- Written by Brandon Perton
In another post, I argued that videogames (like all expressive media) influence the world but that, cumulatively, their influence is more likely to be positive than negative because games can show us new, good ways of thinking and acting that we can then rally around, whereas the bad ways of thinking and acting depicted in videogames are news to no one and so unlikely to spur mass adoption by naïve, impressionable gamers. Today, though, I want to consider the minor, individual negative effects that I’ve conceded games can have on players. Specifically, I want to consider the effects of sexist and racist stereotypes in game characters, plots, and mechanics.
Though I think videogames do more good than bad, they have the potential to encourage negative stereotypes, and some games definitely do. My review of Grand Theft Auto V called it a flawed masterpiece, the flaw being the dull, stupid sexism and cynicism weighing down the many, many things the game does brilliantly. There are also blatantly racist games like Call of Juarez: The Cartel, whose “racial stereotyping” was similarly cited by Gamespot as both “boring and . . . obnoxious” and whose tone-deaf treatment of race and even sex slavery earned it the #1 spot on this Top 10 List of racist games.
On the other hand, sometimes games get called out for racism unfairly (in my opinion). The racism controversy surrounding Resident Evil 5 because the zombie hordes are African villagers and one of the two main player-characters is white seems overstated and overlooks the fact that it was the fifth numbered RE game – they’d already done zombie hordes with Spanish villagers and American townspeople and I didn’t see RE5 making the black zombies any worse than the others. Similarly, a significant number of players began to suspect that the police in GTA V were racially profiling Franklin and other black characters—a suspicion explicitly denied by Rockstar, who stated that in-game policed aren’t programmed to profile. In a way, that accusation is a compliment to the game, in that it shows that players believe the world model is sophisticated enough to include police racial profiling.
Even if GTA V’s police did racially profile, though, that wouldn’t necessarily make the game racist because depicting racism isn’t the same as being racist. Glorifying racial profiling is different than depicting it negatively or neutrally including it and letting players decide what to think about it. I think there ought to be games with racist and sexist characters. Games can be art, among other things, and interesting art doesn’t just show us how the world should be, it also explores how it is. There will always be debate about whether a depiction including race (gender, etc.) simply deals with racism or encourages it, because there’s no easy, universally agreed-upon way to determine the answer. That’s why we have art—to delve into complicated issues.
This leaves the door open for even well-meaning depictions of social issues like sexism and racism to have sexist or racist effects. The designers might be unintentionally insensitive or offensive, or players might overlook a critique or neutral depiction of sexism and just agree with the sexism instead. This is a risk we need to be willing to take as a society. The alternative is only allowing “correct” attitudes to be depicted in art, which is ridiculous.
Which brings us back, though, to games that are sexist or racist either centrally or peripherally. These can have a negative effect on players, though they won’t always and it won’t always be a major effect. I came out of my playthrough of GTA V disgusted by its sexism rather than tempted by it. But particularly if someone is already inclined toward sexism (etc.), spending dozens of hours with games that treat women like objects to use sexually (in-game or in cutscene rewards), protect in escort missions, and otherwise objectify them can make ideas of women as boring and useless seem normal and acceptable. It definitely happens that individuals and groups enjoy the sexist elements of a game and encourage each other’s enjoyment of it, thereby further normalizing it.
This is bad, even if it’s the lesser evil in a free society. It won’t ever disappear, but we gamers can help minimize it. We can advocate for a society of gender (etc.) equality and fight the normalization of sexism by irresponsible social forces, including art and entertainment. We can let game developers and publishers know, through buying habits and the public discussions we have about games, that we’d prefer interesting characters rather than stereotyped depictions of whole groups.
And, perhaps most awkwardly, we can be honest with ourselves about what we like and want. I think racism in games will improve before sexism does, because sexism is tied up with eroticism, which will never go away because, well, humans like sex. Which is not a bad thing (also for the survival of the species). But it would be a step in the right direction if female characters had more interesting roles in more games instead of primarily serving as weak idiots in need of protection who cause problems or are just there to be ogled and provide sex. There is a place for escapism and a place for enjoying looking attractive people (and game characters), but we’ll be better off—as individuals and as a society—if we think about what the downsides of objectification are and where we draw the line. We can do this without censorship through what we reward in the market and how we talk about and understand games and what we like about them.
Also, don’t be a dick in multiplayer chat. Even if you’re thirteen, but especially if you’re playing with thirteen-year-olds who don’t need the encouragement.