African Americans and the video game industry
Friday 11 April 2008 - 11:41:24
A 2005 video game industry demographics survey by the International Game Developers Association found that only 2% of game developers across all disciplines are black. Contrast that with the national demographics of the countries that participated in the survey (Australia, Canada, United States, and United Kingdom) who have a combined 9% black population (aggregated from each country's population and demographics data on Wikipedia).

Nielsen Entertainment also did a study on the demographics of video game players in 2005 and found that African Americans are spending more money to purchase games and more time to play them compared to your average gamer.

So why the disparity when it comes to developers in the industry?

This week MTV's Multiplayer blog has a lengthy and fascinating look into the world of black professionals working in the video game industry. The five-part series interviewed several black game industry professionals to get their first-hand experiences and opinions on the state of race in the industry.

Some highlights from the series are after the jump.

Full blog series at MTV's Multiplayer

[ Read the rest ... ]

Any time you bring race or gender bias into any particular medium, there's going to be problems. And while I can certainly see that there is a disparity, the first thing one has to look at is that numbers don't tell you everything.

Being female, when I was growing up, I heard all the time about how women were paid less than men, and how terrible this was. And while the numbers are true, they don't tell the whole story. Women, by and large, simply tend to go after jobs that traditionally pay less. Female teachers outnumber male teachers in every school in the US, for example--this is not because men are being "held back" from teaching by an elite group of high-powered females in schools and universities, it's because there are more women interested in the job than men, and fewer males are getting their degrees and licenses than females are. Numbers alone are meaningless without a reason to go along with them.

On the subject of ethnicity, the only counterpoints I can offer to the subject of "bias" against any particular ethnicity are as follows. First, the majority of gamers are male, and the majority of game developers are male; this isn't surprising considering that males (especially in the teenage demographic) are statistically more interested in gaming than females. We're not the rare birds we once were, but we're still not as common. Boys use video games as bonding experiences and social experiences. By and large, girls tend to bond and socialize in other ways. Men are more apt to enter the field of game design because, statistically speaking, they are more apt to be interested in it than their female counterparts are (remember the teacher analogy). It's not that the top-tier of every gaming company is conspiring to keep women out, it's that they're having a hard time finding any who are at all interested in the field period. Black or white, asian or european, it's going to be guys right now who are filling the ranks. And gaming isn't the garage-based hobby it was twenty years ago--with budgets of games in the next generation hovering in the double-digits of millions of dollars for a major, AAA title like Final Fantasy, Grand Theft Auto, or Gears of War, and gaming revenue surpassing Hollywood in terms of dollars generated, gaming companies are only interested in hiring the best people for the right positions. If you can't program, or you aren't as good a designer as somebody else, or you lack the experience a company is looking for, it doesn't matter what colour your skin is or whether you have two X chromosomes: the job will not be yours. Plain and simple.

Point two is something that an awful lot of people seem to forget about gaming when this topic comes up for discussion, and that is that video games are all about fantasy. There's a reason why Microsoft has not made a multi-platinum-selling video game about a geeky programmer who works a 9-5 job programming the next iteration of Windows; it's a fantasy that appeals to so few people that those who would be interested in playing the game are already doing it in real life.

Fantasy in games is all about getting to do things that you can't do in real life, either because of physical, social, ethical or legal ramifications or because the universe we inhabit is not the same as the universe of a video game. No matter how hard we might want it, none of us will be able to be Joan of Arc leading an attack on the English in an effort to restore France's deposed dauphin to his rightful place on the throne. Unless we play a video game.

Since gaming is all about fantasy, it stands to reason that the things we want to fantasize about most are the things we will never, ever get to do in real life. There's a reason Madden NFL sells millions of copies with each year's release: there are millions of people all over the world who can never themselves play a game of professional football in a real stadium, but they all dream about doing it anyway. Playing games lets us live the fantasies without any of the real-world dangers. There are far more gamers willing to drop in Call of Duty and kill some terrorists than there are willing to sign up for the armed forces so they can do likewise.

Gamers like to play characters who do not remind them of real life. Tommy Vercetti of GTA: Vice City, Cole Train from Gears of War, Master Chief from Halo and Samus Aran from Metroid are appealing because they don't exist except on a screen. Using them as our avatars, we can commit crimes without suffering the penalties associated with them, chainsaw and curb stomp invading baddies by the truckload, blow away aliens hell-bent on taking over the earth, and explore mysterious planets in galaxies far removed from the Milky Way. When we play, we don't want to be "us". We want to be the loner, the one who succeeds against all odds, the quarterback who makes the hail mary happen, the last bastion of good in a world gone bad. We want to be the wisecracking, fast-talking, smooth-dressing cop who plays both sides of the law, the hip skater girl who can fly with Tony Hawk, the daring adventurer who explores ancient ruins armed with nothing more than a beat-up backpack and a pair of pistols, or the suave and unruffled super-spy who will always prevail in the end no matter what obstacles are set before us.

