Editor’s note: Racism is a touchy subject — the country’s dealing with it right now in the analysis of the pushback against President Obama’s agenda. Brian looks at how allegedly racist stereotypes may be found in a number of games, not just Resident Evil 5. -Jason
Issues regarding race and ethnicity are typically avoided in many discussions, because people fear being portrayed as a racist. Instead of voicing their opinions, most people are content to pretend that racism doesn’t exist.
On the other hand, the few people who discuss racial issues will often do it strictly for the purpose of attracting readers. But occasionally, we’ll see some deep insight on race and how it relates to other things out of genuine interest. I intend to be a part of this camp by discussing racial stereotypes in popular video games for the purpose of making developers aware how these types of portrayals can be offensive to various individuals.
Unfortunately, when racial stereotypes in video games are discussed, usually two things occur: Someone points out a game such as Resident Evil and decides if it’s racist or not, and then a large crowd of people react by saying “It’s not racist! This is only an issue because it involves black people.” Now occasionally, we’ll see some intelligent debate, but usually forum threads involve endless mudslinging.
I would like to avoid the chaos that ensues from such debates, so I’ll discuss what I believe to be racial stereotypes in video games. Whether you agree or disagree with my examples, feel free to comment with your thoughts below.
The prime example that usually comes up in debates on racism and video games is Resident Evil 5. Resident Evil 5 has been identified as racist by some because of its portrayal of Africans. Some individuals believe that the images presented in this title make Africans (black Africans in particular) look like brutal savages, and they also provoke images of the days that African peoples were victims of colonialism.
In some ways, I can’t argue with these thoughts. In Resident Evil 5, most black people are portrayed as monsters — but there’s a reason for this. It’s not because they’re black — rather, it’s because they’ve mutated due to a deadly virus called Las Plagas. Capcom’s previous Resident Evil had Spanish townsfolk infected with this virus, so it’s unlikely that they had racist intent — unless Resident Evil 5’s head designer secretly hates Spaniards and Africans.
Now, that’s not to say that there are no racist images in the title. If someone didn’t understand the setting of the two most recent Resident Evil games, they might jump to the conclusion that Resident Evil 5 was meant to demonize black people. I believe that it wasn’t — but Capcom could’ve made some changes.
Some people view video games as strictly for white people because the main character’s often white. This is the case with Resident Evil 5. One of the reasons that Capcom picked Chris Redfield (a white American man) as the lead was probably because he was the hero of a previous Resident Evil title. This would provide some nostalgia value for series fans, and would therefore encourage them to purchase the title.
However, I think it would’ve been nice if Capcom changed things up a bit and made a Hispanic, black, or even an Asian hero. We rarely see non-Caucasian heroes in video games (at least as main characters), so why not make a change? It’d only make sense in Resident Evil 5 because the majority of the people in Africa are black. Having a black hero would at least partially appease detractors annoyed with black characters typically being portrayed as villains.
To Capcom’s credit, they at least made the secondary character African, but a bolder move would’ve been to make the primary character dark-skinned instead; Sheva (Resident Evil 5’s secondary character) is fairly light skinned. I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing, since there’s quite a bit of variety when it comes to skin tone, but still, it almost felt as if they were unwilling to make one of the main heroes dark-skinned.
American pop culture also often neglects people with very dark skin (unless they’re rappers or NBA stars), so perhaps it’s possible that the director at Capcom had similar feelings — that a lighter-skinned African would appeal more to white audiences, but who knows, I may be reading too far into things.
People will probably want to strangle me if I discuss Resident Evil 5 anymore, so it’s time to turn to another game — one that’s quite popular but is rarely portrayed in a negative light: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Now, as with Resident Evil 5, I’m not going to say that Call of Duty 4 is overtly racist, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have racial stereotypes. Who did Infinity Ward portray negatively? Was it the British? The Russians? No. It was a group that’s almost never portrayed favorably in any form of media: Middle Easterners.
My problem with Call of Duty 4’s portrayal of Middle Easterners is that it portrays them as brutal savages. There isn’t one person on the opposing side that appears to act rationally, and I have a problem with this characterization. I’m not going to say that there aren’t some violent people in the Middle East who are hell-bent on destroying all Westerners, but many are average people, just like you and me.
I’ve yet to see a video game that’s portrayed Arabs, Iraqis, or Iranians fairly. Usually, anyone who is of the Muslim faith is portrayed as an insane lunatic that cares for nothing other than war. This simply isn’t true.
I’ve met numerous Muslims during my short life, and I’ve known people who’ve traveled throughout the Middle East, and most of the people inhabiting those lands aren’t much different from Americans. Sure, there are some different cultural traditions, and Muslims make up a larger percentage of the population in the Middle East, but that doesn’t change the fact that they still share the same emotions and the same basic needs.
Are there some people like Osama bin Laden in the Middle East? Certainly. But the West has its nutjobs, too. I’d like to see a more balanced portrayal of people from the Middle East in future video games. Young people love video games in those countries too, so why do we need to separate ourselves?
Call of Duty 4 may have had some (probably) unintentional stereotypes, but the next game I’m going to discuss is a flagrant fouler. Who am I calling out this time? A classic NES boxing game.
