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The Games We Play: It's Just A Game

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Thank goodness the White Guy is here to settle whatever has gone down!

I often have trouble discussing my observations of social justice themes in various entertainment media with people. Usually I find that people take issue with my wanting to look further into a topic that they are enjoying, and if I criticize or attempt to dissect it, I must be attacking their hobby or even them personally for enjoying something because I find fault in that particular movie, TV show, or game.

"It's just a game!" they tell me. I should just enjoy the fun, the beauty of the animation, the mechanics, the story, etc. It's not real! Believe me, I do enjoy all of these things. And that doesn't mean that I am incapable of simultaneously enjoying something and dissecting various faults with it. I call it the Bobby Fischer Effect: Enjoying something of beauty which is shadowed by something deeply flawed with the ability to separate the two.

Popular culture is often dismissed as fluffy entertainment that should be consumed and not thought about. I know that I am not the only person who has driven this point home to you, after all, you probably would not be reading here if you didn't at least partially agree with that point. But the real point of my, erm, point, is that there is a symbiosis between popular culture and society at large. Pop culture is derived in part from trends, and trends in society are driven in part by popular culture

Which is why I just can not abide empty excuses like 'it's just a game" when I see games that just carry so much baggage. There are many games that, while possibly not maliciously designed to emulate problems existing in the real world today, fail to take into account the history of the situations they sell as entertainment.

A couple of years ago MySpace and Facebook drove a popular application called "Friends For Sale", and the first time I saw my profile picture pop up on someone's feed, specifically that of an old boyfriend, who proudly announced how he "owned me" "just like the old days" and that he had bought me for $840, I was outraged. Apparently this game was incredibly popular, and I just wasn't seeing the fun while I was being bought and sold without being asked. You could buy and sell your friends at will, and make them do things, and buy them gifts if you wanted. The similarities to human trafficking were not lost on me.

Resident Evil 5 brought up all kinds of questions about depictions of things that ought to be addressed with research before sending that stuff to development when they launched a game set in a fantasy-based African area (non-specified by authenticity or common sense). Enter white guy with his technology, killing African zombies by the dozens. A zombie outbreak ravaging African people à la the HIV/AIDS epidemic with a white dude decimating their numbers as if they are all just worthless. But even before this happens, we have lots of great throwback racist imagery with African people acting all savage! And kicking something in a sack! And dragging off a nice white blond woman who turns up infected! None of this has any apparent bearing on the tenuous story line, so Capcom's decision to toss it in there is questionable at best.

Red Dead Redemption had some of the most beautiful game play mechanics I've ever seen, and definitely the easiest horse-riding interface I've encountered, but Rockstar seemed to go to absurd lengths to ignore the multi-faceted racial issues in their throwback Revisionist Western-style setting. Set on the Mexican border, the game is absent of any black people (who would have been newly "freed"), Chinese people (who worked in brutal conditions on railroads), and most Native Americans (unless you were at a poker table, thereby avoiding any chance of having to confront the uncomfortable racial issues of the area for the era, and actually creating some more, problematic ones).

I am, for the record, exceptionally hard on games (and other media, for that matter) because I enjoy them. I don't frequently spend mountains of words dissecting layers of oppression or devoting hours of time playing games I hate (though, I won't ignore them). I prefer to spend time critiquing games I rather like (which is why I won't spend a lot of time talking about Street Fighter or most JRPGs). I want games to be better than this because I want to play better games. Decent enough gameplay with careless concept is not good enough for me, and I think that it shouldn't be good enough for other gamers, either.

Games give gamers an outlet, surely, and there has long been debate over what that outlet really is. I am of the camp that games don't make gamers evil or violent, but that doesn't give designers and developers a pass to ignore history and social issues when churning out games. From board games and pencil and paper role play to MMORPGs, (even my CosPlay and LARP-ing peeps out there!) games give us escape. But it is entirely too dismissive of reality to suggest that the material in them doesn't have an effect on the way we view or consume popular culture, and by extension, our culture as a whole.

Photo via Brothersoft

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Comments

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This article is really

This article is really interesting, playing games is my primary source of entertainment. I too often end up critiquing the games I'm playing, for their (usually limited) exploration of race, gender, sexuality, class, etc.

