Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Power of Play: The Portrayal and Performance of Race in Video Games

By Anna Everett

Introduction: Young People, Games, and Learning

Certain research suggests that video games affect children disproportionately, augmenting the incidence of childhood obesity (fueled by “addiction” and addictive tendencies), and strengthening gender socialization, poor academic scores, intensification of aggressive behavior, and, presumably, providing fortification for racial pseudo-identities, stereotypes, and racial perceptions (or presumptions).

The burning question on Everett’s mind is how do young people interact with videogames while (or through) learning about race and difference in the world? Everett’s “critical framework” pushes for an assessment of popular game titles, their maker’s intentions, and how they “reflect, influence, reproduce, and thereby teach dominant ideas about race in America” (Everett, 140).

Are video game player’s influenced by certain video game author’s perceptions about a certain racial group within certain contexts? Could the context itself provide an insight into the racial arguments made by said game author? With television media research having already provided a map for critics to assess the ghosts out of any burgeoning technology, all video games were up for inspection and consideration, or for the guillotine, correlated with a angered third party prosecutors.

That is, of course, why this article is meant to explore “how the shift to digital and more interactive forms of media influences how and what young people learn from race” (Everett 1). How certain can we be that the racial lessons impressionable children have learned from video games are the proper ones?

Though things may look bleak, despair not, for video games may have one largely redeeming quality—they have the potential to provide a superior educational platform and access to a tailor-made, more enriching learning environment. (BUT, one must remember to question what form of educational experience users will be experiencing? And investigate to what end the ‘teacher’ (video game console or software) is pointing the ‘student’ (video game player).

Do video game creators reflect societal standards or are they creating a demand that didn’t exist before they overtly fell down the slippery-slope of sexually explicit and gratuitously violent content. Certainly, the underlying premise of Oregon Trail was that Indians were the enemies, and that people had to wrangle their wagons into circles to keep the enemies out at night. Does this not reflect the dominant ideas surrounding race relations between Caucasian, Anglo-Saxon people and Native American. Is not the underlying premise that the winners write the history and this effects feelings towards certain racial groups?

Racial perceptions take root at a young age. Anna Everett points to research indicating that from the age of five, children have often already formed strong opinions about race and differences between people. “Racial narratives “are “representations [of] belief systems” that follow the same line of logic that keeps “sexist and misogynistic constructs” afloat. Moreover, racial narratives have been largely overshadowed by the general portrayal of the woman as a sex object, prizes, and stereotypes. As the struggle for woman equality has more often then not followed a similar trail to that of the African American, so too is their portrayal often misguided.

Learning Race & Portraying Eace: Urban/Street Games, etc.

“Richly detailed and textured urban landscapes” provide a familiar setting for inner city children to learn and assess, from a safe gaming environment, the perks and pitfalls of living in the city. This type of game performs a crucial academic function—grounding the game in reality. These games blow GTA out of the water in their ability to put the gamer in situations relevant to actual life. Rather than dealing drugs as a Russian immigrant in America (the game makers holding desperately onto that day watched Scarface and got really excited) and deal with powerful, persistent and problematic lessons about race in American culture” (Everett, 142)

Grand Theft Auto – GTA
Key- “GTA teaches dominant attitudes and assumptions about race and racial otherness through what we term ‘racialized pedagogical zones’ (RPZs)”

From Mario to the Godfather
The use of racially marked characters is a relatively new occurrence. Mario represents the first major racially identified (Italian) character marked by some stereotypical attributes, and the common misconception that all Italians like squishing mushrooms with their butts. Based on the fact that Shigeru Miyamoto, the Japanese creator of Mario is, well. Japanese, one could expect that some archetypal images and borderline stereotypes made it into the game design, such as Mario’s love of pizza and pasta—but who doesn’t like pizza, really? The Godfather: The Game represents a much more blunt example of negative Italian-American stereotypes.

Despite the plethora of options to work with, racial depictions remain regrettably narrow. Evidence in testament to this is 50 Cents Bullet Proof. These misconceived plots steer societal perceptions toward fulfilling the prophecy selected for them by the media. As soon as every black male wants to be 50 Cent, a whole century of civil rights work will be seriously damaged.

Urban street games, however, represent a movement in the right direction. With culturally specific cities as the playing field, players learn important lessons about race and urban culture. These games are meant to “capture the cultural sensibilities of particular racial and ethnic group’s world experience.” A sense of “perceptual” and ‘social’ realism us crucial to the success of this conception of gaming.

Characters continue to be predominantly white in video games. Black characters generally play the more stereotypical version of African American’s—an athlete, a violent man, a gunman, etc. Most of the time black and Latino males are secondary characters. In newer, better urban street games, “designers strive for greater cultural authenticity, the spatial environment itself, where the characters live, play, fight and compete, also becomes a culturally specific location that animates ideas about race, class, and gender” (Everett, 145)..

In these urban street games, one must master a set of skills, technical (navigation, etc.) and cultural (subject matter and game play). NBA Ballers represents a vise city of sorts in which basketball players must learn how to balance life in the fast lane and on the court. Moreover, African American females still represent the most victimized group in games. This, of course, does not compliment the misogynistic portrayal of many women in games. Urban street games give the power back to the women and to the African American community. The loopholes that the urban street game industry will have to jump through include first-person shooter games that portray minorities as brutal or violent, and “fantasy-driven notions of black masculinity “ (Everett, 149). The ultimate goal is to produce a platform for “technologically mediated notions of race.” (DISCUSSSION question: does a notion so subjective render it dangerous to manufacture or program into gamers through gaming?)

