Archive for April, 2008

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Bet You Can’t Guess How I’m Gonna Relate The World Ends With You To Race

April 29, 2008

The World Ends With You is responsible for the lack of updates over the past week. I guess that’s the up-side of writing about video games; I have no qualms about calling gaming-time my “fieldwork” for the blog and sleeping well at night. And, frankly, games rarely catch my attention like TWEWY, so when it does happen it feels like a disservice not to ride it until it’s over.

For starters: the game is a breath of fresh air. I rarely find myself playing much in the Japanese RPG realm; too often, I find, most of these games are timesinks just as bad as World of WarCraft. I am a bit more willing to make exceptions on the DS, because DS games tend to be shorter by nature (see Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Rings of Fate and my under-10-hour finish time), and designing for the DS seems to push games into far more interesting realms than their console counterparts. The World Ends With You is one of these games – while it is, at its heart, a Japanese RPG in all its grinding glory, all the standard dynamics are tweaked just a little bit to make it interesting. I’m by no means a completist, but TWEWY makes me want to be one far more than any other game I’ve played in the last few years. The combat system is an inspired mix of Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword hack-and-slash and micromanaging abilities, the dynamic difficulties and amazing variety in weapon “pins” keep the combat interesting, and the game doesn’t make you grind or throw you in hundreds of completely random battles – basically, it’s a JRPG at its very best.

I recall reading somewhere that the game was designed after the setting. I imagine that’s not always the safest design strategy, but in the case of TWEWY, which is set in Japan’s teen-pop-culture-land Shibuya, it works just fine. Having spent plenty of time in Shibuya myself, I can appreciate how playing the game – and, in particular, the mind-reading dynamic and Neku’s perpetual loneliness amid a sea of people – reflects a lot of the thoughts and feelings I had while kicking it there myself. Even the map design slightly resembles the actual place, with names changed around some of the prominent spots (Shibuya 109 becomes “104”) and other places, like Dougenzaka or Hachiko faithfully kept in. Sadly, they didn’t include any of my haunts (Guinness Records! Shibuya Kaikan!), but I digress. TWEWY is a traditional JRPG designed around Shibuya’s unique sense of space, and it works very, very well.

You’ll be seeing this a lot – Neku is an Emo.

Part of the game’s allure is that nothing is completely reduced to a video game interaction. NPCs don’t just show up once and disappear, for the most part; the story is very good about keeping the characters versatile, and well-written.

It makes me wonder what kind of other games could be designed around a real-world physical space. And, of course, since this is Token Minorities, it makes me wonder how that kind of game design philosophy could be used to bring out race as a theme. I must admit that I’ve had a predilection for the “hood movie” genre lately, with Friday on the better side and Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood on the not-so-great side. Still, I’d love to play a game where my protagonist was a Friday era Ice Cube, navigating life’s daily challenges as a young black man. Give him the ability to read minds – and maybe the occasional departure into a white upper-class neighborhood – and it’d have lots of potential. Something like Do The Right Thing could work well too.

From a theoretical standpoint, this might be a more promising angle to work in race as a central design theme for a video game. Part of the socially constructed nature of race is that its meanings are constantly in flux; the meanings that we ascribe to race aren’t universal but differ according to time, physical space, and politics. Even words like “Asian” or “Black” don’t necessarily mean the same things – see “Asian” in England, which is generally analogous to “Southeast Asian”, vs. “Oriental”, which refers to East Asians but has commonly fallen out of favor in the United States. Basically, the “racial common sense” (Hi Omi and Winant!) differs by community. Instead of designing a game aimed at addressing Race with a Capital R as it applies to the US – why not set a game in the hood? In the inner city? In the South? In Chinatown? – and design the game around that particular locality, complete with its racial common sense.

It’s that last bit that games set in the hood, etc. have largely failed to do so far. Yes, there are a precious few games with people-of-color protagonists. Some of them have even managed to take the California gangsta-rap life and translate that into a video game experience a la GTA San Andreas. But it needs that last step: a game design, and a complementary story with realistic and well-written characters, that makes the effort to recreate the full experience of a person of color and tell a story about race, rather than offer up the experience with a voyeuristic, identity-tourism (Hi Lisa Nakamura!) appeal.

To be frank, that last step could very well be the difference between a game made in a predominantly white industry, and a game made by a progressive development studio composed of people of color.

pat m.

