Racism still exists. From the day to day micro-aggressions muttered under breaths, to the vocal suggestions in protests and online that any person of colour is less than their white peers and to the systematic oppression of those who don’t happen to be white. It’s around us and poisonously so, to the point where it infiltrates every aspect of society. A place where it is most called into question and analysed is video games, where a (small, but meaningful) margin of non-white characters are seen. But can the behaviours of these characters influence our views on race? A new study seems to think so.
Racism in the Midwest
Ohio State University is, perhaps, a poor foundation for which to base a study about race due to the institute’s own, concerning issues with racial discrimination which are important to point out because they reflect one of the many broken components of this study. In an article on The Daily Journalist from 2012, (then) Ohio State student, Jaime Ortega spoke of his own experiences with racism at the school, with his examples ranging far and wide. “Unlike my experiences in Ohio, I did not feel constantly monitored or judged”, Ortega wrote comparing a visit to Kentucky, “Americans are racist” he writes, quoting a foreign student and he even quotes an unnamed professor agreeing that foreign students are introduced into a world of unwarranted hate at the school, only combatted by “OSU authorities” cracking down on “swastika paintings and racist bigotry” but as Ortega not that this was “recently”, it’s hard to imagine what life was like for foreign students of colour before this.
Yung-Hwa Anna Chow writes for Academic Advising Today on the topic of racism in US colleges, citing more examples of racism perpetuated by OSU students on social media, with the OSU Haters blog doing a name and shame of the biggest offenders, giving an insight into a problem that OSU has clearly got. And while fourth year psychology major John Jacobs suggested in Ortega’s article that Ohio’s attitude as a state come as a result of “smaller towns where [Ohio residents and OSU students] had no outside interaction with society and diverse communities”, this doesn’t take away from the fact that the study I am about to discuss is a stereotype supporting stream stemmed off of a racially insensitive river.
Brad Bushman, co-author of the study (published online in the journal of Social Psychology and Personality Science) explains that according to results “Playing a violent video game as a black character reinforces harmful stereotypes that blacks are violent”. With two testing groups, one made up of 126 white university students (60% male) tasked with playing Saints Row 2 as either a black or white avatar (randomly assigned) to take on either a prison break mission or a mission in which you find a church without harming anyone (missions were also randomly assigned), with the other, 141 white college students (65% female) made to play either Fight Night Round 4 or WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2010 as either a black or white character (randomly assigned).
As stated in the headline, both groups of students agreed with the hypothesis that they found black people more aggressive after playing the games. The Saints Row 2 group were more likely to associate black people with words like “terrible” or “horrible”, agreed that ‘black people would be more well off than white people if they only tried harder’ and the second group largely associated black people with weapons as opposed to harmless, every day items when given the choice.
Furthermore, there was also the confusing instance of the ‘hot sauce’ test in the study, in which the groups were asked whether or not they’d force hot sauce upon an (unseen) person who didn’t like spicy food. According to the results recorded by the Fight Night and WWE playing group, students who played as a black character forced more than double the hot sauce on the unseen person than their white-character playing counterparts and if you think that the study is suggesting that playing as a black game character can make the player more aggressive, then yes, I think you’d very much be correct.
Bushman, who is a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University also says this on the results
“Usually, taking the perspective of a minority person is seen as a good thing, as a way to evoke empathy, but if white people are fed a media diet that shows blacks as violent, they don’t have a realistic view of black people. It isn’t good to put yourself in the shoes of a murderer, as you do in many of these violent games. The media have the power to perpetuate the stereotype that blacks are violent, and this is certainly seen in video games. This violent stereotype may be more prevalent in video games than in any other form of media because being a black character in a video game is almost synonymous with being a violent character.”
Pulling Apart the Problematic Results
As explained, Ohio State University has a problem with racism and not just a small one. The articles I linked to were written in 2012 and 2013 and the social media examples of OSU students showing clear or blatant disregard for the diverse backgrounds of their classmates were from a few months ago. Little to nothing has likely changed in terms of this due to how recent the references are so I am going to make the suggestion that maybe the test subjects were just a little bit ignorant?
Or maybe they were extremely ignorant, or maybe, quite the opposite; maybe they were the head of the anti-bigotry association at the university. But the problem with these ‘maybes’ is that we’ll never know because Bushman and his research team failed to compile evidence as to what on Earth was going on in these test subjects’ minds before they were tasked with playing as black characters and voicing their opinions.
Not only this but it is almost impossible to quantify racism. You can’t rate what it does to a person. When some calls me the n-word on account of my skin colour (yes, quick FYI I’m black, welcome new readers!) am I offended by this 4 out of 10 or 7 out of 10 on account of how confident in my identity I’m feeling that day? When the white person who feels this way towards me spews it from their mouth-hole are they saying it because they have a total lack of respect to my blackness or are they saying it because they heard it used and don’t really understand the monstrous implications behind the epithet?
The media, too, needs to be considered in how racism and portrayals of non-white people affect all people of all races. Was it films showing black people as thugs, criminals and gang bangers that made the participants of the survey have predetermined mindsets or was this in any way offset by black characters such as police officer Marcus Bell in Elementary or Will Smith and Martin Lawrence who played police officers in the films Bad Boys 1 and 2? Typically, the media does not swing in a black person’s favour, because it shows the racial group as a whole in a bad light, due in part to longstanding racism (FYI number two, we don’t live in a post racial society and you’d better believe it) and this is reflected in terms of lower wages for people of colour, the difference in prosecution rates for black and white offenders of the same crimes and various other inexcusable stats afforded to black people on account of their race.
These things trickle down to those aforementioned micro-aggressions and mindsets that maybe those participants didn’t even realise that they had and I could talk from now until the beginning of a post-apocalyptic Earth on how the media (especially video games) influences us, but I’m not the researcher behind the study and the bottom line is, without taking these things into the account, Bushman’s work is inherently flawed.
The Actual Upside to This (And Yes, There is One)
What would have been more useful than wasting time, effort and what was likely a fair chunk of change on stating that ‘Participants With Unclear Opinions About Race More Likely to Find Black People Violent After Playing Video Games in Which Your Only Input Option is to Be Violent’ is a study that considers quite the opposite.
Are gamers more likely to empathise with black people when playing a game that has positive representation? Would playing as a black Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect games make players feel more supportive of black people in leadership positions? And do the types of video games we play have an effect on our psyche in general? According to a study out of the University of Barcelona, the answer to all of those is yes, with participants being less racism-inclined when inhabiting the body of a black character by the means of a VR (Virtual Reality) headset.
These are the types of of studies we should be supporting, showing the positive effects that games can have on us rather than conclusions about the negative that can hinder the industry due to evidence that is less than rock solid. And what’s more, is that Bushman’s study didn’t prove anything to us that we didn’t already know – positive and fleshed out representations (which Saints Row 2 and Fight Night Round 4 are not) can do wonders for public opinion and actively change the way that people think, which is why we should call for more of them, with characters who are of all races to reflect the kind of diversity that the majority of us are exposed to. Because, regardless of the validity of Bushman’s results, there are bigoted minds that can be changed for the better. But if they only have the chance to play these one note experiences and not a range of examples, how can the media and video games help to change these mindsets?
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