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Punishing Blackness One Avatar at a Time: Why Criminologists Should Care More About Video Games

By: , Posted on: June 6, 2014

Race, Gender, and Deviance in Xbox LiveWhy should criminologists care about video games? The bulk of the literature focuses heavily on the criminogenic effects of video games which is an important aspect to investigate. However, this skews our understanding of video games. What Race, Gender, & Deviance in Xbox Live offers is an alternate approach to studying video games which is useful for not only criminologists, but others who are interested in seeing the digital manifestation of real world problems.

Two particular issues that this book concerns itself with is the stereotypical representations of marginalized bodies (women, people of color, poor Whites) as well as the perpetual state of criminal that Black males are mediated into. Video games, as a subset of larger mediated structures, are not exempt from this trend.

A recent study conducted by researchers at the Ohio State University found that, White players who adopt Black characters are more likely to exhibit aggression and express strongly negative attitudes toward blacks, even after ending the game (Edwards 2014). The study also showed that those who played as Black avatars were more likely to agree with statements like “it’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if Blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as Whites.” Similar to other types of media (movies, music, etc), the argument has always been that negative representations of Blacks extends beyond the media. Much of this stereotyping is disseminated through the media by the character. Characters are written in from privileged lenses and from a privileged perspective of the world. Whoever is in charge of the narrative that gets deployed in movies or video games has a skewed or limited view of women or people of color. This skewed POV is reflected in the stories told of marginalized characters. Below is an example to illustrate this point.

In Chapter 1 of the text, you are introduced to a Black character in the famous series, Gears of War, Augustus Cole. He speaks in a manner one might refer to as ‘jive’ or highly stereotypical Black speech (think 1970’s Blaxploitation movies). Some may argue that his speech largely mirrors Black vernacular or Ebonics but the original intent and purpose behind Jive has been lost. Jive was a manner of speaking in code for Black Americans so Whites would not understand what they were saying. Jive, and other alternative forms of speech for Blacks were a form of protest, defense mechanisms, and methods of deriving pleasure from something those not familiar with the language would be unable to understand. It has evolved overtime with traces of it living within Ebonics. I contend that Cole Train’s speech is not a savvy way of speaking, as Jive intended, but rather suggests that he is less than his Standard American English speaking counterparts. Media and popular culture have co-opted Black vernacular suggesting that it adds to the marketing appeal of ‘commodified ghetto cool.’

This co-opting of culture is a means to reduce and simplify Black characters, making them appear ignorant.  This racialization of characters is a common practice not only in video games, but in movies, TV, and news as well.  This particular discourse serves “dominant actors to maintain domination” (Germond-Duret 2012: 138), or in this case, Black masculinity is shown as inferior to White masculinity confirming and sustaining its domination (Gray 2014, p. 15-16).

Cole Train’s character reflects a type of character that we often see within video gaming (and other media). This is a dangerous narrative because it is the only one deployed. There is no other story told of Black America. The mediated story of the Black man is limited and situated within buffoonery (comedy) or crime. Media outlets have created essentialist notions about Blackness and what it means to have an ‘authentic’ Black experience. Those who play Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas really believe they are having an ‘authentic’ experience in the lives of Blacks. As bell hooks explains, essentialism posits that for any specific kind of concept, there is a set of characteristics or features that that thing must possess.  Universalist notions of Blackness and Whiteness limit our understanding; we are all more diverse that what we see portrayed in media. And media, in this sense is able to construct and maintain oppression, exploitation, and overall racial domination of the powerful over the powerless.

So can video games (as other media) ever get it right? Media, as well as other social institutions, operate under this colorblind ideology that suggests that we are all equal. Colorblindness creates a society that denies the negative experiences of people of color, rejects minorities’ cultural heritage, and invalidates the unique experience of being a person of color in America. Bonilla-Silva contends that the new racism is difficult to detect because colorblind ideology camouflages racial practices. So if we were to critically interrogate characters like Cole Train, CJ from San Andreas, or any host of others, colorblindness would not allow us to racialize these characters and situate them in a larger reality that devalues marginalized experiences. We do the same thing in the real world (physical spaces). We don’t examine the larger structural inequalities that lead some individuals into crime. We don’t analyze the lasting vestiges of racism, sexism, slavery, Jim Crow, etc in trying to assess the current state of affairs for minorities.  Instead, we assume a Black pathology and think that Blacks (or other minorities) engage in criminal activity because they are somehow more deviant than other bodies. We must get the root of structural and institutional racism and recognize that we are all complicit in this system. Sure, we inherited the debt, but the current reality is ours to deal with. Video games is a useful place to start to begin investigating these issues and help others learn about the marginalized experience.

About Kishonna Gray

Kishonna GrayDr. Kishonna L. Gray is an Assistant Professor in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. She completed her PhD (2011) in Justice Studies at Arizona State University with a concentration in Media, Technology, & Culture. Dr. Gray’s research interests incorporate an intersecting focus on marginalized identities and new media. She has published in a variety of outlets including the Crime, Media, Culture,  Information, Communication, & Society, and the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication. For more information, visit her website at www.kishonnagray.com to view her blog on topics related to race, gender, new media, and popular culture. She also tweets from @DrGrayThaPhx.

 

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  • Lugard Sadoh

    Hi Dr Gray, met you at the conference on crime and media hosted by ISU. Looking forward to working with you from the perspective of blacks in Africa.

    Regards

    Lugard

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