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?
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:
- White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
- A primer on privilege: what it is and what it isn’t
- Privilege Analogy #1: Entitlement in Action
- Privilege is Driving a Smooth Road and Not Even Knowing It
- Dear White Privilege Deniers
- “Check my what?” On privilege and what we can do about it
- Anti-Racist FAQ
- How to Suppress Discussions of Racism
- How Not to Be Insane When Accused of Racism (A Guide for White People)
- Who’s the one arguing in bad faith?
- Video Games and the Usual Amount of Racism
- All the RE5 discussion needed was a Nice White Gamer
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.