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Designing Games That Highlight Race

April 22, 2008

I’ve decided to take my own advice and try to bring the Race and Games conversation into a more positive place; having attained my goals of “Ranting About Resident Evil 5 Two Weeks Longer Than Everyone Else”, and “Becoming the Number One Google Search Result For ‘Shooting White People'”, I think this blog could use some more creative thinking.

About a year ago I wrote a short post called “Race and Player Characters” that talked a bit about the need for a player to “project” themselves upon the player-character, and how making characters racially ambiguous a la Jade from Beyond Good and Evil was not the way to do anything other than stunt the growth of a video game’s potential to tell a story.

Frankly, I think making a completely nondescript player character is in most cases lazy writing. To be sure, there are places in games for less detail; the Security Officer in Marathon and Master Chief in Halo (both Bungie titles) are both shrouded in mystery, Crono from Chrono Trigger never speaks, and the Vault Dweller in Fallout gets no details beyond what you write yourself. But the anonymity of the first two becomes a major plot point, the Vault Dweller gets his or her personality from your decisions as a role-player, and Crono’s purpose is basically to highlight the rich characters around him. The thought that characters like JC Denton from Deus Ex (great game, horrible character) are what designers ought to strive for to make a game better, however, is just wrong.

When I think about it, it seems like there are plenty of existing game mechanics that could be used to further explore race and racism, precisely because even in the most vaguely defined player characters, there’s always something that sets them apart – after all, that’s why you’re playing as them and not one of the random schmoes you steamroll in your quest to save the world or whatever. From there, it’s not a stretch to see how existing game dynamics could begin to explore race, gender, and other kinds of axes of stratification.

I’ve been playing The World Ends With You a bit lately, and I’m really digging it, except for the fact that the protagonist is painfully emo (this is what character designers are afraid of, I guess. Good thing the rest of the game is awesome). Instead of walking around and talking to every passer-by like a typical RPG, though, Neku can scan the minds of everyone on-screen and see what people are thinking about, generally yielding things like “XYZ is so cool! Why doesn’t he notice me?” or “I wish I could afford the 300 yen instant noodles!” But what if our “Neku” was a young black man walking through a lily-white neighborhood? I’d love to play – or hell, design – something like that.

I could go on like this forever. A dating sim where you’re a young Asian American man in high school, negotiating the model minority myth and coming to terms with the popular media image of Asian men as impotent. Phoenix Wright and the problems with trying to win over a jury of your “peers” when you’re not-white and everyone else is. An FPS that puts you in the place of a Native American warrior resisting colonization and subjugation. I’d play ’em all. Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments!

pat m.

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Suggestions, Part II: Top Tier Strats For Talking About Race and Games

April 18, 2008

So the last installment covered general guidelines for those who are new to talking about race to keep in mind during the recent revival of the Resident Evil 5 discussion, and it seemed to get a good amount of link lovin’ across the Internet. However – somewhat predictably – most of the people who like this site enough to link to it are down with the talking about race thing. The hard part is, of course, talking about this to people who aren’t quite so down with this. If simply having them read Suggestions, Part I wasn’t enough, then read on for Suggestions, Part II: Top Tier Strats For Talking About Race and Games.

Take care of yourself.

No matter who you are, you probably have something better to do than spend your valuable time and emotional energy arguing with complete strangers over the Internet. Certainly, reading over dozens and dozens of garbage posts, especially about personally sensitive issues of race, is enough to ignite all-consuming burning fury in even the most timid forum peruser. However, just like any other discussion on the Internet, the deep satisfaction you’ll get from telling Mr. Colorblind off in the Joystiq comments will most likely be quickly replaced upon realizing that the hours you devoted to crafting exquisite, heart-wrenching prose have had no effect.

It probably won’t turn out like this.

Instead, Mr. Colorblind’s probably just going to either A) ignore what you said and go about their merry way recycling said ignorant comments or B) not even glance back at the forum thread or comments field ever again. Meanwhile, 90 other people are going to parrot the same excuses without even bothering to read whatever it was you wrote the first time. Alas, that’s life on the Internet. This happens to a degree even in the “good discussions” like the one at Select Button. Sigh. Does this mean that you shouldn’t even bother to participate? Not necessarily. Just keep your goals – and expectations – realistic, and remember that the law of diminishing returns applies in spades when it comes to the Internet.

Know your surroundings.

