Fair play? does not play fair about video games By Richard Volkman

Are video games sending kids the wrong messages about race and gender? A new study of popular video games purports to show that “the messages found in video games are indeed cause for concern.” Unfortunately, the methodology of the study is deeply flawed in both its design and its execution. “Fair Play? Violence, Gender and Race in Video Games” raises important questions about the content of video games. It is a matter of serious concern to ponder how well women and people of color are treated by the digital culture emerging around us. But the study draws highly dubious and politically charged conclusions from absurdly bad evidence. It adds nothing to our understanding of the digital culture and even distracts us from the real message of that culture.

The study was sponsored by Children Now, which describes itself as “a nonpartisan, independent voice for children, working to translate the nation’s commitment to children and families into action.” In this case, “Children Now calls upon game makers to make a concerted effort to develop video games in ways that can deliver healthy messages to our kids.” The study sets out to “examine the top-selling video games for each of the seven different game systems.” They conclude that “video games often glorify violence, ignore women and people of color and reinforce stereotypes about them.” Their research method was simple: the researchers played the first level of the top ten most popular titles of the seven platforms in question, and analyzed the content of these titles with respect to violence and the treatment of minorities. On the face of it, an examination of popular titles seems to be a perfectly reasonable way to find out whether or not video games send “unhealthy social messages.” However, further reflection makes it clear that this sort of study cannot possibly justify their conclusions.

Any undergraduate student of scientific method should know that conclusions about a population cannot be determined from a sample of that population unless the sample is random. Of course, the list of top-selling titles is the very opposite of a random sample. The list specifies a very distorted sample that has been explicitly selected by the current users of video games on the basis of their own criteria. The resulting data shows nothing whatsoever about the content of video games taken as a whole, and it cannot sustain the claim that game makers ought to change their offerings.

Since the current users of games are widely known to be predominantly boys, the impact of this mistaken methodology is most obvious in the study’s criticism that video games are not “Girl-Friendly.” It should come as no surprise that analyzing the content of titles selected for their popularity will overwhelmingly reflect the interests of boys.

This is not some philosophical fine point, as it completely flips subject of the study on its head. “Fair Play?” is not a study of what game makers produce at all. To the contrary, it is an examination of what game consumers purchase. To cite the conclusions of this study as evidence that game makers ought to change the content of their titles is completely wrongheaded. To make that case, one would have to show that game makers have NOT produced games that are, for example, Girl-Friendly. All this study shows is that such games are not as popular with game players, and that is hardly an argument for increasing the number of such titles.

In order to sustain their conclusion that game makers are sending unhealthy messages to youth, one would have to show that racially diverse and “Girl Friendly” titles do not exist or are not sufficiently promoted. This is manifestly untrue, as even a cursory examination demonstrates. Such titles not only exist, they positively thrive (though few of them would make the top-ten list of their respective platforms). In fact, the core values of the digital culture are underrepresented in this methodology almost by definition, since the information age empowers a true diversity borne of the ability to serve niche audiences. Video games are clearly not a mass media, serving a single message to a captive audience. The authors of “Fair Play?” seem completely ignorant of this profound difference between the digital age media of video games and traditional media like television.

The authors betray an even deeper ignorance of digital culture in their assertions about racial diversity in video games. To take a concrete example, as I examined the list of games studied, I found several titles from the Pokemon series. As the father of a five-year-old, I am an unwitting expert with respect to this genre. So I had to wonder what on earth they did to categorize the race of Brock, Ash, and Misty – the main human protagonists of the Pokemon saga. As anyone who has watched one of the cartoons or played one of the games can attest, these characters are racially ambiguous, blending Japanese and American traits until it is impossible to tell which was intended. In fact, this ambiguity itself is almost certainly intended. This kind of stylized racial ambiguity is not confined to the Pokemon series. Indeed, it is one of the hallmarks of the Anime or Japanimation scene, and finds expression in countless other artifacts of digital culture. On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog. (http://www.unc.edu/courses/jomc050/idog.html)

To illustrate the real character of the emerging digital culture, one must eschew the tallying of raw numbers in favor of actually understanding the games and the culture they represent. One needn’t travel far to find clear counterexamples to the points in the study. To this end, here is a highly unscientific sample of the games in my home. NFL 2K2 is a pro-football simulation. There are no female characters in this game, but I am confident this does not send any “unhealthy messages.” There happen not to be any women who play professional football. This might be contrasted with Backyard Football, one of my son’s favorites. Although it is a football game, it does not attempt to simulate the professional league. And, fittingly, girls are among the players. (Some of them are among the best players on their teams. “Pick Keisha! Pick Keisha! She can block really good!” as my son explains.) The arcade classic Gauntlet is a favorite in my household, and includes characters of various races and genders. It rewards cooperative gameplay (one of the “Girl Friendly” features cited in the study), and the diversity of one’s party makes a direct contribution to the success of one’s quest. Of course, it’s the diversity of abilities that matters in the game, not a diversity of race and gender. I don’t find anything unhealthy in that. Finally, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 has recently gotten a lot of play around here, and it also features a racially diverse cast of characters. This is a game about a sport dominated by men and marketed to boys, but it includes a competitive female character and the ability to create characters of one’s own. Surely this is far more revealing of the state of digital culture than noting that the game includes thirteen men and one woman. I really can’t tell which of the characters might be Latino or Asian, but several are Black. Does that matter?

My favorite game of the past year is Oni. In many ways, this game is as much a work of art and literature as a video game. (It is hardly a work of great art or great literature – this is still an immature medium, after all.) In the game, one plays the role of Konoko, a genetically altered cop of the future, who must uncover and stop a fiendish plot in the face of betrayal and the revealing of her own personal demons. The story is boilerplate action thriller material, cast in the style of anime, but it is the first game I have played to actually immerse me in its story and make me care about its characters. This game says a great deal about the real messages of the digital culture: the audience (mostly men) is invited to play a tough but sensitive racially-ambiguous woman. In the course of the action, one must make difficult moral as well as tactical judgments that affect the outcome of the game, and in agonizing over these decisions one actually feels the emotions of this character, from the inside. The real message of digital culture: a geeky white guy can contemplate the inner life of a powerful, racially ambiguous woman with purple hair. This is a healthy message.