Mass Effect 2, for example, relies very much on gender stereotypes within their story (not to mention to lack of homosexual relationships, quite unusual for a bioware game). Although I doubt this was intentional, I think you're right in that perhaps designers should consider their games more critically when it comes to issues off race, gender, sexuality, etc.

Thank you for the great read.

It actually was intentional.

It actually was intentional. Kaidan was originally made for a male/male romance as well as a female/male romance, but they scrapped it later, the reason they gave: that's just not 'Shepard' (nevermind that female Shepard, who is supposed to be pretty much the same person with a different gender, has no problem with it).

It's only slightly unusual for Bioware: though they're somewhat progressive with the romance stuff, they've made few games with gay romances, especially male/male romances; they also didn't start until all that long ago. Though they rarely go backwards (I did expect them to keep including gay romances after the first one). Baldur's Gate 2 wasn't *that* long ago, and it still had the "3 romances for male chars, and only 1 for female chars" split.

I really doubt that developers in general are just ignorant and not deliberate with all of this stuff: too many people chime in by e-mailing the company or posting on forums for them to still be totally unaware.

ME2 was the same...

There were no man/man relationships, limiting those options, but you were supposed to be able to romance both female crew members with a female Shepard (please correct me if I am wrong, I haven't personally played ME2, and now that I think about it, perhaps there were not woman/woman relationships either). I could get into a deeper discussion about this, and why it is frustrating, if you want to hear all of the parallels my husband draws between Kaidan Alenko and Alaistair from Dragaon Age: Origins, with whom you also can only build a heterosexual relationship, but it isn't really a short discussion. I don't know about the options with Ashley... I don't know that anyone in our house played that far with a male Shepard.

DA2, conversely, is rumored to not have any limits on who you can build romances with. That would be a nice tone to set for ME3, instead of insisting that Male Shepard is "too" whatever to allow the option for players (perhaps developers feel this way, but isn't the point to consider how the players, who spend the money, want to play Shepard?).

You can do one of two things; just shut up, which is something I don't find easy, or learn an awful lot very fast, which is what I tried to do. ~ Jane Fonda

As DudeShep, you could

As DudeShep, you could romance Liara and Ashley (in ME1). As FemShep, you could romance Kaidan and Liara. I know people like to drag out the argument that Liara is technically neither male nor female, but obviously, she's made to be regarded as female (and referred to as she, as are all Asari). So you have a female/female romance, when it comes down to it. But not with Ashley. In ME2, there are no gay romance options for any gender. But I thought you could have a rather sweet close friendship with Tali.

So far Bioware has done stuff like: male/male romance, but not allowing them to be shown kissing. Or male/male romance, but only with a (at least in looks) rather not-traditionally-masculine guy as the 'bottom'. There's also been a distinct lack of dwarf-romances: only 'pretty' characters, but that's not really relevant now. If in DA2 you can romance anyone, that would be rather a big step forward (I was afraid that now that you can only play one set character, they were going to use the "Shepard" excuse again for anything players missed that they're unwilling to put in for some reason).

Makes me wonder if they see it as more acceptable to see two women together, and why (yes, I do suspect the worst, I can't help it).

By the way, back when it was easier to make player mods: there are rather a LOT of good (or at least decent) fan mods that add such stuff as more romance options for women, and gay romance options, to BG2.

I played MA2 with a femShep,

I played MA2 with a femShep, and I managed to have my thing going on with the character Jack, who is female. It was just flirting, but still it is possible. I agree that DA2 will make homosexual relationships possible too.

As for Read Dead Redemption, what do you make of the social critique, or the issue of racism towards Native Americans in the third part of the game ? I think Rockstar didn't bale on thoses issues at all, and for me RDR is one of the best video games ever because it's not just all about the great mechanics. It's clever. It's not a game you feel guilty about (well, perhaps when you're playing instead of getting some work done, but that's not the issue here ;-)

Japan is ok with gender stereotypes...

Resident Evil 5 was developed almost exclusively by developers in Japan. Racial and gender stereotypes seem to be a lot more prevalent in Japanese media.

You may also remember that there was plenty of controversy about the Africa setting when it came out. Most fans of the series either didn't care because they're ignorant or perhaps they just chalk apply the suspension of disbelief that is part-and-parcel with a zombie game to the gender roles and racial stereotypes - which actually might just be a nuanced way of saying "it's just a game".