Are there stereotypes? Sure. But let's face it...if you had to pick between playing a virtual hip-hop star or the real you (who works in an office all day for nine hours with one lunch break and spends most of his or her time answering the phones, writing e-mails, and trying to sell a product or service), the choice is obvious. We're drawn to what we cannot have, to who we cannot be. Indiana Jones doesn't inspire because he's a white guy in a hat with a whip--he inspires because he does stuff that would put most of us in the hospital and lives to tell about it.

Is it worth talking about? Absolutely--video games are an open art form. Is it worth getting upset or worried about? I don't think so. Games are growing up, slowly but surely. Is there room for improvement? Always. Will making more video game characters black, or native american, or female translate to better games? No.

I find it a strange that some people are so easily willing to shrug off the Italian mafioso stereotype image from GTA III as being an amusing parody, but are disturbed by the equal parody presented by the protagonist of GTA: San Andreas. The lifestyle presented by the game isn't one of realistic gang behavior and choices made by the average African American; the lifestyle presented in San Andreas is a parody of the lifestyle presented by hip-hop artists and the mixture of fantasy and reality showcased by their music. Let's face it...I'm a 31-year-old white female. I'll never live the "thug" life. San Andreas lets me play a stylistic parody of it without any of the downsides like getting hurt in real life. Doom 3 lets me play as a muscle-bound "jarhead" on Mars where big, nasty things are shooting and clawing at me without the downside of potentially getting my head ripped off by creatures with more limbs and eyes than your average spider. Smackdown vs. Raw lets me slap on a uniform and step into the ring against people who know at least twenty different ways to break me in half with one hand tied behind their backs without actually worrying about getting cracked ribs.

We want to be who we aren't when we play games. But we don't want it too serious, too realistic, too much like real life. Most often in games, ethnicity and gender of characters is a convenience used to tell a certain kind of story a certain kind of way. But I think the reason we keep seeing the same "stereotypes" in games is simply because, when it comes down to it, we'd much rather be Cole Train, kicking butt and taking names, than the person who is sitting back, safe and secure off the battlefield relaying him information over a comm channel. And that desire isn't going to change any time soon.

[ Comment by Areala :: 12 Apr : 01:37 ]

I agree with you on the gender comments. There aren't a lot of females interested in games (although that does seem to be slowly changing particularly in the casual games market) and therefore it would make sense that not a lot of females go into games. However, I think there's two things to take note of there.

  • It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Females aren't interested in the types of games that are being made... Therefore, females don't enter the industry... Therefore, females don't make the types of games that females tend to like... Therefore, females aren't interested in the types of games being made... etc. If this reasoning is true, then the industry is perhaps missing out on effectively reaching half of their market.
  • Also, the same argument doesn't hold as easily for the African American population. The statistics say that African Americans spend above average money and time playing video games. Now, while it's only anecdotal evidence as opposed to hard statistical data, I don't think the same can be said about women as a demographic group. So, the disparity in women in the industry is perhaps more easily explained away.

Also, I agree that games are about fantasy and about being someone you're not... but I think some people (arguably most) prefer to be someone who looks like they do. Again, this is all anecdotal evidence... but I think something can be said for the fact that an overwhelming majority of games feature a human protagonist. We can just as easily make games about animals or robots or aliens, but they are few and far between. And when it does happen it's not all that far off from human anyway - anthropomorphized bears that talk and blue-skinned humans passing as aliens. Does no one have fantasies about being something non-human? Something completely different-looking from what they are?

I think it would be interesting to study how people use avatar creation systems in games. Do they always try to create a facsimile of themselves? Most of the gamers I know do. With an avatar creation system you could create the look of any kind of character you want... but inevitably I see people creating themselves. To me, that says they want to see someone that looks like them in the game. So for games without an avatar creation system (i.e. - most games that tell a story), I think something is lost on those people when they never see someone that looks like them on the screen.

[ Comment by Sleepy :: 14 Apr : 09:01 ]

Morgan Gray: "And there’s like zero, zero black women in these games."

Trauma Center: New Blood. Not only is there a Black woman in the game, she's the co-lead in the game. Main friggin' character in a game developed in Japan, and he just ignores her? The game's trailer came out just about the SAME WEEK as the RE5 trailer and nobody said word one about there being a non-stereotypical Black main character in a game.

You can just go around seeing what you want to see. Change is coming, and in some cases it's already here, but you can't just ignore it.

In addition, that's a some straight up bull with calling out Barret. Not only is he not the only Black character in the game (At the bottom of Gold Saucer there are other Black people, AND the most successful chocobo jockey in History is Black, as well.) he's also not the only character in the game with a gun mounted to his hand. Dyne has a gun on his hand, too! On top of that, everything negative that the gun-hand's supposed to say about Barret is said twice as loudly with Dyne. He kills the innocent without remorse, and then even decides to shoot at his own friend before deciding he's too violent to stay alive...and kills himself.

