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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.

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.

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.

[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...

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.

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.

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?

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Comment Preferences

  •  um.. ever play World of Warcraft? (8+ / 0-)

    the vitriolic spew that hits those chat rooms for a game involving cartoonish Panda characters, pet battles and a panda-version of Farmville is enough to turn your stomach.

    I used to play on the #1 server in the US and real-world issues wound up taking out a lot of our guild members to the point where we disbanded so I, an accomplished player with the verifiable stats and gear to prove it was on the hunt for a new guild.

    I used to play a lot more hardcore so I was only looking at some of the top guilds and found one that actually needed a player with a character class that I play.  They told me to apply on their website.  

    This is no big deal, most guilds have a web site where they chat and post pictures and stuff.. and applications are the norm.  There are questions like "How long have you been playing?"  ... "How many nights can you commit to raiding?" ... "Are you willing to change classes or spec if the Guild needs it for progression?"  .. "Please provide a link to your character so we can see" and very often a yes/no question where you have to affirm you've read the "Guild Charter".

    Most guild charters are pretty standard. A lot of them are about "We do not allow any drama within the guild."  "We're all here to have fun."  "We have many players of many different skill levels", "Here are rules we use to divide up loot",. etc

    So I get to that question and I click the link

    The first line... I SHIT YOU NOT.. the very first line of this web page document was "We are a mature guild.  If you don't think jokes about ni**er cock are funny, this is not the guild for you."

    I took that as an irrefutably true statement and closed the window.

    Красота спасет мир --F. Dostoevsky

    by Wisper on Wed Mar 20, 2013 at 02:24:28 PM PDT

  •  Really interesting diary -- thanks (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Oaktown Girl, cynndara, Tonedevil

    Especially at a time when the dominant discourse is about the violence of video games, it's important to hear about issues of race and video game culture.

    Suppose we only halved the death rates, both homicide and suicide, from guns? That's 15,000 lives / year we would save. ~teacherken

    by GreenMtnState on Wed Mar 20, 2013 at 02:27:17 PM PDT

  •  I don't play video games, but I am online (5+ / 0-)

    a lot on blogs like this. What I've noticed from the first day I had internet access at home and could participate in the online community is this: the default mode of online behavior and communication is White Male.

    Even though certainly not all White males are the same, there's a very distinct default mode of interacting and communicating that is fairly universal except on those sites which are smaller and expressly liberal and openly advocate "tolerance".  I suppose this is because when the internet first got going, it was mostly accessible to White males. But on the other hand, the (straight) White male normative default stance is everywhere in our culture.

    In any event, I learned early that if you "expose" yourself as non-White male by what you say or your manner of communicating, you open yourself to pretty severe personal attacks, up to and including online threats and stalking. It severely curtails the kinds of discussions we have with each other because minorities and women are forced into self-censoring and/or finding sites where they are not the minority.

    If "elitist" just means "not the dumbest motherfucker in the room", I'll be an elitist! - David Rees from "Get Your War On".

    by Oaktown Girl on Wed Mar 20, 2013 at 03:00:49 PM PDT

    •  this is not our/your space. there is a whole (5+ / 0-)

      issue their with "geek" and nerd culture too which directly overlaps online spaces who was privileged to be there first. we forget that a basic pc back in the day was thousands of dollars.

      race and class directly impact the culture that spawned from that.

    •  Especially if you're good. (0+ / 0-)

      My partner was a fanatical CounterStrike player in her early teens, and a very good sniper, a position that tends to frustrate its victims in any case -- but some of the reactions she got were volcanic. If you think that some male gamers are rude to women in general, you can imagine how they behave after a thirteen-year-old girl has shot them in the head five times in a row, and they still have no idea where she is. Let's just say they weren't very good losers.

      She still plays Team Fortress 2, and has told me that it's a good deal easier now to be known as a woman. She's also met openly gay players who were not being harassed. It depends a great deal on the culture of the server you're playing on, and the attitude of the admins. If they automatically ban people who harass women and call people fags, it stops pretty quickly. Xbox Live is a notorious sewer when it comes to tolerance and maturity, so it may be a bit misleading to draw broad conclusions from experiences there.

