While there has been significant coverage and discussion over whether video games increase violent or aggressive tendencies among children, it is less often discussed how video games can also affect ideas about gender roles and ethnicity. Video games can be used as a tool to deliver themes of racial justice.
It’s not surprising that video game developers are primarily white and male. According to a 2015 diversity report conducted by the International Game Developers Association, men were twice as likely to hold technical roles, and BIPOC were very underrepresented in higher management positions. Similarly, BIPOC are largely underrepresented in the field of graphic design. While more recently there has been an increase in participation in computer science courses for both women and BIPOC, historically, schools with higher populations of marginalized students have had less access to these courses.
A lack of representation in game developers and designers translates to a lack of representation in video games. Portrayals of women and BIPOC tend to mirror stereotypes, and games can even include themes of hyper-sexualization or violence against women. Popular titles such as World of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto, and Gears of War perpetuate racial stereotypes. This can be especially detrimental for young children who may develop ideas about gender roles and ethnicity from the games they are playing.
Rather than enforcing stereotypes, video games developers can instead address themes of racism and racial justice. Chanhee Choi, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Washington Digital Arts and Experimental Media department, is currently working on a video game called “Pandemic 2020.” She was inspired to create the game after personally experiencing harassment for her South Korean identity at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“When I was wearing a mask alone in downtown, a man said, ‘Hey you, you f*cking Chinese, you brought coronavirus,’” Choi said. “I felt scared because I was worried he was going to beat me too.”
Choi also mentioned that recently a mutual friend’s grandmother was beaten in the face by strangers who were also blaming Asians as being responsible for COVID-19. Unfortunately, Choi’s experience is not unique. Around 40% of Asian Americans across the United States reported that others have acted uncomfortable around them since the outbreak, and around 30% have been subject to slurs or felt physically threatened.
Around 40% of Asian Americans across the United States reported that others have acted uncomfortable around them since the outbreak, and around 30% have been subject to slurs or felt physically threatened.
A few months into the pandemic, protests sparked nationwide following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers, as well as in response to the many years of police violence.
“The murder of George Floyd was really a tragedy too,” Choi said. “It’s not just being Asian, it’s more like the whole problem in the system — and the politics in America.”
Although Choi started Pandemic 2020 as a project to describe her experience with racism against Asians during this time, the theme morphed into an exploration of all racism in the United States. Being an interactive artist, Choi described the world she has created as “surrealistic” and “abstract.” But, she incorporates real life elements into her art, including themes of Asian culture, such as through different restaurants or karaoke clubs, and symbolism of the Black Lives Matter protests.
Pandemic 2020 starts out lighthearted, but then begins to incorporate more serious themes about racism and politics as the player, playing as a COVID-19 molecule, progresses through the seven stages of the game. Choi aims to finish the game with a more open-ended, spiritual, and hopeful tone.
“The chaos of this moment — the coming election and the widening cultural divide — all make us wonder what we can expect from the future,” Choi said. “We really can’t predict what will happen next, but we should try to find hope.”
The video game industry needs more women and BIPOC to both ensure that stereotypes are no longer perpetuated in games and also to create and share their stories with others. As Choi is sharing her personal experiences throughout her game, she also wants to provide others with the opportunity to reflect on their own experiences and those unfamiliar to them.
“It seems we are just watching our monitors like everything that is happening around us isn’t connected to the time or place in which we live,” Choi said. “I needed to describe the surrealistic struggle of this particular moment and engage with the people going through it with me.”
Last updated 11/4/20
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