With its release date nearing, everyone's talking about Resident Evil 5, but not everyone's talking about it for reasons you might think. The latest in Capcom's phenomenally successful zombie action series has led some commentators to call it racist. Why? Let's go through the alleged reasons one by one:
1: You play Chris Redfield, a white American agent of the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance (BSAA), who is sent to Africa to investigate an incident in the desert. Sheva is his half African, half European companion, who is playable co-operatively. Chris and Sheva end up killing countless black infected Africans as the story unfolds.
2: Early on in the game a group of black Africans are seen beating a bag with a body inside. When Chris approaches them they stop, the bag is motionless and they stare menacingly at Chris. There is no suggestion that the men are infected.
3: A white woman is seen dragged kicking and screaming from a balcony into a room by a man who is not obviously black. This scene has been misreported in some previews as featuring the woman being dragged into a room by "black men". Inside the room, Chris and Sheva find her infected and are forced to kill her, along with some infected black men.
4: The game's third level features a Native Village set in a marshland. This area is home to a number of infected black Africans who are wearing traditional African dress, including ornate headdress, and carry weapons including spears. Some are much larger than normal. Chris and Sheva kill a large number of infected here as they attempt to progress through the plot.
So far the debate over Resident Evil 5's alleged racism has been woefully misinformed, with no expert opinion called upon for comment. We showed the first three levels of the game to Glenn Bowman, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kent, Canterbury, and asked him if he thought Resident Evil 5 was racist.
VideoGamer.com: Is Resident Evil 5 racist?
Glenn Bowman: My sense is that it's a very good conglomeration or mimic of a whole series of cultural things. The number of film references I could pick up, and novel references, everything from le Carré's The Constant Gardener to The Matrix. It's quite surprising how much is in there. My sense is if you're going to set a zombie film in Africa you're going to have African zombies. The other thing I think is much more organising of the scenario and the racism is the whole terrorism, post 9/11 anxieties about alterity about other cultures. So that original scene-setting, which involves guys beating on the pupae-like sack is certainly straight out of Black Hawk Down. It's about saying this is dangerous territory, this is a space where you're not at home, it's frightening. Black Hawk Down probably is more racist than this is in some ways. I don't find this very racist. I think what they're trying to do is make a setting of terror, of anxiety. We could go back to the mention of that one scene you claim that people were using as a sign of racism, where supposedly a blonde white woman is being dragged into a second floor house to be raped - it looked like to be raped. Well there's a couple of problems there. One is she wasn't being dragged in to be raped, she was being dragged in to be infected. And secondly the person who dragged her in is not black. Maybe there is an awareness by the makers of the game that there is a problem with a threat of racism and therefore they've diluted that problem by bringing in a number of white characters. Maybe they're simply working on the threat scenario. Certainly the presence of a lot of white characters, one) diffuses the idea that it's explicitly racist, but it also suggests they know it might be accused of being racist and possibly that's why they're doing it.
I would like to set up as a counter-thematic, there's a very interesting anti-colonial thematic running through it. This whole idea of the victimisation of Africa by pharmaceutical companies, by terrorist groups, all of whom seem to be run by white characters who are coming in and exploiting people. There's the diary left behind by the kid who's eventually infected (found on a table in the Native Village section), which points out very clearly that in the past the colonials came in and exploited the local people, ripped them off of stuff, damaged them. He says that maybe they came back to give us this immunisation because they felt guilty. There's something quite interesting going on with that. The fact that they actually came back to screw them up once again and infect them with this virus or disease, seems to me to be far more damning of the colonial powers towards Africa than it says anything about whether or not blacks are some sort of savages. The blacks here are clearly being set up as victims, alterity, frightening. Yes there are themes you can say might be somewhat racist but you know that's also about making you scared.
VideoGamer.com: You say there are themes that might be somewhat racist, is that simply because you are killing black people in Africa?
GB: It's the fact that what they're using to make you feel under threat is largely a series of black faces and then motifs of African masks and the like. It is about using Africa as threat, but they've got to use somewhere as threat, and as far as I know from what you've told me the last game used rural Spain as threat. Basically if you want to make a frightening scene you take whatever characteristics of that scene are salient and turn them align. So you get vicious Spaniards who I suspect are running around with knives or whatever. Here you get infected Africans. Maybe they'll make the next game happen in Finland and you'll have a whole series of Inuits and the like being really scary and running around with Walrus heads on. I think it's silly to call it racist.
VideoGamer.com: The level where you're in the marshlands and you're fighting against Africans who are dressed in traditional clothing - that scene in particular has been highlighted by some commentators as reinforcing the idea that Africans are savages. What's your take on that?
GB: What does the kid say in that diary? He says something about the men reverting to traditional ways...
