Issues of race in gaming aren’t often discussed – but a study in the current issue of the New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia tackles the subject head-on.I am eagerly waiting for BioShock 3 (I have surrendered to the fact that I will have to upgrade my video card and finally jump to Windows 7). Thus, this new article on the racial discourse of online video games is very well-timed.
Kishonna L. Gray writes that in video-game culture, the default gamer is a white male. Those outside that privileged group are often marginalised, labelled ‘deviant’ and punished for their ‘deviance’. Women, ethnic minorities and people of colour are portrayed in a stereotypical manner, reinforcing notions of whiteness, blackness, racial hierarchies, masculinity and sexuality...
She uncovered disturbing patterns of behaviour and a space racialised by the profiling of non-white or non-male gamers by their speech. In particular, she found that some gamers picked up on linguistic cues from others that suggested they might be black. The black gamer would then be confronted about his colour and provoked by the use of racist slurs. Other gamers would often join in with the insults. The episode would end with one of the gamers leaving or being kicked out of the game, or the offended gamer retaliating with his own volleys of profanity and racist language.
[In my best NPR voice, our informal, random, few day fund-raising drive continues. If so inclined, and have some pennies or silver from your tax refund or found change from under the seat cushion, do throw a few into the begging bowl if you are feeling generous and would like to support We Are Respectable Negroes and Chauncey DeVega's various online efforts and mischief-making.]
We have discussed cyber racism several times on my own site We Are Respectable Negroes, as well as here on the Daily Kos.
The attitudes of the "real world" are often mirrored by the virtual world. In the most extreme cases, white nationalists have become increasingly adept at using online media to share their message with prospective members. In addition, the White Right has also begun creating websites on issues related to race and justice in order to disseminate disinformation to an unaware public, with a specific focus on young, impressionable, students.
As "Deviant bodies, stigmatized identities, and racist acts: examining the experiences of African-American gamers in Xbox Live" details, the colorblind day-to-day racism of the post civil rights era is also present in the chat rooms, lobbies, and in-game spaces of online video games. The theories which have been developed to critically interrogate and map colorblind racism, such as how it has moved from the "front stage" to the "back stage," involves "harmless" racial humor and jokes, and where white folks can use the common deflection "I am not racist because I didn't mean it that way" are all present in Kishonna Gray's findings:
Most worryingly, such racism appears to be ‘normalised’ in the Xbox Live sessions she observed, with offended users rarely complaining. When Gray confronted the gamers who used racist language, they categorically denied being racist. They further defended themselves by claiming it was ‘just a game’, that the words they used were meaningless or that they would use the same offensive terms to refer to white people...In total, Kishonna Gray has authored a very useful article, both in how it summarizes the growing literature on race, racial attitudes and cyberspace, as well as for the ways in which it connects empirical work to some of the core theories on racial formation in the post civil rights moment.
Gray concludes that much of this abuse occurs and is allowed to continue because of the mistaken belief that black people, women and minorities are not gamers; the games themselves continue to be created by and for white males. Until gaming changes considerably, it would appear that only white males can leave their real-world identities behind when they enter the virtual world of Xbox Live.
As someone who plays video games, "Deviant bodies, stigmatized identities, and racist acts: examining the experiences of African-American gamers in Xbox Live" inspires several thoughts and questions.
1. I do not play first person shooters as much as I once did. However, I am still a sucker for the Call of Duty franchise. I will also be buying Far Cry 3 at some point. I have noticed that racist language is much more common by players in those games than in other genres. Is this a function of how those games are ostensibly skewed towards younger players? If so, what does the frequent use of racist language there say about "post racial" America and young people's racial attitudes?
2. These questions of race and racial ideologies are not limited to first person shooters. Real time and turn based strategy games have also had to grapple with these issues. This is especially true of those games which are "historically" based.
I am a huge fan of the Total War series (when will we be treated to either a World War One or Crimean War expansion?).
One of its more recent installments, Empire: Total War, is set in the 18th and 19th centuries. Given its role in the era, the designers therefore had to include the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the project. How did they massage this game mechanic? The designers do not refer to slavery directly; instead, they allow players to set up very lucrative "trade routes" along the West African coast.
This is a practical business decision by the game designers as they do not want the controversy over the Maafa to overshadow Empire: Total War. But, were they also being intellectual cowards who could have had a "teachable moment" for players of the game? And what of the genocide of First Nations peoples? How do you model that in a game? Or is any effort just going to cheapen the real events?
Moreover, the ways that individual players choose to interact with those game mechanics is also very fascinating to me--for example, I decided to play a land based country because I have no interest in being a virtual slaver. Other players could care less, or alternatively see the trade profits from slavery as too great to resist if they want to win the game.
Which RTS or turn based strategy game do you think best deals with the ugly side of history as modeled by a game mechanic? The Civilization series perhaps?
3. Interestingly, I have seen very little if any racism in Starcraft 2 matches online. I have seen no small amount of it in Company of Heroes. Does the latter just attract white nationalist wannabe types because they can play virtual soldier in Hitler's army? Are the folks who play the former too intense to be distracted by typing racist foolishness?