True story: I used to be a debater (Lincoln-Douglas, for anyone who cares) in high school, though I was generally known as the guy who showed up to all the national tournaments playing Street Fighter II on his laptop. Among other things, I learned that the content of any discussion is dependent on its format. The person who wins a debate round isn’t the smarter person, or even necessarily the most convincing person, but the person who plays the best within the timed speech lengths. Likewise, real-world conversations about race can have different outcomes depending on the shape that they take (panel discussions, Q&A sessions, meetings, debates, one-on-one discussions, etc.) as well as where they happen. Ultimately, the people best able to make their points are the people who take into account context as well as content.

Don’t get caught in this. (Fog, I mean. I don’t know what this book is about)

If the conversation you’re engaging in is going on in the comments section of a blog post, a few things are going to be different than if it occurs, say, in a web forum you frequent. First off, it’s a safe bet that most of the people who read the blog don’t fall too far from the writer’s take on things. Of course, there are exceptions – you’d be surprised where the latent progressive thinkers come out from when blogs about video games tackle race – but in general, if you like a blog enough to read it regularly and comment on it, it’s probably not because you’re virulently opposed to the ideas expressed within. Also, conversations tend to be less fleshed out because the audience comes by the blog to read the posts and comment, and not necessarily to engage with each other in any protracted manner. I probably read a couple dozen blog posts a day, and it’s rare that I read any of the comments pages once, let alone multiple times. So don’t get too attached – make your points and move on.

Forum discussions, on the other hand, are a completely different beast entirely. Forum discussions take place in established communities, with pre-existing relationships and social norms that any discussion will have to negotiate. Participants in forum communities (except, perhaps, anonymous communities like 4chan) come to create personal associations to certain people from previous conversations, positive and negative. Depending on the community, things like seniority, post count, join date, and “Premium Membership” can influence how people react to certain posts, as well. However, conversations generally can last much longer than they do in blog comments, and people tend to have a larger investment in forums that they “belong to” than a blog. 

As it stands now, there aren’t a whole lot of spaces out there that are particularly friendly to critical discussions of race. You’ll most likely feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle, and that most of the conversation will focus around explaining why it’s important to talk about race in general, and not what you really want to talk about, whatever that is. Unless you’re modding the forum or running the blog where these conversations are going on, you’re only going to be able to do so much about this. Don’t lose sleep over it. If the conversation isn’t going where you want it to go, there’s certainly no shame in dipping out. Hell, start your own blog to talk about what you want to talk about, and judiciously delete anyone who you don’t want showing up underneath what you’ve written. That’s what I do here, anyway.

Write for an audience.

I wondered for the longest time why “lurkers” existed on the Internet – people who spend hours of their time reading conversations that other people have without really jumping in themselves. Then I realized that if I can’t imagine a conversation happening without me dropping my two cents in, that makes me a total blowhard attention whore.

Er, anyway.

Suffice to say that there are plenty of people who drop by a blog or forum just to read, and not necessarily to contribute. (As evidenced by the average 300 hits every day lately, yet only, oh, three or four comments. 😦 ) To be perfectly honest, these kinds of people are probably the most awesome people on the Internet – they’re spending their time reading what people wrote, and not just so they could tear them down or anything but because they’re generally open-minded people who want to broaden their horizons. These are the kinds of people you want to be writing for, not the people who are arguing with you.

This is the, uh, thing that you want to convince.

The same generally goes for real life, too. Think about the last time you got into a proper argument with someone. How often are they actually convinced of anything? Almost never, I’ll bet. There are all kinds of reasons you might be arguing with someone, but actually convincing someone probably rates pretty low on the scale. After all, if they were readily open to your point of view, they probably wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of going to bat against you. No, in all likelihood, you’ve gotten yourself sucked in an argument for some kind of external reason – maybe there’s a crowd of people you’re trying to persuade, or maybe you really don’t like the person, or maybe you’re simply standing up for your pride and your beliefs. Whatever your motivation may be, genuinely convincing the person you’re arguing with of your divine truth probably isn’t a very likely outcome.