As for Bioware - they seem to be the most forward thinking western RPG maker at this point. Dragon Age also allows for lesbian romantic relationships. It's only a matter of time before we'll see male gay relationships.

But even with the ability to have gay and straight relationships in those games they're still very arbitrary. In most situations, it's not a relationship it's just a way for you to have sex with another character. I guess it's a novel mechanic but it doesn't really serve any purpose from a gameplay/story element except that you have a 20 second cut scene.

And this actually might be a place where Japan can teach us something as they seem to have a myriad of dating sims or games like Shin Megami Tensai: Persona 3 (or 4). Much of their game mechanics in these games actually revolves around cultivating relationships.

Certainly, but not exclusively!

I think you are right, on some level at least. I certainly see, in some games, more instances where I think we are expected to just swallow more racism and sexism from a game from developers out of Japanese markets because of the cultural shift (which is kind of a crap answer, because I live in Asia, and it isn't that backward as some dissenters would have me believe from Western thoughts on racial and gender equality. Not that your answer is crap, but that the argument "but it is a Japanese game!" is crap). I recently read in Official XBox Magazine a list of the "weirdest games" that were made in Japan that were not released to the Western market and they are almost all about having sex with young women or school girls. I don't think "weird" is the term I would have used.

I think approaching racial dynamic discussions from a viewpoint of wiping our own racially charged Western ideals and history from a certain conversation when something is given to us from an Asian market is tricky. Many times, be it hip-hop music or video games created in Asia but consumed in the West, people (often from the West, I find) want us to be able to ignore imagery or language that would normally be inappropriate when we consume it here ("It doesn't mean the same in that culture! It isn't racist to them!"). It is certainly something I am learning to approach, because hearing or seeing things from another theatre doesn't change the way it affects me when I hear or see it, so I don't know if that means that it is supposed to change the way people consider it when they make something they intend to sell to me. To me, it does. If you want my 60 dollars for a game, it would be best if I hadn't heard you had done something rather dismissive.

I hope that was sensical. Ha. I am often rambly in the mornings, which it certainly is here!

You can do one of two things; just shut up, which is something I don't find easy, or learn an awful lot very fast, which is what I tried to do. ~ Jane Fonda

I've noticed the mindset you

I've noticed the mindset you mentioned in your second paragraph--the "it's not racist or offensive/it's their culture" mindset--often here in New York, and I do remember hearing that rationalization for some of the more problematic parts of RE5. I think it's a weak argument, frankly. Yeah, so maybe people in Japan don't have experience with the racial issues between African Americans and Whites as people in the US do, but that doesn't mean they get a pass to fall back on racist stereotypes. Especially in this day and age, when information (like this site!) is so readily available. And I think that if something is being produced for a market that differs culturally from your own, extra attention should be paid to subtexts, images and themes that might be perceived as offensive or dismissive in that culture.

Marketing to a Western Demographic

I think with a machine like Capcom, also, who chugs out games that are well-known to hit a Western market, this should also be taken into account.

The Resident Evil series has been popular in Western markets for years, just the same with the Castlevania, and other titles that they send out. They are part of a Marvel vs. Capcom fighter that is coming out soon(ish). I say the same of Western game companies developing games that would have themes that depict sensitive issues from non-Western histories. We fail at that all the time (I believe we prefer to call it "revisionist" or "rebooting", but we pretty much blow it apart) in the US, always presuming that everyone will be OK with us appropriating their history and changing it up. I'm lookin' at you, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

You can do one of two things; just shut up, which is something I don't find easy, or learn an awful lot very fast, which is what I tried to do. ~ Jane Fonda

Red Dead Redemption came on

Red Dead Redemption came on the heels of GTA IV, which was often criticized as taking itself too seriously rather than being a glorious riot of gaming violence and mayhem. RDR took several steps away from GTA IV's unsubtle critique of society, imo. That said, Undead Nightmare (the DLC) featured multiple characters who spouted common misconceptions and ignorant racism of the time...and they were all promptly eaten by zombies.

