“Expert” Consulted on RE5 Racism Issue: Not an Expert on Race After All

UPDATE: There is an update to this story here.

Recently, VideoGamer.com interviewed an “expert” to ask him whether the imagery in Resident Evil 5 was racist. The academic expert they consulted was Glenn Bowman, Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Kent. Bowman said that Resident Evil 5 is not racist in that interview. Bowman even went so far as to dismiss views that Resident Evil 5 contains racist imagery as “silly”. Major blogs like Joystiq are running wild with the VideoGamer.com interview.

There’s a serious problem here, though. None of these major gaming media outlets have done their homework. Joystiq and the other big games blogs like Kotaku and Destructoid are merely reporting verbatim what VideoGamer.com published, without engaging in actual, investigative journalism. Doesn’t journalism include fact-checking sources?

Let’s take a closer look at Bowman’s academic credentials, experience, and research:

His doctoral field research was carried out on the topic of Christian pilgrimage in Jerusalem between 1983 and 1985 and gave rise to further regionally based interests in shrines, monumentalisation, tourism and – with reference to the Palestinian people – nationalism and conflict, diasporic and local identities, and secularist versus sectarian strategies of mobilisation. He has subsequently carried out a longitudinal study of the mixed Christian-Muslim town of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, which had played a substantial role in the Palestinian intifada (uprising). At present he is continuing his work in Beit Sahour as well as continuing work on art and identity in contemporary Serbia. He is developing comparative work between the Middle East and the Balkans, manifest in ‘Constitutive Violence and the Nationalist Imaginary’ (below), and is currently working on a project investigating historical and contemporary uses of shared shrines in Western Macedonia, Kosova and Albania and in Israel/Palestine.

No mention of Africa, race, or racism.

Taking a look at Bowman’s list of publications (bottom half of page) dating back to when he first began his academic career in 1991, we see no mention of his research on African cultures, racism, or race issues — because there isn’t any. None of his publications are about racism or race. Nowhere in Bowman’s body of work suggests that he has expertise or research experience in African cultures, colonialism, media studies, or race issues. The setting for Resident Evil 5 is an unknown location on the African continent. His research experience and current work indicate interest primarily in Middle East religious studies. Geography check: the Middle East? Not in Africa. Whilst certain countries geographically located in the northern part of the African continent are sometimes listed as part of the Middle East (depending on who you ask), none of Bowman’s research involves countries or cultures from the part of the African continent that have been cited as being part of the Middle East, such as Egypt. Bowman’s list of publications includes an article he wrote in 2001, which was included in an anthology that mentions Egypt in the title. The article he wrote does not have anything to do with Egypt; it’s about the Bordeaux Pilgrim. Specifically, Bowman’s geographical research interests centre on Israel/Palestine and the Balkans. Furthermore, his topical research specialties focus on religion, nationalism, identity — not race or racism. An academic is judged in large part by their body of published work. Bowman doesn’t seem to be the most qualified academic to discuss race, racism, African colonialism, and African cultures, given the fact that his specialties do not actually involve any of those subjects.

VideoGamer.com states that Bowman is an “expert”, which would logically mean that he specialises in the study of race issues and racism. How can this “expert” opinion be trusted when the academic that VideoGamers.com consulted has not conducted research or published articles on race or racism? According to whom is Bowman an expert on racism and race? Was he the only anthropologist who would talk to them? Did VideoGamer.com go to lots of people until they got an answer they wanted? They don’t appear to have consulted people who have done research on African colonialisation and African cultures or academics in African American studies programmes. Why didn’t they talk to people who have conducted research in race, culture, and media studies? Or at the very least, why didn’t they speak to people who are are aware of the history of racist and stereotypical presentations of black people in the media, and who have actually analysed and thought critically about media portrayals of racial and ethnic minorities?

Resident Evil 5

Many gamers are now treating Bowman’s “expert” opinion as gospel, the voice of reason, the authoritative word on this issue. He’s not a gamer or an expert on media studies. Yet, the initial critics of the racist imagery in Resident Evil 5 were completely dismissed and often attacked with racist slurs by many gamers because the criticisms came from non-gamers.