Does this mean that talking on the Internet is pointless? Of course not. (It may very well be, but not for this reason.) All it means is that you ought to adjust your expectations accordingly. Don’t expect to convert a bastion of color-blind thinkers into radical-spoken-word-poet-revolutionaries overnight. Think about the personal changes and experiences you’ve undergone, the books you’ve read, the friends you’ve had who have caused you to become the person you are now – could that kind of incredible metamorphosis occur over a few blog posts? Probably not. People do, however, tend to remember a particularly poignant anecdote, or turn of phrase, if it strikes them in just the right way. If you’re going to bother to spend your time in these kinds of conversations, aim to be one of the people who wrote something that the audience will remember when they have their own life-defining experiences, read their own life-defining books, and meet their own life-defining friends. Certainly, I’m as guilty of incredible crankiness as the next wannabe intellectual, but really, bitching people out on the Internet is one of those things that feels really good until you realize that no one really cares. Which brings me to my last point.

Stay Positive.

And I don’t mean any of this pointlessly optimistic New Age crap. I mean in terms of the discussion.

All this RE5 business is another reminder that lots of people don’t like to talk about race – at least, not in any critical capacity. This is nothing new. However justified our outrage is – and trust me, it’s pretty well damn justified – the fact is that sitting around harping on about the general level of ignorance and apathy among people who play video games enough to read blogs and forums about them gets pretty old fast, especially if you’re not surrounded by a group of people who are also congratulating themselves on how amazingly anti-racist they are. STEP UP. If you really care about the medium, or the discussion, take the initiative to lead the discussion by example.

This is one of the first Google Image Search results for “positive”. Yellow skin, small eyes – this shit is racist.

Truth be told, this blog isn’t really that interesting or revolutionary – all I’m doing is playing games, and pointing out the racist shit that shows up in there. Lately I haven’t even been doing that – I’ve just been watching movies of games and pointing out the racist shit, and more recently, talking about people talking about watching movies of games and pointing out the racist shit. After a certain point, no one really wants to read this stuff except the people who want to agree with it so they can feel not-racist. Making you happy is not my job.

Chances are, if you read this blog, you’re probably also reading a lot of other interesting stuff about other media – media that have progressed far beyond the current maturity of the average video game. Much more interesting things are being said about those media. My girlfriend is writing her thesis on Blackness and Sport in the US. Did you know that the NBA didn’t really do too well until they brought black people in? That for some reason, white people love watching black people play sports – even if they’re beating white people? That’s seriously fascinating – well, a little bit creepy, too – and I have to say that I am truly in awe of the person who takes on a topic so deep that they need 70-80 pages to explain it all.

What you need to do is take the actual interesting conversations you’ve had – the ones that go far beyond “that’s racist!” and use them as a model for the conversations you’ve got going on. Talk about how RE5 or any other game could have made for a completely different experience in X context or Y setting. Design your own game that brings out racially evocative themes. Do something that lets you and everyone else talk about the games – because, really, that’s what you probably want to talk about, too.

Peace.

pat m.

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Suggestions For Talking About Race and Video Games

April 15, 2008

I spent the last few days away from this blog, commenting occasionally and picking a few fights on Internet forums. What makes me far, far more upset than the actual RE5 trailer is the systematic dismissal of this kind of conversation across the ‘net. The best conversation I’ve managed to find on this topic was actually in the Select Button forums, though even they’re prone to a decent amount of idiocy. Even after all this time, reading pages and pages of ignorant garbage makes me feel angry. I suppose that’s a good thing, after all – that I’m not jaded, and that this stuff still motivates me – but it always feels kind of pointless to be angry on a forum. So I thought I’d spend a few days duking it out and see what I came away with, in the hopes that I could come up with a set of general guidelines for race-and-video-game discussions. A long overdue FAQ, if you will, for people to refer to when race issues crop up in generally unprepared communities.

Step 1: Be Open To Discussion

The vast majority of the material people have written in regards to the Resident Evil 5 debacle have been repressive in nature:

“This is stupid.” “You’re seeing things that don’t exist.” “Talking about things like this only makes race issues more prevalent.”

These types of responses are, frankly, immature and counterproductive. Where else in life do we routinely say, “if you ignore it, it’ll go away”? Certainly I can say that, as a person of color, if it were so easy to simply ignore race, I would have done so a long time ago if I had thought that it would make the racial problems go away. But we cannot ignore it. “Ignoring race” is really something only white people get to do – an element of “white privilege”.

