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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Pedantic Gamer

The Ostrich

I came across this badly-written and reactionary article this morning from a gamer concerned about "Paranoia Over Racism and Sexism in Video Games." The article points out recent, well, Paranoia Over Racism and Sexism in Video Games referencing potential tempests in teapots that are Resident Evil 5, X-blades, Gears of War, and Duke Nukem.

Author "daimyo" attempts to contextualize the content of the games, trotting out the oft-used argument that a white dude blasting black zombies in Africa is just as appropriate as another white dude shooting Caucasian zombies in Eastern Europe*. Similarly, he argues that recasting musclebound, cigar chomping Duke Nukem or the members of Delta Squad would be unrealistic and that these characters are themselves, in fact, a form of stereotyping ignored by the mass media (the tough-talking alpha male).

In wrapping up his (her?) article the author rejects the spectre of government censorship of politically incorrect imagery and it's at this point that I call complete and total bullshit on this guy (or girl) and anyone else out there who continues their "leave our precious games alone" stance.

Save Our Games From the Prejudiced Media! (S.O.G.F.P.M.!)

The "is it racist or not" argument about Resident Evil 5 has been the most incendiary rallying call for gamers in recent months, replacing Roger Ebert vs. Games as Art which threatened to consume the Internet for much of 2007. Both dust ups were actually interrelated, in that each question the legitimacy of video games and their place alongside other respectable media.

Gamers, developers, bloggers, and critics are quick to step into the fray with opinions, advice, and insults in defense of or against the industry as a whole. In general, however, it becomes a circling the wagons mentality as we lifelong fans, we hobbyist feel caught in the cross hairs of outside media forces looking for a quick, slanted story.

There's the sense in some quarters that most external criticism of the gaming industry lacks context or is itself the product of some reactionary thinker looking to censor free thought - an army of mini-Jack Thompsons out there looking to dim the green lights on our consoles. And in some cases, my fellow gamers, game critics, writers, and bloggers are right - the "gaming panic" that has sort of peaked and ebbed throughout the major news outlets since the release of the first Mortal Kombat pervades to this day.

We want games to be taken seriously, to be respected and lauded and even have their own big, stupid ratings-deprived Oscars for our favorite games.

But when it comes to real cultural critiques of the work some folks get kind of squeamish.

Seriously, "Sexbox?"

If an artist uses an image of a crucifix immersed in his own urine, he's courting controversy and challenging preconceptions about the sacred nature of icons. If a filmmaker depicts the acrimony of black and white relations in the South during the 60's he's aiming for cultural reflection. So what does it mean when the Cole Train does a braggadocio-loaded shuck and jive for the Locusts in "Gears 2?"** What does that reflect about the game, about the character, and about us as consumers of the work?

Full disclosure: the single player campaign was one of the more enjoyable gaming experiences for me from the last year, and I'll be writing about it at length at a future date. But I also hold it on the same level as I would The Rock (loved it) or Katy Perry's I Kissed a Girl (if I could punch a song in its face...) - each is a lowest common denominator cultural artifact that reflect our desire for that which is harder, better, faster, and sexier (apologies to Daft Punk). They also reflect only the surface of what each medium is able to accomplish.

Never Do a Google Image Search of "Mass Effect + Sex"

It's understandable then when major news outlets seize on the player's ability to get a little hot girl on girl action in Mass Effect or when they try to pin a heinous crime on a drunken teen having recently played a 15-year-old game. "Where is the merit, the art, in hard-talking space marines shooting alien species number 5? Why are they selling a sex simulating space opera to kids?! Think of the children!"

Well to the last question, they - Bioware - weren't selling anything of the sort and it was a non-issue created in the middle of a slow news cycle by a cynical outlet. And it was cool to see people who write about games bringing a news outlet to task for not taking a deeper critical assessment of a game.

But when do we look inward? How often do we look at the games that dominate the charts or are considered high art and ask what they say about us as gamers or broader still, as members of society?

What does it mean when your white hero totes around a gun blasting away savage Africans with his "acceptably black," British-accented sidekick? Can we extrapolate anything about ourselves from the twitchy anxiety of Raz of Psychonauts (misunderstood, put-upon, daddy issues, physcially unassuming and not so great around girls)? What does it mean when a game like Little Big Planet gives players tools for user generated content andthe first thing we do is create Super Mario Brothers 1-1?

Why are we so willing to laud how games assess the external but unwilling to confront how the game may reflect something negative about ourselves as gamers?

Is RE:5 racist? I don't know. I haven't played anything beyond the demo. I'm black and I wasn't particularly offended by the imagery in the couple of minutes of gameplay I experienced.

And I call bullshit on anyone on either side of the aisle who says it is or isn't without having played the whole thing. But the question is fair to ask given the materials Capcom has put out there - it's fair to ask and to keep asking and we should be debating this (constructively) when the game is released.

Because I believe games are an art form, I believe they are legitimate, and I believe that we have an affect on and are affected by them.

*Wasn't Re:4 set in Spain, or at least a fairly rustic stand-in?


  1. First of all, you lost me in the middle there with the part about GOW...not sure if you were still saying this reviewer was out of line or not :).

    Second, adult games (I use the word 'adult' because the mass media colors their response to anything 'video gamey' with the belief that all video games are still children's toys - which is another issue) that use similar, if not the same plots as television shows or films get unbalanced criticism for their extreme elements be it sex, violence, or, in this case, racism. In that light, I think it's a valid complaint to say that it's unfair for people to scream 'racism' just from hearing the basic premise of a game.

    Also, in RE: 4 the fact that Leon killing an entire principality of spanish people didn't offend anyone brings the 'racism' reaction into question. Leon was a super pale blonde white supremacist looking bastard and the spanish people whose heads he vaporized were definitely not of his race. Why should it be any different when in the next installment they just pit 2 new races of people against each other? Ahh, but this is black vs. white now, not white vs. another white-ish race.

    I guess what it may come down to is that the sensitivity between black and white is still pretty incendiary, not unlike the grenades the protagonist uses to fuel his racist blood bath. Oh, and that video games are not able to use such politically incorrect themes...not that I really think the creators of this game had any intention of challenging the issue of race - they were probably just really ignorant when choosing a super white juicer to be the grim reaper to a whole african village.

  2. D-man, I completely agree with you - I don't think there were any intent on the part of Capcom to make a racism simulator out of RE:5 (or 4).

    In fact, I'm not looking for the game to be racist and reserve judgment about it until I have a controller in my hands and the 8-10 hours of play experience behind me.

    What galls me is the immediate desire by some gamers to shout down anything that could potentially challenge a sacred cow in the hopes of avoiding any further critical analysis.

    What I appreciated about N'Gai Croal's INITIAL comments about the early trailer was that he was judging it based on the moment - acknowledging that the imagery was highly charged (but he had to go and ruin it saying a black person couldn't have possibly been involved in making it).

    There should be more dissection of our preferred crack - not just in terms of "-isms" but in terms of cultural significance that we attribute to songs, paintings, films, etc. It's been a similar uphill battle for the comics industry to open itself up to other forms of expression and then with mixed results.