      "They smash your face in, and say you were always ugly." (Solzhenitsyn)

      by sagesource on Wed Mar 20, 2013 at 09:29:22 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Interesting insights. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Tonedevil, Larsstephens

    As a white, female, non-gamer (at least, since college D&D), this is all new information to me.  I am however very interested in how our fantasies and mundane personae interact to allow learning that would not be possible within the limits of our ordinary lives to affect our long-term personalities.  I am also familiar with the use of racist jokes and internet correspondence among acknowledged white supremacists, and these developments are disturbing.  Thank-you for the snap update.

    •  There is some great work out there (0+ / 0-)

      about the online world and identity issues. There is reader on World of Warcraft with some good essays that you may find of interest.

      •  An interesting new study.... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        cynndara

        ....about violence/excitement and video games here.

        The researchers found that it was not the degree of violence in a game that made players more aggressive, but the presence of competition against other human players. For instance, the extremely violent zombie-survival game Left 4 Dead, where all the players are on the same side and the game forces them to cooperate, does not make its players behave in a more aggressive manner towards other human beings in the real world, even as a transient effect.

        "They smash your face in, and say you were always ugly." (Solzhenitsyn)

        by sagesource on Wed Mar 20, 2013 at 09:17:58 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Fascinating. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          sagesource

          Also reassuring.  My apprentices have been playing a lot of the Left4Dead or something similar lately, and the violence appalled me.  But it IS actually fairly cooperative -- the real-people players work together to kill zombies and guard each other's backs.  These kids seem not only to have fun but to learn a lot from their gaming in terms of social organizing and cooperation, as they rarely play entirely alone, even in "solo" contexts, and when the challenge is purely one of joystick/motor coordination, I have seen them switch back and forth to allow the one who has the best control in any particular task complete it.

          I do wonder, however, how these virtual-world experiences shape the reactions and expectations of persons younger than myself.  With all the games in circulation, it seems that game designers are probably having a major impact on how people approach problem-solving as well as social issues.  And I wonder if and how much that impacts "real-world" experience and action.

          •  Left 4 Dead.... (0+ / 0-)

            .....was deliberately designed to be a game in which if you don't cooperate, you're toast. Lone wolves simply don't survive; for one thing, many of the zombie attacks incapacitate you and you are certain to be killed if you don't have a teammate's help. If you are playing at advanced difficulty, losing even one of your four teammates can doom your chances of making it to the end of the level, so you are compelled by your own self-interest, if nothing else, to keep your eye on them at all times and share resources.

            "They smash your face in, and say you were always ugly." (Solzhenitsyn)

            by sagesource on Thu Mar 21, 2013 at 11:27:35 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

      •  Do you have (0+ / 0-)

        any more information about this reader?  I'm afraid if I just google World of Warcraft I'll have thousands of irrelevant hits.

  •  I loathe online gaming. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Larsstephens

    Although as a straight white guy from Kansas, it's really my only opportunity to get called a n*** f**. I dunno, did Brokeback Mountain spawn a new stereotype?

  •  This is all so far over my head that I think I'll (0+ / 0-)

    come back in my next life and see how much of it I can understand.

    Sort of interesting, though!

    There can be no protection locally if we're content to ignore the fact that there are no controls globally.

    by oldpotsmuggler on Wed Mar 20, 2013 at 08:06:15 PM PDT

  •  There are some interesting complexities there.... (0+ / 0-)

    Take the immensely popular Team Fortress 2 by Valve Software,  for example. A Team Fortress 2 team is made up of nine separate character types, each with a particular specialty, to force gamers to work together. Each of the character types is also an over-the-top caricature, often based on ethnic or national stereotypes: the Engineer looks and talks as if he stepped out of a Texas oilfield, the Heavy is a potbellied, sentimental Russian with a thick accent, the Medic is a tall, lantern-jawed, blue-eyed academic type with a German accent, the Sniper is a lanky Australian with speech and behavior to match, the Spy is a slippery Frenchman interested in sex as well as murder, and so on and so forth.....

