Racist by accident

Snipehunter's picture

Have you all read N'Gai Croal's recent interview with the MTV crew?

Oof. I feel sorry for Capcom. Let me be clear about that though - I don't think Capcom is in the right here. Far from it, in fact. I think that whether they meant to be racist or not they were obviously insensitive. That being said, I don't hate them -- I feel pity.

It seems unlikely to me that they deliberately set out to be asshats, but by simply not paying any attention, they created something that is highly offensive. It's not the first time for our industry, either...

I hate to characterize our industry as being full of geeks or nerds (after all it's a stereotype itself - one I find offensive, even), but maybe there is some grain of truth there, despite my feelings. Like most of the hardcore gamers or similarly invested fan boys I know, We developers are so... I guess naive is the only word, that the idea that race would factor into our games at all, often escapes us.

I worked on Auto Assault, as many readers of this blog know, and we fell into that same trap. It went like this:

In creating the various tribes and factions of the world, Ombwah and I had created a peace-loving community of traders and artisans known as the Zendigs. This was sort of a joke, loosely based on a hippie-esque commune of folks in Texas known as the Zendik, but they were also a chance for us to do something interesting and serious with the game - to cover themes you don't really hear tackled seriously in games. One of those themes was supposed to be prejudice.

Unfortunately, in the world of Auto Assault -- Every Zendig in the world is a person of color... and they're all dreadlock sporting, patois speaking islanders that seem to conflate drug-using hippies with the Rastafarian movement.

*Sigh* I assure you, this was never the intent. It sure worked out that way, though.

In reality, the intention was exactly the opposite - we wanted the Zendigs to be multicultural - to stand in stark contrast to the deliberately xenophobic (And borderline racist) player factions. The Zendig were meant to be a constant reminder that, even though you think you're in the right, you're not necessarily the good guy. They would remind you that, in order to survive the harsh post apocalyptic wastelands, you had to give up all of the things that we pre-apocalypse people would consider important (or socially defining) -- things like art, music and a culture of acceptance. They were supposed to be one of two factions in the entire game that took in characters from all factions and races, in fact.

Unfortunately, an art decision doomed all of that. It went like this:

  • In an effort to ensure some amount of racial diversity, we requested the dreadlock Zendigs, first. Our assumption was that we'd get at least 1 Zendig version of the NPCs from every faction, so we started by requesting a unique one, first. These male and female dreadlock Zendigs are what made it into the game.
  • We began to run out of time and the art department decided that the way to get that time back was to cut unique NPC models for the factions. This left us with 2 Zendig models - the dreadlocked male and the dreadlocked female.
  • When it was obvious that we still had more work to do than time to do it in, the art department then decided that texture variants of the existing factional NPCs would have to be cut, too. Overnight, the Zendig went from being a faction that included members of every race to a mono-culture of a single race.

All of the sudden we went from trying to be socially aware and using the "RvR" mechanic of the game to discuss discrimination itself down to being not only discriminating, but downright insulting. The worst part about it was how few people on the team really even noticed.

Ombwah and I were constantly bringing it up throughout the project, but the answer was always the same: "What? What are you talking about?" -- as if the concept that this could be an issue was completely alien.

When we tried to explain why were concerned, the next most common response was, "Dude, that's stupid - we're not racist."

And we weren't, at least not consciously -- but neither were we really at all sensitive to points of view that weren't our own, were we? I'm not even saying our treatment of the Zendigs was bad. In fact, they were among the few true heroes of game, but is that how everyone will see it? When the Zendig talk to you wearing their dreadlocks, grilling burgers and speaking in a horrible fake Jamaican accent, are you going to take the time to even notice that they're pointing out the injustice in the world? Or are you going to grit your teeth at yet another stereotype played to absurdity in your video games?

Thankfully, the community playing Auto Assault was more thoughtful than others I've seen, so the message got through -- but we got lucky as that's definitely the exception. It's worse for RE5, isn't it? As far as I can tell, the folks at Capcom had no such message. By taking a scene from Blackhawk down and twisting it through a Resident Evil lens, all they did was show us imagery that many find insulting. No overriding message (either way), no tempering influence -- just demonic outsiders lurking in the shadows until they reveal their horrific otherness in a mindless and inhuman attack. By failing to recognize that there even could be a racial issue in what they did, they unwittingly opened a door and stepped through it into a grim and terrible place.

I don't think this was malicious, nor do I think it was even intentional. Honestly, I think it was innocence or naïveté (a failure to even think of what they did in those terms, at all), but that doesn't make it any better, does it? It just makes it sadder.

I guess I'm still just a naive geek myself, because deep down, I feel like we can be better than that. In my heart of hearts I feel like we will someday use this medium to seriously discuss and tackle the issues we're currently ignorning.

I look forward to that day, but there sure are a lot of setbacks to deal with, along the way.

- Snipehunter

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i personally hate the whole PC crap, freedom of speach is supposed to be a real thing, you cannot feel pressured or afraid to do or say something that has no intent to assault and/or offend, and be held fully responsible for the act, and further more be treated like you are doing it intentionally.
i saw nothing wrong with the resi evil five trailer, i still dont...
the only people who take offense at stuff like that are the overly touchy, sensitive types who love to throw around law suits and restrict people, removing their sources of expression.
its downright unconstitutional, in my opinion.

equality is a fantastic thing, but you cant have equality if people actually wont damn well forget the term racist, all that the current affairs seem to achieve is rather than equality, is turning the table, making the minority that was suffering, the bully and vice versa.

it seems very much that you cannot be a racist unless your a caucasian nowadays..
and why does computer games have to become one more subject that that silly war seems to be spreading towards..

people will always find something to complain about.
http://www.gametrailers.com/player/14029.html take this video for example..

Snipehunter's picture


Yeah, that's pretty common for gamers and game developers to say, to be honest. Me among them many times in my past, in fact. I'm a staunch supporter of free speech, myself. I think it's more important than how we feel about what is said, but when it comes to racism, I (you might say ironically) have little to no tolerance. Don't think you're wrong though, Caucasians are not the only racists out there in the wide world - they come in all colors and from all walks of life.

I think we should be equally intolerant to them all, in fact.

That being said, I want to make it clear that I would never suggest Capcom should censor Re5 - what they put in their games is their choice. I'm free to shake my head in disappointment at some of their choices, but what I cannot - and would not - do is stop them from doing it. The way to deal with racism and prejudice is not to restrict speech. In fact, it's the opposite - You speak back. You point out what you see, you question why it was done, but you never actively suppress what people say. Censorship sounds like the easy answer to many, but it's anything but. It actually makes things worse and it's short-sighted in the extreme.

Someday, we will get to the point where everyone realizes that race as dividing line is a fallacy to begin with, but not through censorship. To put it another way: The words quiet and non-existent don't have the same definitions. Censoring a thing doesn't really make it go away.

- Snipehunter