Playing with prejudice in videogames (Burgess et al., 2011)

We need a crowdsource content analysis system. I poured over many videogames content analysis studies and realized how outdated their data when their results get published. I read Melinda Burgess (Southwestern Oklahoma State University), Karen Dill (Fielding Graduate University) and company’s Media Psychology article and their data came from 2005. In fact, many of the latest content analysis studies are in that time period. By the time these studies are published, the virtual gaming demographics may have changed due to a variety of possible pressures, such as sales trends, videogame fandom or relevant events (e.g. Resident Evil 5).

The basic structure of a crowdsource videogame content analysis system would be a wiki-style database. Any user can enter entries on videogame characters with sourced information (e.g. game manuals, in-game information, game-specific wikis, etc.). These users would then categorize these characters according to strong and easy-to-understand guidelines, starting with demographical characteristics (i.e. sex, age, ethnicity, etc.). Beyond demographics, we can categorize them to the weapons they use, and associated tropes (narrative, behavioral, visual and personality). I’m not sure if there’s any enthusiasm for such project, but this little idea would serve as a public and cultural good for gamers as census data serves as a public good for a nation. That and it would serve as useful data for some cross-over videogames.

Anyways, let’s take a look into what videogames were like seven years ago.


A content analysis of top-selling video game magazines (Study 1) and of 149 video game covers (Study 2) demonstrated the commonality of overt racial stereotyping. Both studies revealed that minority females are virtually absent in game representations. Study 1 revealed that, in video game magazines, minority males, underrepresented generally, were more likely to be portrayed as athletes or as aggressive, and less likely to be depicted in military combat or using technology, than White males. Study 2 also showed evidence of the “dangerous” minority male stereotype in video game covers. Again, underrepresented overall, minority males were overrepresented as thugs, using extreme guns, and also as athletes. Study 3, an experiment, exposed players to both violent and nonviolent games with both White and Black characters. Participants were faster at classifying violent stimuli following games with Black characters and at classifying nonviolent stimuli following games with White characters, indicating that images of popular video game characters evoke racial stereotypes.

I got invited to Penn State College of Communications’ open house. I am very excited in meeting with the faculty there.

The study’s theoretical impetus is media stereotyping of minorities. Prior research on stereotypes showed that viewers who watched stereotyped black characters (i.e. aggressive, criminal, hostile, etc.) tend to be more apprehensive when approached by a black person. The same thing occurs for other minorities, such as children’s misconception of Chinese possessing martial arts skills. Black videogame characters may not be real, but they are constructed from the same cultural information that other media rely on. Thus, videogames repeat the thematic stereotypes of ethnic minorities.

Study 1

Study 1 is a content analysis of videogame characters depicted in videogame magazines. The six top-selling videogame magazines of January 2006 issues were selected. The magazines were PC Gamer, Electronic Gaming Monthly, Game Informer, Computer Gaming World, GamePro, and Official Xbox Magazine. They sampled every page of these issues and selected the largest human images in each page for their analysis. This produced 482 images for analysis, of which 362 were male and 120 were female.

The images were coded according to several categories: race, hypermasculinity (e.g. unnaturally large muscles), aggression, war/military aggression, fighting, athletics and use of technology.

Their chi-square analyses found that white male characters represented 76.4% of the images that is more than the U.S. population of 65.1%. Hypermasculinity was coded among whites (21.2%) and minorities (29%). 68.8% of the images portrayed aggression where whites (66.4%) were less likely to be portrayed than their minority counterparts (76.8%). War/military aggression was mostly portrayed by white males (8.1%), no surprise there for FPS games, although it is rather interesting that diversity is not at top of the marketing department’s mind. Fighting is unsurprisingly portrayed more by minority male characters (50.9%) than whites (37.8%). Athletic were coded more often to minorities (18.8%) than whites (8.1%). Use of technologies were coded more often to whites (13.9%) than minorities (5.8%). The authors found that minorities (94.2%), especially blacks (100%) were often portrayed as athletic, aggressive or both more so than whites (74.4%). The authors argued that the differential portrayal of technology and athleticism are consistent with minority stereotypes (i.e. Blacks are more athletic, but not so intelligent).

As for female representation, fewer than five were Hispanic or Black or 14 minority female characters in contrast to the dominant white female characters (N = 106). This is a not surprising finding given that videogame magazine target the young white male demographics.

Of the magazines analyzed in their content analysis, only four are still in existence (CGW and GamePro issued their last magazines about a year ago). Furthermore, I am unsure whether these magazines are important sources of information for today’s gamer as the internet has advantages over print through rapidity, and accessibility to new information. A new direction and something more relevant would be an analysis of videogame websites’ advertisements, and perhaps they can start with kotaku, gamespot and IGN. Another interesting thought is to examine the composition of videogame journalists, I’m pretty sure that female videogame journalists are a minority as well. Such composition would certainly give academics some clues to what steers the videogame discourse and culture to a certain slant or status quo.

Study 2

A content analysis of videogame covers from the summer of 2005. The sample is 225 videogame covers taken from an earlier study (seriously?), which contained the top 50 videogames sold for the Xbox, Playstation 2 and Nintendo Gamecube. *sigh* They distilled their sample to include only human characters on those covers, the resulting number is 149 videogames.

The covers were coded for rating, role of the characters, positioning of the characters, genre, and type of weapons used. In addition, they were coded with same categories from study 1.

The results found that White males were overwhelming shown on the covers than minorities (77.6% vs. 33.4%) whereas Blacks and Hispanics were underrepresented when compared to the U.S. population. White males were often positioned into foreground (64.8%) more so than the others (Asian: 37.5%; Blacks: 50%; Hispanic and others: 36.7%). The same is true for whites (79.2%) were portrayed as the primary characters than Asians (5.9%), Blacks (9.6%) and others (5.2%). Even controlling for multiple characters, white males are more likely to been shown solo (47.7%) than the others (14.2%) as they often have to share cover space (85.7%).