GTA Reconsidered
RPZs – Racialized Pedagogical Zones – Chess as an example: is there any reason why white always gets to move first? It represents a double edged sword—video games as tools for teaching about acceptance and as tools for hate speech. It remains common to have the “super predator black male stereotype” terrorizing the ‘hood’ on any number of games—e.g. 50 Cent. The violence found in these games, similar to GTA, have a tendency to push for the values and attitudes of a “larger social structure” (Everett, 155). And what if a gamer wants a white Avatar while they only come in black, is that a legitimate gripe (as some GTA players grumbled)? This is an interesting question to consider. From the digital divide (and the lack of home computers in the inner city) to the uneven portrayal of black and other minority characters, it is interesting to dedicate time to assessing the effects of video games on children in comparison to depictions of minority groups.

The Brighter Side? Pedagogical Value

“What matters most to our inquiry, is the fact that video games teach—they are pedagogical—and that ‘what we’re learning from them bears no resemblance whatsoever to what we think we’re learning’…the video game playground on- and offline too often replicates racist attitudes, values, and assumptions found in larger social structures.” Boy culture was centered around division, rivalry and conflict. The “descriptive trifecta of nonwhite as uneducated and poor, etc. also pervades video game atmospheres. The digital divide also renders inner city kids with access only to gaming consoles, stunting their ability to do more difficult computer related tasks.
Any discussion of games in the future should consider two perspectives:
(1) Must continue to act like watchdogs over racial content making it into video games, including research, etc.
(2) These discussions should consider more closely the educational opportunities that present themselves in terms of video games.


Eric M said...

There definitely is a wide range of topics covered here, but I'll focus on the portrayal in NBA Ballers since I've had a little experience playing this game. Marlon pointed out that the game focuses on you trying to manage your mansions, women, fast cars and jewelry. I don't know about anyone else who has played, but what drew me to the game wasn't that it was about the "bling bling" so to speak, but rather the basketball aspect of the game. Whether that be because I'm caucasian, I'm not sure. But I do see the theme that the game brings to the table of starting out with nothing and rising upward through society by buying houses and having women. I think that the game tries to appeal to the urban culture with this theme, but for me, it wasn't a selling point. Also, whether this game taught me anything is debatable since I was old enough to kind of know what they were getting at, but to the younger players, this game may have an effect on how the kids think about women and getting out of the urban plight so to speak.

Adrian said...

The question of 'forcing' avatars into non-privileged positions has an easy answer to me:

In our culture, given the lack of heterogenous representation of imagery in media, I have little sympathy for those that want the option, yet again, of being a white guy. If, at some point, we are seeing a less homogenous "all white guys, nearly all the time" representation in our various media, at THAT point, I will begin to not roll my eyes. But we're far from that point.

Nick S said...

I just read this article in J201...haha

I always think its silly when people attack games for having some realistic factors. For example in GTA VC, the city is similar to Miami. If you go to the slums of Miami you'll probably see somethings and people similar to whats in the game. Any educated person realizes that its just a game and those who get offended by it...come on.

I think the quote in the article by Paul Gonza really puts it well, "Haitians have been protesting GTA, calling it racist...Besides, the game portrays everyone negatively regardless of race, ethnicity, and so forth. I mean, "hello, its called grand theft auto!!!"

Marlon Heimerl said...

Are stereotypes in games such as GTA about gender and race (women as sex objects and minorities as criminals and vagrants) unique to video games or is this just a repeat of 120 or so years (giver or take a decade) of communication and technological innovation and growth?

From the Kinetoscope to the peap-show, from the telophone to the naughty 1-800 number, from the internet to one of her largest industries (porno) and from James Bond movies to Blazing Saddles, certainly these same misconceptions about sex and race existed long before video games.

Sarah. R. said...

Sure they did, but that is no reason to not question and problematize them. Furthermore, I'd question the veracity of the Miami portrayed in GTA: Vice City. Sure, it's "Miami," in the same way the Miami of "Miami Vice" was real. So unless you think a vice cop can afford to live on a sailboat and drive a Ferari, then you probably need to think about what you mean by real here. "Vice City" is a pastiche of a pastiche, a caricature of a caricature. There is very little that is real about it. That may be okay, or it may not be, depending on your perspective, but I personally believe it is critical to keep that in mind.

Jon72585 said...

There is a lot of controversy coming up in regards to a recent trailer for the next Resident Evil game. In it the trailer, a white character is shown in military gear shooting at and running from swarms of what appear to be African zombies. Since the controversy has come up, a new trailer is out where more of the zombies have lighter skin. Also, the makers of the game have made sure to put out a statement saying that the white character is not the only playable one, but that there's also an African American woman who players will control. I'm not sure how that helps...but it is interesting that it is the way they try to quell racial tensions over the game.

Jasun said...

While I agree with the view taken by Sarah (and really love the "caricature of a caricature" line) I have to admit I wonder what the desired outcome of these complaints would result in. Would all forms of entertainment be forced to justify the race/ethnicity of the antagonist? would the only characters to be portrayed negatively be nazi baby-killers with greenskin and no accent? That's one of the major concerns I have with this argument: the lack of resolution proposed by any party that doesn't in turn create a caricature of a caricature of a different group.

Anonymous said...

Every stereotype that GTA San Andreas puts forth were ones that I had already encountered. I began playing the game as soon as it was released which would make me 16 at the time. So it makes me ask this question...Where did I learn all those stereotypes? My guess, TV. If that is infact the case, then educating about filtering what content is applicable outside of the game and what is just there fore the game's sake. Maybe if people made it more clear that subcultures exist within certain races/clines then some controversey could be resolved, though it will never cease. And while GTA San Andreas may get attacked for its portrayal of African American, the whole dynasty of GTA has always had different main characters of different race and backgrounds.

Evan Reiser said...

very cool post!

Any interest in syndicating your blog on We're gonna for a few featured bloggers in gaming, so maybe we can help drive a bit of traffic.

Message me here