Race Politics and First-Person Shooters

An interesting opinion piece on The Atlantic Wire looks at race politics in video games, focusing on first-person shooters. Author Max Fisher talks about Resident Evil 5, Medal of Honor and Modern Warfare 2, inspired by an essay from Jim Gourley for ForeignPolicy.com.

The thrust of the opinion piece is about the painful transition from conflicts against zombies and fictionalized Nazis to real world conflicts involving real groups of people and how developers portray them. Here’s a taste:

Gourley writes that race has become an increasingly controversial issue in shooter games as they shift from the old paradigm of fantasy zombie-shooters or futuristic alien warfare into more recognizable modern warfare against human enemies. Medal of Honor’s decision to set a game in the very real Afghan War is just one example. What kinds of people is it socially acceptable for you to spend an afternoon killing in a video game? Which are not? It’s complicated.

It certainly proved problematic in Resident Evil 5, where a white protagonist gunned down thousands of African zombies. But Fisher points out that no one even flinched when subsequent action games allowed players to gun down "terrorists" and "insurgents" who were homogenously of Middle Eastern descent. Fisher brings his argument home with the following:

But the cultural standards are inconsistent. Gourley writes that, in one game set in Iraq, "Everyone plays the good guy, and the game simply paints the world red or blue based on your perspective. To your teammates, you look like Specialist Jones in standard issue ACUs. To your opponents, you look like an Arab with a ski mask and shemagh." The generic, racially defined "enemy" in this game, which has created no controversy, reveals that we are OK with games that ask us to kill Middle Eastern-looking enemies. It’s not about who you pretend to kill, it’s about whose virtual shoes you wear when you do the killing. "It can only be assumed then that Infinity Ward’s crime was in explicitly naming the killers, making the context for their actions as realistic as the graphics, and then giving us the opportunity to act as our own enemies." Gourley concludes with an anecdote from his military service, which shows just how complicated and contradictory these video game politics can be.

But if a developer does want to set a video game in a real world conflict, what sense would it make to sanitize who the combatants are? It’s an argument that will continue to rage as developers try to strike a balance between realism, good taste and whatever political or social message they may or may not be trying to convey.

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