Monday, December 7, 2009

"King Solomon's Mines" Are Full of Zombies! Using 19th Century British Lit. to Answer the "Resident Evil 5" Race Debate--A Research Proposal

Two heroes must travel to the dark heart of Africa in order to unravel a bizarre mystery. They travel over plains, across swamps, and descend into the very Earth, discovering the ruins of a forgotten civilization, all the while defending themselves from ferocious monsters and crazed natives (both of whom might devour them). Discovering a natural source of immense power, they must finally defeat the white woman who heads these savage people and stop her evil plan to take over the world. Luckily for our heroes, her plan goes awry when the very source of her power is what destroys her.

Now while this might appear, loosely, similar to the plot of Capcom's recent blockbuster Resident Evil 5, it's actually the plot of Sir Henry Rider Haggard's seminal work of 19th century British literature, She. And She, of course, represents the formulaic plot of Haggard's "adventure story for boys," made popular by King Solomon's Mines and the other Allan Quartermain novels.

It's been over a eight months since the latest installment in Capcom's horror video game series came out. And while, as a fan of the series, I went and bought the game straight away (and beat it a couple of days later), I decided to hold off writing about it. I did this for a few reasons. For one, most of what I might have said in the typical tradition of video game reviews had already been said. Indeed, IGN received an advanced copy and reviewed it almost a full week before it went on sale. Yahtzee attacked it nearly just as quickly over at The Escapist. And every gamer with a blog who beat the game in one fifteen hour run had already weighed-in on the crappy controls and the crappy AI controlled partner and the crappy dialogue (all of which I have absolutely no problems with when I play the game).

Secondly, the controversies surrounding the accusations of racism in the game seemed to have been all forgotten by the time the game went on sale--Yahtzee's review being an (interesting) exception but summed up both humourously and poignantly over at Penny Arcade.

Lastly, as I played the game, I became increasingly aware of the plot similarities between Resident Evil 5 and King Solomon's Mines (on which I'd written one of my first graduate research papers) and, to a greater extent, She.

Bearing all these things in mind, I decided to wait, do a little more research into Haggard and, indeed, She, let it all mesh for a while, and analyze Resident Evil 5's literary analogies--a seemingly oxymoronic endeavor, I know. But I feel something can come of this kind of analysis, especially if we compare the contexts of these two works' genres in relation to their respective mediums. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Resident Evil 5 is the She of video games. What does this mean? It means the game has a fantastic (read unbelievable) story with the same literary elements and plot as an H. Rider Haggard novel. It means that while video games journalist Heather Chaplin may be right when she tells video games developers, "It's not that the medium is in its adolescence, it's that you're a bunch of ****ing adolescents," this game will still influence greater works. It means that Resident Evil 5 is a benchmark for where this medium is and can go. And, unfortunately, it also means that, like She and King Solomon's Mines, Resident Evil 5 gets scrutinized for racism.

This past year, I discovered the joy of the pop culture conference. One of the things I'm really jaded about when it comes to being an academic is the "publish or perish" attitude that seems to drive a self-fulfilling cycle of generally boring material professors write for each other. Why would I want to go through the difficult process of researching, writing, and publishing a 20 page article on a subject I care little for so that a dozen scholars I'll probably never meet will read it just to add a line to my CV? But the conference atmosphere (especially the pop culture one) allows me to not only research a topic that interests me and feels relevant but present it directly to my audience for direct feedback. So I'm working on turning this idea into a proposal for the Southwest Texas PCA/ACA Conference. Typically, I turn to my colleagues here on campus for advice in this area (and I plan to for this, as well) but I thought it might be interesting to get some other feedback, as well--especially because I have no idea to which field I should submit the paper. And so, without further ado, my proposal:

As with all new mediums, video games have become more and more a part of popular culture, and they have received more and more of their share of media criticism--from early Nintendo games being blamed for decreased attention spans to first-person shooters being blamed for school shootings. But as the medium grows, using ever more imaginative means to immerse its players (in every way from super-realistic graphics to more "human" characters) so to do the criticisms. While few viewed the "damsel in distress" plot of Super Mario Bros. as sexist, games now regularly come under fire for not only their portrayal of women but also minority groups. The question then becomes, can a new medium learn from the pitfalls of the old? Can a recent gaming controversy, such as the allegations of racism in the African-set, zombie shooter Resident Evil 5, be understood and studied through the lens of its literary ancestors? When one considers the striking similarities this "adventure story for boys" has in common with Gothic novels like Sir H. Rider Haggard's She or King's Solomon's Mines that saw the birth of the genre, it seems the answer must be yes.

Haggard's novels, as mentioned before, were published in the Gothic tradition of the aforementioned "adventure story for boys." There was very often travel to distant lands, grand and violent adventure, horrific events, overtly exotic (read sexual) women, and treasure--exactly the kind of genre elements we now associate with "fanboy" literature, film, and of course, video games. And while we could say that on those merits any superhero comic, or film starring the current female sexual icon, or video game fits that description, Resident Evil 5 is special because it so closely adheres to not only the plot elements but the plot formula of these novels.

It only makes sense then to examine these similarities and judge the controversy drawn by a new medium based on the same merits as the old, should it be expected to grow. If a video game is simply going to fill King Solomon's Mines with zombies, we should want it to do so without falling into the same racial traps as the novel. And if we plan to continue throwing the race card at every video game to feature a minority group, we should know for what it is we are looking. Because however new the medium, we've seen it all before.

Questions? Quibbles? Controversies?


Andrew Wales said...

I think you're really onto something here. I'm not sure which field? Why not English? I wonder if there have been other research studies or dissertations that compare literature to video game plots? If not, and you are the first, that would be groundbreaking. However, you might be surprised that there have been others. Well, that was my experience when I began looking into comics related dissertations.

Ben Villarreal said...

Well, the research of studying video games certainly isn't unique, much as I wish it were :-) Surprisingly video game journalism has been treating the subject pretty critically over the last decade, and video game's relevance to pop culture in the academia has been getting attention for almost the last decade--I'm currently reading a great book, The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy: I Link Therefore I Am :-)

My literary approach, however, is a little new in the academia, near as I can tell. Unfortunately, the "English" designation is huge at this conference--there are entire panels dedicated to Harry Potter, comics, and of course, every genre of literature under the sun. But does this fall under "Science Fiction and Fantasy" or "African Studies" or "Young Adult Literature" or "Horror"? And there's the off chance I'll get lumped into some other random area that doesn't exist yet like "Zombies" or "Video Game Studies." My main concern is that spanning so many different areas, I'll get put into a "jack of all trades, master of none" panel in which I'm under prepared to discuss one specific idea :-/

Ben Villarreal said...

Update: I was finally able to find the Games Studies panel on the website, so I submitted and was accepted to that! I'm psyched, I just have to write the thing now :-)


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