When most people think about race, they do not think about video games; they think about skin color, accents, different food and dress, and people that come from another country. Government and political authorities use it to define geography and nation. Yet video games allow us to think about race in a different way and it becomes obvious that race is not simply based on biologic and cultural determinism; rather “race…is also a category that sets the terms of belonging and exclusion within modern institutions” (Ferguson 3). Some of that belonging and exclusion is included in the video games that we use for entertainment and socializing in our society. Video games are used as representation of how our culture is viewed and idealized. The characters and plot of these games contain extra racial content or lack thereof, which more specifically points out our culture’s values pertaining to race, shows how we define our culture, and portrays what is considered important in our society today. Some of these things involve; setting the standard of the “ideal race” in America, illustrating what races are not as accepted as others, and also showing what stereotypes are given to some of these races that are not as accepted in America.
The representation of race in video games can be defined as a sort of “cybertyping.” Lisa Nakamura explains that “cybertyping is the process by which computer/human interfaces, the dynamics and economics of access, and the means by which users are able to express themselves online interacts with the ‘cultural layer’ or ideologies regarding race that they bring with them into cyberspace” (3). Nakamura talks about this idea that people form an opinion or ideal about race through culture and bring that into cyberspace, whether through video games or chatting. That is in-turn how cybertyping is created; through the sense that online users express these opinions and ideals that are learned through their culture in the online realm. Examples of this relation between the outside world and online could be a person’s character or avatar in a game. The racial ideals portrayed in the culture influences how that person creates their character. If that person wants their character to be Asian, then he/she will pick characteristics that he/she believes are Asian-like based upon what he/she has learned through his/her cultural lifestyle. This sort of correlation seems to make the racial ideals portrayed in both video games and the “real world” run full circle; each relies on each other in a sort of sense. In order for the online realm to portray racial ideals, those ideals have to be introduced by someone from the “outside” someone who lives in the culture and places the cultural ideals and specifics in the chat rooms or video games.
In order for video games to connect to the “real world” there needs to be an understanding of fantasy. Video games, though many are very realistic, fit into this fantasy realm, and although race is a term we use in the “real world” it also plays a huge role in this realm. Race provides a way for people to understand and grasp the full value of video games and what they have to offer: “How can one truly understand fantasy, violence, gender roles, plot, narrative, game playability, virtual realities, and the like without examining race, racism, and/or racial stratification-simply put, one cannot” (Leonard 84). Race within a culture is deeper than what is seen on the outside; it is a way to analyze and it acts as a sort of portal into our culture. When you define race you have to take into account all the other definitions that make up race, such as ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. For example, the ideal race in America is White, but not just White: a White male, who is masculine, handsome, heterosexual, successful, smart, and married. This is what our culture defines as success, as power, as superlative. Because of this sense of ideal, the want to “belong” in this category is extremely great in our culture since there is such an immense advantage to being in this category. These advantages can include a better job, more money, higher reputation, and popularity. These are the exact racial logics that appear in video games.
These fantasy video games have the ability to portray significant values and stereotypes that explain why certain race(s) do or do not “belong” in our culture. They also show specific racial logics, which also outline our culture’s sense of belonging; therefore, this fantasy “depends on appropriating human culture and that means building off of human stereotypes” (Thudfactor). Some of these stereotypes are shown in more obvious ways than others. For example, the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas shows some of these stereotypes in an obvious way: “San Andreas features an array of Black and Latino men, all with braids, bandanas, and guns. The game allows players to form gangs to rob, commit drive-by shootings, and even rape” (Leonard 84). The content in this one game alone shows how our culture stereotypes and views Black and Latino males. They are stereotyped as being common criminals accused of drive-by shootings and robbery. This stereotype is discussed frequently as people talk about “the hood,” a poverty ridden area in populated cities where, stereotypically, many Blacks reside. Race and crime are viewed as one in the same in this case, explaining how it has become the most dangerous part of town. The typecast of crime and danger makes people cower in fear of the whole race when, in actuality, there is only a portion of the Black and Latino race that is actually committing the crimes that are stereotypically mentioned. Therefore the stereotype hovering over them rules how our culture accepts them and includes them in our ideals. These ideals are formed through this sort of inclusion and exclusion factor. The stereotype of Black and Latino men as criminal is the only thing included in this game, shown through the only choices of actions their characters can make (shooting, robbing, raping, etc). However, by creating this type of inclusion, there is an exclusion of the potential for these races to be anything else. This sort of representation creates different categories of belonging in our culture. Black and Latino men therefore “belong” in the category of criminal. White, the ideal race in America, belongs in the category of good.
