Because “political correctness” would declare that anything a white person does to injure a person of a different race is racism. Funny… That kind of reasoning sounds more than a little racist in itself, but people seem to have this mentality that anyone can hurt a white person, but a white person isn’t allowed to anyone that isn’t white? When are we going to grow up from this ludicrous way of thinking? I’m not denying that terrible things were done in the past in this country, nor am I denying that there are truly racist white people out there, but that goes for ALL races. But seriously, people, we aren’t the same people that were living that time and had slaves. We were born now, we live now, and making that declaration that “white zombies” should be the only kind of zombies… well, that’s racist by the standards that have been laid out for racism.
    There’s also a little something called a “self-fulfilled prophecy” – you expect the worst of something, and because you have reacted based on your own predetermined assumption you create an atmosphere in which that person you have made assumptions about reacts to your attitude, generally in the way you assumed they would. What you fail to realize is they reacted that way because of YOUR ATTITUDE!
    This may sound harsh, but looking for racism isn’t helping the issue, and I daresay I truly believe that is why it isn’t getting better. Like many have said in this forum, no one screamed in rage at Resident Evil 4, so by this train of logic are we going to conclude its okay to kill Spaniards? Let’s put it in perspective with the games, people: You wouldn’t care what in hell they are if they have a parasite sticking out of their head and are running at you.
    I guess I’ll close this for now. I think that Chris has done an amazing job explaining the culture differences and how other’s view things and I applaud him for making the effort. I also think the people that wrote such terrible things on that blog were certainly no better than what they accused her of being. Unfortunately, I think she should have taken the time to really think her accusations through, as everyone should. That’s far too big of an accusation that too many are willing to throw around, and that in itself is disgusting. Let’s graduate from seeing the world in black and white, please? (No pun intended.)

Comments are closed.