Last week we looked at how women are represented and treated in gaming culture (click here to check out that article), and while that situation poses a challenge, representation of racial and ethnic minorities presents an even bigger one. Looking at surveys taken over the last few years by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), we see caucasians representing anywhere from 68% to 81% of game developers, with those of Asian descent always coming in second with anywhere from 8-18% representation, Latinos at around 5-7%, and African Americans all the way down at 1-3%.
How did we get such a disparity here? The causes are many, and exist both inside and outside of the gaming industry. Gaming can be a rather expensive hobby, which means that those with wealth are more likely to buy games, or at least buy more of them and become more invested in gaming as a whole; they, in turn, are the ones most likely to become game developers themselves once they’ve reached adulthood and earned a degree or two. Since racial minority communities tend to be poorer than predominantly white ones, you won’t find as many people there who can afford to buy games in the first place. They also have fewer education opportunities and fewer pre-existing connections with those in game development, both of which make it more difficult to find jobs in this field; Derek Manns, a black developer speaking with Newsweek on the issue of racial diversity in gaming, emphasized the importance of knowing people already in the industry, stating that landing a job usually boils down to “Hey, I have a friend who can do this, and he’s a good guy.”
Another aspect of this challenge is the fact that most of the countries with both a wealthy enough economy to sustain a high-end tech field like gaming, as well as a stable political system, are the predominantly white nations in Europe and North America. Many of the poorer nations in Africa and Latin America are either unable to support a thriving industry, or are faced with economic/political challenges that currently keep them from realizing their potential. This means fewer developers and publishers from these nations, and fewer people from there moving to the West to find gaming jobs.
While many of the barriers discussed so far center on economic factors, it’s worth noting that cultural obstacles exist as well. The stigma of pursuing a career in an oddball field like gaming is easier to overcome when you come from a heavily individualistic community, which many white people do; those from minority communities, on the other hand, have a different experience. Kish Hirani, the chairman of a UK organization that seeks to attract more ethnic minorities to the game industry, highlights the barrier that he sees coming from within his own Indian cultural background:
Generally video games still suffer from the label of not being a “proper job” to a lot of people. But when you reflect this into ethnic minority communities it is amplified. Being from an Indian family, picking a career in the video games industry can be complete no-no. Luckily for me, I was head-strong. I did what I wanted to do. But not many people can escape family pressure.
As a result of the lack of diversity within development studios, it comes as little surprise that ethnic minority characters in games are a much rarer sight than white characters, and those that do appear often fall into stereotypes, lacking the variety and nuance that you see in their caucasian counterparts. Most lead characters in games these days, especially, tend to be white. In fact, the most consistent place to find ethnic minorities in games is in sports titles like FIFA or Madden, games which don’t explore the depth of experiences or emotions that many others do on a regular basis. All of us as human beings are naturally drawn to those who are most like us, and just as we’ve noted when looking at how women are portrayed in games, people from ethnic minority communities aren’t going to feel welcome in gaming culture if they rarely see anyone who looks or acts like them appearing in games.
Racial and ethnic minorities also suffer from abuse online (another similarity to the situation facing women). Racial slurs comprise a big part of the toxicity problem that is all too common in multiplayer games, which then discourages ethnic minorities from plugging in their microphone or making custom characters with skin color similar to their own. That, in turn, feeds into the cycle of minorities feeling unwelcome in gaming culture, and thus hesitant to become game developers themselves and bring their talents and perspectives to the industry.
Having identified all these problems and challenges regarding race and gaming culture, it’s worth noting some of the positive ways we’ve seen games embrace minority communities (and vice versa). First and foremost, we can’t talk about race and gaming without discussing the massive impact that Japanese culture has had on gaming worldwide. It was a Japanese company, Nintendo, that revived the video game industry after the crash in the mid-1980s, and they along with other Japanese companies like SEGA, Sony, Square Enix, Konami, and Bandai Namco (to name just a few) made many of the big games of the ‘80s and ‘90s that inspired young white males in America and Europe to become developers themselves. Even as Western game developers add their own cultural flair to the games they make, Japanese influence can still be seen in many of their efforts. And to this day, many Japanese-made games (namely role-playing games like Final Fantasy and fighting games like Soul Calibur) continue to find a niche audience around the world.
