Very British Gamer: Race, Creed, Country, and Controllers

Earth

While this column’s name of Very British Gamer is wholly accurate, it isn’t wholly divulging. Yes, I am a gamer and I am very British, but I would say I’m more English than British; in a very, very hypothetical World Cup final between England and Scotland, instead of being happy for the inevitable British victor, I’d be praying for the humiliating demise of those dirty, cheating Jocks. So why not go with Very English Gamer? Well, I felt that Americans (understandably) tend to think of the British as a single entity rather than the total of their individual nations, much in the same way that the British sometimes forget that the US is a collection of very different states – that and the acronym was VEG.

Being a shrewd kind of reader, you may have noted the discrepancy between my name and the column. Surely a more appropriate moniker for this column’s author would be Lester Tompkinson, Gerald Peabody, or Sir Arthur Huntingfoxes, right? Indeed, while I was born and raised in good ol’ London Town, my name’s roots lie beyond England’s shores in my parents’ birthplace of Iraq.

Just before Hussein came into power, my parents left Iraq to pursue careers as doctors in the UK, and both have lived there since. Despite an upsettingly large part of my family remaining in Iraq, I’ve never had the opportunity to visit them. Iraq is definitely an important part of my heritage, but I consider my home to be England. Of course this made events like the Gulf War and the Iraq war confusing and unsettling for me – I won’t delve into my political or religious beliefs as they are largely irrelevant to this discussion, but I simply wanted to underline the oddity of being a Brit with Iraqi heritage in the present political climate.

It’s a perspective that made Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare a strange game to play. CoD4 placed me in the role of an American soldier fighting against troops from an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Speculation suggested the country might be Saudi Arabia rather than Iraq, but the imagery on show was so reminiscent of TV footage from the Iraq War, and failing to name the country thus aided assumption of it being Iraq. The association was one I found troubling at first, but as the game wore on it became clear that what was on show was not even close to the events of the Iraq War. In my mind it wasn’t necessarily a glorification but more of a dramatic adaptation of the war that, as the failure to name Iraq suggested, wanted to keep its ties to reality as loose as possible but still highlight them occasionally for shock value, the gunship level being the perfect example. I could go on, but I think I would be retreading a lot of the ground Anthony Burch covered with his 2007 piece.

What occurred as I made my way through the game was that I was able to dissociate reality from the plot, from the murders on show and their personal relevance, just like I’d been able to with all my previous first-person shooter games, by focussing on the gameplay. I appreciated the shock moments for capturing the atrocity of war, but not the Iraq War. I embraced the dissociation from the Iraq War and simply enjoyed it as a game about war. Would I have been able to dissociate the game from the Iraq War if it had mirrored its events more closely? I wonder about that, just as I wonder about my own ability to disassociate from the game in the first place and how that reflects on me. In some ways my being able to play Call of Duty 4 underlined the dichotomy of my own perspective on the Iraq War, and in other ways it emphasised how easy it is to dissociate video games from reality and view them only as a tool of escapism.

RE5

Maybe the link wasn’t totally valid, but I cannot pretend that my thoughts on Call of Duty 4 didn’t come back to mind with the ongoing discussion on Resident Evil 5 and how it deals with race; the decision to set the game in a fictional African country mirrored the choice to not name the Middle Eastern country, just as the introduction of African co-op partner Sheva and more racial diversity to the zombies in the wake of the post-trailer controversy appeared to have been done to prevent a potential backlash – and yet, largely through Newsweek’s former Level Up author N’Gai Croal, the backlash has occurred.

I was lucky enough to be joined for this week’s episode of TGR podcast GameOn: Big Red Potion by Michael Abbott, the man behind The Brainy Gamer blog and podcast. We talked briefly about Resident Evil 5, and Michael touched on his own concerns about how the game handled race, concerns he had outlined in greater detail on his blog. In that post Michael was keen to point out his uncertainty on whether a game can even be racist or not, but he pointed out that Resident Evil 5’s “historically and socially charged imagery” made him feel uncomfortable. Has the game made me feel uncomfortable? Not yet, but that’s just me, just like Michael was keen to point out that his opinion was his own.

What concerns me about the discussion is the gravity and ignorance of some of the things being said on both sides. N’Gai Croal’s famous statement in response to the trailer that “clearly no one black worked on this game” was not just ignorant but unfounded, and of course dangerous since it implied racial discrimination on Capcom’s behalf. On the other hand, the response en masse of shooting down the core of N’Gai’s argument was just as ignorant. The issue here is perspective, as it always has been with racism or with any kind of discrimination. Images, text, and all forms of media hold different meanings for different people, and clearly what N’Gai saw offended him. That was his opinion.

If you read all of N’Gai’s thoughts in that interview with MTV Multiplayer regarding the first Resident Evil 5 trailer, you’ll see that he never actually accused Capcom or the game of racism. Maybe he will reflect on that famous first statement and regret it. As for the Resident Evil 5 discussion, I’m aware that a lot people are sick of it, but surely it’s more relevant now than ever before. As Americans continue to embrace their first African-American leader, as gaming pushes itself forward as the entertainment medium of the future, and as critics and the public start to consider it as more of an art form than a destructive hobby, it’s time we delved into issues like this rather than dismiss them. Again, I point to my own confusing experience with Call of Duty 4 — things are not always clear-cut. If people are sick of the Resident Evil 5 race discussion, they don’t have to read any more on it. However, I feel compelled to examine why N’Gai and all the other people concerned about Resident Evil 5’s imagery have said the things they have. I feel compelled to consider the reasoning and validity of Capcom’s decision to create a fictional country in Africa. I feel compelled to examine my own experience with Call of Duty 4, and how it relates to my own views and feelings on the Iraq War. At the end of the day, I feel compelled to accept that however escapist gaming is, its relationship with reality is not one to be dismissed.

Of course, that’s just my opinion.

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