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Ever since the Pong and Atari 2600 consoles became commonplace items in the American household in the 1980s, video games have been part of the world culture. One may be challenged to find a college dorm room without at least one (if not all three) “next generation” video game systems. Yes, video games are common methods of entertainment among college students regardless of race. So it seems logical that, since the games are played by all races, they should have content featuring all races, right? Well, that’s what I’m here to examine.
Violence and Gaming
Up to this point, the majority of research based on video games was directed toward the two major concepts of gender and violence. The existence of violence in games is not up for debate; from Donkey Kong throwing barrels and Pac-Man eating ghosts during the birth of home gaming, to samurai Samanosuke slicing up demons in Playstation 2’s Onimusha series, violence has been prevalent in gaming. In fact, a study claims that, on average, 89% of video games include violent content (Children Now, 2001).The question is: how does the violence affect young players? There are two rival camps with opposing viewpoints on the matter of media violence. One, and arguably the more vocal of the two, states that violent content is likely to make the viewer/player act out in violent ways. The other claims that violence in games acts as a catharsis, thus preventing violence on the part of the user. Research on this aspect of video games, and in fact all media, has been conducted as long as the technology has been in existence (Dominick, J.R. (1984). Video games, television violence and aggression in teenagers.). As of yet, results have been inconclusive.
Gender in Gaming
Within the gender-based subset, most research involved the roles of women within the games, or quite possibly the lack thereof. In the often-referenced article “An examination of violence and gender role portrayals in video games: implications for gender socialization and aggressive behavior,” Tracy Deitz (1998) found the portrayal of women in games to be somewhere between negligible at best, and harmful to the perception of females at the very worst.
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Ethnicity and Race in media
The issue of ethnic portrayal in the popular mass media is hotly debated in this world of attempted political correctness. Do ethnic minorities appear within mass media in equal quantities to majorities? Do minorities show up in ratios similar to those in which they would appear in life? And more, what effects does this representation have on the viewers, particularly children? In the article “Parents or pop culture?: Children's heroes and role models,” Anderson and Cavallaro (2002) claim the following:
Whether the children in this study had heroes they knew in real life, or whether they chose famous people or fictional characters, depended, to some extent, on the respondents' ethnicity and gender…. When children's heroes were media characters, African American and white children were more likely to name media heroes of their same ethnicity. In contrast, Asian American and Latino children tended to name media heroes who were not of their same ethnicity. Children kept to their own gender when choosing a hero; boys were especially reluctant to choose girls and women as their heroes.… The mass media are hindered by a narrow view of gender, and by limited, stereotyped representations of ethnic minorities.
It would be very interesting to see this portion of the study performed with sole regards to video games, with the notable facts that a good portion of the video games produced today are created in Japan, and take place within an East Asian context.
Ethnic diversity in Video Games
“Top-selling Video Games [are a] Virtual Wasteland for Racial [and] Gender Diversity,” states a 2001 study, “Fair Play? Violence, Gender and Race in Video Games,” by the child research and action organization Children Now. “Female characters were most likely to be portrayed as props or bystanders (50 percent). “Almost all African American females (86 percent) were victims of violence; African American and Latino men were typically athletes; and Asian/Pacific Islanders were usually wrestlers or fighters. In addition, there were no Latina characters,” states the Children Now website’s review of their report. In fact, 56% of characters in the study were white, and even higher for female characters (78%) than males (52%) when it comes to player-controlled characters. Of 53 “hero”-type characters, 46 (87%) were white, followed by Asians or Pacific Islanders (8%), African Americans (4%), and Latinos (2%). Every one of the 32 Latino characters in the study appeared in a sports-oriented game (which begs the question: how does a sports game have a hero character?). 69% of Asian/Pacific Islander characters were placed in fighter roles, and were cast as antagonists 18% of the time, far more than Whites (8%), Latinos (3%) or African Americans (2%). 83% of African American males were cast in sports games. The majority of African American females (86%) were considered “props,” bystanders, or participants in games, but never competitors.
Diversity in Rockstar Games®: Quantitative Research
For my research, I chose a sample of games from a company that has recently received a lot of attention from the media due to the content of these games: Take 2 Publishing’s Rockstar Games® division. I chose the most hotly debated, and coincidentally best-selling title Grand Theft Auto III as the place to begin my research. I took note of all major characters (that is to say, those that advanced the plot of the game), and recorded their race and nationality, their gender, their sexual orientation (if it came up,) and their relationship to the player’s character, either friendly, antagonistic, both at different times, or neither. Random bystanders appear and walk about randomly, and it’s not possible to collect an accurate cross-sample of them without access to the game’s character files. This is an area that may be looked into by someone with the PC version of the game.