There are also some other encouraging signs in recent years in regards to showcasing little known and/or less understood cultures. The rise of the indie games market provides an opportunity for niche, smaller budget titles from ethnic minority developers to find an audience, and the internet gives them a way to advertise that doesn’t rely on signing deals with big publishers. Never Alone, a game made by an indigenous-owned developer in Alaska, incorporates aspects of Inupiaq culture into their storytelling, while the game Mulaka takes a similar approach with the culture of the Tarahumara people of northern Mexico. Even Ubisoft, a major AAA publisher (and a majority white company, at that), has pushed for some innovation in this regard; Assassin’s Creed: Origins, the latest entry in Ubisoft’s popular stealth-action series, recently received a new mode called Discovery Tour, which lets players wander through the game’s recreation of Ancient Egypt at their leisure and learn about the land’s history and culture.
In some ways, it’s difficult for me to feel very optimistic about overlooked people groups finding their place in gaming; the high cost of gaming is a barrier for so many nations, and the various cultural obstacles that have discouraged ethnic minorities from participating in this space are unlikely to disappear in the near future. Yet as technology has advanced further into the developing world, we’ve begun to see more ethnicities and cultural backgrounds represented in gaming. Hopefully this trend will continue, inspiring new generations of game developers from across the globe to showcase their talent and creativity, making their mark on the gaming world. And I hope that Christians will see this as an opportunity to learn more about the many people with whom God has called us to share the gospel.
 2015 Survey: https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.igda.org/resource/collection/CB31CE86-F8EE-4AE3-B46A-148490336605/IGDA%20DSS%202015-SummaryReport_Final_Sept15.pdf
2016 Survey: https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.igda.org/resource/resmgr/files__2016_dss/IGDA_DSS_2016_Summary_Report.pdf
2017 Survey: https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.igda.org/resource/resmgr/2017_DSS_/!IGDA_DSS_2017_SummaryReport.pdf
3 thoughts on “Race/Ethnicity and Gaming Culture”
Great post here! I liked that you found some references and gave good information on the games and history of ethnicity in gaming. I didn’t know that about the gaming industry, that you had to “know someone” to find a job. I know it’s like that in most professions, unfortunately, but I didn’t know it was so much in gaming.
Also, as a minority gamer myself (my whole family is Cuban, I was born in NYC but I’m Cuban/hispanic/latino pick your title haha), I do understand the whole lack of minorities in gaming. I don’t mind it much as I just enjoy playing the game for what it is, though I understand that developers will make games based on what they know. If you are white, and that’s the only context you know, and live in America, then it’s understandable your characters/plot/setting will look like what you know. It’s more work to go out of your way to make a game….say, based on the Greeks or Puerto Ricans or Ethiopians etc. You don’t know the culture, so you have to research it. If I were to make a game based on Cubans, I know our culture so it wouldn’t be difficult. It WOULD be hard for me to make a game based on white people for example, as where I live (Miami, FL) there aren’t too many! I was raised and still live around hispanics all the time.
A well written and balanced article. Always love coming across a well nuanced and researched article such as this. The only counterpoint? Or addendum I would put forward is the prevalence of recent games to allow the option of choice as to how the central protagonist is portrayed, certainly within large open world single player games. Whilst not directly featuring a character of an ethnic minority as a measurable statistic would suggest it doesn’t necessarily imply the default design is a ‘white’
The worst elements of online gaming for me personally is why I largely avoid any elements of competitive games. Much prefer co-operative gaming if I were game online.
Thanks for the feedback! It’s definitely a plus that some games allow you to customize the look of your character; it’s a simple way to make it easier for players to invest themselves in the game world. If you’re interested, I actually have an updated version of this same article over at Geeks Under Grace, where I am now an Associate Editor. I don’t think it addresses the specific point you make here, but it contains a few more references and altogether is the superior version of this piece. Geeks Under Grace is also where you’ll find my most recent articles. http://www.geeksundergrace.com/gaming/race-ethnicity-and-gaming-culture/
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