During the spring of 2008, a heated debate emerged within the video game community over what some considered to be the presence of racist imagery in a trailer for the latest installment of the popular video game franchise Resident Evil. As a franchise, Resident Evil has generally been well received by the gaming community, with many of its games garnering both critical acclaim and commercial success. As a series, Resident Evil is known for combining a rich narrative with innovative gameplay that usually consists of navigating a small group of protagonists through zombie-infested locales, ranging from fictionalized American cities to Spanish villages. However, it was the developers’ decision to switch the setting to Africa for the fifth installment which led certain gaming journalists to express concern over the game’s potential racist overtones. Game journalists and fans took to the web to either defend those who originally expressed concern or the game’s developers, with the ensuing debate growing so large that it eventually made its way outside of the confines of the gaming community and recently received coverage in both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal on the subject.
NY Times article on Resident Evil 5
This particular episode offers a lot of insight for interested social scientists. To begin with, it serves as yet another reminder of how the traditional scholarly approach to studying video games misses much of the complexity of the cultural medium. While most of the scholarly work on video games either examines the alleged connection between video games and antisocial behavior or documents how video games distract players from participating in more “serious” civic affairs, the debate sparked by this particular game highlights how the medium of video games (and popular culture in general) at least has the potential to bring interested people together to discuss issues of common importance. In this case, concerns with racism became a key subject in discussing Resident Evil 5. Rather than simply discuss the game’s merits as a piece of entertainment, journalists and fans alike utilized the game as a platform to discuss the issue of racism in general.
Within this debate, one often encounters highly sophisticated discussions that mirror much of the work on racism being done within academia. Many of Resident Evil 5’s critics point out that the imagery of black zombies found in the game is reminiscent of much of the Western world’s post-colonial portrayals of Africa, which depicted it as a “dark” continent inhabited by dangerous almost nonhuman entities. On the other hand, those voicing support for the game note that akin to George Romero’s use of zombies in film, zombies in the Resident Evil series serve as a stark reminder of the savage potential found within all humans, regardless of race, sex, or ethnicity. Much of the discussion has also focused on the fact that the game is being developed by a Japanese company but will be distributed around the globe. What is of importance to social scientists interested in studying video games is that all of these rather sophisticated and insightful discussions on racism were sparked by a video game.
From a social science perspective, there is additional insight to be found in this episode. While this is certainly not the first time where a video game has sparked a discussion of social issues within the gaming community, it is one of the first examples were this debate has received more wide scale media attention. With coverage in such privileged newspapers as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, it is possible that a larger demographic is being exposed to the medium in a new light. While in the past video games have usually only been covered in the mainstream press when it is alleged that they played a role in a violent tragedy, this example suggests that newspapers may finally be more open to discussing the medium in a wider context. Could it be that as gaming becomes a more popular activity, video games as a medium are beginning to receive wider social acceptance? With video game reviews showing up in the Arts section of many of America’s most popular newspapers and magazines, perhaps the day is not too far away when video games receive the same privileged treatment other cultural mediums such as literature, film, and television have grown accustomed to in America.