Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Not So Post Racial After All: Xbox Live and Real Racism in a Virtual World

Issues of race in gaming aren’t often discussed – but a study in the current issue of the New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia tackles the subject head-on. 
Kishonna L. Gray writes that in video-game culture, the default gamer is a white male. Those outside that privileged group are often marginalised, labelled ‘deviant’ and punished for their ‘deviance’. Women, ethnic minorities and people of colour are portrayed in a stereotypical manner, reinforcing notions of whiteness, blackness, racial hierarchies, masculinity and sexuality... 
 She uncovered disturbing patterns of behaviour and a space racialised by the profiling of non-white or non-male gamers by their speech. In particular, she found that some gamers picked up on linguistic cues from others that suggested they might be black. The black gamer would then be confronted about his colour and provoked by the use of racist slurs. Other gamers would often join in with the insults. The episode would end with one of the gamers leaving or being kicked out of the game, or the offended gamer retaliating with his own volleys of profanity and racist language.
I am eagerly waiting for BioShock 3 (I have surrendered to the fact that I will have to upgrade my video card and finally jump to Windows 7). Thus, this new article on the racial discourse of online video games is very well-timed.

[In my best NPR voice, our informal, random, few day fund-raising drive continues. If so inclined, and have some pennies or silver from your tax refund or found change from under the seat cushion, do throw a few into the begging bowl if you are feeling generous and would like to support We Are Respectable Negroes and Chauncey DeVega's various online efforts and mischief-making.]

We have discussed cyber racism several times here on WARN.

The attitudes of the "real world" are often mirrored by the virtual world. In the most extreme cases, white nationalists have become increasingly adept at using online media to share their message with prospective members. In addition, the White Right has also begun creating websites on issues related to race and justice in order to disseminate disinformation to an unaware public, with a specific focus on young, impressionable, students.

As "Deviant bodies, stigmatized identities, and racist acts: examining the experiences of African-American gamers in Xbox Live" details, the colorblind day-to-day racism of the post civil rights era is also present in the chat rooms, lobbies, and in-game spaces of online video games. The theories which have been developed to critically interrogate and map colorblind racism, such as how it has moved from the "front stage" to the "back stage," involves "harmless" racial humor and jokes, and where white folks can use the common deflection "I am not racist because I didn't mean it that way" are all present in Kishonna Gray's findings:
Most worryingly, such racism appears to be ‘normalised’ in the Xbox Live sessions she observed, with offended users rarely complaining. When Gray confronted the gamers who used racist language, they categorically denied being racist. They further defended themselves by claiming it was ‘just a game’, that the words they used were meaningless or that they would use the same offensive terms to refer to white people... 
Gray concludes that much of this abuse occurs and is allowed to continue because of the mistaken belief that black people, women and minorities are not gamers; the games themselves continue to be created by and for white males. Until gaming changes considerably, it would appear that only white males can leave their real-world identities behind when they enter the virtual world of Xbox Live.
In total, Kishonna Gray has authored a very useful article, both in how it summarizes the growing literature on race, racial attitudes and cyberspace, as well as for the ways in which it connects empirical work to some of the core theories on racial formation in the post civil rights moment.

As someone who plays video games, "Deviant bodies, stigmatized identities, and racist acts: examining the experiences of African-American gamers in Xbox Live" inspires several thoughts and questions.

1. I do not play first person shooters as much as I once did. However, I am still a sucker for the Call of Duty franchise. I will also be buying Far Cry 3 at some point. I have noticed that racist language is much more common by players in those games than in other genres. Is this a function of how those games are ostensibly skewed towards younger players? If so, what does the frequent use of racist language there say about "post racial" America and young people's racial attitudes?

2. These questions of race and racial ideologies are not limited to first person shooters. Real time and turn based strategy games have also had to grapple with these issues. This is especially true of those games which are "historically" based. 

I am a huge fan of the Total War series (when will we be treated to either a World War One or Crimean War expansion?). 

One of its more recent installments, Empire: Total War, is set in the 18th and 19th centuries. Given its role in the era, the designers therefore had to include the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the project. How did they massage this game mechanic? The designers do not refer to slavery directly; instead, they allow players to set up very lucrative "trade routes" along the West African coast. 