Differences in portrayal between age rated games have shown that there were no differences for E-rated games, but differences were found where white males show up more often in T-rated games whereas minorities showed up more often in M-rated games.

Differences in aggressive portrayal found that minorities are more likely to engage in illicit violence (e.g. gangsterism; 35.3%) whereas whites are more likely to engaging in socially sanctioned violence (e.g. War; 74.4%). Interestingly, Asian characters (44.4%) were shown to use hands as their weapons more so than whites (20.3%). Unsurprisingly, Blacks (32%) were portrayed as athletes than whites (4.6%).

Blacks are athletes or unprovoked social menaces with extreme weapons; Asians are martial artists; Hispanics are in short supply. White men fight in fantasy realms or defend their country in heroic war settings. Alien characters outnumber minority males. Women of color are invisible.

I think this quote is the gist of all those numbers.

My criticisms are the possible sagging relevance of videogame covers among today’s gamers. I have yet heard of any studies that examined information seeking behaviours (thank you very much OSU faculty for this exposure, especially C.J.L.) for buying videogames and whether videogame covers are important. Perhaps this is relevant among indecisive customers (e.g. parents) who judge videogames by its covers, but for the cost-conscious, loyal fans, obnoxious connoisseurs or perhaps children may rely on different sources (e.g. word of mouth) in their purchasing behaviours. Second, the internet noticed cultural differences (Japanese, European and American) in videogame covers that it is often told that American covers are more action-oriented and has more manliness injected in them. In contrast, Japanese covers possess more of a relaxing-tone, cute and expose more female skin. I have downloaded the top 100 videogames of 2010 from the American and Japanese markets and have yet committed to a systematic analysis. I would like to thank the users of Gamefaqs for providing the covers for everyone to see. Third, we should start looking at online retailers like Steam and Origin as they have covers and trailers in coaxing my wallet open.

The American version has more action than the more serene Japanese version

Study 3

Study 3 is an experiment examining the effects of portraying minority videogame characters to the weapons bias. The weapons bias is a cognitive bias where people are more likely to mistaken a black person holding a gun or weapon. This was found through an experimental paradigm where individuals were exposed in milliseconds to a picture of either a black face or a white face and to judge the following a picture according to an outcome variable (e.g. identifying guns vs. neutral objects, violent vs. non-violent settings, etc.). The experiment examined the effects of the weapons bias in terms of character race (Black vs. White), violence of the game (violent vs. non-violent) to the outcome variable (weapons vs. neutral objects).


Participants: 39 undergraduate students (26 females and 13 males). (Why is it so small? Was it conducted in just two weeks? Where’s the statistical power? Justify this sample!)


Modern Racism Scale: a measure of explicit stereotypes. None of the participants reported any overt racial stereotype attitudes.

Photos for the outcome variable included swords, axes and such as the violent pictures whereas cellphone, camera and such were used as the neutral pictures.

Videogames used

30 second clips from The Bouncer, Raw vs. Smackdown 2006, Soul Calibur 3, and Urban Reign were used as the violent videogames stimuli.

30 second clips from The Sims 2, SSX 3, Tony Hawk Underground were used as the non-violent videogames stimuli.


Participants were given a practice session where they watched a 30-second clip from a non-violent videogame and when it is finished they were asked to identify the following picture as either violent or non-violent by pressing the corresponding key, that picture was briefly shown for 250 milliseconds.

The experimental session was split in half. The first half involved showing twelve randomly drawn videogame clips. After each clip, participants were asked to identify three pictures that were shown briefly for 250 milliseconds each. The second half is the same procedure, except the pictures were redistributed to different clips.

Afterwards, participants completed the Modern Racism Scale and then debriefed.


Participants’ reaction times were analyzed for weapons bias. Two students were excluded from the analysis because of their outlier responses (one took very long to answer and the other makes mistakes all the time, trolling bastards…).

ANOVA analysis revealed that male participants were faster in identifying the pictures. Violent pictures were identified (M = 426.33ms) faster than nonviolent pictures (M = 460.32ms). There were no main effect for the violence clip conditions, but an interaction between race and violent pictures was found in that violent pictures were identified faster (M = 412.84ms) when paired with black characters. White characters pairing was slower (M = 439.83ms) and black and neutral pictures pairing was also slower (M = 463.66) in comparison to the white pairing (M = 456.98). Curiously, these analyses were based from the correct responses to the pictures, but I don’t know why they would not consider looking into mistaken responses, especially interesting if participants who were primed by Black characters were more likely to identify all pictures as violent.

Quite interesting in that the weapons bias holds sway within the supposedly fantasy and graphically low resolution video clips. As the authors imply in their lines, gamers can deny as much as they can about the irrelevance of the media messages affecting them when the data show otherwise. Although, I wished they had more participants.  The absence of a main effect for violent vs. nonviolent warranted further study the authors commented.

The take-home message is pretty much in support to what many in gaming circles have been asking for: more racially diverse characters, less stereotyping, and more personable minority characters. Here’s a question to ponder (inspired by my history of animation class): if we can construct worlds that is limited by our imagination, why are we reconstructing facsimiles of real life in videogames?

Related readings: Sexism gender, Character design and the role of women in created worlds.

Burgess, M. C. R., Dill, K. E., Stermer, S. P., Burgess, S. R., & Brown, B. P. (2011). Playing with prejudice: The prevalence and consequences of racial stereotypes in video games. Media Psychology , 14 (3), 289-311. URL

2 thoughts on “Playing with prejudice in videogames (Burgess et al., 2011)

  1. Pingback: Rassismus in Games |

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