Have you all read N'Gai Croal's recent interview with the MTV crew?
Oof. I feel sorry for Capcom. Let me be clear about that though - I don't think Capcom is in the right here. Far from it, in fact. I think that whether they meant to be racist or not they were obviously insensitive. That being said, I don't hate them -- I feel pity.
It seems unlikely to me that they deliberately set out to be asshats, but by simply not paying any attention, they created something that is highly offensive. It's not the first time for our industry, either...
I hate to characterize our industry as being full of geeks or nerds (after all it's a stereotype itself - one I find offensive, even), but maybe there is some grain of truth there, despite my feelings. Like most of the hardcore gamers or similarly invested fan boys I know, We developers are so... I guess naive is the only word, that the idea that race would factor into our games at all, often escapes us.
I worked on Auto Assault, as many readers of this blog know, and we fell into that same trap. It went like this:
In creating the various tribes and factions of the world, Ombwah and I had created a peace-loving community of traders and artisans known as the Zendigs. This was sort of a joke, loosely based on a hippie-esque commune of folks in Texas known as the Zendik, but they were also a chance for us to do something interesting and serious with the game - to cover themes you don't really hear tackled seriously in games. One of those themes was supposed to be prejudice.
Unfortunately, in the world of Auto Assault -- Every Zendig in the world is a person of color... and they're all dreadlock sporting, patois speaking islanders that seem to conflate drug-using hippies with the Rastafarian movement.
*Sigh* I assure you, this was never the intent. It sure worked out that way, though.
In reality, the intention was exactly the opposite - we wanted the Zendigs to be multicultural - to stand in stark contrast to the deliberately xenophobic (And borderline racist) player factions. The Zendig were meant to be a constant reminder that, even though you think you're in the right, you're not necessarily the good guy. They would remind you that, in order to survive the harsh post apocalyptic wastelands, you had to give up all of the things that we pre-apocalypse people would consider important (or socially defining) -- things like art, music and a culture of acceptance. They were supposed to be one of two factions in the entire game that took in characters from all factions and races, in fact.
Unfortunately, an art decision doomed all of that. It went like this:
All of the sudden we went from trying to be socially aware and using the "RvR" mechanic of the game to discuss discrimination itself down to being not only discriminating, but downright insulting. The worst part about it was how few people on the team really even noticed.
Ombwah and I were constantly bringing it up throughout the project, but the answer was always the same: "What? What are you talking about?" -- as if the concept that this could be an issue was completely alien.
When we tried to explain why were concerned, the next most common response was, "Dude, that's stupid - we're not racist."
And we weren't, at least not consciously -- but neither were we really at all sensitive to points of view that weren't our own, were we? I'm not even saying our treatment of the Zendigs was bad. In fact, they were among the few true heroes of game, but is that how everyone will see it? When the Zendig talk to you wearing their dreadlocks, grilling burgers and speaking in a horrible fake Jamaican accent, are you going to take the time to even notice that they're pointing out the injustice in the world? Or are you going to grit your teeth at yet another stereotype played to absurdity in your video games?
Thankfully, the community playing Auto Assault was more thoughtful than others I've seen, so the message got through -- but we got lucky as that's definitely the exception. It's worse for RE5, isn't it? As far as I can tell, the folks at Capcom had no such message. By taking a scene from Blackhawk down and twisting it through a Resident Evil lens, all they did was show us imagery that many find insulting. No overriding message (either way), no tempering influence -- just demonic outsiders lurking in the shadows until they reveal their horrific otherness in a mindless and inhuman attack. By failing to recognize that there even could be a racial issue in what they did, they unwittingly opened a door and stepped through it into a grim and terrible place.
I don't think this was malicious, nor do I think it was even intentional. Honestly, I think it was innocence or naïveté (a failure to even think of what they did in those terms, at all), but that doesn't make it any better, does it? It just makes it sadder.
I guess I'm still just a naive geek myself, because deep down, I feel like we can be better than that. In my heart of hearts I feel like we will someday use this medium to seriously discuss and tackle the issues we're currently ignorning.
I look forward to that day, but there sure are a lot of setbacks to deal with, along the way.