Since the ideal race in our culture is a White male following all of the characteristics mentioned above, it comes to no surprise that in the vast majority of video games, “More than 50% of player-controlled characters are White males; less than 40% of game characters are Black…rounding out this multiracial playground are Latino characters, which amount to 5%, 3% for Asian/Pacific Islander, and none for multiracial and Native Americans” (Leonard 84). Not only are these percentages reflective of how we view the importance, standings, or value of certain race in our culture, but each ethnic group has a certain stereotypical significance in these games. The majority of Black characters appear as athletic competitors, Latino characters are involved in all sports, and Asian/Pacific islanders are usually wrestlers and fighters (Leonard). These are the specifics that are included in these video games and because the inclusion of Latinos being fighters or Black characters being athletes is so pushed, the exclusion of the possibility that they could be any other type of character is ignored. This relates to cybertyping because the characters created by different players have become cybertypes themselves. People have included specific details about their character or avatar based on what they have experienced through culture and included that in the making of the game.
It is also important to note that the ideal race includes the gender of male; the gender of female no matter White as the ideal man or not, is still not considered the ideal race that acts as the default in our culture. This is portrayed in the statistics of female characters in video games, “73% of player-controlled characters are male, with less than 15% being female” (84). The lack of equality in the difference of race in male characters is even worse in female characters where, “Almost 80% of female player-controlled characters are White… with less than 10% African American, 7% Asian/Pacific Islander, less than 1% Native American, and absolutely no Latinas” (84). These statistics are astounding, yet shockingly accurate as to the way our culture is defined. These are the types of race that are raced, meaning that White has become the natural/ideal race making the others seen as different and they therefore are raced in a particular way meaning that they “do not belong.”
Another game that portrays the values of race that we have in our culture is World of Warcraft. The characters are divided into two groups, the Alliance and the Horde, and are made to be seen as different as they speak in different accents. The Alliance group is seen as the good group, the ones in the light. These characters can be similarly compared to the White, Asian, Scottish and Jewish populations here in the West. The Horde group is viewed as evil and dark. The characters in this group fit into the views of African/American Black, Caribbean, antihuman, and Native Americans. All of these characters that are included in the Horde group are related to the types of race that are more looked down on in our society; more or less comparable to the Black and Latino men in San Andreas who are seen as criminals. This game not only has specific details about these populations, such as eye shape, skin color, hair style, or attire that make the racial inferences evident, but it also brings about the awareness of the power of video games and their ability to provide the public with a blunt sense of our cultural ideals: “video games have the quality of being so explicit—so blatant—in their representations of men, of women, of power, of control, that they lay out some of the key ideologies of the culture in absolutely unmistakable, vivid ways…the video game industry is using this power in racist, sexist, and violence-encouraging ways” (Gorski). The representation that video games give us in our culture is so immense. Millions of people in our culture see representation everyday and video games take up a vast amount of that representation. Even though the racial impressions and stigmas that are portrayed in many of these games may be obvious, a lot of times they slide under the radar or go unnoticed because they so smoothly fit into the way our culture views race and through race, ethnicity, sexuality and gender.
The racial logics shown through inclusion and exclusion are hugely shown in video games. And because these logics can be seen across these types of representation, people are even more aware of the ability for these different races to take offense to these inclusions and exclusions. Therefore people want to push all racist remarks and ideas under the rug and not mention that they are noticed, hoping that people will not take offense to them. Our culture is so scared of not following along the lines of “political correctness” and of being racist that we are ignoring race altogether. Ignoring it in the sense that people are primarily worried about making everyone they encounter feel as though they are created “equal” and have “equal opportunity” here in America. People claim that they do not see a color when they look at someone, they see a person comparable to them self. However, there is a big problem with this logic. If we ignore race altogether in an attempt to avoid racism, then we are not taking advantage of all the benefits our world has to offer. We are missing out on what makes our world so diverse and we are not recognizing all of the unique individuality that exists in our culture. Without this recognition or understanding of each race, there in-turn is a lack of perceptiveness of ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, which are important things in the way our world works and makes up the meaning of race. They define relationships and success. Video games are the medium in which we observe race and incorporate it into our culture and, through our culture, define race and place it into our video games. Without acknowledging video games’ importance in our culture, we would be at a loss for we would be missing some of the important relativity that they show us between game and society. Of all the different representations and influential media in our culture that manipulate how we think about race, video games are just one representation available to us in our society.
Ferguson, Roderick A. “Race.” Keywords for American Cultural Studies. New York: New York University Press, 2007. 192.
Gorski, Paul C. Rev. of Game Over: Gender, Race, and Violence in Video Games, Nina Huntemann. Media Education Foundation 2000. 1 March 2009. <http://edchange.org/multicultural/reviews/f-gameover.html>.
Leonard, David J. “Not a Hater, Just Keepin’ It Real.” Games and Culture. Vol. 1 Num.1 (2006): 83-88. Sage Productions. 1 March 2009. <http://gac.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/1/1/83>.
Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity and Identity on the Internet. Routledge, 2002. 3.
Thudfactor. “Trolls and Taurens: Racist stereotypes in World of Warcraft?” Online Blog. 12 Aug 2007. 3 March 2009. < http://www.thudfactor.com/race/trolls-and-taurens-racist-stereotypes-in-world-of-warcraft/>.