By Jamaal Ryan
When it comes to role playing in video games, there are gamers who are jaded, gamers who looking for themselves, and gamers who have a narrow vision of others.
In a study reported by Slate, 23% of men who play World of Warcraft were more likely to switch gender roles as compared to 7% of female players who did the same.
Let’s stop there.
Why is that? Why is it that males are more likely to switch genders than women? Is it for sex appeal and having a “nice ass” to look at? That’s part of the phenomenon unfortunately, but it helps to look at it from a female perspective. Though females make up nearly 50% of the gaming audience, the number of game protagonists don’t match that percentage. Among the remaining 93% of female WOW players, many of them must have thought, “Ah, a rare opportunity to play a character closer to my identity.” I can empathize with that feeling as a Black gamer who can count on one hand how many games I’ve played where the default character shared my race. Every opportunity I can get to create a Black lead, from Dragon Age to Fallout to Call of Duty: Ghosts, I take it.
But what of the 23% of men who aren’t desperately looking to find sexual solace in a video game? At some point or another, we’ve chatted with someone who donned the role of Shepard. No, not the guy with the big forehead, the one played by Jennifer Hale. While I myself didn’t play as Jenn-Shep, my easiest conclusion to this is the concept of jaded gamers. Gamers who are have seen their fair share of ‘bros’, and figured they’d mix it up a bit. Flipping through my custom loadouts in Titanfall, you’ll see all female builds. Not only because I find their armor and character design more interesting, but the idea of women wall jumping from tree to tree in Swampland and landing in a Titan is novel and exciting. Nick Yee of Slate has an additional theory as to why this happens, “But because male avatars aren’t created by female designers for a female audience, women may not have the same incentive to gender-switch.”
However, there is an unfortunate trend in this gender role playing.
In that same study, they found that among the men who gender-switched in-game, they preferred more “feminine” features: long hair as opposed to mohawks, and emotive dialogue instead of stoic and firm. These men relied on their stereotypes and narrow idealization of women.
But this doesn’t only occur in gender, this also is seen in racial role playing as well.
Ohio State University conducted an experiment measuring the behavior and subliminal beliefs of players. Taking a sample of 126 white students, the experiment had each of the students play Saints Row 2, some as a white character, some as black. The players who controlled the black characters were more likely to act out more violently than those who controlled white characters.
But the violent association didn’t end there.
The students were issued the Implicit Association Test (IAT) which measures subliminal bias. Those that played as the black characters were more likely to associate black faces with bad words like “terrible, horrible, evil” as opposed to good words such as “joy, love, peace”. They were given another version of the IAT after playing WWE Smackdown vs. RAW 2010 and Fight Night Round 4. This time, the association was between weapons and non-weapons. Unsurprisingly, those that played the role of black characters in these games associated black faces with weapons rather than the non-weaponized objects.
Perhaps what’s seen of non-blacks and male gamers play as blacks and women is a result of jaded behavior. However it seems as if it’s jaded behavior that precipitates into a narrow field of understanding, a narrow perception of who women are and how black men behave.
It’s easy to point to the larger societal influence for the broken perspective that these players view blacks and women. But it’s an influence that increases in weight in video game. Damsels all too frequently need saving and are all too sexualized; black men prefer guns as a weapon of choice and only increase in numbers in gang populated urban environments.
If this comes as a surprise to you, then I’d like to know what games you’re playing.