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Resident Evil and Race
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Resident Evil and Race

Representation of culture matters in a new age of gaming – and for a new generation of gamers.

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With the recent discussions over social issues related to gaming, Resident Evil 5 would come up in conversations as an example of racism displayed in gaming. Until recently, I hadn’t played it, stopping the series at Resident Evil: Code Veronica in order to move forward with other life endeavors. Still, it was an interesting thought to check out the game, and, being descended from a country in Africa, I have an affinity for consuming media related to the continent, since there were few examples of African artistic culture to enjoy outside of my parents’ native Ethiopia. To do this, I also wanted to play Resident Evil 4, considered to be the best title in the series and among the best games of all time.

Sitting down over a couple of weeks (in between working and running various errands), I got a chance to reconnect with Leon, Chris, Jill, and the gang to see how biological warfare has evolved in their universe. Having played both games back-to-back, I came to a few conclusions: 1) Resident Evil 4 is a great game, while Resident Evil 5 isn’t as exciting, 2) Resident Evil 5 is racist, and 3) the cultural insensitivity shown in RE5 actually started with cultural insensitivity in RE4.

Resident Evil 4, while considered to be an amazing game and possibly one of the best games made in recent memory, suffers from some degree of cultural insensitivity. The opening scene provides a subtle example. The police officer of this unnamed country (let’s call it “Spain”) has to relieve himself on the side of the road. After hearing something suspicious coming from the woods, he mumbles to himself in English. Why would he speak English when he was more likely to speak his native language (let’s call it “Spanish”)? It’s very subtle but necessary for covering even the slightest details.

A similar issue occurs in the files found throughout the game story. Statements talking about “The Los Illuminados” or “The Las Plagas” create some weird language issues. Leon Kennedy’s snarkiness of pronouncing “Illuminados” was a strange look into his personality, considering the word is not that difficult to pronounce. The game also reinforces the stereotypical lusty Spaniard, with Luis Sera openly acting greasy towards a barely-legal Ashley Graham.

However, even with these small issues, the gameplay remains unaffected, and just as quickly as I noticed those issues, I was back to being concerned with avoiding chainsaws, pitchforks, and El Gigante. The game was challenging, created a strong atmosphere of terror, and brings me back to the wonderful feeling of playing the Resident Evil series, complete with science labs, the great escape, and the Rocket Launcher Ex Machina scene.

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In the next installment of the series, Capcom moved from cultural insensitivity to racist themes. First off, I don’t know what a “Kijuju” is. I know what a raccoon is, and what a city is, so “Raccoon City” gives me an idea of what I should expect. Even the idea of an “autonomous zone” gives me some idea of what to expect, but the term Kijuju doesn’t seem to have any connection to any meaning.

Soon after, we find out about two conflicting ideas: 1) the Kijuju Autonomous Zone (KAZ) is located in West Africa, and 2) the official language of KAZ is Swahili, a language primarily spoken in East and Eastern Central Africa. In RE4, the use of Spanish and settings that were used in the game can give me an idea of not only which country is represented, but also some general idea of where the events are taking place (e.g. escaping an island on a speedboat gives an idea that you may be near one of the coasts of France). The extra piece is the use of tribalism as a plot point in the game, reinforcing the primitive nature of African groups and the reliance on mysticism as a method of governance, even into modern times.

While each piece of information may exist in its own right, the piecing together of different concepts of African identity and representing it as a single trait creates misconceptions and offense among those that know better. Many of these issues could have been resolved with actors that speak more realistic languages to West African identity, such as Yoruba, Wolof, or even French and Arabic. Another option is to set the piece in East Africa, which would have allowed the team to keep the Swahili speakers and themes. And, they could have just removed tribalism entirely and found another way to represent the need for protecting ancient ruins (use of the occult a la RE4, paramilitary group as the descendants of the ancient civilization, allowing the enemies to wear pants, etc.).

While many would characterize this only to the level of cultural insensitivity, I move away from this description simply because there is no singular African culture. When I think of things that are insensitive to a culture, I think of misrepresented characterizations that affect countries (e.g. Americans, Spanish) or even regions (e.g. Eastern Europe, West Africa, Middle Eastern). The RE5 team merely took disparate portions of various African cultures and tried to represent it as a single entity. As a person of East African descent, the only thing I may have in common with other Africans is my racial characterization, and with the vast diversity of race and skin tones across such a vast stretch of land, even that similarity is tenuous at best.

However, the accusation of racism is not based in malicious intent, but rather, in a lack of cohesion for the whole endeavor. The limited inventory system, which made more sense in the previous installment and created a challenge for managing larger guns versus support items, became convoluted in its use, and the exchange process between Chris Redfield and Sheva Alomar became cumbersome when trying to stay engaged in the battles. The treasure hunt game was present, but the interesting part of using the treasures was in combining them to maximize their value. This created another interesting challenge: do I sell this crown to get money I can spend now, or do I wait to encrust it with additional jewels and get more money now? Can I afford to wait when I’m low on first aid sprays?

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In RE5, the treasure hunting was superfluous and could have been replaced with another system for finding currency. The disappearance of the merchant made the need for buying upgrades even more confusing. In RE4, having the “what are ya buying?” Merchant at odd moments was really strange, but at least I had an actual NPC humanoid with which to deal and trade. The Merchant helped immerse me in the dealings. In RE5, I just sold my treasures and bought firearms from the ether, from some unknown force that carries first aid products and machine tools for upgrading automatic rifles. Needless to say, it wasn’t quite the same.

Overall, the insensitivity displayed in Resident Evil 5 removed me from truly enjoying the title. While many of these issues don’t directly affect gameplay, they do have a profound impact on players’ immersion into this apocalyptic world. A lot of investment has been given to environment and mood for the Resident Evil games, so one would hope that time and effort is spent in doing some of the basic research for the game.

Also, we must understand that being racist does not mean being malicious or evil. Resident Evil is one of my favorite game series of all time, and the hardworking individuals that have worked hard to create and shepherd such an iconic series – puzzle solving, rabid dogs, and quiet terror followed by horrific set pieces, even in the more pixelated age of PlayStation.

But, games – and gaming in general – are in a new era. Gamers are in a new era, and markets are beginning to open up for the rest of the world in a big way like never before. We cannot refuse to broaden our thoughts on culture, and we cannot fall back on the same uncritical ideas in art. Artists of all kinds should take just a small amount of effort to understand their subjects, not just to avoid criticism from any potentially offended parties, but also to enhance the strength of the art.

Larger companies with greater brand recognition such as Capcom have the resources and the talent to take the extra step to make sure that groups are represented not necessarily in the best possible light, but at least in a more honest and genuine light. Future game creators should take note and learn from these missteps, as we have so much to gain from this wonderful medium. Or, for those who fail in their due diligence, much to lose.

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About the Author: Besu Tadesse