Menus Subscribe Search

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

July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

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