Games, racism, cross-cultural (mis)communication

Normally, bloggers are looking for attention. We offer our musings in the hope that they provoke a reaction, start a conversation, generate a dialog.

But there’s such a thing as attention you don’t want to get as a blogger. Black Looks, the African/Afrophile/Feminist/pro-Queer blog run by Sokari Ekine and a great group of African and diaspora writers, has been getting lots of unwanted attention the past week, largely from video gamers. If you’re wondering what inspired gamers to get interested feminist politics… well, it was sorta the other way around.

Kym Platt reacted to the release of Resident Evil 5, the latest in a series of games from Capcom where the protagonist kills zombies. The zombies in this case are roaming through Africa, and they are dark-skinned, being shot by a white protagonist. Platt found this disturbing and posted her reactions to the trailer of the game. GamePolitics.com mentioned Platt’s critique, and received over 800 comments in response, some supportive, some critical, and some offensive. Platt has responded to these comments on her personal blog, and Sokari has responded on Black Looks.

Some of the gamers responding to Platt’s post pointed out that Resident Evil has always featured a white protaganist shooting zombies. In this case, the game is set in Africa, and the zombies are African. Some, including a very influential blogger, found Platt’s focus on race and her use of the term “Black” (capitalized) and “white” (uncapitalized) uncomfortable and, well, racist. Microscopiq contributed to the dialog, trying to explain why these images can be so uncomfortable for black gamers:

From Birth of a Nation to Black Hawk Down, black folk are apparently responsible for some of the most mindless and evil activities you got. Rape, murder, satanic voodoo. With bulging eyes, simian super strength, and a room temperature IQ, we’ve been portrayed as savages beyond redemption. So, when we see images like these, it doesn’t just resonate with the long lived zombie genre, it also triggers memories of so many awful stereotypes — and what those stereotypes have been used to justify past and present. Put down the crazed negroes before they take the white women! And so on…

So far, so good. Disagreement, controversy, and some very interesting and thought-provoking points of view. But not all the response to the conversation has been particularly constructive. The first comment responding to Microscopiq’s thoughtful post read, “This is more victim-complex bullshit. If you’re seriously claiming that Capcom decided to set Resident Evil 5 in Africa just so they could have you kill some black people, you’re a liar, an idiot, or both.” Right. And that was one of the more reproducible comments. Sokari reports that comments on Platt’s post have included such lines as:

the owner of this blog is a rascist bitch

You stupid bitch

This is a game about Zombies set in Afric, did you expect the Zombies to be chinese? stupid fucking black hooker playing the race card as usual…

Get back into the cotton fields, you filthy nigger.

FUCK OFF AND DIE!
PRETOS DO CARALHO!

This is by far the best way to get exposure to your blog. I give you congratulations on being incredibly racist while preaching equality. Good job. Don’t be a little attention whore.

I think it’s pretty easy to understand why the authors of a blog about racism in global society would find it pretty offensive to be inundated with comments that are insulting on the base of race and gender. But I wonder if it isn’t worth considering why this dialog got so out of control so fast.

Black Looks doesn’t usually comment on games. Gamers don’t usually weigh in on discussions on homosexuality in Africa or the intricacies of Niger Delta politics. When the two start talking to one another, it’s a culture clash waiting to happen. When Platt capitalizes “Black” and doesn’t capitalize “white”, she’s making a statement about African and African diaspora identity – it’s a conscious decision, not an accident, and it likely connects to long-standing debates over words and phrases like “people of color”, “African-American”, etc. While I may disagree with Platt’s usage, I don’t read it as racist, in part because I’ve spent some time engaged in these debates.

But this isn’t just about language – it’s about what’s an acceptable subject of critique. Platt is reading the game as a manifestation of racism in society – a reading that Bonnie Ruberg offers in the Village Voice as well. One of the things you do when you’re concerned about racism and sexism is call it out when you see it – in movies, magazines, video games and blogs. But these sorts of critiques are something that gamers are often very sensitive towards. There’s a tendency to attack video games on the basis of them being violent and provoking violent and anti-social behavior. Gamers who happily shoot digital zombies and never pick up a real-world weapon resent being told that their passtime of choice means that they are somehow predisposed towards anti-social behavior. I suspect that a critique of apparently racially charged imagery in Resident Evil triggers a response in some gamers of, “Oh great, now they’re going to call us racists as well.”

None of this justifies the abusive language that Platt and the Black Looks team found themselves encountering. By using abusive language, critics let Platt off the hook on their legitimate points – questions about whether RE5 is really more disturbing than the images from an already disturbing set of games. The conversation became about reprehensible language, not about some interesting issues of race, representation, entertainment and culture.