VideoGamer.com: If you read the diary it clearly states that these people are reverting to ancestral dress as a result of the infection, that it's causing them to do this for some reason. But when you first turn up there you don't know that. You think you're simply in some backwater part of Africa where there are infected savages that I'm killing.
GB: I find it very interesting that Ouroboros is the name of this threat, which is Greek mythology. This kind of scenario is going to pull out a lot of mythic material. Mythic material is what gets us to recognise things quite clearly. There's a familiarity to what we call mythemes in anthropology. One of the mythemes in anthropology is clearly the legacy of colonialism which is that darkest Africa is full of weird masks and witch doctors and all sorts of things. So if you want to take Africa and you want to make Africa frightening, what you do is you bring that stuff up. In fact, my sense is that probably, although I can see why they're doing it, there's more racism in the scene of the guys beating the person in the sack, which is very much contemporary modern black Africans. More racism in there than there is in this funny kind of mythological stuff where you've suddenly got everybody running around dressed like witch doctors and the like. If you want to talk about racism you don't talk about racist culture. You talk about whether there is something explicitly, essentially, biologically malign about a particular genetic group. If you want to say something is doing that, fine go for the scene where the black guys are beating the sack to death in the street. You could do it just as easily in Harlem with a bunch of junkies doing something like that. That kind of thing is potentially much more racist than any use of cultural material.
VideoGamer.com: You say potentially much more racist, but do you think it is racist?
GB: I don't think it actually is racist. I think what they're trying to do is say this is a shit scary space that you're in and it's full of anger and furthermore also people hate Americans. And frankly it's very interesting about that, and they don't go into it, but in this period of post-9/11 a third world perspective on America that says local people hate Americans actually brings up that whole interesting thematic of why do they hate us? which people started asking after 9/11 and then very quickly stopped asking because maybe it was a little bit too obvious. Maybe the fact that it's coming out of Japan, this interesting inter-space of being both a place that's been colonising and colonised, has something to do with it. It's not really in the Western core although it's in the Western commodity core. It's an interesting location.
VideoGamer.com: In the scene where they're beating up the sack, the suggestion is that they're not infected.
GB: It's that kind of Black Hawk Down scenario but it's also just about a threatening urban slum full of the broken fragments of cultures that have been destroyed by what's happened. These are spaces you see in contemporary Africa. Not just in contemporary Africa but in contemporary Asia, in contemporary Middle-East, because of cultural disintegration caused by in the large part the effect of the West on hitting on those areas and under developing them, depriving them, pushing various kinds of irrationalities into things. I think there's actually an implicit anti-colonial theme in the game. I don't think it's explicit and I don't think they want to make it explicit, but I think there's a little bit more suss about what the relationship between third world and first world is than would obviously be the case. And I think the knee jerk reaction that says if you use black people as bad characters you're being racist is actually itself a kind of inverted racism which says that you can't have scary people who are black.
VideoGamer.com: I feel it's important to point out that the diary that shows the child's perspective of what happened to the Native Village, you may or may not pick that up when you're playing the game. You might not notice it lying on the desk. You might notice it and not digest it properly. A player is not guaranteed to see it.
GB: That's right. There was one other thing that I wanted to mention and that was the very interesting issue of the black female character, and you can take that character in two ways, and I'll argue for one particular way of thinking. One way of taking her is to say, well she's human and she's good and she has sympathies and you can even see implicit the possibility of a love relationship coming up by the way they look at each other, you could say that's all there because she's half white and therefore she's half civilised because she's half white. I don't think that's true. And the actual fact that Josh (a black African soldier who aids Chris and Sheva) comes in as also a very positive black figure, and a number of the zombies which you pointed out might be tourists come in as white figures, and actually the most malevolent guy who is the mad chemist is a white figure, compounds all that kind of stuff. It isn't simple. It's not simple at all. I think it's quite intriguing.
VideoGamer.com: But it's not racist, crucially?
GB: I don't think it's racist. I think people are looking too quickly to be able to jam that label onto it.
VideoGamer.com: Is it the case, then, that it's being accused of being racist because game journalists feel that they should feel it's racist?
GB: That's interesting. I think it ties in with what I was talking about, about inverse racism. That in a sense there's a politically correct position which says this should be your knee-jerk reaction to what's going on there. I think it's quite likely but I'm not sure that in any way the makers of this game can be held responsible for that kind of response. I think that might be possible, in which case I think what they really should be asking themselves is, although I can't imagine people would do this, why are they having those kind of responses? And what negativity is implicit in that positive response? And the negativity is that actually we don't look at people as human beings, we look at them as black and white.
What do you think readers? Let us know in the comments section below.
Resident Evil 5 is due out for Xbox 360 and PS3 on March 13.