This is a practical business decision by the game designers as they do not want the controversy over the Maafa to overshadow Empire: Total War. But, were they also being intellectual cowards who could have had a "teachable moment" for players of the game? And what of the genocide of First Nations peoples? How do you model that in a game? Or is any effort just going to cheapen the real events?  

Moreover, the ways that individual players choose to interact with those game mechanics is also very fascinating to me--for example, I decided to play a land based country because I have no interest in being a virtual slaver. Other players could care less, or alternatively see the trade profits from slavery as too great to resist if they want to win the game.

Which RTS or turn based strategy game do you think best deals with the ugly side of history as modeled by a game mechanic? The Civilization series perhaps?

3. Interestingly, I have seen very little if any racism in Starcraft 2 matches online. I have seen no small amount of it in Company of Heroes. Does the latter just attract white nationalist wannabe types because they can play virtual soldier in Hitler's army? Are the folks who play the former too intense to be distracted by typing racist foolishness?


Sunkissed said...

If it weren't for party chat I would of quit xbox live years ago. My friends and I were big Halo fans, played it every night. I can tell you that the racist commentary was/is not confined to Call of Duty. For those who don't know, party chat is the ability to chat privately with up to 7 of your online friends. Before party chat you could only private chat with just one other person which meant that when more friends came online you had no choice but to talk in public. Public chat is a nightmare, I go into party chat even if none of my friends are online. Xbox live is only enjoyable when the community is muted.
It's not just war games either. My friends fiance liked to play Uno but she stopped because white supremacist were using there xbox cameras to display swastikas and spout racist garbage to her.
I don't know if PS3 has the same issues, I don't game online with it. I think xbox is notorious because each system was packed with a headset. PS3's don't come with free headsets. I hear Sony will pack PS4 with headsets though so I wonder if their online community will see the same phenomena.

chauncey devega said...

Uno? They ruined Uno of all things. Racism is a mental illness. Truly. I always kill the chat function on games I have no interest in hearing people's foolishness.

I am going to get an XBox when it drop in price. The 99 dollar deal is a scam if you look at the details.

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Wavenstein said...

PS3 is rife with racism in the online gaming community,
Whenever a person "sounds too black" someone will be ready and willing to call that person a nigger. It's happened to me and my brother countless times. I once had a PSN "friend" who I used to play Call of Duty 4 with for about 9 months. We would team up together and absolutely dominate, He had a headset and I did not so he would just tell me the game plan and we'd execute it during the match.He would talk to me all the time urging me to get a headset so we could effectively communicate back and forth. He was always very friendly towards me and i thought the guy was cool. I finally get around to getting a headset and when he hears my black voice there was nothing but awkward silences and lame excuses to get out of the game. He unfriended me about a week after that and he had been ignoring within that same week, That was pretty messed up man.

chauncey devega said...

And they say racism is disappearing in American life? Public life, yes, it is very much diminished. In private spaces. Not so much.

Wavenstein said...

backstage racism is a very real ordeal.

Sunkissed said...

In my experience it's usually early teen white males that spit the most racial venom. The stereotype of the 12 year old homophobic, racist who just learned curse words on xbox holds much truth. Older white males don't seem to engage in this type of behavior at least on xbox. But like I said that's my experience. I wonder if it's some kind of unofficial rite of passage that some white males go through until they graduate to more sophisticated forms of racism?

MrV said...

I appreciate that so many crappy people are happy to broadcast to the world what miserable people they are. Honestly, when I see this sort of behavior, that person has just marked themselves as my new "special friend."

Charles M Simmons said...

I can co sign the racism in UNO. Many times due to having a black avatar I had people harass me and leave the game session. One time I had a black guy swore I didn't sound "black enough" and was a white kid trolling.

He wanted me to prove my "blackness" by asking me who" Jay Z is and naming some of his songs. SMH.

In Left 4 Dead 2 I would have people start a boot vote to as soon as I enter a game and have time to check my profile or when they enter the room even when I been carrying the team most of the time.