Sunday, March 22, 2009

Primal Fear: Haunted by Ghosts of Predators Past

Office Space's copier notwithstanding, machines aren't as satisfying to fight; flesh and blood is better. It seemed self-evident when I said it during a discussion about game A.I.s in general. Now, after some serendipitous reading, the assertion makes even more sense. Forget about Cylon skinjobs and the sentient supercomputer HAL 9000. For the time being, it's machines that neither look nor behave like they're alive that I have in mind.

“Have you ever wondered why normal adults living in urban environments like Manhattan are liable to be terrified of snakes and spiders, while being quite blasé about dangers like cars and cigarettes?” David Livingstone Smith asks in The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War.

His answer agrees with Barbara Erenreich's: “[H]uman beings are haunted by the ghosts of predators past” -- which is to argue that we evolved in environments where it paid to be aware of animal predators, but not the technology that we would invent millennia later. And so, as Smith writes, high-grossing movies like Jaws, Alien, Predator, and Jurassic Park “arouse primal emotions within us. We respond to these films because they resonate with ancient fears of being hunted and eaten.”

While we are, without doubt, able to imagine nightmares such as a demented car that intends to drive donuts over our corpses, these scenarios lack a snarling dog's ability to automatically elicit hair-raising reactions. The Resident Evil games get this and use it to frightening effect. Crocodiles, snakes, and spiders are among the menagerie of clawing, biting, or stinging animals that menace us in the series' current incarnation. RE 5, of course, capitalizes on the psychology of fear in other ways as well.

More than any other species, ourselves included, parasites and viral organisms have historically made mankind miserable (the Spanish flu eliminated 50 million of us in only a year and a half). It is correct to object that, while we can see macroparasites such as tapeworms and leeches, the microscopic monsters that create measles, leprosy, and Lhasa fever have until very recently remained invisible to humankind. Remember, though, that their transmission vectors – rats, lice, blood, feces, rotten flesh – are both obvious and elicit instinctive revulsion across cultures.

There's more to zombie imagery than this peculiar power to induce disgust. Smith writes that “it is typically thought that the contaminated object transmits its filthy essence to anything that it comes into contact with.” Bear with me, as this becomes fairly complicated. Essence (Aristotle called it substance) distinguishes what a thing is from the qualities that it has. Dogs have four legs, for instance, but can lose any number of these and retain their “doggy-ness.” In other words, a hairless, toothless, three-limbed dog remains in our minds' conceptual “dog” category despite his setbacks. This essentialist thinking finds its home in the notion that humans have souls independent of the bodies that they inhabit (and, perversely, in the tradition that held that a person was black or Jewish on the basis of one-eighth of his or her “blood”).

Zombies -- the converse of our hypothetical canine -- are superficial humans who've lost their human essence. The ubiquity of made-up monsters that appear to be people but in actuality aren't – consider werewolves, vampires, witches, changelings, Cylon skinjobs, pod people, T-800 terminators, and demon-controlled children to name but a few -- proves the concept's immense power over the human imagination.

If you agree with Smith; copious evidence canvasing all of recorded history; and the research of psychologists who study post-combat stress disorders, it is essential for soldiers and communities to dehumanize the enemies who they destroy or whose destruction they condone. We compare our foes to the same dangerous and disease carrying animals that trigger the instinctive fight-or-flight and disgust responses detailed above. Zombies literalize the picture that political propagandists paint when attempting to activate our anti-parasite modules in preparation for war -- which brings us to the disquieting nature of another note that Resident Evil 5 strikes. The title not only features fearful animals and contagious pathogens that create monsters in people's clothing; it blatantly turns people who in relatively recent history have been relegated to a sub-human status and held as vectors of barbarity and disease into barbaric disease spreaders.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Preserving past blog entries, part one

Originally published: April, 2008

Racist imagery in RE5 trailer?

Posted: 2008-04-13 15:18:46.257

Message board reactions to Newsweek blogger N'Gai Croal's thoughts on Resident Evil 5's controversial trailer miss much of the point.

