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Racial representations in video games

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Through interactive gameplay, players learn about race through the types of characters that are portrayed in the virtual reality. The way racial groups are portrayed in video games affects the way video game players perceive defining characteristics of a racial group. The presence or absence of racial groups affects how players belonging to those racial groups see themselves in terms of the development of their own identity and self-esteem. The idea of portraying different races is not something entirely new in the history of video games. Early games, including some MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, featured multiple playable (fictional) races that the player could choose from at the beginning of the game.

Compared to the research on gender stereotyping, fewer studies have examined racial stereotyping in video games.

Light skin tones are seen as the default skin color for many games.

The portrayal of racial minorities in video games has been demonstrated to have a tendency to follow certain racial stereotypes. A study by the Children Now organization in 2001 noted that of the 1,716 video game characters analyzed, all Latino characters "appeared in a sports-oriented game, usually baseball." 83% of African-American males were portrayed as competitors in sports-oriented games, while 86% of African-American females were either "props, bystanders, or participants in games, but never competitors." Research by Anna Everett and Craig Watkins in 2007 claims that since then, the number of black and Latino characters has increased with the rising popularity of "urban/street games," while their portrayal has remained consistently narrow. In the action/shooter genre of urban/street games, both blacks and Latinos are typically portrayed as "brutally violent, casually criminal, and sexually promiscuous." The protagonist of the Just Cause series, Rico Rodriguez, is Hispanic, as is 'Ding' Chavez, protagonist of Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six. In the sports genre, blacks are typically portrayed as "verbally aggressive and extraordinarily muscular and athletic." African Americans are represented as aggressive or athletic characters more often than as protagonists or heroes.

In a 2009 survey of 150 games across nine platforms, University of Southern California Professor Dmitri Williams "found that fewer than 3 percent of video game characters were recognizably Hispanic and none were playable. Native Americans and biracial characters were non-existent. Though, Native Americans have been the protagonists of several video games, most notably in the Turok series, and in the 2006 title PreyAfrican Americans enjoyed a rate of 10.74 percent, with a big caveat; they were mostly athletes and gangsters." In a study that examined the top 10 most-highly rated games for each year from 2007–2012, Ithaca College graduate Ross Orlando found that "black and Asian characters each have 3 percent representation in the pool of main protagonists; Latino a mere 1 percent."

In 2015, Pew Research Center found that 35% of blacks, 36% of Hispanics, and 24% of whites surveyed believe that minorities are portrayed poorly in video games. The range of playable characters in certain gaming contexts has an overtly racial component. Some have argued that the high proportion of black male characters in sports video games (according to David J. Leonard, 80% of black male video game characters as of 2003 were sports competitors) have enabled (predominantly white male) gamers to practice what Adam Clayton Powell III refers to as "high-tech blackface", a digital form of minstrelsy that allows white players to effectively 'try on' blackness without being forced to acknowledge or confront the degrading racist histories surrounding minstrelsy.

The potential for video games as a site for promulgating reductive, racist tropes has prompted many to point out the use of yellowface, or "the donning and using of the "yellow" body by whites" to degrade and invisiblize Asian characters in a variety of games as well. Anthony Sze-Fai Shiu argues that the Duke Nukem 3D series (including Duke Nukem 3D and its spiritual sequel Shadow Warrior) enable the gamer to identify strongly with the protagonist, due to the first-person perspective employed by the games. "These characters, then, establish a scenario where the player's control over virtual embodiment demands critical decisions concerning subjective investments in the games’ scenarios and narratives. As such, both Duke Nukem 3D’s and Shadow Warrior's speculations concerning white subjectivity and yellowface performance call for an investigation into the value of performing as a racial other for the sake of game play."


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