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The Undead Racism of Resident Evil 5?

Adrian Hatwell
Adrian Hatwell

Since the game’s first trailer appeared, featuring a white European operative gunning down a village-worth of savage African zombies, controversy has surrounded Capcom’s latest survival-horror release. For some time now the hot button questions has been ‘is Resident Evil 5 racist?’

I have to level with you, I don’t know. I haven’t had a chance to play the full game yet.

I have, however, been privy to the same promotional material that got people riled up to begin with, including a brief playable demo, and I can say that the arguments many gamers’ have used in defending Resident Evil 5 are inadequate.

The first line of defence most reactionary enthusiasts like to throw up when facing challenges like this is the classic ‘it’s just a game’ tactic: It’s a shallow piece of entertainment with no agenda other than to distract the player for a few hours.

I think anyone seriously interested in games knows to dismiss this sort of defence instantly. As gamers we have been clamouring for videogames to be acknowledged as worthwhile cultural product, even art, for years. We can’t have it both ways, if games matter then we have to ditch the kid’s table arguments.

Another popular justification is to place the allegedly racist imagery within the game’s context. In this case we aren’t presented with scenes of a white agent shooting down black people, but an imperilled operative struggling to survive against zombies that just happen to be black. It’s a fair enough claim within the story’s narrative logic, but that doesn’t mean these images don’t have an effect on a level beyond the game’s story.

The fact is, people saw these images and were troubled by them and there’s a reason for that, a long history of problematic western representations of African people. A few salient examples amidst a vast cultural sea:

In 1902 Joseph Conrad wrote his seminal novella Heart of Darkness, in which Africa was portrayed as a dangerous, forbidding Dark Continent, it’s inhabitants subhuman savages without culture or civilization.

In 1932 Bela Lugosi stared in the first ever zombie film, White Zombie, in which Afro-Caribbean zombies act as mindless voodoo-enslaved workers submissive to Lugosi’s hypnotic influence.

In 2001 Ridley Scott directed Black Hawk Down, a contemporary war film set in Somalia which portrayed the Somali people as unthinking, violent evildoers killing US troops out of mindless spite.

These examples neatly illustrate how, regardless of acclaim or success, modern western works dealing with Africa inevitably recall a bloody and brutal colonial history, often in insulting, dehumanising ways. To ignore this only breeds ignorance and inequality.

Defensive gamers petulantly posing questions like ‘would it still be racist if a black gunman was killing white zombies?’ or ‘so zombies can’t be black, even in an African setting?’ are missing the point a little. It’s simplistic and not terribly helpful to brand a game ‘racist’ or ‘not racist’, but the fact remains that Resident Evil 5 conjures images with a highly charged racial history.

The real question is, what does the game ultimately make of these images, why does it use them, and how does it contribute to the discourse of colonial history?

As I said, I don’t know, I haven’t played the game. Though considering who foots the blame in past Resident Evil titles, I suspect the game will be less reverent of the white invader and his imperial masters as it initially seems.

At any rate I think the conversation that has been generated over Resident Evil 5 is fantastic, dialogue over matters of representation speak to the growing maturity of gaming culture. Self-appointed anti-PC crusaders should be ashamed at trying to shut down such stimulating discussion with simple, unthoughtful avoidance.   

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