"Most fans of the series either didn't care because they're ignorant..." --- I think most people didn't care because it was irrelevant here. It was a Japanese developer (and who has ever accused Japan as a bastion of good taste? Hard Gay need not apply), and frankly, the vast majority of gamers already know and understand why the setting was cringe-inducing. Just because they play it, doesn't mean they are ignorant of the reality nor does it mean they think the stereotypes are correct. It just means there are a dozen or two big games released each year, only a few of which have huge budgets, and RE5 was one of those releases. When there are 1-5 "big" games being released each week, like with film, then people will be far more discriminating.

That sums my feelings well over the RE5 thing

Ouyang, I know my opinion on RE5's been repeated ad nauseum, but it's still annoying to assume every gamer who's apathetic about the sometime-too-close-for-comfort parallels to Africa's current state means they're automatically ignorant. For me, the outrage towards RE5 (whether from you or otherwise) feels closer to an exaggerated NAACP outcry than thought provoking criticism. Never have I heard RE5 being compared to Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" until I reasd your previous article (and yeah, in all fairness, you didn't say that...a commenter did). To say that with a straight face, you have to ignore the fact that Capcom's developers are far removed from Conrad's ultra-blatant-white-colonialism style racism during his era. We all know better at this point, since many literary critics have dissected "Heart of Darkness" to the point that it's laughable (especially ["Things Fall Apart" writer] Chinua Achebe). You can argue that RE5 has unfortunate implications, but it's nowhere close to Conrad's prejudice (or by extension, his audience). Give gamers a little more credit than that.

It also must be noted that if you scour the internet hard enough, you can find some excruciatingly racist games from KKK groups. The only reason no one mentions them is that 1) they've obviously have no commercial support, given the content and 2) they're so horribly designed, hardly anyone would take them seriously at all.

Since you're so fond of my

Since you're so fond of my RE5 to Heart of Darkness comparison, I figured I'd post explaining that I chose that specific comparison because the basic message of both works is that imperialism is bad. In both pieces, we have the rich white guy coming into Africa and draining it of its resources. However, as you are very well aware, Heart of Darkness does have some unsavory aspects, especially in its portrayal of Africans. RE5 suffers from the very same problems. Both Conrad and Capcom may have intended to make works that weren't racist but honestly, who cares about intent? That people found questionable aspects in both works means that we can't just write it off as "Well, they probably didn't mean it that way."

But that's the problem...

Capcom's intent DID differ from Conrad when it came to RE5. "Heart of Darkness" romanticized imperialist Europe as the end-all-be-all aspiration all cultures should live by, while Africa is the primitive, primal other that only serves to corrupt the innocent whites who decide to live in the country. Conrad and many others like him during the time period felt that way, and looked at Africans as soulless nobodies that needed to be educated. There is no "maybe" about it. Conrad's promoted this attitude that had horrible implications years afterward. Equating all that subtext to RE5's virus spreading across an African country, is at best, a huge stretch. Too huge to think their intentions were poor.

With Capcom, I'm more willing to give the benefit of the doubt. Yeah, this stuff doesn't need to be perpetuated, but on the other hand, exactly how many games have taken place in any African region, prior to RE5? Capcom's not being given enough slack for at least broadening their multi-national tastes, while plenty of western developers continue regurgitating yet another Middle-Earth-wannabe portrayal of the Middle Ages (which I've gotten so tired of). Another reason I'm lenient on Capcom is because Americans in general honestly haven't done much better with erasing the stereotypes. Look at how [TV series] Heroes portrayed Africa in season 3, with the kind of sweeping generalization that it's one oversized version of Kenya instead of the roughly 50 nations that make up the continent. And yet, I've heard FAR less criticism in comparison, despite many more people watching that episode of Heroes as opposed to RE5. And that originated from America, where we should be more educated in multi-culturalism than the more insular Japanese! And yet Capcom's being seen as the bad guy? Unbelievable.

Yes, Capcom's first foray into Africa has its questionable elements, but props to them for at least trying, and not doing too terrible of a job overall. And unlike Conrad's infamous narrative, I seriously doubt RE5 will have the same harmful impact.

You are really veering into

You are really veering into Western Privilege and bordering on what I would consider culturally inappropriate territory with that last bit there. Please use care with your generalizations.

The "any news is good news" approach doesn't really work here. We still have a white guy storming into a continent inhabited by people with a historical context of colonization by white people, which in the real world is currently experiencing a devastating spread of HIV/AIDS, and make-believe white guy is there to stop the spread of a make-believe virus? And you are calling that a far stretch? I am still seeing decimation by a white guy sent to save all the dark people.

