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Race in video games: Are game makers socially responsible on racial issues?

By Scott Tibbs, December 13, 2010

The machine-gun toting protagonists of Contra are "all-American" white males, killing legions of enemy soldiers, monsters and robots on the way to repelling an alien invasion. By contrast, the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a black man in a 1990's Los Angeles street gang environment, participating in drive-by shootings against the rival "Ballas" gang and working with other black and Hispanic men to increase the territory of the "Grove Street" gang.

Are video games portraying racial minorities in a socially responsible manner? One could argue the answer, for the most popular games at least, is "no." San Andreas was the top selling game of 2004. Other than sports games, comparable games in the top ten included Halo, Halo 2 and Spider-Man 2. In Marvel Comics' officially licensed adaptation of Halo, the protagonist is a white male. (Marvel.com) Spider-Man is also a white male. Carl Johnson is the lone black male in the top ten, and he is a stereotypical 1990's street thug.

The portrayal of minorities in video games is underscored by the fact that games are overwhelmingly white and male. Primary leads in video games are 89.5% male and 85% white. (New Scientist, 09/22/2009) Since black males are underrepresented and Hispanic males are almost nonexistent, is it socially responsible for the biggest selling game of the year to present a black man in such a negative light?

At least black men exist in video games. Of female characters, the landscape is almost exclusively white. "I don't know how black people breed in these worlds," says Morgan Gray, producer of Tomb Raider. (MTV.com, 4/8/2008)

Other black characters in video games have also sparked criticism for being racially insensitive. One such character is Cole Train from Gears of War. Gray said that while Cole Train on his own is not harmful, it is the trend he represents that is the problem. "Cole Train is basically like every other effin' black character in a video game. Like here comes the urban stereotype," Gray said in an interview. (MTV.com, 4/8/2008) Gray also criticized the developers for using stereotypical 1990's street slang for Cole Train's dialogue, which does not fit in a futuristic environment.

It is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, though, that has sparked the most criticism of the way blacks are portrayed in video games. One of the reason for this is the disproportionate exposure blacks have to games. Black youths play video games an average of 90 minutes per day, over 30 minutes more than the average white youth. Because blacks play video games much more than whites, "it stands to reason that Blacks are the most negatively effected" by the images of blacks as thugs or criminals. (Black Voices 2/7/2007) If your race is always portrayed as killers and thieves, then that reinforces that image as how you should be, or that is the predominant feature of your race.

Video games are part of the wider culture, and influence and are influenced by that culture. The stereotyping of inner city black men as thugs and gangsters also feeds into racist stereotypes in the culture. "Whites see Blacks and Latinos as criminals," wrote Richard Jones, which then influences the perception of black youths of themselves and their peers. (Black Voices 2/7/2007)

Gray argues that games setting blacks as criminals is more relevant because of the cultural context. San Andreas is a concern "because it's basically what people think black people are." (MTV.com, 4/8/2008) While Grand Theft Auto III portrayed the lead character as an Italian "Mafioso" gangster, there is no longer a cultural perception of all Italians as being players in the Mafia, Gray said. San Andreas, on the other hand, reinforces existing cultural stereotypes and biases that judge young black and Latino men as criminals. These games are too close to the hip-hop era, both in rap music and movies that portrayed the same stereotypes, Gray argues.

Gray's statement about whites associating violent crime with blacks is backed up by statistical analysis. When participants in a study by Penn State University were asked to reconstruct the facial features of a suspect in accounts of a violent crime, they selected facial features for the suspects that "featured more pronounced African American" features, especially if the story was about violent crime. Furthermore, participants in the study readers "appeared largely unaware of their associations of violent crime with the physical characteristics of African Americans," indicating how ingrained the stereotypes are. (Black Issues in Higher Education, 6/17/2010) This raises questions about the social responsibility of creating games where the primary character is a black gangster.

The black lead character of San Andreas as a racial stereotype raises some concerns when compared to the overtly racist games used as propaganda by white supremacist groups. Resistance Records released a gamed titled Ethnic Cleansing in 2002, two years before San Andreas was released by RockStar Games. Like San Andreas, the game featured ethnically stereotyped black and Latino characters, as well as Jewish characters. The goal of the game was much different, since the protagonist was a white male stalking urban streets and subway tunnels committing mass murder against minorities.(CNET, 02/21/2002) While San Andreas is certainly not overtly racist or meant to be Nazi propaganda, the fact that it relies on racial stereotypes can be seen as a disturbing parallel.