CubaLibre at the SB forums posted (in the context of the RE5 discussion) a very succinct and readable explanation of the flaws in the “colorblind” way of thinking, which tends to be at the heart of any attempts to quell discussion:

The problem with this blithe wishful-thinking approach of fighting racism is that no actual fighting is happening. In fact, theoretically it is no different from saying that if we ignore it, it will go away. I’ll admit as much as the next guy that specific, person-to-person racism is, in the modern world, properly stigmatized and marginalized. No pudge-bearing, bull-chested Birmingham city officials are rising out of their swivel chairs and boldly announcing “We ain’t gon let no niggers go to our schools.” People who do say such things are reviled approximately as much as pedophile cannibal rapists. Which, perhaps, is actually overdoing it, but compared to say Jim Crow, I say bravo. 

But then, no one is accusing Capcom of subscribing to the Klan newsletter. 

Here are the two problems with your/the colorblind theory: 

A. The minor problem is, this kind of act-racism (as opposed to rule-racism, my own little coinage as sort of the inverse of the relative kinds of utilitarianism) isn’t actually dead. Neo-Nazis still exist. The Klan still exists. You cannot defeat extremist marginal social elements by resting on the status quo. It needs active combat. When you see something racist, you have to point it out and say “Hey, that’s racist – even if you don’t mean it that way.” Otherwise those extremist marginal social elements slowly gain footholds until they are not marginal any more. 

B. The major problem is, it totally and completely ignores the phenomenon of institutional racism, which is far more subtle and insidious, and in fact thrives on exactly that kind of complacency. The reason there’s so many black inmates isn’t because individual cops and judges hate black people and just send them to prison more often. It’s a vicious cycle of anger, disempowerment and retribution that on its face is rational each step of the way. This is the major counterargument to all those “hey it’s Japan they don’t know anything about black people” claim. Well – of course they don’t. They’re an almost totally racially homogenous society. Which is exactly why they’re so saturated with institutional racism (and, let it be said, not a little bit of personal, “real” racism, as well). And exactly why this imagery flew past Capcom Japan (probably over the kicking and screaming objections of the terrified Capcom USA, as someone pointed out above). 

Again I’d like to point out that the level of outrage arguably demonstrated in this post isn’t really present here. The point is that this is pretty important. Capcom isn’t some evil perpetrator of the continued oppression of the black man or anything, I’m not pretending to be Louis Farrakhan. They just made a bonehead move, they deserve to be called out on it, and it is absolutely improper, I think, to shrug it off thanks to some middleschool “I don’t consider my black friends different AT ALL” attitude to “fighting” (ignoring) racism. 

If you’re truly willing to participate in or host a space for discussion (whether a blog or a forum or what have you), at least have the sense of respect to acknowledge the discussion itself instead of just saying “this is stupid.” The fact is that race is a hard thing to talk about, and if people aren’t willing to respect the participants of the discussion, they might as well just stay out, or no one is going to get anything out of it but hurt feelings.

Step 2: Take The Discussion Seriously

The next most common trap I see these conversations fall into is the “it’s just a game, lighten up” line of thinking. This is really another way to shut the discussion down, but I thought it’s worthy of its own heading – instead of saying “you ought to ignore these issues”, it’s saying “you’re silly for letting this bother you”, which is downright insulting.

The masses of video game enthusiasts prowling the Internet these days generally want their medium of choice to be taken seriously. They want people to give their hobby – or even their job – the respect that it deserves. Games are maturing as a medium, and not just by pushing higher polycounts, but providing deeper experiences that resonate with our own human experiences. In other words, games are texts, and texts reflect meaning.

Once someone posts something that remotely resembles a serious criticism of a game, however, the entire audience dumbs their hobby down, claiming that it’s not a big deal, and we really shouldn’t be so upset about it. “It’s just a game”. Chris Dahlen writes a fascinating post that talks a little bit about this:

But when is a game ever just a game? We love to watch sports and trounce our friends in Halo because while the game doesn’t matter, the players do. Everyone comes into the match with a story, a history, and something to prove. The Yankees and the Red Sox aren’t just two teams that play some games every year. It may not be fair that the Olympics are colored by politics – but nobody (in the US) had a problem with it when our hockey team crushed the Soviets’ in 1980. You don’t see people bitching (today) about Jesse Owens “playing the race card” at the Hitler Olympics.

In the same way, fears that Resident Evil 5 is either racist, or unfairly accused of racism, all have a place in how we deal with the game. Because whatever’s happening with Resident Evil 5 will just get more common. If every video game were Pong, we wouldn’t have to deal with the representation of human beings in games. But games are only becoming more cinematic. They’re depicting more realistic people who have clearer ethnic identities and worldviews and more dialogue in which to hit more buttons with the ever-growing audience of players. Pretending this stuff shouldn’t matter is naive.