Just because U.S. developers haven't done better doesn't give Capcom a pass. I am unfamiliar with Heroes, so I can't make the comparison, but perhaps the reason you are hearing so much about RE5 is because it is a sticking issue that has relevance to things that are actually affecting people, which was the point of the OP.

You can do one of two things; just shut up, which is something I don't find easy, or learn an awful lot very fast, which is what I tried to do. ~ Jane Fonda

Also, in all fairness...

I am pretty sure that I didn't say gamers were ignorant. Nor did I call anyone who played this game racist or ignorant. People here are pretty quick to defend this game's oversights, but reluctant, it seems, to dissect the ways in which things were over-looked. We own the Gold Edition of Resident Evil 5, and it was played pretty much non-stop in our house until all achievements were unlocked and every nook and cranny and racist or sexist costume unlocked and Albert Wesker tentacled himself all over the volcano. I critique games like RE5 because I give gamers more credit. It is game-developers whom I think should give us, as gamers more credit, and take into consideration a wider variety of their demographic when making games, especially those few powerhouse companies that put out the precious few huge hits a year. They should be arsed to pause for a few moments and consider the ramifications of their choices and how those things will impact their players.

We should be demanding better games, but instead we are tearing apart people who would dare criticize an overlooked history of a single game simply because it happens to be fun?

It isn't like the situation in Africa was a small and very quiet event. It is world history.

The fact that you can find other, small-made games with content that is objectionable only compounds my point (and is hardly surprising). The types of games that we consume matter, and when they arise with material that makes us uneasy, it is for a reason. We shouldn't dismiss that. Gamers should question the type, content, and value of the games they are playing, whether it has commercial value or not.

You can do one of two things; just shut up, which is something I don't find easy, or learn an awful lot very fast, which is what I tried to do. ~ Jane Fonda

It's not that we shouldn't criticize game developers

It's just that bluntly beating them over the head with their mistakes doesn't exactly encourage anyone to make the game that's a quintessential representation of human complexity, let alone one that takes place in Africa. It's a huge undertaking for anyone, no matter how well educated you are.

For one, Africa is a HUGE place with a staggering number of cultures and sub-cultures. Even the most knowledgeable African historians are only scratching the surface with how vast the continent's variety truly it. To put it in perspective, there are plenty of educated Americans who are still oblivious to many sub-cultures in our own country, and we live here. Now magnify that by a thousand, and that doesn't even begin to describe what we don't know about Africa, and what we'll never know. Even Chinua Achebe's knowledge of Africa is only limited to Nigeria and its Ibo culture. And even if you simplify Africa by its current nations and their dominating cultures/languages, that's still too dense for pretty much everyone but the aforementioned historicists. And do you honestly think they're going to be the ones sitting around and playing RE5? Probably not. There's a good reason why several well known authors who never lived in the country opt to create a fictional African country, so they could avoid the headaches of keeping the details straight. "24" did the same thing, calling its African country "Songala" for season seven and the TV movie, 24: Redemption.

So with all that, it's not too surprising that Capcom, picking between historical accuracy and focusing on a fun, playable game, may have gotten a little too lax. But on the other hand, so few gaming developers have attempted to render Africa, the criticism feels more like "hey let's beat up the insensitive Japs for bastardizing Africa!" instead of "okay, commendable start, but here's what you should avoid next time". The former response may be more warranted if gaming has had better counter examples, but there are none that comes to mind. Only Halo 2 & 3's "New Mombasa" even attempts to show Africa in gaming, and even then, it's in a more industrialized, militarized future (2552 A.D. to be exact) that pretty much erased any past strife from 17th/18th century imperialism (though understandable, given the threat of total annihilation looming around the corner, courtesy of an alien race). Capcom's pretty much by themselves on this, and the almost sardonic criticism could make them and other developers throw up their hands and just give up on Africa as a gaming setting. Which would be a shame, since I'd look forward to anyone willing to give the place another try.

All I'm saying is stop beating up on Capcom for what they did wrong, and at least give them credit for at least injecting a fresher setting to an all too stale genre. Now that Capcom has started introducing Africa as a serious venue for gaming scenarios, now we start improving from here. Unfortunately, for that to happen, other media has to move past the banal depictions of Africa to help alter people's expectations of the region. Simply demonizing Capcom isn't going to solve a thing when portrayals of Africa outside of literature (i.e., the stuff most people will pay attention to, as much as I hate to admit) are even more skewered than RE5.

