Race and video games
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|Genetics and differences|
The relationship between race and video games has received substantial academic and journalistic attention. Game theory, based on Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens, argues that playing video games provides a way to learn about the world. Games offer opportunities for players to explore, practice, and re-enforce cultural and social identities. Video games predominantly created and played by one racial group can unintentionally perpetuate racial stereotypes and limit players' choices to preconceived notions of racial bias.
Demographics of video game players
There are mixed results on the demographics of people who play video games. While one study mentions that African American and Hispanic children make up the majority of video game players, a study by Pew Research Center finds that 73.9% of white children play video games compared to 26.1% of nonwhite children.
The Pew Research Center found that 19% of Hispanic respondents and 11% of black respondents described themselves as "gamers," compared to 7% of whites. Nielsen survey research found similar results.
Another Pew study showed that 89% of black teens play video games, as well as 69% of Hispanic teens. In addition, white and Hispanic teen gamers were "more likely than blacks to report feeling angry while playing online."
People of color in the games industry
A 2014-2015 report published in 2016 by the International Game Developers Association found that people of color were both underrepresented in senior management roles as well as underpaid in comparison to white developers. Gaming convention organizer Avinelle Wing told Newsweek, "The industry has an even bigger problem with race than it does with gender.”
Many have pointed out that this lack of diversity within the industry has contributed to a lack of representation within video games themselves. Dennis Mathews, a game designer at Revelation Interaction Studios, suggests that the exclusion of non-white game developers leads to stereotyping within video game development and marketing. Developer prejudices impact who counts as a game's target audience, leading many developers to pigeonhole or ignore non-white gamers. As Mathews puts it, "Those stereotypes tie into publisher decisions of what games get picked up and what should be put into games."
The Game Developers Conference, a popular annual video game conference frequented by both industry and players, runs an "Advocacy Track" to "address new and existing issues within the realm of social advocacy. Topics covered range from diversity to censorship to quality of life." While initially started in 2013 to address issues around gender and gaming, the "Advocacy Track" features panels explicitly interested in improving diversity in gaming more broadly, including concerns around race.
One of the earliest pioneers in the gaming industry was African-American engineer Jerry Lawson, who helped develop the first cartridge-based home video game console. Other people of African descent in gaming include industry executive Gordon Bellamy.
Racial representations in video games
Through interactive gameplay, players learn about race through the types of characters that are portrayed in the virtual reality. Some scholars argue that the way racial groups are portrayed in video games may affect the way video game players perceive defining characteristics of a racial group. The presence or absence of racial groups affects how players belonging to those racial groups see themselves in terms of the development of their own identity and self-esteem. The idea of portraying different races is not something entirely new in the history of video games. Early games, including some MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, featured multiple playable (fictional) races that the player could choose from at the beginning of the game.
Light skin tones are seen as the default skin color for many games.
The portrayal of racial minorities in video games has been demonstrated to have a tendency to follow certain racial stereotypes. A study by the Children Now organization in 2001 noted that of the 1,716 video game characters analyzed, all Latino characters "appeared in a sports-oriented game, usually baseball." 83% of African-American males were portrayed as competitors in sports-oriented games, while 86% of African-American females were either "props, bystanders, or participants in games, but never competitors." Research by Anna Everett and Craig Watkins in 2007 claims that since then, the number of black and Latino characters has increased with the rising popularity of "urban/street games," while their portrayal has remained consistently narrow. In the action/shooter genre of urban/street games, both blacks and Latinos are typically portrayed as "brutally violent, casually criminal, and sexually promiscuous." The protagonist of the Just Cause series, Rico Rodriguez, is Hispanic, as is 'Ding' Chavez, protagonist of Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six. In the sports genre, blacks are typically portrayed as "verbally aggressive and extraordinarily muscular and athletic." African Americans are represented as aggressive or athletic characters more often than as protagonists or heroes.
In a 2009 survey of 150 games across nine platforms, University of Southern California Professor Dmitri Williams "found that fewer than 3 percent of video game characters were recognizably Hispanic and none were playable. Native Americans and biracial characters were non-existent. Though, Native Americans have been the protagonists of several video games, most notably in the Turok series, and in the 2006 title Prey. African Americans enjoyed a rate of 10.74 percent, with a big caveat; they were mostly athletes and gangsters." In a study that examined the top 10 most-highly rated games for each year from 2007–2012, Ithaca College graduate Ross Orlando found that "black and Asian characters each have 3 percent representation in the pool of main protagonists; Latino a mere 1 percent."
