Imagine a world in which 85 percent of the people are male and 80 percent are white. A world in which women and members of other races are a token presence, with most assuming passive, subsidiary roles.
Corporate America, circa 1950? Try the present-day world of video games.
In "The Virtual Census," a paper just published in the journal New Media & Society, a group of researchers led by Dmitri Williams of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication analyzed an array of best-selling video games and the characters who populate them. They found that, compared to the demographic makeup of both the gaming community and the nation as a whole, whites and males are strikingly overrepresented in this hugely popular entertainment medium.
"Male characters are vastly more likely to appear than female characters," they report, noting that 85.2 percent of characters in their survey are male. If you consider only "primary" characters — that is, those whose actions are controlled by the player — the percentage of males rises to nearly 90 percent.
Whites make up 80 percent of game characters, with blacks representing just under 11 percent and Hispanics just under 3 percent. Whites make up nearly 85 percent of "primary" characters.
The researchers looked at the top 150 games sold between March 2005 and February 2006, with at least 15 from each of the nine major gaming systems, including Xbox 360 and PlayStation 2. Each game was played by an expert player for 30 minutes on the default setting; those sessions were recorded and later coded in terms of their characters' race, gender and age. A total of 8,572 characters were recorded. The study was limited to the games' human characters. Monsters, aliens and other nonhuman creatures were counted in the census, but excluded from this analysis.
"Each game was weighted by the number of copies that it sold, meaning that a game selling four million copies figured twice as heavily in the computations as a game selling two million copies," they wrote. They found that "the most popular games were the ones with larger imbalances."
The researchers considered the most likely explanation for these findings is a combination of developer demographics (a 2005 survey found 88 percent of game developers are males) and "perceived ideas about game players among marketers" (who tend to think of game players as young white men).
"From a business and marketing viewpoint, game developers (appear to) be missing substantial opportunities for making games for different audiences," they write. "Women, at 38 percent of game players but only 15 percent of characters, are the most underserved. Latinos, who play more per day than whites and form 12.5 percent of the population, are only 2 percent of characters."
The researchers suggest this imbalance has potential psychological implications for members of the underrepresented groups. "Latinos are unlikely to see representations of their ethnic group among game characters, and never as primary characters," they note. "According to social identity theory, this lack of appearance is a direct signal to Latinos that they are relatively unimportant and powerless."
And one they also receive from other media sources.
"The findings have a striking similarity to those typically found in content analyses of television, suggesting that whatever causal forces are at work stretch across media, and are not unique to games," the researchers write. "With regard to race, the findings here nearly mirror Harwood and Anderson's television data, which found 82.9 percent white, 2.6 percent Latino, 11.4 percent black and 2.6 percent Asian characters."
In response to such studies, social critics often comment that such statistics will only change when there is more ethnic diversity among the people who create the programs. This new study suggests that may also be true of the gaming world.
As the researchers note: "The number of female characters (15 percent) comes much closer to the number of female game makers (11.5 percent) than the number of female players (38 percent). If the process were entirely player-driven, there would be far more female characters."
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