Sports fans already knew this; gamers are still learning. If you judge by the comment threads, even the most ignorant football fan has a more nuanced grasp of race than the average Resident Evil 5 fanboy. They’ve accepted race is a factor. And they realize, if only through their passion for a hometown team, that a game is never just a game.

Stop selling your beloved medium short. These conversations about race and video games do not mean we hate video games – they mean we love them enough to take them seriously, and we want to make them better. We want them to grow up. If you genuinely believe that the conversation isn’t worth having, then don’t have it. But don’t waste your time and energy telling people that they shouldn’t have it either. They don’t appreciate it.

A corollary to all of this is the infamous “go worry about real problems. If you’re upset about racism, then do something about racism instead of just talking about it.” Not only does this assume that the initial other isn’t engaged in anti-racist activism, it also implies that “just talking about it” isn’t “doing something”. The fact is that, as demonstrated by all these horrible conversations going on, that talking about it IS doing something about it. How would we even know what to “do” if we didn’t talk about things first? Certainly the plentiful resistance to talking about race and racism among so many of these Internet spaces is indicative of exactly how much work needs to be done “just” to talk about things. Don’t get me wrong – there is a time to stop talking and do. But the video game world just isn’t there yet.

Step 3: Understand The Terms Of The Discussion

First, take a deep breath.

Now listen.

In any given conversation about race and media, people generally aren’t calling for censorship, or a boycott, or a rally, or a hunger strike. In fact, in the discussions about RE5,  people really aren’t calling for much of anything, except for other people to talk about the images they see in the trailer and acknowledge that it’s got potentially volatile, insensitive imagery. During most of these discussions, the worst that people demand is a letter of apology, and that’s usually when things are really exploitative (think Abercrombie’s racist T-Shirts or a restaurant advertising with naked Asian female bodies). Most of the time, it’s enough for people just to want to talk about things.

So stop getting so frickin’ defensive, already. We’re talking about a game, not bashing.

Greg Costikyan has a good explanation of the difference between a game review and game criticism over here:

Criticism is an informed discussion, by an intelligent and knowledgeable observer of a medium, of the merits and importance (or lack thereof) of a particular work. Criticism isn’t intended to help the reader decide whether or not to plunk down money on something; some readers’ purchase decisions may be influenced, but guiding their decisions is not the purpose of the critical work. Criticism is, in a sense merely “writing about” — about art, about dance, about theater, about writing, about a game–about any particular work of art. How a critical piece addresses a work, and what approach it takes, may vary widely from critic to critic, and from work to work. There are, in fact, many valid critical approaches to a work, and at any given time, a critique may adopt only one, or several of them.

Some valid critical approaches? Where does this work fall, in terms of the historical evolution of its medium. How does this work fit into the creator’s previous ouevres, and what does it say about his or her continuing evolution as an artist. What novel techniques does this work introduce, or how does it use previously known techniques to create a novel and impactful effect. How does it compare to other works with similar ambitions or themes. What was the creator attempting to do, and how well or poorly did he achieve his ambitions. What emotions or thoughts does it induce in those exposed to the work, and is the net effect enlightening or incoherent. What is the political subtext of the work, and what does it say about gender relationships/current political issues/the nature-nurture debate, or about any other particular intellectual question (whether that question is a particular hobby-horse of the reviewer, or inherently raised by the work in question).

If I’m not clear on this, the set of questions in the previous paragraph are not intended to be an exhaustive list of all possible questions that criticism can address; criticism can, in fact, address any set of questions of interest to the writer (and ideally, to the reader) that are centered on a particular work of art.

This basically sums up the basis of the RE5 discussion. NOT censorship, NOT bashing. In fact, we’re not really even talking about RE5, so much – we’re talking about the real world, and the reflections that the trailer had upon the real world. Consider it a credit to the medium that it inspires this, and not an attack. And since it’s not an attack,

YOU DON’T NEED TO FEEL DEFENSIVE.

Ahem.

Next up will be an intermediate-level primer on how to talk about these things successfully.

pat m.

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The Litmus Test for New Racism

April 11, 2008

MTV Multiplayer is back with two new interesting pieces, one of which is the extension of the Black Professionals in Games series – an interview with Felice Standifer, of Sony US, on being a black woman in the industry. It’s a good read, and I dig that it opens up the race and gender angles a little more, especially after the first two pieces were with black men.

