Videogames Make You Racist (apparently)

video games racism

Well, it’s official. Psychology now feels that “Black violent video game avatars not only make players more aggressive than do White avatars, they also reinforce stereotypes that Blacks are violent,” according to the abstract of a new study published by the Social Psychological & Personality Science, a short reports journal in social and personality psychology.

Entitled, “Effects of Avatar Race In Violent Video Games on Racial Attitudes and Aggression”, the study, conducted by  Ohio State University, suggests that white gamers may express more negative attitudes toward blacks after playing games and causing destruction as black characters.

In the first experiment of the study, 126 white students (60% male) played Saints Row 2. They were then randomly given a black or white avatar. Some were asked to perform a violent mission – breaking out of prison – while others were asked to drive around and find a specific chapel in the city.

After carrying out their specific tasks, the gamers with the black avatar and violent goal were more likely to express negative attitudes toward blacks than the group who played white characters. For instance, they were more likely to agreement with the statement “…if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.” When they took the Implicit Association Test (IAT), the group with the black avatar and violent goal took longer to link positive words such as ‘joy’ or ‘love’ with a black face than with a white face. They were also more likely to associate black faces with negative attributes.

To confound their findings, the team of psychologists then conducted a second experiment, which had 141 white students (65% female) play either WWE Smackdown vs. RAW 2010 or Fight Night Round 4, a wrestling and boxing game respectively with propensities for violence. Once again, they were assigned either a black or white character.

After playing their game, the students were given a different version of the IAT. This time they were shown pictures of black and white faces alongside pictures of weapons or nonviolent objects like cameras or phones. The group that had played as black avatars more commonly associated black faces with weapons.

Additionally, students who played a violent game with a black avatar showed more aggression than the students playing with a white avatar. After their play session, they were asked if they wanted to give hot sauce to a nonexistent partner after they told that the other person didn’t like spicy food. The group who controlled a black character in a violent game gave 115% more hot sauce than the white avatar group.

Of course, this may have to do with perceptions in the media about race at large, rather than gaming directly causing gamers to be more racist. Just look at this clip from Comedy Central’s Key & Peele to see what I’m talking about.


Noted University of Ohio communications and psychology professor Brad Bushman, who co-authored the study, believes that the experiments show that simply playing as a character of a different race doesn’t improve your attitude toward that race: the context of the game matters more.

“Usually, taking the perspective of a minority person is seen as a good thing, as a way to evoke empathy,” Bushman said. “But if white people are fed a media diet that shows blacks as violent, they don’t have a realistic view of black people. It isn’t good to put yourself in the shoes of a murderer, as you do in many of these violent games.”

While it’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to such a study, with mainstream media outlets such as US News & Report and the Daily Mail using the findings as yet another opportunity  to preach the modern day equivalent of fire and brimstone about the social ills of video games, the findings of the study do make a certain degree of sense.

Gamers, of course, are a diverse bunch, and this study doesn’t reflect that in the slightest. It’s not as though all gamers are straight white males, or straight white females. That’s not even remotely true. But what Bushman is attempting to say here is that not all gamers are created equal, and some will come into the game with predefined perceptions of violence and race, and that simply adding characters of different races to a game isn’t going to make gaming more inclusive as a hobby.

And that’s likely correct.

But where Bushamn shows his anti-videogame hand is in a a 2013 article he published at IHTP entitled ‘The Effects of Violent Video Games, Do They Influence Our Behavior?

In this article, Bushman opens with the idea that there are three reasons why video games are more harmful than violent TV programs and films. The following are the reasons that he lists:

  • “First, video game play is active whereas watching TV is passive. People learn better when they are actively involved. Suppose you wanted to learn how to fly an airplane. What would be the best method to use: read a book, watch a TV program, or use a video game flight simulator?
  • Second, players of violent video games are more likely to identify with a violent character. If the game is a first person shooter, players have the same visual perspective as the killer. If the game is third person, the player controls the actions of the violent character from a more distant visual perspective. In a violent TV program, viewers might or might not identify with a violent character. People are more likely to behave aggressively themselves when they identify with a violent character (e.g., Konijn et al., 2007)
  • Third, violent games directly reward violent behavior, such as by awarding points or by allowing players to advance to the next game level. In some games, players are rewarded through verbal praise, such as hearing the words “Nice shot!” after killing an enemy. It is well known that rewarding behavior increases its frequency. (Would you go to work tomorrow if your boss said you would no longer be paid?) In TV programs, reward is not directly tied to the viewer’s behavior.”

However, what Bushman fails to reconcile here, is what he says directly to the Daily Mail: that he believes that “The media has the power to perpetuate the stereotype that blacks are violent, and this is certainly seen in video games.”

This is a truism; that the media perpetuates racial stereotypes is undeniable; but here’s where Bushman lost me, and likely, most gamers as well: ‘This violent stereotype may be more prevalent in video games than in any other form of media because being a black character in a video game is almost synonymous with being a violent character.”

That statement shows a deep ignorance of the characters and storylines surrounding videogames; given that the vast majority of game protagonists are straight white males, the vast majority of violence carried out in video games is perpetuated by straight white males (just look at the way Bioshock Infinite handles and reconciles violence and race).

While this doesn’t invalidate Bushman’s findings by any means, it shows that he doesn’t understand his subject matter. ‘Effects of Avatar Race In Violent Video Games on Racial Attitudes and Aggression‘ only examines open-world sandbox games (Saints Row 2), where character avatar race is irrelevant to the storyline, and sports titles (WWE Smackdown vs. RAW 2010 and Fight Night Round 4), which don’t have a traditional narrative.

But what if the player were to actually identity emotionally with a minority character, such as The Prince in The Prince of Persia or John White in inFamous 2? Would they still experience heightened aggression solely due to the character’s race?

Perhaps another study is in order.


Daniel Horowitz

Daniel Horowitz

Daniel doesn't just play and write about games, but he also writes his own comics. He can usually be found arguing with Dale about who the best member of the X-Men is (it's Jamie Madrox, obviously)
Written By

Related posts