Do video games encourage racism?

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People have long debated whether video games encourage violent behavior, but what about racism?

People have long debated whether video games encourage violent behavior, but what about racism? According to a recent study, video games change the way white players see black people in real life.

Ohio State University Communication and Psychology Professor Brad Bushman and colleagues at two schools in Michigan wanted to investigate the subtler ways video games influence players’ ways of looking at the world, because he claims video games can influence their audiences in ways TV and film cannot.

“I’ve been researching the effect of violent forms of media for 25 years,” Bushman says. “The difference for video games is people become active consumers. By that I mean you take part actively in the game’s purpose or mission. Also, you’re not rewarded in TV or film. In video games you get points, often for acting violently.”

Race depictions in video games are still relatively rare. A 2009 study found that 85 percent of video game protagonists were white, with the remaining 15 percent representing every other ethnicity. Non-whites are still more often than not sidekicks, racial pastiches, or villains. But the researchers found a game in which the first-person player could be either black or white and set out to test their hypothesis.

In the study, the team invited more than a hundred white university students to play the game Saints Row 2, in which a players participates in gang wars in a Grand Theft Auto-style setting. Half were given a white character and the other half played using a black avatar. Furthermore, some had to complete the level in a non-violent manner, and others were instructed to take a violent approach.

The researchers found that playing as a violent, black man caused players to form the opinion that black men were actually violent, when faced with pictures of black men. The same wasn’t true for those playing as violent white men.

They asked the students to complete a test which told the researchers how explicitly the student would confess to racist sentiments—e.g., “Irish, Italian, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same.”

The students also completed what’s known as a IAT, or Implicit Association Test, which seeks to reveal whether a person harbors racist feelings.

It’s “a really important test,” Bushman explains, “as, at least in the U.S., we have a society which is really intolerant to open racism. So people rarely own up to it.” 

In the test, students paired black and white faces to words like “wonderful” and “glorious” or “terrible” and “evil.” After playing as a violent black person, they paired black faces more often with negative words.

The researchers’ findings seem to support the idea that video games do actually affect the way white players see black people. White players who assumed the role of an aggressive black person actively changed their perceptions of that racial group outside the framework of the game. It didn’t matter that the Saints Row avatar was obviously fictional, while the pictures they were rating as good or bad were real.

They also found that white players felt they could be more violent with black avatars than white ones. In a test conducted after playing WWE Smackdown, the players were tasked to see how much hot sauce they were willing to give an unseen, fictional partner. If they played as a black man, they would on average give twice as much hot sauce.

Bushman is concerned with how this affects how white gamers perceive people of color in daily life.

“It is very troubling when a black character becomes almost synonymous with a violent character,” he says. “It reinforces African-Americans as violent people. It’s hard to give an easy answer to why these attitudes still exist, but the media is in some ways responsible for it.

“Usually, we think of taking the perspective of a minority person as a good thing, as a way to evoke empathy,” he continues. “But if white people are fed a media diet that shows blacks as violent, they don’t have a realistic view of black people.”

The team at Ohio State are now looking at the same experiment, but with a mix of white and black subjects, to see if these results are true of black people as well. Will black perceptions change with violent white avatars? Stay tuned.

Photo via Medispective

Jack Flanagan

Jack Flanagan

Jack Flanagan is a reporter whose work focuses on science, technology, and business. His work has appeared in the Guardian, HuffPo, New Scientist, the Advocate, and the Next Web.