I Need a Herb

Tomorrow I’ll be booting up an old favorite, Resident Evil 5, to play with a friend over online co-op. This game has remained significant to me for two reasons: one, it was probably the last title from my golden age of video games, back when it was couch co-op. My buddy and I had done Halo 1-3 and the first two Gears of War games on the Xbox 360 alone, so yes, if you were wondering, the action-oriented Resident Evil 5 was made for us, and not you survival-horror fans. It was a natural next step, and we had a good time shooting zombies in the knees and following up with the ol’ uppercut. Two, the discourse surrounding the runup to its release in 2009 signified a turning point, or maybe a branching path, between gamers who decided to turn inward and grow, and those who’d turn inward and stay there forever.

For some background, Resident Evil 5 is, naturally, the 16th installment in the Resident Evil game series, on the whole concerning the outbreak of a zombie plague. Created by Shinji Mikami and Tokuro Fujiwara, it’s Capcom’s bestselling video game franchise and has spawned a number of American film adaptations, each more ludicrous than the last. Where the first few games took place in and around the fictional Raccoon City, situated somewhere in the American Midwest, the series would go on to explore Spain, the Mediterranean, and Eastern Europe. It was Resident Evil 5, however, whose choice of location proved the most memorable — for all the wrong reasons — taking on “Kijuju,” in the heart of Africa.

The controversy sparked instantly, by a trailer in 2007, which indeed showed series standby Chris Redfield shooting and brutalizing African zombies. Being that Chris is white and zombies are human-shaped, it made for imagery that jumped out to Newsweek writer N’Gai Croal, who “broke the story,” and was for a long time the only professional game critic I could namecheck. Going back to dig up old articles on this situation is tricky; you find that cited sources on Wikipedia haven’t been archived, for example. There’s a Kotaku article which references an upcoming interview of Croal’s to be published in Edge Online that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s an interview between him and Resident Evil 5 producer Jun Takeuchi, and thankfully, Kotaku reproduces a concluding line from Croal:

“And as Takeuchi went on to explain that the enemies with the grass skirts and spears were seeking to defend the ruins from intruders and that he’d been inspired by Indiana Jones movies, I felt like I once again understood where he’d been coming from. That a two-to-three-week trip to unspecified African countries and looking at a number of movies set in Africa alongside pop-cultural inspirations like the Indiana Jones series simply hadn’t been enough to sufficiently educate him or the team about he legacy of the imagery that they were tapping in to and, as a result, they’d lost control of their message. That’s my take on it, of course; I doubt that the man who sat across from me and thoughtfully answered all of my questions would agree.”

And then you look at the comments on that Kotaku article, like, “Yep, barely knew of N’Gai Croal before this debacle. Now I just think of him almost like a video games Al Sharpton. Thats not good. N’Gai…don’t be a race baiter, it has nothing to do with race…so quiet down.” Or perhaps “When I think of the race issue in RE 5, I think of Yahtzee’s take on it. ‘They’re not racist, they’re just stupid’.” It was clear then that “racist” is a word that troubles people so deeply it feels like a slur. And where Croal was writing with language that feels contemporary — eternal, perhaps — these commenters only saw it from their perspective. Their take was the one that mattered, not a Black critic’s. In modern terms, they’re centering themselves. Assuming these are non-Black liberals, they would presumably no longer consider their language contemporary.

It’s all very reactionary, very emotional. A Google search for “resident evil 5 racist” returned a Destructoid article “Resident Evil 5 is SO RACIST: The idiocy begins,” written in response to a piece (no longer available) on “a black interest Site.” It seems written on impulse, given the arc of writer Jim Sterling’s attitude toward the other author, from “perhaps even racist” to “looks like … straight-up racist” to “bloody racist” by the end. “That’s right. She capitalizes the word ‘Black.’ Not ‘white.'” These days, “Black” is capitalized per the AP style guide, in direct response to the summer of 2020, dating this Destructoid article as much as any of its content:

“It doesn’t take a genius to see that the game isn’t about “destroying black people,” it’s about destroying zombies/ganado who for once happen to be black. It does, however, take a really self-centered, perhaps even racist individual, to see it as “the white man killing MY people,” and this clearly what the writer sees in Capcom’s game. I can pretty much be secure in my assumption that she has never had a problem with the fact that all the enemies save one in Resident Evil 4 were white. Scarcely a black face among them.”

Drawing an equation between the shooting of white zombies and Black zombies, drawing an equation between white people and Black people, and so on. These are the kinds of mistakes we’d go on to learn about by actually listening to Black voices, likes Croal’s, and to that branching path, what probably helped early on was seeing how bloodthristy and simpleminded the “I’m not racist, you are” crowd was, maybe how closely their instincts hewed to classical, outward racist sentiment. That’s a good clue, when the conclusions you draw yourself align in some way with older, published thinking we’ve come to regard as racist.