The way in which this dialog spun out of control isn’t encouraging for those of us who are trying to encourage dialog online. I’ve been critical of cyberutopian ideas that suggest that the mere existence of tools that can connect diverse populations will lead to intercultural dialog. There’s certainly no guarantee that when cutural critics and gamers talk to each other online that they’re going to treat each other with deference, understanding and respect. Imagine what happens when we add language and national identity barriers to the mix…

The history of intercultural interaction online has some low points to it. When a large population of Portuguese-speaking Brazilian users moved onto Orkut, some American technocrats left, angrily, complaining that “their” service had been “invaded”. Chinese “gold farmers” in World of Warcraft find themselves harrassed by non-Chinese users, who are playing the game very differently than their Chinese counterparts, with different motivations. And then there’s always the story of the Nigerian 419 artists who found themselves pining for the fjords.

The internet makes it possible for us to have conversations with people from all corners of the world, from many perspectives and different backgrounds. But we decide whether those conversations are constructive or abusive. And we often choose badly.

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8 Responses to Games, racism, cross-cultural (mis)communication

  1. quixote says:

    I’m not a gamer, and I’ve lived on several continents, so my biases are not on the gamers’ side. My philosophy sort of is — consenting people should be able to do what they like — but on the other hand, it sort of isn’t. There’s a huge and important hate crimes, prejudice, and/or discrimination issue. Anyone who closes their eyes to that is making themselves part of the problem.

    The thing I really don’t understand about the gamers’ attitude is this: their joy in the game is presumably the hunt and the skill. So why do the targets have to play into harmful and hurtful stereotypes? Why not hunt Denebian slimeworms?

    If hunting humans is an essential element, then gamers really do have a problem. If hunting a specific kind of human adds to the thrill, then they really are racists / sexists / gaybaiters / or whatever. No amount of resentful denial or namecalling can change that.

  2. Evan says:

    I don’t really see the game as racist, since the previous games were targeted at white zombies, were they not? (correct me if I’m wrong, I haven’t played any of them in ages). By reacting to the fictional killing of black zombies and not white zombies, is that in itself not racist behavior?

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  5. Ethan says:

    Quixote, I’m not ready to condemn gamers as sublimating their urges to hurt real human beings – I played some Grand Theft Auto this weekend (where I was a black character shooting mostly black characters) and am not persuaded that I am any more likely to head out hijacking cars and gunning down people in the streets. At the same time, I certainly have a tough time defending first-person shooters as a socially redeeming passtime, and I find myself a bit uncomfortable playing these games.

    Evan, I think the discomfort that some authors have felt about the new game is that it seems to evoke other uncomfortable, racist images from film and popular media. I suspect that those complaining wouldn’t be standing up in defense of killing white zombies either.

  6. Broomy says:

    I think the negative (and some racist) responses to Platt’s Blog was to be expected. But I feel two sided about the entire situation.

    First, I am a Black female gamer. I have been playing games, both online and off, for about 10 years. I have yet to find or play with another Black woman however, due to my participation with several groups on Black online sites, I have found others there. The Resident Evil series is not one that I have played but I know enough about them to know in previous chapters, whites have been portrayed as the evil zombie like, crazy, infected mobs (gamer term for monsters). Therefore I do not beleive Capcom was singling out Black persons for this ingame “role”. Though it may have been upseting for Platt to see this, trailers for most games show all kinds of persons and beings being killed as part of the gameplay. Also the fact that this new RE game takes place in some parts of Africa puts the chosen ethnicity of the mobs in context.

    On the other side, I know enough about gamers and gaming culture that I will concede to seeing alot of racisim in this genre of entertainment. I have been both verbally attacked and threatened in online games that I have played upon fellow gamers discovering I am black. The genre is simply not diverse enough…yet. Hence some of the racist and hateful replies Platt received is simply something that any non-white in the gaming culture, could have seen coming by a mile. A point made here was also the fact that many gamers feel besieged with accusations of cultivating violence or more apt to act violently due to their participation in thier hobby. I am sure this second reason resulted in some of the less caustic remarks to Platt’s blog. Many are just fed up with being catorigized as part of a group blamed for the violent, unthinkable actions of others.

    “The history of intercultural interaction online has some low points to it” and alot of those low points will undoubtedly be found coming from the gaming community.

  7. Jogos says:

    I am not a hardcore gamer. However I think the negetive side of this post.

  8. Ocean says:

    to start off, I am white and a gamer. i must say that i am offended by her blog. first off, capcom (resident evil 5’s creators) is a japanese company, and to point the finger at whites is ignorant. in doing this, many negative comments were expexted. second the past games in the series were all white zombies, it is not known for a virus to only infect persons of a paticulare skin color. furthermore, she posts a statement that she wishes for all zombies to be white. the then creates another blog comparing gamers to that of colimbine. i am highly offended and wished she hadnt ignored the serious comments and only read the racist ones. i am buying this game, and i asure you i am not violent or racist…please let that atleast be heard and not ignored.

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