Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

saints-row

Saints Row 2. (Photo: Volition, Inc.)

Thinking Racist Thoughts? The Problem Might Be Your Video Game Avatar

• March 20, 2014 • 9:00 PM

Saints Row 2. (Photo: Volition, Inc.)

New research finds that, among white players of violent video games, black avatars arouse racist feelings.

Seeing the world through the eyes of another has long been seen as an effective antidote to prejudice. Long-held biases can be compellingly challenged when you walk even a short distance in someone else’s shoes.

But disturbing new research suggests temporarily assuming another’s identity can actually have the opposite effect. It finds using avatars that conform to common racial stereotypes can intensify prejudicial attitudes.

“Our research suggests that people who play violent video games as violent black characters are more likely to believe that blacks are violent people,” concludes a research team led by Grace Yang of the University of Michigan and Brad Bushman of the Ohio State University.

In addition, the researchers  found using a black avatar in such a game “is likely to increase the player’s aggression against others immediately afterwards, even more than playing a violent game as white characters would.”

“This is a very troubling finding,” the researchers write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

“Our research suggests that people who play violent video games as violent black characters are more likely to believe that blacks are violent people.”

This latest research into the psychological consequences of violent video-game play describes two experiments, the first of which featured 126 white university students. For 20 minutes, each of them played Saints Row 2—a game that is “similar to the popular Grand Theft Auto series, but the avatar’s clothing, race, and other characteristics can be varied,” the researchers write.

The participants were randomly assigned to use either a black or white male avatar. The character was seen face-on as the game began; as it progressed, the player saw only the back of his head, but “the hairstyle and skin tone were constant reminders” of the figure’s race.

Half the participants played a violent game, in which they tried to break out of prison, “which required them to kill many guards.” The others played a non-violent game in which they were instructed to “find a chapel somewhere in the city” and refrain from harming anyone as they did so.

Afterwards, their racial attitudes were measured in two ways. Each filled out a “symbolic racism” scale, in which they responded to statements such as: “If blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well-off as whites.”

They also completed the race Implicit Association Test, in a series of which words conveying good or bad feelings are paired with black and white faces. Slower responses to the pairing of good words with black faces are considered an indication of negative attitudes toward blacks.

Among those who played the violent version of the game, “those who played as a black avatar had stronger explicit negative attitudes towards blacks than did those who played with a white avatar,” the researchers report. In addition, among that same group, “those who played a black avatar were more likely to associate black faces with negative words on the Implicit Association Test.”

The second experiment featured 141 white university students, who were randomly assigned a black or white avatar. They played one of two violent games: WWE Smackdown (a wrestling game) or Fight Night Round 4 (a boxing game). “Both games use a third-person perspective, allowing the player to see the avatar’s race throughout game play,” the researchers note.

Afterwards, all completed a different version of the IAT, in which photos of black and white faces were paired with photos of weapons (including a gun and hand grenade) and photos of harmless objects (including a cell phone and a camera). “As expected, participants who played a violent game as a black avatar were more like to associate black faces with weapons,” the researchers write.

Finally, participants took part in an ostensibly unrelated food-preferences test, in which they tasted hot sauce and then determined how much of the unpleasant condiment an unseen partner would be expected to consume. Among players of the violent game, those who used a black avatar gave their “partner” (who hated spicy food) more hot sauce compared to those who used a white avatar.

This suggests that, at least to a degree, playing the role of a violent black man gave these white players license to act more aggressively toward a stranger. “This finding is particularly noteworthy,” the researchers write, “given that this increase in aggression occurred over and above any increase in aggression among participants playing the violent game as a white avatar.”

The researchers, who also include L. Rowell Huesmann of the University of Michigan and Bryan Gibson and Adam K. Leuke of Central Michigan University, believe the effect they found is likely not limited to black avatars. In some violent video games, they write, “police are portrayed as brutal. Players witnessing or enacting these violent actions may develop a distrust of police.

“Other violent games portray women in a sexualized and stereotypic way,” they add, noting that such characters may impact the way male players view, and treat, the women in their lives.

Like most such studies, this one looked at short-term responses to game playing; it’s not clear whether the attitudes they found would still hold, say, a day later. Of course, habitual gamers are exposed to stereotypical characters on a regular basis, which could reinforce such images in their minds.

In any event, the study is a reminder that stereotypes—some benign, some repugnant—are always lurking in the backs of our minds, ready to be activated. Assuming the role of a violent black man in a violent video game appears to be a highly effective way to activate some that very much deserve to stay dormant.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


October 15 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Government’s New Doctor Payments Website Is Worthy of a Recall

Charles Ornstein takes a test drive using the federal government’s new website for drug and device payments and finds it virtually unusable.


October 15 • 12:00 PM

How Cosmetic Companies Get Away With Pseudoscience

Anti-aging creams make absurd claims that they repair DNA damage or use stem-cell treatments. When cosmetics companies and dermatologists partner to maximize profits, who is responsible for protecting the consumer?


Follow us


Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.