Resident Evil 5 - The Dangers of Stereotyping

My post yesterday about the intense reaction to N'Gai Croal's comments about the Resident Evil 5 trailer led me to think even more about it. And thanks to those of you who read my short post via The Brainy Gamer.

In my subjective experience of Japan, it does seem like there are very narrow views of not just race, but also ethnicity and nationality. As an example, I'm American, and have been repeatedly, seriously asked, "How many guns do you own?" My truthful answer is, "none." Yes, there are serious gun control problems in the U.S., but I have literally zero experience with firearms. What I think this illuminates is that Japanese culture, just like most others, tend to rely on stereotypes to inform their worldview.

A stereotype is a simplified image or idea held by one group about another group. These generalizations tend to hold that a group of people has some characteristic in common. In some ways, stereotypes are similar to making a good first impression. That first impression is what's remembered most, even if it's partially or completely inaccurate. If someone is presented with only 1 image or idea about another group of people (say, on TV), it's very difficult to think of alternatives to that stereotype on our own, at least until we're repeatedly presented with new information and slowly change our perspective.

Since pictures speak louder than words, let's compare a couple of images.
The first image, of course, is from the RE5 trailer. The second is of a common black stereotype, the brute. The brute image portrays black men as savage, violent, and extremely aggressive. Besides an advanced graphics engine, there's not that much difference between the two images. Giving the image of the savage African a different contextual back story doesn't change the socio-historical meanings associated with such a powerful image. Those meanings of violence, conquest, and domination are still there, even if the characters have now been changed to zombies. And I don't think Capcom means to imply these associations intentionally. But lack of intent doesn't negate the meanings that can be collectively inferred from the image.

I'm not in a position to comment on the development practices of Capcom, or their rationale in presenting the RE5 trailer in the manner they did. Even my perceptions of Japanese culture are very subjective, from having lived here for 2 years. But I do know that racial stereotypes are a very slow and difficult problem to overcome. Hopefully it will help as Japanese game developers, just like many other businesses in the U.S., start to diversify. As more people like JC Barnett at Japanmanship join Japanese developers, or more people like Andrea Rubenstein enter Japanese design schools, a wider variety of viewpoints might be incorporated into the design process. But then again, maybe the Old Guard will stay in power and only promote those who share their own narrow views of the world. Either way, changing the attitudes of individuals or groups is a long and painful process, and won't happen overnight.

I'll end with this: Is there such a thing as a good or positive stereotype? I argue that positive stereotypes do not exist. Even those stereotypes that have positive connotations are ultimately detrimental to society as a whole, if for no other reason than they are a generalization and obscure or distort the truth. A simple example of a positive stereotype gone bad is the idea that all Asians are really smart. This puts tremendous pressure on those Asian students who aren't naturally good at school to try to live up to their stereotype. It can lead to psychological problems, high stress levels, and even increased cases of suicide. Being smart is a positive attribute, but is detrimental when everyone in a group is expected to live up to an unrealistic standard.

And just as a reminder, everyone thinks in stereotypes at some point, and not just about race. It's a reaction to situations based on our learned experiences. Oh yeah, and everyone's at least a little bit racist, too.


bradyduoj said...

This discussion fascinates me, because, in my whitebread opinion, it is overblown.

The image from the trailer is of a zombie, not a typical black native, so it is very different from the other image. And from what I understand, N'gai had more trouble with the non-zombie images in the trailer. But what I think his remarks are potentially irresponsible. For all we know, Capcom sent artists to an actual town somewhere on the planet, and those artists tried their best to recreate that town for the game. So, whatever N'gai or others may think of the images, they are potentially based on actual locations and peoples. If so, cries of discrimination seem unfounded. Clearly the trailer is saying that when these natives turn into zombies, they are bad. I don't believe that the imagery suggests that the natives were evil before they became zombies. And it definitely does not say imply that the natives should be eradicated or treated unfairly because of their skin color or economic status. The trailer simply says, kill them if they become zombies. There is no racial issue there.

But some people are sensitive, so care should be taken. But the accusations being laid on this trailer are excessive and kneejerk. These reactions are just as disturbing to me as the trailer was (yes, I found the trailer disturbing, but not because of the race issue). Most video games rely on killing as a goal and mechanic. Any inclusion of black or native peoples as the enemies in such cases will be interpreted by some as discriminatory, no matter how the material is portrayed. These senseless reactions are just as dangerous as true racial discrimination.

And positive stereotypes can be good and useful. When you see someone in policemen's uniform, you have certain expectations of that person, which may save your life. You stereotype the cashier at the grocer on nearly a daily basis, and this allows you to efficiently feed yourself.

ColbyCheese said...

"The image from the trailer is of a zombie, not a typical black native, so it is very different from the other image."

Quite honestly, I was having difficulty telling the "zombies" from the "typical black natives"...whatever that means. Maybe that's part of the problem. These "zombies" aren't immediately recognizable as such.

"For all we know, Capcom sent artists to an actual town somewhere"

For all we know, you just made that up and that pretty much makes it irrelevant to the discussion at hand...

I'm black, and I've been subjected to all sorts if racial insults in my lifetime. Seeing some of that imagery is rather disturbing to me. It's, quite frankly, a visual representation of most of the things that I've been labeled as before. Jokes about black people being uncivilized, etc.

And as for your odd assertion about positive stereotypes, would you say then that there isn't a single black guy on the planet who hasn't been setup for failure with that old stereotype about black guys and the size of their "tool".

I'm sorry, but I really don't think you know what you're talking about.

And what was the "whitebread" comment supposed to be about?

Chris Littler said...

Let it be said that zombies themselves are constantly stereotyped, much like African Americans. I know some very clever 'Zeds' who do not eat brains or walk with a stumbling gait.

robyrt said...

How come it's only racist if it involves white colonialists?

Street Fighter - you know, the other recent Capcom game - is chock full of "negative stereotypes." There's a Black Brute, a music-obsessed smiling Jamaican, a Mexican chef, an American redneck, a Japanese schoolgirl, an Indian yogi, etc. Yet nobody is complaining about its racist overtones. Much of that is because (a) the community of players is extremely diverse, and (b) the egalitarian mechanics allow anyone to be the protagonist, and (c) it's a very mechanics-focused game, to the extent that visual and narrative descriptions of a character are subsumed into their set of possible moves.

Faulting Resident Evil 5 for allowing people to think racist thoughts is ridiculous. If you are disturbed by its imagery, it is your latent racism at fault, not the developers' intent - because the developers' intent is well-known on this issue.