Importance of Examining Race and Gender in Video Games

Research done on the American videogame industry in terms of race, age, and gender representation in video games shows a systematic overrepresentation of adults, whites, and males and the systematic underrepresentation of the elderly, children, Native Americans, Hispanics, and women. Nevertheless, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESR B) rating of games has been affected the age of people who play a given game (Williams, et al., 2009). A country like the US has a diverse population composed of numerous races. Therefore, the type of portrayal, absence, or presence of social groups in video games is very significant. The gender and race representation in video games is a proxy for other social forces, which means groups that receive more representations that others in the media enjoy more power and status. According to the ethnolinguistic vitality theory, the media functions as a mirror for prevailing social forces and societal perception and preferences, as well as their causal agent (Williams, et al., 2009). Hence, measuring the race and gender disparities that exist in video games can form a clear picture of the disparities that exist in the formation of social identity, policy formation, and social power in daily life.

Examining race in games is important because different racial groups play video games, and understanding how race and gender impact the gaming industry can help us understand the place of gender and race in a larger societal context. Research has shown that Latino children, on average, play more video games in comparison to white children, which may also mean they play more as adults and teenagers. However, Latinos are less likely to see primary Latino characters in the games. Based on the social identity theory, the absence of Latinos in games is directly linked to the notion that Latinos are less important than the overly represented whites (Williams, et al., 2009). A game like GTA: San Andreas is an example of how race drew criticism and scrutiny from numerous sectors. A game like GTA: Vice City was also subjected to extreme criticism based on how it represented numerous diverse ethnic groups, in a story bound setting, which resembled Florida, Miami. Representatives from Caribbean American, Latino American, Italian American groups were infuriated at the depictions of their communities in the game. The San Andreas version was criticized for depicting African American males as criminals and hyper-violent (De Vane & Squire, 2008). Critics of the game indicate the portrayal of Latino and African American communities as epicenters for criminality and violence both provide young individuals with negative role models and foster discriminatory stereotypes.

In the 1980s, only a few female characters were in video games and they were featured in gender-stereotyped. The trend continued in the 1990s where women were sexually objectified, with the top-selling games showing partially nude women, inappropriately dressed for the tasks they were engaging in, like characters supposed to be nurses but skimpily clothed with exposed breasts or cleavages (Lynch, et al., 2016). The introductory films of games show female characters with provocative clothes, emphasized buttocks, and prominent breasts. Women in some games are portrayed to be fragile and delicate, and they can only play supporting roles to men (Perreault, et al., 2018). This has led to the harmful theme of benevolent sexism, where the men are portrayed as the protectors of fragile and weak women. The other harmful theme is hostile sexism, which emanates from the notion of women gaining control over men through sex and sexual dominance over the men. These harmful themes have culminated in harmful stereotypes being showcased in video game content and exposed to young people who have malleable minds and end up internalizing this violent or sexist content (Lynch, et al., 2016).

Semiotic Spaces and Motivations for Playing Video Games

A semiotic space is defined as a set of known spatial relations. A game like GTA has numerous possibilities that draw in players and culminate in distinctive trajectories via space instantiates (De Vane & Squire, 2008). This is a “field of meaning” delimited by authorial intent and power social discourses, yet expanded by the reader’s productive subjectivity. The field is significant because it has prescribed tendencies and set limits, but concurrently, the text gives the reader a construction kit for divergent and assorted meaning. Consequently, texts can be semiotic spaces, which are characterized by potential, instead of assigned meanings. This is an idea echoed in videogame scholarship, which regards games to be spaces, giving players different reasons for playing the game (De Vane & Squire, 2008). Games are rich in semiotic spaces, which are purposely designed to have numerous layers of meaning, which have different appeals to different players. The interpretation of GTA: San Andreas was shaped by mass media discourses, and how players interpreted the semiotic space was excessively accented by their gaming disposition, giving players different perspectives of the game and consequently playing the game (De Vane & Squire, 2008). Therefore, in the GTA: San Andreas, the semiotic space is varied and rich to give a player a more productive agency in comparison to the usual reader. Players can contest prevailing space meanings, as well as incessantly reconstruct the game as texts via their play choices (De Vane & Squire, 2008).

Women Representation in the Video Game Industry

Video games are a source of entertainment for both boys and girls; women and men. Nevertheless, by 2014, women were only 22% of total employees in the video game industry. The gaming industry has relatively been perceived to be full of masculine activity. The emergence of video game technology in the US was in the 1950s and 1960s, and it was closely linked with the blossoming of the computer industry. In the 1970s, the computer industry only employed women in jobs that did not require complex technical skills, offered limited upward mobility, and provided lower salaries in comparison to the male employees (Ochsner, 2019). Gender discrimination suppressed the participation of women and ignited an unswerving gender disparity in technological fields, hence the lower number of women designers in the video game industry. The fewer women in the video game industry were as a result of the inherited gender disparity in the software and computer science fields, where women undertook limited roles in these fields. In the late 1980s, women only represented 3% of the developers’ workforce.

The video game industry is characterized by institutionalized sexism. Women who are in male-dominated professionals encounter unsupportive environments and encounter unwelcoming peers and bosses (Ochsner, 2019). The film industry is characterized by the absence of female input in creative development due to the negative depictions of female characters, which has also been evidenced in the gaming industry. The male perspective has dominated the gaming industry, which has led to limited female input, even at the development stages of the game. The sexualized portrays of women in video games has also limited the number of female developers in video games.

Women can be attracted to the video game industry by increasing the role of women in video games. Some games have tried and increased the role of women in video games like in Barbie and Mortal Kombat (Cote 2018). Such a move has encouraged more girls to play video games, which has consequently attracted more female game developers. Besides, increasing the input of women in game development will reduce the sexualization of women since these sexualized characters and storylines are created by men, and the inclusion of women in developing the characters and storylines will bring in gender parity. Movements like the Girls’ Games Movement should be initiated to make the gaming industry more gender-equitable. These movements will be vital in motivating girls to undertake technical courses like engineering, which will facilitate their entry into the gaming industry.

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