Revisiting the Resident Evil 5 Racism Debate



By Bonnie Ruberg

A little more than a month ago, I wrote a piece for Runnin’ Scared called “Resident Evil 5: White Man Shoots Black Zombies.” In that piece, I talked about how the extended Resident Evil 5 trailer—which shows us a white Chris Redfield facing mobs of dark-skinned zombies—hit strangely close to home for me. Especially given its racial overtones and its seemingly African setting, the trailer raised a number of questions in my mind about how the game might reflect our own Western anxieties about race and infection.

In response to my piece, Runnin’ Scared (along with other websites who posted on the subject) received a stream of comments from unhappy readers—306 and counting, to be exact.

Many insisted that issues like race weren’t even worth discussing when it comes to video games. Others seemed worried that talking about race in Resident Evil 5 would further tarnish gaming’s good name—which, it’s true, mainstream media and politicians do often drag through the mud. Personally, I really feel that video games, like any works of art, deserve to be analyzed—and that this will actually help raise the public opinion of gaming. Still, I can understand why gamers would feel protective when the subject is such a delicate one.

The first thing I should make clear is that I’m in no way slapping Resident Evil 5 with a blanket tag of “racist.” I’m a gamer. Before coming to The Village Voice, I worked gaming publications like Joystiq and Gamasutra. I’ve been a games reviewer for three years, and a player for more than a decade. As for the Resident Evil, I’ve played Resident Evil 4, the original Resident Evil, and the remake of the original for the GameCube. To tell the truth—analyzing and pondering aside—I’m super excited for the release of Resident Evil 5.

There are a couple other things we should keep in mind when we talk about race in Resident Evil 5. First off, the locale of the game—be it Africa or Haiti—hasn’t yet been verified by Capcom. So, in that respect, all we can do is speculate. But that doesn’t mean that our speculation can’t be constructive. Most of what we’re analyzing is our own response to these images.

It’s definitely true—as many comments have pointed out—that Capcom, the company developing Resident Evil 5, is Japanese. I don’t think it disqualifies the discussion though since, again, as American players we still need to think about our own responses to these images.

Readers have mentioned that they thought my look at race in Resident Evil 5 took things out of context: out of context from the rest of the game, out of context from the rest of the series. I actually agree. In fact, I think that’s somewhat the point. There’s a lot we can pull from this trailer specifically if we look at it out of context, as a series of images. It’s these images that resonate with our anxieties, like America’s legacy of racial oppression, or the race-based genocide occurring in Africa as we speak.

Whether or not we all agree on this topic, I’m glad our discussion is giving us new ways to talk about the game we love.

Some interesting thoughts from readers, both here and at my Village Voice games blog, Heroine Sheik[link]:

  • “A white man should never be seen, at least in popular culture mediums, shooting hordes of indiscriminate blacks because they have actually done it before.”
  • “The question that’s running through the heads of many gamers, myself included, is whether the reaction would be different if the work in question was a movie rather then a game. Gamers are on the back foot already, often forced to defend our medium against naysayers who believe it to be the purview of children and the childish…
  • “When you see a hideous, angry mob of people with hate in their hearts they look like zombies. The scariest part is that they can be completely normal hours or even moments before they become “infected” – not with HIV or “blackness” as you suggest, but with the real fear that zombies represent, the fear of losing yourself in the mob and conforming with the mass of humanity as it engages in its worst natures. All sense of individuality is lost and the mob becomes a force of nature with its members acting as its limbs…

  • “I’m suggesting that you consider a zombie game that is set in Africa not as an excuse to shoot a representation of our subconscious fear of the black American “other” but as a comment on the problems actually occurring in Africa due to a mob mentality that not only leads directly to abhorant violence but also results in millions of children born with HIV. Be completely honest with yourself and tell me that the actions that have been taken by countless Africans regarding HIV are not due to a zombie-like mindless adherence to false and baseless superstition.”
    –Tom Stachowitz

  • “If Chris Redfield was black, would Africa still be an appropriate setting for Resident Evil 5? I understand why RE5 would set off alarms; there have been several instances of racial stereotyping in video games over the years, but the best way to counter such stereotypes is to get more people of color to design and develop games.”

    One reader noted that the swarms of angry commenters who responded to the post was a lot like an undead mob. At least we’re getting the authentic zombie experience!

  • Highlights