To repeat:

To repeat what OuyangDan has already said here, Capcom does not deserve a pass in this situation. No one is "beating up on" games or gamers, but OuyangDan is criticizing the racist, sexist, classist, abelist, etc.ist mistakes that have been made in the creation of many games. Just because RE5 got some things right, just because there's room for improvement, just because other game companies aren't setting their games in Africa right now, that does not mean they are immune to thoughtful criticism like OuyangDan's.

Also, please watch your language. Our comments policy is linked to in my signature if you're wondering what is and isn't encourage here. (Slurs like "Japs" are most definitely not encouraged.)

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Nobody's asking for this

Nobody's asking for this meticulously detailed representation of Africa and its history (RE5 only takes place in one country, I'm pretty sure); we merely just want them to recognize how their game can perceived as portraying racist imagery and, you know, how they can fix that in the future. For example, an entire section of the game involves you fighting Zulu-style Africans, complete with masks and spear-chucking. Yes, I've heard the in-game explanation. Yes, I'm aware some cultures still exist in Africa in which they practice similar traditions. It's still a widely propagated stereotype of Africans and is presented under an extremely unsavory light (It's a regression to an uncivilized and violent nature or something). Imagine if a game were to come out where Native Americans were depicted as whooping and hollering and throwing tomahawks. Of course you're going to get complaints.

I've never bought this whole idea that the only way for minorities to be represented in the media is to be exploited.

Actually, I just thought of a better comparison than Heart of Darkness: Black Hawk Down. This one has some added weight as the developers have admitted to being influenced by that film. The treatment of Somalians in that film is equally problematic. The best criticism of the film I've heard describes it as "Aliens but with black people playing the role of the aliens."

Yeah, the commodity model of

Yeah, the commodity model of sex is rather... annoying in many regards. Why games perpetuate this is beyond me. However, Dragon Age does have two instances where that's turned around--sex comes first, then you can learn more about the character. Though even that has its own issues.

Also, Dragon Age does allow a same-sex male romance with Zevran.

At what point does videogame violence go too far?

Instead of addressing the cultural faux pas that exist in Red Dead Redeption and RE5, I'd like to give a special mention to videogame violence; an topic that was too briefly brought up with this article. If we're talking about questionable content, it's impossible to dodge the pervasiveness of graphic violence in videogames since the NES.

I'm sure we all remember the Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto 3 controversies that erupted almost a decade apart (1992 and 2001, respectively) because of the content, and of course, Doom, once the Columbine massacre made the granddaddy of first person shooters the scapegoat of sociopathic teenagers. While I certainly agree that the digitized bloody shootouts don't have a direct effect on how gamers process violence (much like any form of media), I wonder if any of you think there are certain games that take the ultraviolence too far. Nolan Bushnell, one of the first pioneers of gaming, certainly thinks they do (though to go so far and say socially irredeemable is a bit extreme).

Mortal Kombat, even when I was a curious 6 year old, was far too goofy with its violence to make me cringe. I felt the same at 15 with my first taste of GTA3, and saw it more as a sarcastic (sometimes sardonic) take of our too-desensitized-to-ultra-violence culture, even though I'm sure younger kids probably got a different impression. I'd even go so far and say Gears of War was the next step in gaming's very-bloody-but-too-cartoon-y-to-horrify category. Despite getting to see enemies's insides when ripping them apart with a chainsaw, the fact that the characters are so one-note-macho and designed to look more Rambo-like than Rambo (look at their tree trunk-sized arms!), there's no way to take any of it seriously.

But what about everything else? Survival horror games usually get a pass from me, since they're generally no worse than what horror movies have done in year's past. Stuff like Silent Hill, Aliens vs. Predator, Dead Space, and Resident Evil come to mind. They can titillate, but they usually make you paranoid and wanting to leave the lights on after playing them. I must note that the necromorphs which populate Dead Space were inspired by a almost-too-disturbing source: car accident victims. I wish I was kidding. As much as I love Dead Space (haven't played the sequel yet), that detail made me feel icky.

