It looks like the Resident Evil 5 racism issues is back on the agenda but this time from someone who, you know, has actually played a game, any game but also all of the Resident Evil games. The piece makes for some thought provoking reading but here at TGAM we've been concerned about the racism from Resident Evil 1 onwards. No one would listen to use before but now that the issue is under the spotlight here's a republished blog we did way back in 1998. Still relevant dontcha think? Totally tl;dr Oh and if you still haven't played it, SPOILERS.
After playing through Resident Evil 1 on the PlayStation I was like, “Mental, clearly not a single scientist worked on this game.” Because I wonder if Capcom isn't some kind of anti science organisation. I wasn't offended that there were scientist zombies, still adorned with lab coats and the such but there was a lot of locations and text that cam straight from the anti science movement. But what was sort of poignant is that not a single gamer or critic picked up on it. The game got rave reviews and is still heralded as a classic. How do you discourse with an audience that has unanimously enjoyed this game without sounding like you're trying to carve yourself some kind of snobbish critic perspective? I'm not saying you have to be a scientist to "get it" but also I'm saying that this game paints a bleak picture of modern (UPDATE well it was back then kids) science.
Even before the characters get into the lab spaces beneath the Spencer mansion (and with the brief anti-botanist stuff in the guardhouse), the mansion itself acts as a taster of what is to come. The files left by support staff (the dog handler, security guards etc.) act to build in a hatred for whoever was responsible for the creation of these "monsters". After all, most of the zombies you encounter in the mansion are painted as support staff. The regular Joes who just work 9 til 5. Unaware of the horrific work being done below. Suspicious, sure, but everyone needs a pay check (and Umbrella do control the City- read SCIENCE IS CONTROLLING YOUR LIFE). But the Mansion sections works to build in a suspicion of what you will encounter next. But even before you get to the heart of the operation there isn't one file or memo that hints that the scientists were good guys. Or that there was an attempt at salvation. They're all bad. All of them. And given the post 80s fear and misunderstanding of AIDS, why would you set a game where an unstoppable "virus" serves to kill people yet they still "live"? These messages carried a very real history but at a time where gaming was still very much a child's pastime despite the classification carried.
But not one reviewer of critic batted an eyelid. It was unanimously adored and is still cited as one of the parents of the survival horror genre (UPDATE: Some Alone in the Dark freaks appeased). Every gamer was happy about the stereotype of science and scientists and big corporations. And at the time games were just games and games journalism was nowhere near where it is today. No massive online coverage, there weren't blogs as we know them today. There was no digital culture. No one even cared and I doubt the mass media would have paid attention if it wasn't for controversy over gore and blood colour. But for us, it was something new and something we'd never seen before. It's impact was profound but no one at the time was articulating that and it's cultural importance. If there was a movie (and there were lots) about this theme it would be very rapidly packaged and labelled as a film with a "political message" by the critics. A pithy comment on the relation between science and society.
But it is very difficult to persuade people that this game is demonising science to a degree that most players don't even realise. Some people are interested and engaged with science and it's role in our lives. Other people don't care to know. The people we spoke to about it would insist that it was all fair and that it was an artistic parody of science at best. At worst it was a genuine representation of what the GMers, bioweapons and cloners were up to behind our backs. Some gamers even felt more "in the know" about how real science works thanks to Capcoms "documentary" and since it was set in America, who cares. Everyone was American (UPDATE everyone was white too!!!) and well, we all know America's bad so they deserve it. But this sort of fear of science goes back along way, back to the development of the bomb and before that. And based on numerous play-throughs of Resident Evil 1, what are you supposed to take from it? Especially if you don't pay that much attention to science and how it works, how it is funded and how it works to significantly make your life better.
Even if you are a scientist or know science, if you are familiar with how it all works, the quirks of how research is undertaken and funded, no one spoke out about it and said "this is so polarised, so preachy and dangerous". Then you listen to the music. Very sterile, very clinical especially in the lab sections. Contrast it with the save room music. Very warm, very safe.
In the progress of the game you get to visit every room. From rooms filled with equipment to what are presumably rest rooms. But take a closer look at where these scientists supposedly kicked back over lunch. Undecorated, sparse and dusty. If anyone has had opportunity to work in a lab or visit science departments at Universities, they will know that these communal areas are anything but undecorated or sparse. Because labs have to be kept in a sterile condition these spaces are crowded with personal touches. But in Resident Evil (save for the one naughty poster in the locker room), these scientists were like extensions of the equipment themselves. So inhuman and obsessed with doing evil science things that they're happy to live in a prison. But what research did Capcom do? Did they watch 2001 and leave it at that?
Obviously what Capcom did was significant and hopefully they engaged with the scientific community when putting this game together. But still the portrayal is demonising, propaganda and also harmful.
And then there is the S.T.A.R.S team themselves. A highly trained unit but they include the daughter of a thief, some stereotypical grunts and a rookie woman. They represent the everyman. Yet every zombie you dispatch is devoid of biography (perhaps with the exception of the cupboard zombie, one assumes that he is one of the fellas from the diary). The player isn't for a second prompted to think about them as people and in the case of the cupboard zombie, the file indicates he was kind of a dick anyway. But the characters never once express that the piles of undead they dispatch were ever human. Cringingly referred to as "monsters" for the length of the game ("Look at those monsters" is exclaimed waiting for the elevator up to the Tyrant encounter). Maybe they were monsters all along? Furthermore the scientific equipment is viewed with misunderstanding, "scientific equipment" or "nothing useful here" is expelled by the characters with wanton disregard (UPDATE: How outraged would people be if in RE5 "ethnic things" was exclaimed upon examining the homes of the games' NPCs?). It's a very strange thing that taps into the mass hysteria fear of science and scientists. Maybe this was not their intent. Perhaps they wanted to just make a kick ass game. Perhaps the games media wasn't prepared to deal with this game in a mature way (UPDATE: or rectify that with glorious hindsight).
However, I think that it isn't the point that zombie games shouldn't be set in science space where the population is made up of people who are also scientists. That's not the point. But what I am saying is that the games media should be more mature and capable of dealing with these games beyond the aim and shoot level. The audience wasn't ready for Capcom's masterpiece and missed the rather narrow commentary beneath it.
And when you engage with that kind of representation you have to be careful with it. It would be like setting the next Resident Evil Game in that appeared to be set in certain areas of places like San Francisco or Brighton with "contagious ill people". If that game was ever made it would be ban hammered out of existence if it even made it past the concept stage. But to the slightly more informed player that is how Resident Evil 1 looks. The setting and lab coats are symbols and it is unwise to ignore it. (UPDATE especially now with debates on human cloning this game still has a message that is relevant).
But there we have it, it was released, it has a sequel. We'll see how that fares but no doubt (from early screenshots) there are lab sections. Let's hope the scientists won't be portrayed so single mindedly and as pure evil (UPDATE: this was kind of the case but Annette, William and Sherry's relationship was a commentary of a different kind to that discussed here). These games shouldn't be outright banned but I think both the developers and the gamers need to be having more of a dialogue about what it is you are throwing up on the screen and the effect it has on the subconscious of the gamers. And maybe, just maybe the solution is to very transparently say that, we're aware that this isn't how it works but it's a theoretical setting and we'll tone down the anti-science stuff so that we can all be sated with a throw away piece of commentary rather than something that people can over analyse just for the sake of some media attention for those who adore the sound of their own voice.
DISCLAIMER: Giant Elf Grinch Hummer I know it's way tl;dr!