Many gamers in mainstream communities now feel validated in their view that Resident Evil 5 is not racist. They have rejected perspectives from game journalists like N’Gai Croal, Bonnie Ruberg, Dan Whitehead, and Tom Chick who questioned and critiqued the imagery in Resident Evil 5 by proposing that it is problematic and racially charged. Even Penny Arcade lukewarmly questioned the imagery in Resident Evil 5. Bowman lacks academic credibility on race issues and media/games, yet many gamers have wholeheartedly embraced his uninformed opinion despite the existence of knowledgeable commentary from anti-racist gamers and people from within the industry who have been critical of Resident Evil 5. Why? Because Bowman tells them what they want to hear, and doesn’t challenge their views.

You’d be hard-pressed to find mature, critical discussion about race and Resident Evil 5 taking place in mainstream gaming communities. But, you can find it in anti-racist communities, anti-oppression communities, and gaming communities which regularly discuss and critique these issues.

Why are gamers so afraid of people taking a critical look at games, of people questioning games, like we do with other media? Many gamers have a chip on their shoulder about being misunderstood; they feel embarrassed that their hobby is still considered juvenile, looked down upon, and poorly regarded amongst many non-gamers. They wish people would respect games, but really “gamers want games to be taken seriously until they’re taken seriously, and then they don’t want them taken seriously”. Increasingly, people are taking notice. People are discussing games seriously. People are questioning games like we have done with other media. As Dan Whitehead says, “If we’re going to accept this sort of imagery in games then questions are going be asked, these questions will have merit, and we’re going to need a more convincing answer than ‘lol it’s just a game.'”

Before anyone comments on this post (or decides to discuss racism in general), please review my comment policy and read the following:

I would also like to suggest RSSing this Delicious tag for future reading and edification.

EDIT — 10 March 2009: Clarified my description of Bowman’s research interests.

UPDATE — 17 March 2009: There is an update to this story here.

20 comments

  1. nilcypher · March 8, 2009

    I write news posts for the Escapist (hard to believe, I know) and I was amazed by the resistance of gamers to even consider the idea that the game may contain racist imagery, but also by how many of them missed what the discussion was even about, even when it was outlined to them. (apologies for linking to my own stuff)

    I can’t agree more with the comment that Kieron Gillen made about gaming. When confronted with something that bursts their little bubble, they make excuses and whinge like children. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the ‘It wasn’t racist when it was Spaniards’ argument.

    Personally, I find it very irresponsible of VideoGamer.com to post an article like that. This is something we should be discussing, not suppressing.

  2. Dyannamika · March 8, 2009

    Reading the article on Videogamer, I have to agree with Brinstar that this guy is not an expert on racisim. I could probably think of quite a few academics that could have been more qualified as an expert than this guy, but he did say what they wanted to hear, so I can see why they hired him.

    As someone who works in the field of international development, the emerging themes I’ve seen so far are somewhat disturbing. The ‘zombie genre’ has a history of social commentary, (I can think of one movie in particular called Hell of the Living Dead that made an attempt to comment on development issues, and it failboated miserably and well, long story short, a similar problem. (Though there is a little Italian kid that makes an awesome zombie face, ha ha ha, best part of the film.)

    The RE games are often about corporate social responsibility, at least I’ve gathered as much from it. It is the ‘Umbrella corporation’, that is doing all this unethical research,(at least that was a theme that I seem to see cropping up in the series). Of course, this is a fairly relevant development topic, but that being said some of the images I’ve seen are… um… well I mean seriously, what is that level three stuff, seriously?

    Anyway, I can’t say that I’m sure what the intent of Capcom was with the game. However, from what I’ve seen to this point, aside from the obvious race issues, it certainly isn’t painting a positive picture of Africa from a development perspective. I would be much less cynical about the article if they had used a major race or development theorist to provide their expert opinion; it’s academically irresponsible to promote someone as an expert that isn’t.