    Seven of the nine team members are white males. One has never had either race or gender revealed  (the Pyro, wielding a flamethrower and completely masked by protective gear). And one is black.... the Demoman, whose specialty is blowing things up.

    I suspect they came to a screeching halt for a while at Valve while they did the calculations on this. It would obviously be unacceptable to have every member of the team white. But every member of the team is also a broadly drawn caricature being played for laughs, which might be... um.... a bit delicate to handle with a black character.

    Solution? The Demoman remained black, but his home was shifted, of all places, to Scotland. He was then kitted out with a set of Scottish stereotypes turned up to 11, including the habit of going into battle drunk, with an open bottle of whiskey as his melee weapon. (As one player remarked to me when the game was still new, "Wouldn't you know it, one black guy on the team and they've got him swinging a cracked 40.") Problem solved, at least from Valve's standpoint. You get the black guy, you get to laugh at the black guy (as you laugh at all the other character types), but you don't laugh at him for anything remotely connected with his being black.

    "They smash your face in, and say you were always ugly." (Solzhenitsyn)

    by sagesource on Wed Mar 20, 2013 at 09:07:32 PM PDT

    •  lordie, easy out or smart move? (0+ / 0-)
      •  It reminds me a bit.... (0+ / 0-)

        .....of the way racism is acknowledged but displaced in many video games. For instance, in Skyrim one of the Ten Races is black, the Redguards. But there is no prejudice against them. Instead, the targets of prejudice are the two so-called "beast races," the feline Khajiit, who are mainly itinerant traders, and the reptilian Argonians, who usually get stuck doing the shit work. At least one of the major cities in Skyrim won't allow either Khajiit or Argonians through its gates, and the Argonians have a recent history of being raided and trades as slaves by some of the other races.

        Gender and sexuality gets much the same tiptoe-around-the-edges treatment. For instance, again in Skyrim, you can get married to someone of your own gender, and no one bats an eye. But if you do, you'll be the only gay or lesbian couple in the whole game -- none of the NPCs you meet are in same-sex relationships. This leaves society in the odd situation of approving something that its members never seem to do themselves.

        "They smash your face in, and say you were always ugly." (Solzhenitsyn)

        by sagesource on Thu Mar 21, 2013 at 01:03:24 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  An especially intriguing point you bring (0+ / 0-)

    up toward the end is the educational potential of games that the industry could/should explore further. Not that they'd be hot sellers, but still. I do not play video games but am fascinated watching when younger folks do it. The interactive aspect and higher quality of the audio and video I've seen the few times I seen gamers play over the last couple of years is amazing. I do know that video games are being used in some programs to help Iraq/Afghanistan war vets to problem-solve and transition through PTSD and back into the classroom. The project I observed was at East Carolina University.

    Are interactive videos being used in other educational settings using interactive features to allow kids to "explore" historical topics? Clearly they can be used to entertain and, perhaps, to promote miseducation, based on some of the negative stuff you describe. I'd be interested in an exploration of that topic. Thank you.

    I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake. ― Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

    by dannyboy1 on Thu Mar 21, 2013 at 07:12:40 AM PDT

    •  I have heard about the ptsd work (0+ / 0-)

      there are also some other aspects too that are much like the book Ender's Game where military projects are being crowd sourced to players, especially young ones, as a "game." Frightening.

      •  That sounds not like the kind of education (0+ / 0-)

        I'd be hoping for. I was thinking more along the lines of virtual history exploration or even interaction with historical figures, that kind of thing. Teachers use role play in history. A virtual environment could work the same or even better in some cases, I'd think.

        I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake. ― Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

        by dannyboy1 on Thu Mar 21, 2013 at 10:42:36 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

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