However, it doesn't even come close to how dirty I felt with Manhunt. Mind you, I didn't actually play it, but after reading one too many reviews, I sure didn't want to. The premise: a snuff filmmaker wants to see death row inmates duke it out on a last-man-standing battle royale (not to be confused of Koushun Takami's excellent novel, which at least supplemented the kids-killing-kids brutality with social commentary on Japan's dog-eat-dog education system). What makes Manhunt particularly deplorable is the number of execution techniques you can use to murder people; and I mean stuff like shoving a glass shard into a prisoner's eye, and then slitting his throat with it. Ugh. The fact that the game encourages you to be as sadistic as possible is bothersome at a whole another level. I'm surprised the outrage was more subdued compared to GTA, since even gamers used to graphic violence were horrified. Even more ironic, this game was released a year before the original "Saw", the horror film series that made many moviegoers declare the series a step in ultraviolence too far. When the "Saw" videogame came out, pretty much everybody forgot about Manhunt and started attacking the "Saw" game instead, obviously forgetting its inspiration.

In a lesser extent, God of War also made gamers do stuff that's just flat out evil, like burning a man alive to solve a puzzle or constantly ramming a scholar's head onto a desk to coerce him to talk. Again, a little too squeamish for comfort, and makes players re-think their own morality instead of using these games as mere catharsis.

With Manhunt and God of War, it actually made me step back and wonder whether videogame violence was reaching a point of complete revulsion. However, for every one of those, there's a Bioshock. While it's violent on its own terms, it does a nice job of deconstructing the idea of the mindless gamer, killing everything in sight without wondering why. Not too many people played through Bioshock without feeling some remorse for their actions. The Metal Gear Solid series does one better. Solid Snake, the series's badass hero expy, wasn't meant to be a person you admire, but one you pity and aspire not to be. Even in the gameplay front, you can avoid being a violent killer if you really try. It's entirely possible to beat the game without killing even ONE enemy (bosses included). It's much tougher and involves many tranquilizers, but it IS possible. However, the message didn't exactly get across very well, and many gamers admired Solid Snake more than they should have.

The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games also straddles that line between anti-war aesop and glorified hyperviolence. Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" mission - in which you're undercover within a Russian terrorist cell that guns down numerous civilians in an airport - wields the thinnest line between both extremes. Gamers are still split on whether it was a thought provoking plot or a politically incorrect cheap shot.

So in the end, I think videogame violence in some sense can be harmless and can diffuse many negative emotions into digital massacres that won't result in real life fatalities. Still, sometimes what gamers wind up doing in videogames may reflect intentions that's darker than what some gamers intend.

Damn, I didn't intend to ramble that much.

Completely off-topic

This thread is not going to devolve into a "video-games are too violent over-all so let's forget the nuances of oppression" conversation. There are posts, like this one, in this series, that will discuss specific issues in gaming genres, specific games, or gaming culture that happen to be violent or objectionable for specific reasons. Video game violence as a blanket is just way broad, and not what we are discussing here.

There are ways around violent games. They have ESRA for that (which yes, is voluntary), but there is not a rating system for triggery racism, sexism, or violence against marginalized persons which reflects society at large... those things you find out once you decide that "cool, violence I can handle", shell out hard-earned money, and then are forced to watch as a woman is cut in half with a table saw or raped and beaten to death to show how bad a bad guy really is.

Also what we are not doing here, is conflating ableism with media tropes about gamers, drudging up "but Columbine!" or furthering that in any way. "Sociopathic teenagers" is not an acceptable descriptor, and that is the final warning on ableist language.

There is a huge landmark court case going on right now, which is also in the up-coming schedule for posting, and if you would like to discuss some of this when the topic comes up again, fine, but we are not de-railing away now.

It is also getting to be a time of day when I will be away, so comments may take some time to be responded to for a while.

You can do one of two things; just shut up, which is something I don't find easy, or learn an awful lot very fast, which is what I tried to do. ~ Jane Fonda

My bad...

I guess I did go overboard, but considering the topic about how "it's just a game", I sometimes correleated that to how videogame violence is perceived. As you stated, it is a rather complex topic that cannot be easily defined by any standard, and I didn't mean to slant it to make any particular group look bad, but rather reflect the cultural outlook on videogame violence, as well as the medium's take on racist, sexist and/or cultural stereotypes. I think they all come together, and in some ways reflect unsavory things about ourselves, but maybe the inclusion was too off-topic and broad to be included here.