    The zombie genre is (usually) as much about an apocalypse that can be prevented as much as anything else, which is one thing that makes me wonder about its appeal. That’s its appeal for me. However, some notable directors (ROMERO) have used zombies for political commentary ranging from human nature (at the end of the original Night of the Living Dead, after personal bickering, the only character that has it together, Ben, is shot ‘by mistake’ to structuralism (yeah that was somewhat blatant in Land of the Dead. I mean, a tower full of rich people surrounded by poor people that give them goods and services)

    Saying all of that, we have Chris here, a white male, who is 1.) preventing the apocalypse, therefore is a hero figure preventing apocalypse and 2.) protecting under-developed (ie poverty striken) areas from themselves in a particularly jingoistic way. And you also have (From what I’ve read on the topic) Africans getting shot, some of which are oddly wearing their tribal dress… and gamers are surprised that this is being taken as racist?

    I also agree with nilcypher that this is definitely something that needs to continue to be discussed.

  3. Dyannamika · March 8, 2009

    PS. It’s really odd that nowhere (that I can find at least) mentions exactly which country in Africa RE 5 deals with. Is it western Africa, Eastern Africa, Southern Africa, Northern?

    Because there is not just one ‘AFRICA’, there are many different countries with unique heritages, and I’m really curious to see where it is meant to be set. Because there has to be a setting… though most the countries I can think of opens a big can of… erm… zombies, (so to speak) as a setting– with socio-political and historical contexts.

  4. Thomas · March 8, 2009

    It’s good to raise the question of location, but it’s not surprising at all. Because for the setting to be more specific, the developers would have had to recognize the diversity of Africa, and it’s pretty clear that they weren’t interested in that.

    From a development perspective, there are other issues that I think could be raised as well–such as the portrayal of a “viral plague” in Africa, and the white man stepping in to eradicate it. Sounds familiar, right?

    The Resident Evil titles stopped being about CSR–if they ever really were–with Resident Evil 4, which largely cut ties with the whole Umbrella Corp. storyline.

  5. nilcypher · March 8, 2009

    I’m sure I read somewhere that it was set in West Africa, not that that really helps all that much.

  6. Low Frost · March 8, 2009

    I’ve been keeping pace of this, an extraordinarilly interesting turn of events for a video game.
    My own weigh-in is that for what it’s worth, I do not believe that the game is racist on it’s face.
    I do think that it was born of ignorance, however, given the group that has created it. All the higher ups involved with RE5 have all said that they did not expect such a reception and that the game is not racist, a fallacy, as it is less what you yourself see in what you have created, and more about what others see in it. They set out to create something following a theme, utterly ignorant of the depth of what they were trying to represent outside of a pasttime.
    The initial trailer was a harbinger, it seems, of what was to come, if the people who have demo’d the full version of the game are to be believed. I will play the game for myself, in it’s entirety, a form my own opinion on game afterwards.

  7. Low Frost · March 8, 2009

    And I will also agree that the so called “expert” was an enormous cop out, meant only to tell people what they desired to hear.
    I would of hoped that an industry that is so publically maligned as the video game industry would try a bit harder to maintain integrity.

  8. Jon Lupen · March 8, 2009

    Just a word in edge wise, but there is a difference between knowingly and purposefully telling people what they want to here, and being selected by a company, organization or such because your thoughts and opinions align with what their message they want delivered, so they choose you to tell people what they want to hear without you knowing your playing the part. One tactic is used just as often as its counterpart. Personally, I suspect the latter of the two in this case.

  9. Brinstar · March 8, 2009

    I found a couple of articles today that say the game is set in a region called ‘Kijuju’ in West Africa. Searching for ‘Kijuju’ only turns up Resident Evil related terms, so it seems to be a made-up place.

  10. Gunthera1 · March 8, 2009

    Apparently there is an unlockable outfit for Sheva’s character within the game. She is wearing a leopard skin print bikini, animal tooth necklace and war paint. Not only is it extremely skimpy but it adds another aspect to the racism argument. Somehow I cannot imagine this as an outfit that a soldier would normally wear. I cannot understand the point of this unlockable at all.