In 2015, Pew Research Center found that 35% of blacks, 36% of Hispanics, and 24% of whites surveyed believe that minorities are portrayed poorly in video games. The range of playable characters in certain gaming contexts has an overtly racial component. Some have argued that the high proportion of black male characters in sports video games (according to David J. Leonard, 80% of black male video game characters as of 2003 were sports competitors) have enabled (predominantly white male) gamers to practice what Adam Clayton Powell III refers to as "high-tech blackface", a digital form of minstrelsy that allows white players to effectively 'try on' blackness without being forced to acknowledge or confront the degrading racist histories surrounding minstrelsy.
The potential for video games as a site for promulgating reductive, racist tropes has prompted many to point out the use of yellowface, or "the donning and using of the "yellow" body by whites" to degrade and invisiblize Asian characters in a variety of games as well. Anthony Sze-Fai Shiu argues that the Duke Nukem 3D series (including Duke Nukem 3D and its spiritual sequel Shadow Warrior) enable the gamer to identify strongly with the protagonist, due to the first-person perspective employed by the games. "These characters, then, establish a scenario where the player's control over virtual embodiment demands critical decisions concerning subjective investments in the games’ scenarios and narratives. As such, both Duke Nukem 3D’s and Shadow Warrior's speculations concerning white subjectivity and yellowface performance call for an investigation into the value of performing as a racial other for the sake of game play."
There have been a number of controversies surrounding race and video games, including public debates about Resident Evil 5, Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization, Left 4 Dead 2, BioShock Infinite, World of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and Genshin Impact.
Video games may influence the learning of young players about race and urban culture. The portrayal of race in some video games such as the Grand Theft Auto series, Custer's Revenge, 50 Cent: Bulletproof, and Def Jam: Fight for NY has been controversial. The 2002 game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was criticized as promoting racist hate crimes. The game takes place in 1986, in "Vice City", a fictionalized Miami. It involves a gang war between Haitian and Cuban refugees which involves the player's character. However, it is possible to play the game without excessive killing. The 2009 game Resident Evil 5 is set in Africa, and as such has the player kill numerous African antagonists. In response to criticism, promoters of Resident Evil 5 argued that to censor the portrayal of black antagonists was discrimination in itself.
In 2008, the release of Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization was controversial for giving players the ability to colonize the Americas. For some critics, like Ben Fritz, the game was 'offensive' since it allowed players to do "horrific things ... or whitewash some of the worst events of human history." Fritz wrote, "the idea that 2K and Firaxis and Sid Meier himself would make and release a game in the year 2008 that is not only about colonization, but celebrates it by having the player control the people doing the colonizing is truly mind boggling." Firaxis Games' president Steve Martin responded by pointing out how "the game does not endorse any particular position or strategy—players can and should make their own moral judgments." There was significant backlash against Fritz on online forums and blogs, with gameplayers talking about how colonization has always happened, and this is just realism. Others talked about how colonization and racism are two different things. Rebecca Mir and Trevor Owens write that "The game is undoubtedly offensive, but it would be impossible to create a value-free simulation of the colonial encounter.... if there is something regrettable about the game in its current state, it is that it is not offensive enough. While the game lets you do some rather evil things, those evil things are nevertheless sanitized versions of the events that actually took place in reality.' Ken White responded to Fritz's post, writing "Empire-building games always involve conflict — often violent — with other people, and the more sophisticated ones almost always depict stronger groups overcoming weaker groups. Many involve religious or cultural conversion of some sort. Many permit digital genocide, with your little nation of abstractions defeating another little nation of abstractions mercilessly.... While the graphics, gameplay detail, and level of abstraction vary widely, they all come down to build, manage, conquer, and destroy." Media theorist Alexander Galloway, in his book, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture argues about how these kinds of games are always an "ideological interpretation of history" or the "transcoding of history into specific mathematical models."
Effects and Applications
Video games have also had an effect on the ability of racial minorities to express their identities online in semi-protected environments. The extensive ability to modify users' avatars in some multiplayer games, such as Minecraft, allows players to alter their outer appearance in game to match their real life appearance as closely as they choose.
- List of black video game characters
- Indigenous people in video gaming
- Jynx: A Pokémon accused by some of representing a blackface caricature
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