As for the ableist language, I didn't so much mean to come off as unsympathetic, but rather bring up how easily violent gaming excuses troubled kids who act out on antisocial tendencies. It ignores the kids who really needed counseling and other outside help and instead looks at gaming as the culprit. I tend to use such terms around most other internet debates (and hell, even college debates), but rarely ever get requested to not use such terms. In no way was it my intent to be deliberately offensive.

No one has mentioned

Um . . . Spoilers

No one has mentioned that the 2nd character in RE5 is a female who is African. There is also another main character in the game that is an African special forces commander. These are not just simple add on characters. Sheva is a controllable character who has a vested interest in finding the cure for the disease, and the spec ops character survives to the end and is an integral part of the game.

The part that Chris Redfield plays in RE5 had to be played by an existing character from the RE storyline; Its not like RE5 is a stand alone story. It has almost 15 years of backstory in it that the developers had to be faithful to - inventing a new character outside of that story would have been a weak choice from a continuity perspective.

Anyway, there are a lot of story elements in play here that could easily contribute to a theme of ongoing corporate and western imperialism in Africa, but I think that the design team went out of there way to involve Africans as protagonists in this story (and not as the real villains).

I also want to say that IMO the game with the most offensive racial stereotypes of all time was GTA San Andreas. Talk about perpetuating a negative image ..

Sheva is also light-skinned

Sheva is also light-skinned and has a British accent. This isn't to set up some false dichotomy or whatever where only people with dark skin are actually African but the entire thing strikes me as "Well look, she's not like those other Africans. She's actually civilized." It's not entirely terrible and definitely not the worst aspect of the game, though.

Also, there's the problem of her unlockable costume which is just groan-worthy.

Red Dead Redemption

Your criticism of RDR is a little unfair, I think. Firstly, just look at MacDougal, the anthropology professor, and Nastas, the Native American. MacDougal is shown time and time again as trying to communicate to Nastas in simple language and by signing and speaking about him as if he were some "noble savage" type character, when Nastas is shown to speak perfect English and just a normal guy. MacDougal is portrayed as a racist wacko. Nastas, on the other hand, is one of the most likeable characters in the game, without any bizarre lust for dead people/animals/drugs, and also speaks at length about the wrongs dealt to Native Americans, and John Marston agrees with him.

As for a lack of presence of any black people (btw, the game is set about 50 years after emancipation)... There are no black main characters, but there are black characters; some of the inhabitants of the Northern villages are black, as is the lawman on Bonnie's ranch. Admittedly, the game could have done more in that area.

The Mexican characters also talk about their oppression at the hands of firstly the Americans and then the Colonels du jour. And while Asian Americans did labour on the railways, they were mainly in the North West of the country, rather than the section that is portrayed in RDR.

I thought as a whole RDR actually tackled issues of race quite well, more so than any other game has done in recent years.

Otherwise, great article, love your work. Gamers need to think far more about these problematic issues.

Red Dead Redemption

Your criticism of RDR is a little unfair, I think. Firstly, just look at MacDougal, the anthropology professor, and Nastas, the Native American. MacDougal is shown time and time again as trying to communicate to Nastas in simple language and by signing and speaking about him as if he were some "noble savage" type character, when Nastas is shown to speak perfect English and is just a normal guy. MacDougal is portrayed as a racist wacko. Nastas, on the other hand, is one of the most likeable characters in the game, without any bizarre lust for dead people/animals/drugs, and also speaks at length about the wrongs dealt to Native Americans, and John Marston agrees with him.

As for a lack of presence of any black people (btw, the game is set about 50 years after emancipation)... There are no black main characters, but there are black characters; some of the inhabitants of the Northern villages are black, as is the lawman on Bonnie's ranch. Admittedly, the game could have done more in that area. The Mexican characters also talk about their oppression at the hands of firstly the Americans and then the Colonels du jour. And while Asian Americans did labour on the railways, they were mainly in the North West of the country, rather than the section that is portrayed in RDR, but Asian American characters would certainly have been a good addition to the game and its commentary on racial issues in the American South.

I thought as a whole RDR actually tackled issues of race quite well, more so than any other game has done in recent years.

Otherwise, great article, love your work. Gamers need to think far more about these problematic issues.