Let me get this out of the way, I love Punch-Out!! and its two exclamations, but there’s no denying that many of its stereotypes are offensive. In a way, some of them are humorous, but that doesn’t change the fact that people from various nationalities are portrayed in a ridiculous fashion. The only normal looking person in the game is Little Mac, an American (which is strange, because I believe that Punch-Out!! was developed in Japan).
Pretty much every foreigner in Punch-Out!! is an offensive stereotype of some sort, but I found a couple to be particularly uncalled for: King Hippo and Great Tiger. King Hippo’s subhuman caricature is particularly offensive, and it likely stems from the typically savage portrayal of Polynesians in literature and film.
Great Tiger has more of a human appearance, but he still doesn’t seem quite human judging by the animal sounds he makes and his teleportation abilities. Some of the phrases uttered by Piston Honda are equally offensive, but perhaps Nintendo was just trying to make its characters outlandish. We’ll likely never know what prompted the creation of these stereotypical caricatures.
Before highlighting one more notorious offender, I’ll briefly discuss stereotypes in a recent series: Gears of War. Now, I wouldn’t go as far as calling Epic and its game racist, but I’m not a fan of some of its stereotypical characters. It’s not the 350-pound meatheads I’m against; rather, it’s the portrayal of Cole, a black male.
For some reason, video games and movies always have to have an angry black dude. Cole runs around yelling and screaming profanities for no apparent reason other than to get a rise out of the predominantly male audience who likes to play Gears of War. I’m not saying that yelling and swearing should never happen, since combat is fairly intense. But war has more than one type of emotion, and so do black people.
I’ve known people of a variety of ethnicities during my short existence, and I haven’t met a single black person that acts like the one-dimensional black people featured in movies and video games. Really, I think it’s sad that various forms of electronic media portray most black males as aggressive, egotistical, and as thugs. That’s not to say that there aren’t some violent people who are black, but you can find violent people of any race.
I just don’t think it’s appropriate to portray people of any race in this one-dimensional manner, because people who’ve never met individuals outside of their own ethnicity will sometimes assume that what they see on TV or in their video games is the real thing. I see people making ridiculous assumptions about black and Hispanic people all the time based on what they see in movies and music videos, so we don’t need to see that in video games, too.
I don’t mean to make it sound like Gears of War is the only game that’s done this (Final Fantasy 7 did this to some extent as well), but I’m surprised that current developers still make these kinds of characters. I wouldn’t be complaining about this if they also had black characters that were introspective individuals, but until we see this kind of change, I’m not going to be satisfied.
The last game on my list is Street Fighter 2. Many of us have fallen in love with this classic 2D fighter’s characters over the years, but that doesn’t change the fact that it includes many racial stereotypes. SF2 has its burly Americans, sumo wrestlers, and foreign dictators, but the most offensive stereotypes are of people from poorer nations that were victims of colonization. Who am I talking about? Dee Jay, Dhalsim, and Blanka.
The black male Jamaican known as Dee Jay may have some mean kicks, but my problem is with his appearance, not his fighting style. Dee Jay’s appearance immediately brings to mind the word “savage.” His character artist gave him a ridiculous grin that reminds one of how black people were initially portrayed in movies and on TV. Clearly, Dee Jay is a capable fighter. But if you’re paying close attention, it’s hard to rid your mind of the thought that he appears to be an ignorant servant of the white man.
I find Dhalsim’s image equally offensive. Apparently to game developers, Indians are incapable of being regular people. I guess they’re only shirtless, teleporting yoga masters with skulls around their neck, who can do things like breathe fire. I have nothing against characters having these kinds of superpowers — but I do have a problem with offensive stereotypes that make people of various races look savage.
Street Fighter 2’s Brazilian character is even more ridiculous — he’s literally a monster. Sure, he may have mutated, but why didn’t that happen to an American character? Or why didn’t it happen to Ryu or E. Honda? Instead, it happened to Blanka, who reminds one of how the Portuguese viewed the indigenous peoples of Brazil and the African slaves they brought over to work their plantations (well, if you took away his green appearance, of course).
By now, hopefully you’ve realized that there are numerous racial stereotypes in video games. That doesn’t mean that the developers of these games are necessarily racist, or that people like you and me are racist for playing them. But I believe it’s important to make people aware of how these stereotypes can be offensive to people.
As a gamer, I would eventually like to see the whole world developing and playing games, so it’s important to start removing these kinds of racial stereotypes. I have seen some changes in recent years, with games like Tales of Symphonia tackling racial issues (although in a disguised manner) and Lost Odyssey featuring a diverse cast of characters. But developers still have a ways to go.
I know that many amazing programmers, artists, and animators are capable of more than the various stereotypes we see in games today. Sometimes, I think these stereotypes arise out of ignorance of various ethnicities or a developer’s secluded upbringing, and that’s why it’s important to make developers aware of these issues.
If a developer only took one thing from this piece, I’d hope that it would be to start portraying people who don’t have light skin as actual people. We all have the same emotions and struggles, so when in doubt, visualize people of other ethnicities as you would yourself.
None of us are really that different.