    The only photos I could find were on Kotaku.
    http://kotaku.com/photogallery/sexyshiva/1007549083

  11. Thomas Cross · March 8, 2009

    Thank you so much for doing such a careful break down of this guy’s thinking, and everyone else’s unthinking love of him. When that news first came out, I was amazed. Forget the fact that calling in anybody to decide whether something is racist and have that be the final word is absolutely preposterous, his reasoning was shoddy at best. It’s good to see that there are people taking the time to carefully analyze and critique people like him, and the Kotakuites, etc. who blindly follow “experts” like him. This added to the unlockable outfit for Sheva (see Gunthera1’s response) is just one more nail in the coffin. They don’t care, and they keep on making it worse. Thanks again.

  12. Glenn Bowman · March 8, 2009

    May I say simply that although I do not know why videogamer chose me as an ‘expert’ (it may have to do with the fact that I convene a post-graduate programme in Ethnicity, Nationalism and Identity, and that I have a previous career teaching a Communications degree — see my website which AcidforBlood rather selectively read — http://www.kent.ac.uk/anthropology/department/staff/bowman.html) they certainly in no way pre-vetted me, and they printed the interview we had in full. I was also not paid for the interview but did it gratis because I found it intriguing that they wanted an academic to comment on gaming (something I’ve never engaged in). You might want to look at a follow up interview carried out by LiveScience after the videogamer one — http://www.livescience.com/culture/090312-resident-evil-5-racism.html
    Glenn Bowman

  13. Dyannamika · March 8, 2009

    Some things, like the “Mercenary” mode is in particularly a poor choice of words, particularly for West, Central or Eastern Africa.
    In Mercenary Mode, Chris goes through villages killing mas amounts of infected… zombies. Um… this is in poor taste because well, mercenaries have done that, Sierra Leone comes to mind in particular.

  14. Dyannamika · March 8, 2009

    I think the more disturbing aspect of this is the overall tone of the response of the gamer community. It’s amazingly negative.

    Out of all the fields of social science, they chose an anthropologist, and I’m pretty sure they were going into the entirely wrong field there. The variety of themes requires someone with a more specialized background for dealing with the myriad of themes expressed in this game: from looking at poverty from the barrel of the gun, to the great white hunter-cum-savior, to Shiva in a leopard-skin bikini with high-heels (which of course is a fantastic choice of attire for someone fighting things that bite /end sarcasm)… which adds a gender element to the mix as well, makes Dr. Bowman an extremely poor selection to provide as an authoritative expert.

    That outfit Gunthera1 mentions cannot be comfortable to run in at all. I’ve seen worse and more gravity defying, (I’m convinced many super-hero and a large majority of video-game females, are given an extra ability of ‘super support’) but that looks like an outfit someone would wear to a photo-shoot, to star in an erotic video, or for a special night with a special someone, rather than um, in a ZOMBIE DEATH ZONE.

    Kijuju is a made-up place at least. Regardless, and depending on the area, parts of Africa still experiences intense social, political, and racial/religious turmoil (Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Somalia, DRC, Sudan, and of course SOUTH AFRICA: Please note not all of those examples are white on black racism, and by all means, this is a very short list of examples.) I would be amazed if this is released in South Africa, to be fully honest.

    Although I hear Umbrella is up to its old tricks, which could bring important messages about the role and ethics of Multi-national Corporations (MNCs) in the developing world and bio-engineering (which usually comes up in relation to ethics, patents, agriculture and pharmaceuticals). I’ve always liked the sort of evil corporation reaching for profits regardless of ethical, moral (or in some cases intellegent) boundaries, highlighting degeneration (in some cases quite literal) of many of the shareholders.) That being said, there seems to be that theme of white (releasing the virus and saving the people from the virus[by shooting them], giving the affected area no control over its destiny.)

    Over all, I would have much more intellectual respect for the argument that the game wasn’t racist if an expert on Africa (or area thereof), race, or conflict, or even developmental economics and politics were consulted.

    I agree with Low Frost as perhaps it was not intended to be as tasteless and racist as it ended up, though I think had Capcom set it in Rural China there would have been some more serious blowback.