The other piece is N’Gai Croal of Newsweek’s Level Up, again, this time on the Resident Evil 5 controversy that I posted on way back when.  This piece, and the subsequent trainwreck of a discussion that ensues in the comments field, is typical for practically any conversation about race, but especially race and video games, that happens on the Internet. Sadly, plenty of people are convinced that if you’re not wearing bedsheets or gassing people of the Jewish faith, you’re not a racist, and anyone who talks about racism these days is “making it an issue”.

So! In the spirit of public education, I’m going to offer a brief questionnaire. It’s like one of those stupid quizzes from Cosmo, except this time you get to out the insidious racist depths of your soul. The test is simple: first, read the article, then go ahead and give yourself one point for each of the following sentences you could conceivably agree with:

“People who call this racist are being too politically correct. Relax! It’s just a video game. Save your energy for fighting Real Racism – talking about things like this could just make people not like you.”

“How come it’s only racist if there are black people in it? I think THAT’S racist. No one cried foul when the white zombie inhabitants of Raccoon City were killed by the dozen. Or the Spanish villagers in RE4!”

“It was made in Japan, so it can’t be racist! They probably didn’t even know what they were doing!”

That’s it! Got your score tabulated? Let’s see…

3 points: You’re hopeless. Stop reading this blog now. You’re probably one of the dozens of annoying commenters I’ve added to the spam filter.

2 points: Also hopeless, and one of the annoying spam-filtered commenters, but you might have slightly better sense than the 3-point people. Still, you should probably go. That way.

1 point: I was pulling for you, you know, the way you made it through two of the sentences without agreeing. 1 point? Really? Was it that profound that you just had to nod your head? Get out of here.

0 point: You’re probably writing this blog entry.

As you may have figured out, those three sentences were all paraphrased from the comments section; in general, the detractors have all more or less fallen into at least one of those three groups. Let’s take another look at these responses and see what we can dig out of them:

People who call this racist are being too politically correct. Relax! It’s just a video game. Save your energy for fighting Real Racism – talking about things like this could just make people not like you.”

1. This way of thinking presumes that we have finite amounts of energy when it comes to locating racism. Wrong! It’s actually surprisingly easy, once you get the hang of it, because there’s so MUCH of it.

2. You’re right that it might make people not like me. However, the people who wouldn’t like me because I point out that it’s racist are, well, racist. Suffice to say that their opinion doesn’t make me sleep any worse at night.

3. I am relaxed – you’re the one getting all defensive over something that’s “just a video game”. Maybe you’re getting defensive because you’re, um, racist? Just a thought.

4. You’re drawing distinctions between “real problems” and “not real problems”. Protip: Yes, starving children in XYZ country is indeed a problem. But so is an industry that makes billions of dollars off of exploiting racist imagery. Especially when the people who consume those images are the people who are in general positions of economic privilege, and who will eventually end up in a lot of the world’s important places. Besides, if you want to preach at us like that, sell the PS3 and join the Peace Corps. Then maybe you’ll have a leg to stand on.

“How come it’s only racist if there are black people in it? I think THAT’S racist. No one cried foul when the white zombie inhabitants of Raccoon City were killed by the dozen. Or the Spanish villagers in RE4!”

1. Because most of the people doing the commenting on this are commenting from an American perspective, and the USA was built on the backs of black people in chains. This country has a legacy of systematic oppression of people of color – a legacy that continues to this day, mind you – so of course history is going to affect the way we read certain images. And no, saying it isn’t doesn’t make it so.

2. As my previous post indicated, shooting white people is a surprisingly popular activity. That’s why most people didn’t complain about the previous REs. Everyone loves shooting white people. We people of color felt kinda bad about the Spanish villagers in RE4, but that was because they were poor, and we knew what that was like. They’re still white.

3. I think you’re a moron. A racist moron. 

4. Ever wonder why there weren’t that many zombies of color in Raccoon City? Probably because we all had the sense to GTFO at the first sight of white people doing crazy shit like eating brains. You’d be surprised at what kinds of survival skills brown people pick up when living among the color-challenged folk.

“It was made in Japan, so it can’t be racist! They probably didn’t even know what they were doing!”

1. The original intent of the author doesn’t hold nearly as much weight as the cultural and historical context in which the text itself is being consumed. That is to say, it doesn’t matter if Capcom Japan knew what they were doing or not when they created the RE5 trailer, it’s still being watched by Americans with a certain racial common sense.

