Normally, bloggers are looking for attention. We offer our musings in the hope that they provoke a reaction, start a conversation, generate a dialog.
But there’s such a thing as attention you don’t want to get as a blogger. Black Looks, the African/Afrophile/Feminist/pro-Queer blog run by Sokari Ekine and a great group of African and diaspora writers, has been getting lots of unwanted attention the past week, largely from video gamers. If you’re wondering what inspired gamers to get interested feminist politics… well, it was sorta the other way around.
Kym Platt reacted to the release of Resident Evil 5, the latest in a series of games from Capcom where the protagonist kills zombies. The zombies in this case are roaming through Africa, and they are dark-skinned, being shot by a white protagonist. Platt found this disturbing and posted her reactions to the trailer of the game. GamePolitics.com mentioned Platt’s critique, and received over 800 comments in response, some supportive, some critical, and some offensive. Platt has responded to these comments on her personal blog, and Sokari has responded on Black Looks.
Some of the gamers responding to Platt’s post pointed out that Resident Evil has always featured a white protaganist shooting zombies. In this case, the game is set in Africa, and the zombies are African. Some, including a very influential blogger, found Platt’s focus on race and her use of the term “Black” (capitalized) and “white” (uncapitalized) uncomfortable and, well, racist. Microscopiq contributed to the dialog, trying to explain why these images can be so uncomfortable for black gamers:
From Birth of a Nation to Black Hawk Down, black folk are apparently responsible for some of the most mindless and evil activities you got. Rape, murder, satanic voodoo. With bulging eyes, simian super strength, and a room temperature IQ, we’ve been portrayed as savages beyond redemption. So, when we see images like these, it doesn’t just resonate with the long lived zombie genre, it also triggers memories of so many awful stereotypes — and what those stereotypes have been used to justify past and present. Put down the crazed negroes before they take the white women! And so on…
So far, so good. Disagreement, controversy, and some very interesting and thought-provoking points of view. But not all the response to the conversation has been particularly constructive. The first comment responding to Microscopiq’s thoughtful post read, “This is more victim-complex bullshit. If you’re seriously claiming that Capcom decided to set Resident Evil 5 in Africa just so they could have you kill some black people, you’re a liar, an idiot, or both.” Right. And that was one of the more reproducible comments. Sokari reports that comments on Platt’s post have included such lines as:
the owner of this blog is a rascist bitch
You stupid bitch
This is a game about Zombies set in Afric, did you expect the Zombies to be chinese? stupid fucking black hooker playing the race card as usual…
Get back into the cotton fields, you filthy nigger.
FUCK OFF AND DIE!
PRETOS DO CARALHO!
This is by far the best way to get exposure to your blog. I give you congratulations on being incredibly racist while preaching equality. Good job. Don’t be a little attention whore.
I think it’s pretty easy to understand why the authors of a blog about racism in global society would find it pretty offensive to be inundated with comments that are insulting on the base of race and gender. But I wonder if it isn’t worth considering why this dialog got so out of control so fast.
Black Looks doesn’t usually comment on games. Gamers don’t usually weigh in on discussions on homosexuality in Africa or the intricacies of Niger Delta politics. When the two start talking to one another, it’s a culture clash waiting to happen. When Platt capitalizes “Black” and doesn’t capitalize “white”, she’s making a statement about African and African diaspora identity – it’s a conscious decision, not an accident, and it likely connects to long-standing debates over words and phrases like “people of color”, “African-American”, etc. While I may disagree with Platt’s usage, I don’t read it as racist, in part because I’ve spent some time engaged in these debates.
But this isn’t just about language – it’s about what’s an acceptable subject of critique. Platt is reading the game as a manifestation of racism in society – a reading that Bonnie Ruberg offers in the Village Voice as well. One of the things you do when you’re concerned about racism and sexism is call it out when you see it – in movies, magazines, video games and blogs. But these sorts of critiques are something that gamers are often very sensitive towards. There’s a tendency to attack video games on the basis of them being violent and provoking violent and anti-social behavior. Gamers who happily shoot digital zombies and never pick up a real-world weapon resent being told that their passtime of choice means that they are somehow predisposed towards anti-social behavior. I suspect that a critique of apparently racially charged imagery in Resident Evil triggers a response in some gamers of, “Oh great, now they’re going to call us racists as well.”
None of this justifies the abusive language that Platt and the Black Looks team found themselves encountering. By using abusive language, critics let Platt off the hook on their legitimate points – questions about whether RE5 is really more disturbing than the images from an already disturbing set of games. The conversation became about reprehensible language, not about some interesting issues of race, representation, entertainment and culture.
The way in which this dialog spun out of control isn’t encouraging for those of us who are trying to encourage dialog online. I’ve been critical of cyberutopian ideas that suggest that the mere existence of tools that can connect diverse populations will lead to intercultural dialog. There’s certainly no guarantee that when cutural critics and gamers talk to each other online that they’re going to treat each other with deference, understanding and respect. Imagine what happens when we add language and national identity barriers to the mix…
The history of intercultural interaction online has some low points to it. When a large population of Portuguese-speaking Brazilian users moved onto Orkut, some American technocrats left, angrily, complaining that “their” service had been “invaded”. Chinese “gold farmers” in World of Warcraft find themselves harrassed by non-Chinese users, who are playing the game very differently than their Chinese counterparts, with different motivations. And then there’s always the story of the Nigerian 419 artists who found themselves pining for the fjords.
The internet makes it possible for us to have conversations with people from all corners of the world, from many perspectives and different backgrounds. But we decide whether those conversations are constructive or abusive. And we often choose badly.