Are you playing, or being Played?
Written by: J. Stokes – January 17, 2017
For years there has been talk of the negative impacts that certain video games can have on gamers. Of course there’s the whole “video games cause violent behaviors” debate, in which some strongly assert there is a link between violent video games and aggressive/vicious behavior (such as the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting) while others disagree:
Despite numerous claims and counterclaims, the violence seen in gaming is going nowhere soon. In fact, first person shooter video games such as Call of Duty reportedly represent a $5 billion market, played by millions of people every day. Therefore, we must ask ourselves if there is a more realistic problem with gaming that can be addressed. Thankfully there is.
Video games, for some time, have been guilty of perpetuating racial stereotypes about people of color. Some have even claimed that certain games are overtly racist. Despite this, however, a 2015 report from Pew Research Center found that the public is unsure if video games portray people of color (referred to as minorities) poorly. In fact, the survey showed that only nine percent of adults believed this to be the case. Research on racial stereotyping, specifically regarding Black video game characters, “has been shown to negatively influence players’ subsequent judgments of an unrelated Black individual” (Yang et al., 2014, p. 698).
This is extremely problematic given the fact that Blacks have a history of being negatively stereotyped in other outlets throughout American history. According to Ash (2016), “numerous studies have demonstrated that African Americans dominate the population of criminal suspects presented in media” (Ash, 2016, p. 424). The media, in general, has been shown to represent Blacks as criminal, often associating this group of people with gang violence, drugs, and other negative issues. We’ve previously written a post about the media’s tendency to group Blacks with unlawful behavior, which you can check out here.
Speaking of unlawful behavior, Yang et al. (2014) once conducted a study in regards to playing a violent video game as a Black avatar (not the movie or the last air bender…). This study consisted of two experiments. Experiment 1, which comprised 126 White university students (60 percent males), was meant to test the hypothesis that participants who play a violent video game using a Black avatar will increase “both implicit and explicit negative attitudes towards Blacks” (p. 699). Results proved this hypothesis to be true. In fact,
participants who played the violent version of the video game [Saints Row 2] as a Black avatar had stronger associations between Blacks and negative constructs, and had higher symbolic racism scores compared to all other participants and compared to participants who played the violent version of the game as a White avatar. (p. 699)
Experiment 2 of this study, which comprised 141 White university students (65 percent female), furthermore showed that playing violent video games using a Black avatar strengthened players’ attitudes that Blacks are violent, as well as influenced players to behave aggressively afterward.
Interestingly enough, this finding brings us back to the aforementioned discussion of video games causing violent behaviors. Could Yang et al.’s (2014) study be presenting more noteworthy evidence? We’ll leave that one alone. One thing is for certain, however. We may need to start paying more attention to how video games shape our reality of certain racial groups. Why is it that playing a violent video game as a Black character seems to affect the perceptions that Whites have on this demographic of people? Could the same be said for gamers of other racial/ethnic backgrounds?
A point could be made that video games have nothing to do with how gamers view certain racial/ethnic groups. After all, many popular violent video games have had a mix of characters from multiple backgrounds. Who can forget Mortal Kombat, Tekken, or the Grand Theft Auto (interesting title, ain’t it?) video game series? Each contains violent characters of differing racial/ethnic backgrounds. Also, one could say that outside media can be the true influencer of gamers’ perceptions of Blacks being violent or criminals.
Here lies the counterargument. Many claim that video games, like television, cinema, and other forms of media, do not showcase Blacks in a diverse way. When speaking on Black male characters in video games, some assert that while Black male characters are added for the sake of “diversity,” they are represented in a uniform manner.
Oddly enough, Blacks are among the largest consumers of gaming products. With this being the case, shouldn’t there be a wider range of Black characters made available? Freelance writer Sidney Fussell once stated in a 2015 article entitled “Video games without people of color are not ‘neutral’” that the video gaming industry commodifies whiteness and erases cultures as it invents a White monolith. In other words, video games usually fall victim to a White view of what Black people look like. Fussell has furthermore purported that when video games have attempted to explore other parts of the African diaspora (ex. Afro-Caribbean characters), thus moving away from characters seen as Black or African American (i.e. the decedents of slavery in the Americas), stereotyping still exists that may cause more harm than good. For example, Diablo 3’s Witch Doctor character, who is a dark skinned man or woman wearing tribal garb, and also summons zombie dogs and wields shrunken head fetishes in battle, is described by Fussell as being a caricature of Afro-Caribbean people and their practice of Voodoo.
Ultimately, it has been shown that video games do have an impact on gamers. Regarding the depiction of Black characters, it is extremely important that change occur. If not, Blacks could fall victim to dangerous encounters such as Lawrence Crosby, a Black man who was falsely accused of stealing his own car in October of 2015. Maybe the solution to issues surrounding Blacks and negative stereotypes perpetuated by video games could be for Black people or people of color to have a say in the overall gaming process. If people of color were incorporated in the manufacturing of video games, negative stereotyping and limited representation/diversity might not occur as much.
**Let us know what you thought about our blog post! Will you be looking at video games differently after today?
Ash, E. (2015). Priming or Proteus effect? Examining the effects of avatar race on in-game behavior and post-play aggressive cognition and affect in video games. Games and Culture, 1555412014568870.
Yang, G. S., Gibson, B., Lueke, A. K., Huesmann, L. R., & Bushman, B. J. (2014). Effects of avatar race in violent video games on racial attitudes and aggression. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1948550614528008.