Between Paranoia and Discrimination: Racism in Videogames

Via Gamepolitics I came across this piece on the liberal website Alternet. It seems that not only is the upcoming Resident Evil 5 is causing controversy due to being set in some Haitian village where the player has to gun down hordes of black zombies, but now also the almost three year old predecessor is stirring politically correct minds. Writing about the latest movie installment of the game – Resident Evil: Extinction – author Roberto Lovato explains:

As they pack into theaters to watch the blockbuster Resident Evil: Extinction this weekend, moviegoers may first want to play one of the many blockbuster video games on which the film is based. Those that do will likely enter a world… increasingly populated with very dangerous depictions of non-whites.

…last year’s smash-hit Resident Evil 4… places players in the position of fighting parasitically-controlled Spaniards (called “Los Ganados” or “the cattle”) with stereotypical Mexican accents…

And, in what looks like it could be a training video for a white supremacist race war… players of the soon-to-be-released Resident Evil 5 video game are placed in what could be an African country or Haiti as they blow up armies of black zombies.

Where to begin? With the fact that the game was developed in Asia (minorities suppressing minorities – how postmodern!)? That the majority of enemies of the entire franchise are actually white? Etc Etc. Stuff like this is the reason why San Francisco one day will disappear up its own asshole.

On the other hand one shouldn't trifle with the study Lovato cites. While being the only one of this kind, which just shows the inadequate data situation, it nevertheless reveals some interesting facts:

– More than half (56%) of all human characters in this study were white – Nearly every video game hero was white (87%)
– 83% of African American males were cast as competitors in sports-oriented games while most African American females were non-action characters – African American characters were least likely to have realistic responses to violence, only a fraction (15%) exhibited both pain and physical harm – African American characters used the most verbal aggression, screaming, ridicule and insults – In sports games African Americans were most likely to display aggressive behaviours. Nearly eight out of ten African Americans competitors engaged in physical and verbal aggression. African American competitors were the only racial group to use verbal aggression on the field (Glaubke et al., 2001: 25-26).

While stereotypical representation might be problematic I think that messages conveyed via game rules are more troublesome. Think of GTA San Andreas for example. C.J. is at no point forced to engage in a life of crime, but he might as well become a taxi driver to satisfy his everyday needs in forms of food or undertake other adventures such as firefighting, exploring the city by riding his bicycle or just working out at the beach. Though if the player wants to enjoy all the features of the game and explore every bit of its vast landscapes, there‘s no alternative to the mission structure of the overarching plot, seeing the rise of C.J. and his gang through violent means in an environment that doesn‘t offer any alternative to a criminal biography and seems like the fantasy of a white suburban middleclass, where underprivileged blacks lead a far more exciting life due to their “high-risk social status as endangered species“ (Perry).

But then again the GTA-series is also a good example of postmodern enlightenment. Even though it doesn't have any immediate goal or agenda it still shows the individual his place in a totalitarian world. There's always a critical attitude shining through and everything is held together by an anti-authoritarian streak – kind of like the popular, critical social science the Simpsons were committed to before Homer became some sort of crash test dummy.

Also every videogame, or every game for that matter, involves some sort of artificial conflict. Without it there wouldn't be a game and CJ has to necessarily engage in it. If he rose through the ranks of society respectively to the end of the "game" without any sort of (exciting) conflict we would have the world's most boring "entertainment" product at our hands.

So: If minorities are the protagonists of a game the nature of a game itself can easily lend itself to racism (through an artificial conflict and the rules to solve it which is supposed to make an entertaining product), if they're not their representations might be labelled racist (just by the fact that they are depicted as victims) and if they're not in the game at all it's also racist since the composition of society isn't reflected and certain discourses are left out.

Of course they're still more nuances to this problem, e.g. black sport stars swearing more in games etc. which just shows the complexity of the issue. Whatever possible solutions look like it would be desirable to see more diversity in games in the future and more minorities involved in the production of games – which lean themselves trough their simulation nature towards enlightenment about social issues and suppression.