Let me take a moment to point out that no character in this game can be considered a “good guy” – all the characters are criminals, so it cannot be said that any race is portrayed unfairly.
Statistically speaking, of 18 plot-important characters, 10 (55%, 9 males, 1 females), including the main character, were white, and of those 5 were of Italian descent. 3 (17%) were African American (all males), 3 (17%) were Hispanic (2 males, one female), and 2 (11%) were Asian (one male, one female). 3 characters (one white, one African American and one Latino) are never actually seen, but give missions by phone.
Of the 17 non-player characters, or NPCs, 15 (83%) are considered on the main character’s side at at least one point in the game. Consequently, 7 (39%) are, at some point in the game, working against you.
Diversity in Rockstar Games®: Qualitative Research
The main character is a nondescript, mute, white male, intended to be the ‘average Joe’ sort that anyone could pick up and play. Gameplay is based on running ‘missions’ for various mobsters, thugs, and ne’er-do-wells in the fictional Liberty City, starting with Luigi. Luigi is a kind-hearted mobster/pimp of obvious Italian heritage who gives you work to help you and your accomplice 8-Ball get back on your feet after breaking out of prison. 8-Ball is an African-American man, not associated with any of the city’s gangs, who will gladly supply you with explosives, should the mission require such. You also meet Joey Leone, his father Don Salvatore Leone, Toni Cipriani, and Salvatore’s “girl,” Maria (who seems interested in the Don’s money more than anything else he has to offer), all Italians, and members of the Leone crime family. Maria is portrayed with a grating New York Italian voice (think My Cousin Vinnie), and gets the main character into serious trouble with the Italians when she claims that she and the main character are “an item.” She does, however, warn you about the ambush Salvatore’s planning, and then remains on your side for the rest of the game.
While working for various factions, you sometimes work against the Triad gang, operating out of Chinatown. Though it is implied that the Triad are Chinese, there is never a Triad character highlighted, and you never work for the Triad.
Through Maria, you meet the leaders of the local Yakuza, or Japanese mafia: Asuka and her brother Kenji. It is soon revealed that Maria and Asuka are, in fact, lovers. They work with you for the remainder of the game. During one of the missions for the Yakuza, Kenji lets slip the first racist comment of the game: “My sister speaks highly of you, though I am yet to be convinced that a gaijin can offer anything but disappointment.” Through the Yakuza, you meet and subsequently work for Ray Machowski, a crooked cop, and one-armed veteran Phil, owner of the local Army Surplus store, both white men.
At several points you’re working against South Americans Miguel and Catalina of the Colombian Cartel. Miguel eventually sides with you, though Catalina remains a serious antagonist. It is also suggested that Asuka sleeps with Miguel – not a major plot point, but important when judging diversity.
Smaller, optional missions can be taken from the large, jovial-looking Latino called El Burro, leader of the Diablos street gang, stereotypical African-American male “gangsta” D-Ice, and Caribbean King Courtney, all of whom can be either with or against you, depending on the specific mission.
Near the end, it is discovered that the man responsible for starting the gang war in progress is media mogul Donald Love, a rich white man with a subdued Robin Leech accent. After running several missions to escalate the war, Love mysteriously disappears.
Summary and Implications
Upon a cursory glance, Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto III can be said to be a very diverse game, with white, African-American, South American, Latino, and Asian characters, as well as a couple consisting of (presumably) a bisexual and a lesbian. However, as the game focuses on the world of crime, many of the characters fall into the stereotypes imposed about the races – That is to say, the Italians, Chinese and Japanese are members of highly organized mafias, whereas the African-Americans and Latinos are reduced to petty street gangs, rife with infighting, and a rich white man controls everything from behind the scenes (Through he does disappear under mysterious circumstances, leaving his ultimate fate unlearned). I would like to continue this research with other Rockstar releases, and would strongly encourage further work in this field of research.
Anderson, K. J., Cavallaro, D. (2002). Parents or pop culture?: Children's heroes and role models. Childhood Education 78, 161-168
Deitz, T. L. (1998). Sex Roles: A Journal of Research.
Dominick, J. R. (1984). Videogames, television violence, and aggression in teenagers. Journal of Communication, 34, 136-147.
Espejo, E., Glaubke, C. R., Miller, P., & Parker, M. A. (2001). Fair Play? Violence, Gender and Video Games. Children Now.
Ivinski, P. (1997). Game girls: Girl market in computer games and educational software. Print, 51, 24-29.