While Ethnic Cleansing was meant as white supremacist propaganda, other games not intended to be racist were nonetheless criticized as such. In 2008, Resident Evil 5 stirred up a firestorm of controversy when the main protagonist was a white male mowing down hordes of blacks charging him in an African village. Gamers quickly rose to the defense of the game, arguing that the subject matter was killing zombies, not killing blacks. Gray said that the game was "absolutely not racist" because it is to be expected that black zombies would exist in a place where the population is predominantly black. (MTV,com 4/8/2008)

An interesting contrast to the outrage over a white protagonist killing black enemies is the racial makeup of modern first-person shooters. Thomas Ricks compares the controversy created by Resident Evil 5 to the lack of protest over "games like Delta Force or Bad Company" where the player kills scores of insurgents or terrorists who are entirely of Middle Eastern origin. (ForeignPolicy.com, 4/15/2010) In games like America's Army, players take the role of "the good guy" and their opponents appear to be "an Arab with a ski mask and shemagh." This provides an interesting parallel to debates over racial profiling as a means of screening for terrorists.

As racial issues are examined and discussions of how to present minorities in a socially responsible manner become more prominent, the racial makeup of people making the games becomes an issue as well. It is commonplace for white game designers to be writing a character that is a black urban stereotype. Gray said that San Andreas is the only Grand Theft Auto game he did not complete because he became weary of hearing the word "nigger" written by "a bunch of white cats" and placed into the dialogue of black characters. (MTV.com, 4/8/2008)

One part of the solution to the treatment of minorities in games is for more blacks to get involved in designing video games, so that blacks themselves are writing black characters. About eighty percent of game designers are white, four percent are Latino and less than three percent are black. In the aftermath of the popular following of "thug" games such as San Andreas, National Public Radio host Mario Armstrong formed the Urban Video Game Academy with two black colleagues with the goal of changing this and influencing more positive portrayals of minorities in games. (MSNBC, 8/5/2005)

The institute was formed at the May 2005 Electronic Entertainment Expo in May, and then went on to hold workshops in Baltimore, Atlanta and Washington D.C. to teach young blacks the basics of game design. "There are good people in the ghetto," said John Saulter, founder of one of the few black-owned video game companies, Entertainment Arts Research. Saulter hopes games will portray more positive inner-city black role models rather than relying on the "gangster" stereotype.

Journalist N'Gai Croal agrees that more visible minority representation in video game design would be helpful for black youths seeking to break into the industry. Croal told MTV that having Spike Lee as a prominent black filmmaker was a powerful influence on him, and he has gotten letters from black youths saying that seeing his picture in journalism has been an inspiration to them. "Visibility is definitely a part of what would boost people's interest in games," Croal said. (MTV.com, April 7, 2008)

What has led to the lack of minority representation on video game design? Economics has played a role, according to Croal. Given the economic disparity between blacks and whites that dates back to blacks being prohibited from owning real property, it is difficult for someone's family to support him if he is going into an entry-level position in the video game industry (such as game tester) that pays poorly. (MTV.com, April 7, 2008)

Even if more minorities are represented as video game programmers, it is rare for programmers (minority or not) to rise through the ranks and reach a position where they are making decisions about what games do and do not make it to the market. The people making those decisions have been in the industry for two decades, and have "never been outside a middle-America environment." (CNET.com, March 24, 2002)

Demographically, the United States will reach a point over the next 40 years where minorities will make up the majority of the US population. (CBS News, March 10, 2010) For video game makers, this means that representations of minorities in video games will need to become both more racially diverse and present minorities in a less stereotypical manner, in order to continue to appeal to the widest range of people possible. Can the video game industry meet this challenge?

They will need to be. As the United States inevitably becomes much more ethnically and racially diverse, a larger and larger portion of the video game market will be consumed by not only blacks and Latinos, but other races as well. Video games are no longer a "toy" but are a genuine hobby, and the age of the average gamer has increased significantly over the past 20 years. Just like other industries, the video game industry will need to reach out to minorities and to think more carefully about what games go to market and the way racial issues are represented in those games. The video game industry still needs to catch up to other entertainment media, including music and movies, in the manner it presents racial issues and racial stereotypes.

Gamers themselves, used to reflexively defending their hobby that is often misrepresented in the mainstream media, also need to turn a more critical eye to their entertainment of choice and pressure game makers to present racial issues in a more balanced manner while avoiding tactics that will stifle creativity and innovation in game play.

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