Race Representation in Gaming

By: Briana McDonald

“There’s no video game that I’ve ever played in my life – and I’ve been playing video games since Atari, I’m talking the early eighties – where there’s ever been a black male hero.” In a world where game developers know their demographic, know their audience, and want to make money by catering to it, it seems odd that the industry is dominated by and represents mostly white men.

The above quote is from Mr. Leonard Bullock, Heritage High School’s Gaming Academy Coordinator. We spoke with Mr. Bullock about the relationship between race and gaming. He particularly expanded on the hero dynamic. “Do you know what it means to be a hero? A hero typically seeks to save the world for some reason that is not connected to themselves. Maybe they just have compassion. You know, Superman came to Earth from a whole other planet just to ensure that the human race would survive. And that was inherent; he was just a good person. I never see black men in games like that. Whenever there’s a black male that’s the lead character of a game, that person is always the anti-hero; they’re operating because their family got killed and they’re consumed by revenge. Or, in Grand Theft Auto, where I see Hispanics and black people as pimps and prostitutes, that’s terrible.” Mr. Bullock’s observations are spot-on; a University of Southern California professor, Dmitri Williams, conducted a study of 150 games across various platforms. Williams found that less than 3% of characters were Hispanic, 0% were Native American or biracial, and nearly 11% were black, but they were mostly gangsters and athletes.

The Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a study that found that blacks play video games an average of 30 minutes more per day than whites, and Hispanics play an average of 10 minutes more. According to the Pew Research Center, blacks are also more likely to have positive opinions about video games, 19% saying that they build teamwork, and 22% the belief that video games help develop problem-solving and strategizing skills, compared to 8% and 15% of whites respectively. The terminology is even skewed; 11% of blacks choose to describe themselves as gamers, compared to 19% of Hispanics and only 7% of whites.

We also spoke with Darius Gregory, a Gaming Academy student and an African-American. He does describe himself as a variety gamer, “but I don’t touch strategy games.” We asked what he thinks about representation in gaming. “I think in my most recent game, there were a total of two black characters, out of like 20.” Then he tried to think of a game where there’s a bit more of a distribution. He referenced 2K, the NBA franchise game. “Because there are a lot more black characters in 2K, but there are also a lot of black people who play 2K. I still wouldn’t say it’s even, but because basketball is a cultural part of us, it makes sense for us to be playing basketball games.”

So why this disconnect between demographic and representation? Is it because of a lack of vocality in marginalized communities? Engadget spoke to Dr. Kishonna Gray, assistant professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies. “Most gamers of color have isolated themselves into private parties, private chats, or just don’t engage verbally at all. And that’s sad because they can’t take full advantage of the gaming experience that they paid for.” Gray explained that this causes marginalization because when black gamers do enter into community spaces, they’re called derogatory terms simply based on how they sound.

It’s because of these sad facts that Mr. Bullock wants to change the way his students view gaming and the gaming industry. He emphasized how important it was to him to create the Heritage Gaming Academy with diversity in mind. “Our academy is reflective of the Heritage High School student body at large. We have white kids, black kids, Hispanic kids, Asian kids, Indian kids, females, males, so it’s a diverse body. But even so, the majority of our academy students are young white men.” This brings us back to real-life application. Mr. Bullock explained to the Herald, “Kids play these games, and they take these ideas, and it translates into their daily experience. As a teacher, I see it all the time. With these games, we have an opportunity to challenge what we see in society.” He compared his experience with gaming to rap music, enthusiastically gesturing to his Wu-Tang Clan tee shirt. “Music is media. And rap music really made me think about myself, and my place in society. It helped me to challenge some of what I heard about myself. It helped me work out some differences in myself. Video games have the same sort of platform. We have the same opportunity to do that through video games.”