  15. Brinstar · March 8, 2009

    I felt that describing your research interests and experience, publications, and research specialties would provide information on your work experience on race issues, racism, and media. In my post, where I linked to your site (twice), I specifically called out the fact that your research interests include religion, nationalism, and identity. The fact that you convene the university’s MA programme in Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Identity (again, I stated in my post that your specialties include nationalism and identity), still doesn’t appear to indicate that you have specialised research experience or published work in race issues or racism, particularly with reference to Africa.

    As for teaching a Communications degree, whilst it may indicate that you’re well-read on media issues, again I don’t belive it indicates to anyone that you have specialist expertise on race and the media — that you have conducted research or published work on the depictions of Africa and racial and ethnic minorities in the media.

    You acknowledge that you’re not sure why VideoGamers.com approached you as an “expert”; do you consider yourself one of the leading experts on racism in the UK?

    Since you’ve said that VideoGamers.com did not pre-vet you, what was the selection process?

  16. glenn bowman · March 8, 2009

    no idea, why don’t you ask them. I certainly never did, nor would, call myself an ‘expert on racism’

  17. Dyannamika · March 8, 2009

    Dr. Bowman, I’m very glad to see you on this site. I wanted to mention that in my comments I wasn’t intending to personally bash you nor your expertise in your field.

    I’m more annoyed with the methodology (or lack thereof) that videogamer displayed when bringing this into the academic realm. I personally hope that video game themes are brought more into discussion in academia. I was more upset about their apparent disregard for a vetting process or any academic rigor at all. If they are going to bring the discussion to this level, they should have taken much more care with their presentation to be fair to all parties involved (you included, doctor).

    Bringing this discussion into a more serious realm is great, and I think that video games can be used to examine, explore, and incite discussion about a number of sociopolitical topics. (One is why so many are innately conflict-based and based on a zero-sum power paradigm.) However, for this particular game, I would have liked to see more of a commentary from someone who specialized in Africa, rather than the Middle East or Balkans. I’ll admit I flew off the handle a little bit, though. ;)

    Though, in all honesty, I’d seriously love to hear your opinions on a game like Assassin’s Creed!

  18. John · March 8, 2009

    Is there such a thing as an ‘Expert in Racism’? Is Anthropology not the closest recognised field that exists when looking at issues like this?

    Also it’s worth noting that in no instance does the article say that Dr Bowman is an ‘Expert in Racism’. He is an expert in Anthropology.

  19. Acid for Blood · March 8, 2009

    VideoGamer.com Cover-Up: “Leading Expert on Racism” No Longer

    Wesley Yin-Poole of VideoGamer.com interviewed Glenn Bowman, Senior Lecturer at the University of Kent, about Resident Evil 5 and its racist content. Yin-Poole called Bowman “one of the UK’s leading experts on racism”. In one of my previous posts, I…

  20. oliemoon · March 8, 2009

    Is there such a thing as an ‘Expert in Racism’?

    You might want to direct that question toward VideoGamer.com, as they are the ones that introduced the notion of an “expert on racism” into the Resident Evil 5 debate.

    Is Anthropology not the closest recognised field that exists when looking at issues like this?

    No, it is absolutely not. I contend that it is one of the worst fields to turn to when it comes to the subject of racism, and I am saying this as someone who liked the discipline enough to earn my degree in Anthropology. I suggest you research the history of social/cultural anthropology if you would like to know more about this subject. But here’s a tip to get you started: a discipline with roots that extend from the coffers of colonial powers? Not really the best place to go when looking for an neutral source of racial analysis.

    But since you can’t think of any other fields that might be better suited for an analysis of racism in Resident Evil 5, here are just a few suggestions: African Studies, Ethnic Studies and Film & Media Studies. That last department actually has a professor who specializes in social issues and gaming, fyi.

    Also it’s worth noting that in no instance does the article say that Dr Bowman is an ‘Expert in Racism’. He is an expert in Anthropology.

    The original version of the VideoGamer.com interview did state that Bowman was an expert on racism, but sometime in the past eight hours they edited the article to remove that claim. See brinstar’s update for details.

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