[ Comment by JohnQAnonymous :: 14 Apr : 11:02 ]

JohnQAnonymous: OK, if you take Morgan Gray literally when he said "zero", then maybe he is wrong. But his point is that there are so few that he couldn't think of any... and let's be honest, Trauma Center isn't exactly comparable to Resident Evil in its pervasiveness. Loads of gamers flocked to see the RE5 trailer, but Trauma Center doesn't generate nearly the same amount of buzz (and you can prove that quantitatively by looking at the view counts of the trailers on YouTube). So frankly, I'm not surprised that he didn't mention it and would assume that he just hadn't seen the trailer. It's a little presumptive of you to say that he "just ignores her".

Still, I can't think of any other black female characters in Japanese games. I'm certainly no expert on Japanese games, but none easily spring to mind. So to me, the point is still valid. Whether it's zero or one or even five that you can name, the number is still inconsequential compared to the numbers of other types of characters.

I'm a fan of manga, anime, and Japanese games, and I think it's pretty obvious to anyone with some familiarity with that subgenre of media that Japanese artists draw their characters almost universally white. Sure they use different flesh tones from time to time, but even that is rare. Even when the skin tone is changed slightly, the implication is not always that the artist decided to "make this character black" because they often retain many European features like small noses, thin lips, and straight hair.

This is also true of the Trauma Center character. She looks like she could have possibly been inspired by pictures of Halle Berry with short hair. Of course, Halle Berry herself is half-white and honestly doesn't have many African physical traits either.

Am I saying that there's a great injustice happening in Japan because they don't draw people with African features? No. I honestly wouldn't expect them to draw black characters much at all because of the lack of them in their real life culture walking around on the streets. However, my wife and I have often discussed the significance of the fact that most characters in Japanese media don't look Japanese!

This seems strange to us because American artists draw people that look like Americans. You might expect Japanese artists to draw people that look Japanese. What's even more interesting is that, particularly in anime and manga, the age of the character seems to be proportional to how Japanese they look. Old family patriarchs always seem to be drawn with far more Japanese features than the young reluctant hero. What that says about the culture is hard to say for sure, but it is an interesting question to ponder.

As for Barret... I didn't see where anyone accused him of being the only black character in the game. However, he is the only black playable character in the game and so, of course, you end up seeing more of him than any other black character in the game. So does putting a stereotypical character in a position of prominence have the potential to perpetuate those stereotypes, particularly in places (like Japan) that don't have many real people to be counterexamples to the stereotypes? I wholeheartedly say yes.

[ edited 14 Apr : 14:03 ]

[ Comment by Sleepy :: 14 Apr : 13:41 ]

The point that Barret isn't the only Black character in the game was to show that there WAS contrast presented. Cole Train? No contrast. Barret, contrast.

Everyone loves to talk about how much he sounds like Mr. T. Guess what? Mr. T was a pretty awesome role model. I looked up to Mr. T.

Then everyone brings up the gun-arm, which I've pointed out, is being blown way out of proportion. Then if you bring in Barret's character development in the sidestories of Final Fantasy he ends up looking even better. Marlene's doing fine, Barret's got a successful business going, and he strikes oil.

Man. How many times am I going to have to be inundated with the Black Oil Magnate stereotype? Sheesh.

Yeah, racism and stereotyping exists. Stop pointing the finger in places where it doesn't, because more thorough examination only serves to show that you're reaching.

In addition, Sleepy, I'm not taking him literally at face value when he says, "Zero". I'm calling him out for completely ignoring the fact that there was such a character in a fairly major recent release and that she was even a protagonist!

If this is an issue Morgan cared so deeply about, this would have appeared on his radar somewhere, right? Not only is Valerie Blaylock a Black woman in a Japanese developed release, she's an intelligent and highly capable doctor, one of the finest in the world by game's end. She isn't worthy of either notice or mention?

You can't just blast the bad, you have to commend the good, too. Carrot and the stick. Not just stick.

[ Comment by JohnQAnonymous :: 14 Apr : 14:48 ]

Hey, John! Thanks for the comments! :) Also, mad props to Mr. T from me as well; he was an awesome role model. :)

I hope I didn't offend anybody with my comment on stuff. And I fully agree with you, Sleepy, that there is much to be said for being able to create your own avatar in a game. Half the fun in Smackdown or Tony Hawk, for example, is trying to make "yourself" to play in the game. Smackdown is frustrating because I can make me, but I can't play "me" in a storyline mode, but eh...the earlier games let you set your gender as "unknown" which would let a female wrestler play through season mode. :)

I'm trying to remember...I believe it was the first Persona game where the US localization team actually changed the ethnicity of one of the students from white to black. I remember that causing some stir among purists, but since I played the game without knowing about it, I didn't see that it caused any harm and can even remember thinking, "Wow, this is pretty cool that they've got a diverse high school setting in this game!" :)

[ Comment by Areala :: 14 Apr : 18:16 ]

Honestly, I don't see why people should even care about the color of the character's skin. This just increases racism. To eliminate racism, one would have to stop seperating people of different races, rather than trying to seperate them and giving the special rights. If people saw no difference, then there would be no racism. All these minority advancement groups sometimes increase racism and separation of different races.

[ Comment by darktrogdor :: 16 Apr : 12:30 ]

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