To me, the Resident Evil 5 controversy was the lecture, Deus Ex: Human Revolution was the test, and Tropes vs. Women was graduation. If you’d cooled by the time of Deux Ex, you were probably ready for the biggest “assault on games” in the form of Feminist Frequency’s video series. I witnessed Internet people roll with these cultural shifts in real time, but obviously not enough of them to entirely spare future critics the Wrath of Gamers. So that leaves my friend and I, neither of whom are Black, playing Resident Evil 5 in 2022 as part of a completionist quest (for her, though I may follow through with RE6 and Revelations 2 in kind). We’ll still be pressing buttons and manipulating our avatars to eviscerate Black bodies rendered in honest-to-God phenomenal graphics. So, how do we play Resident Evil 5 at any time after 2009 and especially after 2020?

There’s the foremost tension, the digital violence against Black people, and I’m not sure that can be resolved. Certainly not by playing as West African Sheva Alomar, though she is my favorite Resident Evil character. I don’t know how I’ll react to playing now, because while the loop of knee-shooting and uppercutting is very fun, I’m sure games like Monster Hunter: World and Hitman: Absolution are also fun, games I’ve avoided because I don’t want to kill pretty dragons or bondage nuns. Respectively. Kill or witness the killing of — that’s not entertainment to me. In the latter case, it’s precisely opposite of how it’s supposed to go. What about Crysis or Homefront, with [North] Korean enemies? Never put those in the disc drive. And if I couldn’t play Blaze in Streets of Rage, I’d never fight those whip chicks. God of War, same thing, though far more violent and no female avatar. If I’d be uncomfortable with those, I should also be uncomfortable with Resident Evil 5, and if I’m not, I’ll be sure to record the mental gymnastics I perform to rationalize it.

Of course, we’d have to move this conversation beyond “Is this game racist, y/n?” which is actually where the conversation started before the reactionary element set in. That question was always “Are you calling me racist, y/n?” and I’m not 15 anymore playing this for the first time — I believe we’ve all grown past that question, accepted the psychological realities of being American, and constantly adjust in accordance. Maybe more pressing then is the argument that Resident Evil 5, by virtue of staging its usual scenario of government and corporate malfeasance in Africa this time, makes for inherent postcolonial commentary. I found an interesting counter to that claim by two South African authors published a couple years after the game’s release, “Return to Darkness: Representations of Africa in Resident Evil 5,” and while these are not Black voices, it’s more than worth a look.

Yes, this is Capcom and Team Resident or what have you — Japanese game developers — and they can’t exactly be held to the same standards as American and especially white storytellers. From what I’ve understood based on largely anecdotal but sensible soundbytes on the topic, the reason why you keep seeing the same specific anti-Black or homophobic tropes in your favorite anime is because Japan, like most countries around the world, have imported a positively educational amount of American media. Right? That makes sense, if possibly 0.02% of Japanese people are Black, most of their exposure to minorities will come in the form of American media. Yikes! As a result, an African-set Japanese game will play like an African-set American movie, a la Indiana Jones or maybe 24: Redemption or Black Hawk Down, the latter also cited by Takeuchi as an influence. It’ll be kind of a hodgepodge of images and ideas we sort of have about Africa: metal roofs, savannahs, corruption, the air is on fire — simplified, and any postcolonial critique would be, too.

“Africa is cast as passive. Through this fragment of contextualisation the imagined town Kijuju, symbol of the homogeneous Africa, is immediately sketched as a passive receptor for the dangerous advances of the West. Africa is acted upon, it acts out, and the West needs to intervene to restore balance. While the disenfranchised class that is infected in Resident Evil 4 also becomes a mob of violent and unthinking zombies, the acting out of the Africans disturbingly parallels the imagined savagery of Africa. It is this constant echo of familiar representations in RE5 that resonate uncomfortably as a non-intentional re-enactment of colonial fantasy.”

Return to Darkness

Among the real questions we should be asking ourselves when playing, then, is “How much do I actually know about Africa?” Is it just metal roofs and heat distortion in my mind? This blog exists because I asked the same question about Asia, and especially my nation of birth South Korea. This is gonna sound obvious, but it’s the most profound thing I’ve ever learned: foundational to knowing about anything is first being interested in it. You need some kind of hook. Back in 2009, Resident Evil 5 was another fun action game in the vein of Gears of War, but with an actual girl character. These days, I’m more interested in the kind of themes touched on in the game and in that essay — government and corporate malfeasance, as well as foreign cultures. So yes, I anticipate being as uncomfortable playing Resident Evil 5 as anyone who’s witnessed the infinite reel of violence against Black people in our world, but I also hope that I find my hook. A jagged narrative shard that inspires me to actually do the research (I gave away an unread copy of a Fanon book last year), some dumb thing that makes me think, “Hmm,” or maybe even an interesting, if accidental, comment on western imperialism in this most unlikely place. Fingers crossed!

Further Reading
A Black American returns home from Japan, then finds culture shock in Charlotte.
What Black Hawk Down Leaves Out
Resident Evil: Sheva Alomar Deserves to Return to the Series

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