Video games: lots of dudes, little diversity

USC (US)—In the world of virtual reality, Hispanics are virtually invisible, according to the first comprehensive survey of video game characters. The new findings show males, whites, and adults are overrepresented in many top games.

The survey, which examined 150 games in nine platforms and all rating levels, indicates that fewer than 3 percent of video game characters were recognizably Hispanic, and all of them were non-playable, background characters, says study leader Dmitri Williams, a social psychologist and assistant professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

“Latino children play more video games than white children. And they’re really not able to play themselves,” Williams says. “For identity formation, that’s a problem. And for generating interest in technology, it may place underrepresented groups behind the curve.

“Ironically, they may even be less likely to become game makers themselves, helping to perpetuate the cycle. Many have suggested that games function as crucial gatekeepers for interest in science, technology, engineering, and math.”

Women, Native Americans, children, and the elderly also were underrepresented. For example, only 10 percent of playable characters surveyed were female, though women now make up 40 percent of video game players.

While African Americans appeared in proportion to their numbers in the real world, it was mainly in sports games or in titles that reinforce stereotypes, such as 50 Cent Bulletproof.

The study itself had two important limitations: Many games feature nonhuman characters, and many are first-person games where the player never sees himself or herself. The study only included visible characters that were clearly human.

Still, the breadth of the census and the growing popularity of video games make the findings especially relevant, Williams notes, considering total video game revenues now exceed box office and video rental receipts.

“In television, it was always a landmark moment when some minority or disenfranchised group appeared on the screen for the first time,” Williams adds.  “That kind of visibility is really the first step toward leading to public consciousness and equal treatment. These cultural markers matter.”

Although Williams cautions against jumping to conclusions, he offers a word of advice for game developers: “These are highly underserved groups. It’s a missed sales opportunity.”

The study is available online in the August issue of the journal New Media & Society.

Researchers from Indiana University, Ohio State University, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University contributed to the study, which was funded by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Williams began the research.

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