To say that previously released Resident Evil games featured rabid mobs of Spaniards and Americans of mixed ethnicity simply won't do. To many Americans, an animalistic, homicidal white man is an anomaly, and an animalistic, homicidal black man is a recognizable "type" with historical and institutional precedent. This is what Croal refers to when he says "the imagery is not the same. It doesn't carry the same history, doesn't carry the same weight." Some discussion of the taxonomy of stereotypical, racially insensitive, and/or outright racist imagery of blacks -- such as revolting notions of sambos, minstrels, and savages, as well as the spiritual and moral mentors to non-black figures who feature in many Hollywood movies -- might have preempted much of the reactionary posting that is appearing online. However, I understand that it is not the Newsweek writer's obligation to provide crash courses in black history for an American audience that ought to know better.

Imagine a series of tycoon games in which the object is to control a state's banking and financial institutions and then exercise increasingly powerful political lobbying power. The first game in the series features white characters. Its sequel, however, focuses on corporate fat cats with stereotypical Jewish features. The same entrepreneurship lionized in American culture as the embodiment of by-their-bootstraps success is something else entirely for the stereotyped Jewish character because of historical context and because the same socially constructed categories have been used to oppress and separate Jews from people of other ethnicities. As it retells an age-old story, the game of Jewish tycoons perpetuates notions that have been used in part as justification for the expulsion and extermination of Jews across Europe from 15th century Spain and Portugal to 20th century Germany, Poland, and Russia.

No matter how academic this might sound, all Americans are familiar with the concept. We know that is it different to use a racist, sexist, or homophobic epithet against a person of an ethnicity, gender, or sexuality who the term was never intended to slander, than it is to use the same word to attack another person of the ethnicity, gender, or sexuality that it is intended to wound. Resident Evil 5's trailer is no racist slur-- the point I'm attempting to make is the all-importance of context to meaning.

Unlike Croal, I am not yet convinced that the trailer depicts non-zombie blacks as "all dangerous men, women, and children" who "have to be killed." But I do believe that its imagery does invoke, if not directly draw on, our familiarity with and interest in films like Black Hawk Down, as well as the real world tragedies in Sudan's Darfur region and Rwanda (where black Hutus have in fact murdered perhaps as many as a million black Tutsis and moderate Hutus, often with knives and machetes). The potential problem is that while action games are perfectly able to adapt some of the intensity and chaos of these situations to the purposes of interactive entertainment, they're miserable at handling complicated social, political, and historical contexts. (Similarly, where Black Hawk Down succeeds as an action movie, several critics accuse it of shortchanging the socio-politics of the Battle of Mogadishu.)

At the moment, neither Croal nor I have any idea as to how Resident Evil 5 will handle its suggestive themes. We aren't sure whether it will in some way acknowledge the terrible baggage attached to the real atrocities that lend its scenes such emotional power or simply mine these as videogame thrillmakers. Beyond this specific game, there exists the danger that -- over time, and across multiple iterations -- well-meaning pop culture creations will distill the specific and complex character of conflicts such as Darfur's into the general and simplistic trope of a malicious black mob armed with machetes.

I say well-meaning, because in the case of videogames, current technical limitations restrict the extent to which a developer can paint complete pictures. For instance, it is both easier and more cost effective to render convincing opponents in games like Resident Evil or Call of Duty than it is to breathe believable life into non-combatant characters who go about the business of day-to-day living. This is one reason why we find no NPCs in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare's middle-eastern cities, even as the game's missions lead players through the very homes and workplaces of vanished people. And should Infinity Ward have decided to populate its levels with anyone other than armed militants it would have faced the challenge of preventing players from shooting innocents -- a circumstance undoubtedly closer to life, but one that would have risked depicting American and British soldiers as war criminals, as well as forcing players to restart missions after each incident of indiscriminate fire. The trade-off, of course, is that COD 4's unnamed Saudi Arabia is inhabited exclusively by angry Arab gunmen.

While I would be surprised if RE5 does not include a few black NPCs who fill sympathetic supporting roles fleshed out in non-interactive cutscenes, I'm not counting on in-game villagers to flee their zombified and cannibalistic former neighbors.