Video games offer escapist fantasies in which we get to control, even virtually embody, an on-screen avatar. And most of the time, that avatar is a white guy. According to “The Virtual Census: Representations of Gender, Race and Age in Video Games,” a new study published in the journal New Media & Society by UCLA researcher Dmitri Williams, in the top-selling video games from 2005-2006, nearly 85% of primary characters were white, and 90% of them were male.
That’s way beyond the make-up of the U.S. population (which is 49% male and 75% white) and, for that matter, the gaming community (60% male). Women, African-Americans and Hispanics were all under-represented, while Asians — probably due to the immense influence of Japan’s game development industry — appear more frequently in games than in actual American society.
What this means is that if you’re a white male, your on-screen surrogate will likely resemble you in certain basic ways, making it easier for you to “enter” into the game’s fiction. And if you’re not a white male, you’re theoretically going to have to work a bit harder to achieve that same kind of connection. Such a situation isn’t exactly shocking — as Williams’ study notes, there have long been similar discrepancies in the world of television. And it’s not without its exceptions, the most revelatory of which was “Metroid”‘s bombshell that intergalactic explorer Samus Aran was, upon removing her helmet, female. But examples like that are rare, and considering that one of the central aims of video games is to create a bond between player and character, the current white male-dominant paradigm is a little perplexing, especially in light of the industry’s desire to become a mass media juggernaut, as well as the strong, loyal fanbases of games amongst minority groups.
The gap between what people look like on screen in games, TV shows and (to a lesser extent) movies and how they look in real life has to have consequences on the sense of identity and self-worth of underrepresented demographics. Sure, actors and actresses have always been thinner, better groomed and more beautiful than the average man or woman on the street, but in gaming, where there’s the added freedom of characters being designed creations, the fact that they also tend to end up whiter is troubling.
Why, despite multiple platforms, myriad genres and an ever-expanding number of customers, do so many A-list game titles resort to the same old hero? Niche products like “LittleBigPlanet,” “Braid” and “Scribblenauts” (to name a few idiosyncratic gems) don’t hew to convention. And “Halo,” for all its clichés, wisely keeps Master Chief masked at all times, the better to let gamers of all shapes and sizes imagine that he resembles them. But, these exceptions aside, stock types are dominant: the macho commando (“Gears of War”‘s Marcus Fenix, “Call of Duty”‘s grunts); the rugged superspy or swashbuckler (“Metal Gear Solid”‘s Solid Snake, “Uncharted”‘s Nathan Drake); the thuggish underworld criminal (“Grand Theft Auto”‘s various hoods); and, for girls, the impossibly thin, buxom female badass (“Wet”‘s Rubi).