2. I can’t think of many parts of the world where black people haven’t had to put up with some racist shit or another. Certainly Japan has its own racist baggage with black people, so even if we were to say that the author’s intent did matter, it hardly lets them off the hook.

3. You clearly don’t know what you’re doing, but that doesn’t make you any less of an asshole.

Peace and love,

pat m.

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Linkage 4.10.08

April 10, 2008

Today’s the day I clear my little to-do sticky of all the various bits and pieces of news that I’ve been saving up. So! Without further ado:

Tracey John is running a series over at the MTV Multiplayer blog about Black Professionals in Games – so far, he’s interviewed N’Gai Croal from Newsweek’s Level Up (thanks for the linkage!), Morgan Gray from Crystal Dynamics, and Brian Jackson of Nergized. Interesting stuff!

I stumbled across 1UP’s top 5 most racist video games list somewhere. Other than Punch-Out, I haven’t heard of any of them. Sounds like I’m not missing out.

Apparently Sony and Station.com are holding a contest for a $10,000 scholarship for women aiming to enter the video game industry. That’s nice, if you’re a student of The Art Institutes, I guess.

Leigh Alexander wrote an interesting piece over at GameSetWatch about Bimbo Girl with a pretty slick comparison to GTA.

Finally, this is about a week old, but apparently a bunch of 3rd graders got in trouble for conspiring to kill their teacher. Man, I hope no one blames video games for this one. Imagine the shit they could wreck if they picked up Counter-Strike.

pat m.

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Finally, Someone Makes A Game About Shooting White People

April 9, 2008

So I woke up and checked my daily subscriptions, one of which linked me to an article in the New York Times about an online ‘test’ hosted by the University of Chicago Psychology department. Here’s a quote from the NYT piece:

To my horror, I turn out to be a racist.

The University of Chicago offers an on-line psychological test in which you encounter a series of 100 black or white men, holding either guns or cellphones. You’re supposed to shoot the gunmen and holster your gun for the others.

I shot armed blacks in an average of 0.679 seconds, while I waited slightly longer — .694 seconds — to shoot armed whites. Conversely, I holstered my gun more quickly when encountering unarmed whites than unarmed blacks.

Being the cunning, ruthless blogger that I am, I decided that there couldn’t be a better way to follow the outrageous success of the Top 13 Hottest Men of Gaming, In Color series than to upstage someone who writes for the Times. So I opened up the test and proceeded to let loose. 60 dead honkeys and negative 740 points later, I realize that the negative 20 points every time I shot an unarmed white man wasn’t a bug – the game wanted me to shoot armed people, not white people. Oops.

So I tried it again and scored a whopping 600 points – I think I accidentally shot 3 unarmed white guys and 1 unarmed black guy. (Sorry to the last guy there. My bad.) Interestingly enough, my reaction times didn’t parallel the NYT writers’; it took me 599ms to react to the armed black guys compared to 609ms to react to the armed white guys, and 672ms to react to the unarmed black guys compared to 682ms to react to the unarmed white guys. So the difference by race was ~10ms, but I seemed to be most suspicious of the unarmed white guys. (“You sure you don’t have a gun? That looks like a knife. Or smallpox – you never know with these guys.”) One would think that, having grown up in a white-dominant world, I’d be quicker to shoot black men and slowest to not-shoot them, but I guess that’s not the case.

As the game attempts to interrogate the internalized prejudices underlying the Amadou Diallo shooting, it’s designed to ‘reward’ shooting over not shooting; the biggest point score is +10 for correctly shooting, as opposed to +5 for correctly not shooting, and the penalty for incorrectly shooting is -20, compared to -40 for incorrectly not shooting. It’s also configured so that the right hand is used to shoot and the left is used to holster, which is significant insofar as most of the population is right-handed, and I’d imagine that would affect our reaction times. I wonder how the results would change if we flipped the controls – which half of our brain is the one that recognizes the shape of a gun?

Still, that ~10ms is pretty significant. I’m going to try switching to a white-skinned player model in Urban Terror and see if these results hold out.

pat m.

EDIT: I just did a trial run through the game where I held the “/” key down. It reported:

Black Armed: 46.64ms

Black Unarmed: 52.16ms

White Armed: 46.08ms

White Unarmed: 52.28ms

Not really sure why this discrepancy exists between armed/unarmed and black/white if I’m just holding the button down. Huh.