WINGS 101: Learning Race and Racism from Videogames

The intention of this post is to initiate a conversation about the treatment of race in games. Countless resources have been written about the treatment of race in the media, however few exist that work solely towards deconstructing race in games. I wanted to gather some of these resources to start a conversation about racist representations and racism in games.

To get started I want to address the question, “why is this important?” Yasmin Jiwani, Professor Concordia University, describes why it is important to care about racism in the media by identifying the major role the media plays as an institution. “They provide us with definitions about who we are as a nation; they reinforce our values and norms; they give us concrete examples of what happens to those who transgress these norms; and most importantly, they perpetuate certain ways of seeing the world and peoples within that world.”

The media fundamentally shapes the way we perceive the world and we must continually acknowledge this fact. I also want to draw attention to the long history of colonialism, slavery, and systemic oppression that exists in Canada and the United States. Which for me, is the local paradigm. Keep in mind examples will be drawn from East Asia as well specifically Japanese media that is very popular in North America. Studies have also shown the effects of this colonialist legacy on children as early as 1939 with the Clark doll experiments, where children were given a black doll and a white doll and asked to determine which had more positive attributes. This experiment was repeated in 2012 by the AC360 (Anderson Cooper) and children repeatedly chose the light-skinned doll as the most desirable, and the dark skinned doll as “ugly” or “dumb.” Racism still exists and we need to actively critique the world to change that fact.

Therefore we move into addressing a small portion of the media, video games, and the treatment of race within that scope.

I want to identify racist tropes in games. If we know what we are looking for, we can be aware and question why race is being portrayed that way and what assumptions are being made about racial or ethnic groups in the process. Also I hope to back up each representation with academic sources that can provide tools to discuss and deconstruct issues.


1. Absence of Race

In many games race is simple ignored or under represented. A good example is the debate about the treatment of race in the Dragon Age series. The Border House blog commented on the responses to this debate and talked a little bit about the moderator responses on the thread. A great point the Border House author makes is:

Making an active decision to exclude black people is just as exclusionary as forgetting to ask and answer the question in the first place. You wouldn’t have to sit down and ask a question about “do we include black people” if white people weren’t the default human.

However I want to look at the fundamental issue surrounding that debate. Which is the absence of radicalized individuals in the game content. This absence begins in concept. This is the original concept art for the races in Dragon Age 2 from the Bioware blog:

Here it’s apparent that the only individual who could be considered “not white” is the male Qunari. It is also worth noticing that the only character that can be considered a person of colour is also demonized and drafted as exotic and beastial. As shown in by further Qunari concept art.


Bioware and Dragon Age have been under a lot of criticism for creating a world that features very little racial diversity. As well Dragon Age 2 has been criticized for showing ghettoization in a critical manner but excluding any races from being present. But they are not the only ones that are guilty of this. It is really important in any form of media to question the default race, and notice which races are represented and in what roles.


2. Creating a Culture and Reinforcing a Stereotype

The second point I want to look at was inspired by “The Power of Play: The Portrayal of Race in Video Games” by Anna Everett and S. Craig Watkins. Everett and Watkin’s article focuses on “urban/street games” and looks at the GTA franchise. I want to expand this to include more Rockstar games such as the recently release Max Payne 3, or Red Dead Redemption. The main argument here is how these games teach “dominant attitudes and assumptions about race and racial otherness through what we term “racial pedagogical zones” (RPZs).”

These game create cultural and ethnic centers that emulate the same stereotypes we see in other forms of media. But lets not ignore that Rockstar has also been known for simply propagating stereotypes with single representations as well. Such as Irish – the drunken Irishman in Red Dead Redemption.


3. Tokenism

Definition of Tokenism from wikipedia “Tokenism is the policy or practice of making a perfunctory gesture toward the inclusion of members of minority groups. This token effort is usually intended to create a false appearance of inclusiveness and deflect accusations of discrimination. Typical examples include purposely hiring a non-white person in a mainly white occupation or a woman in a traditionally male occupation. Classically, token characters have some reduced capacity compared to the other characters and may have bland or inoffensive personalities so as to not be accused of stereotyping negative traits. Alternatively, their differences may be overemphasized or made “exotic” and “glamorous.”

There is constant examples of this in video games such as the Funky student in Persona 4, Disco Kid in Wii Punch-out!!, and Afro in DDR Supernova being representations of black males that exoticize the characters based on cultural stereotypes that grew out of funk and disco music. These characters are often the only person of colour represented in the game.



4. Blackface

From wikipedia “Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used in minstrel shows, and later vaudeville, in which performers create a stereotyped caricature of a black person.” These caricature spawn from a long history of systematic racial oppression and a legacy of slavery and racism.

A classic example of blackface that has bled it’s way into the games industry is Mr. Popo from the Dragonball Z franchise.


Mr Popo has been widely criticized as extremely racist, yet remained unaltered until the 4kids release of Dragonball Z Kai in 2012.

A newer example that was recently discussed on Kotaku, is the debate surrounding Tina Tina from Borderlands 2, and if the language she was written to have is an example of verbal blackface.

Now I know this list isn’t close to comprehensive. My only goal with this post is to initiate a conversation and encourage players to start talking about representations of race in games. If you are interested in reading more on the the subject you can also check out Kotaku breaking down race in games for Black History Month.

  • SarahBeck
  • Currently works as a software developer of EA. She has a BSc in Computing Science and enjoys JRPGS, anime, and Ruby on Rails. You can find her on Twitter at @sarah_bytes. Opinions are my own.


  • The problem with your example of San Andreas is that you have situated one of the game’s constructions without context. This is actually something that Watkins/Everett’s study does as well. The speaker contrasts the game San Andreas as a game that perpetrates RPZ’s specifically because it perpetuates a negative stereotype that exists in black crime-narrratives (and this is quoted within the paper itself) such as Boyz’N’ The Hood, Baby Boy and Menace 2 Society. The speaker then compares San Andreas to another sandbox title, Bully, attempting to assert that Rockstar’s choices with regards to racial zones reflect a predominantly negative racial stereotype. However, Watkins/Everett’s paper does not reflect on the context of the game with regards to it’s placement in the Grand Theft Auto franchise. The Grand Theft Auto games are a numbered or subtitled series of games that function as caricatured narratives that take storylines, characters, motifs, and mission design directly from american crime films. Some earlier entries in the series, for example, Grand Theft Auto Vice City, and GTA 3, reflect films such as Scarface, Training Day, Casino, and Goodfellas. However, that crime film genre is largely based around italian-american and west coast crime fiction, featuring elements such as the boston mob and the mafia, which being derived from caucasian based regions and cultures, do not have any black characters. Rockstar’s entry, GTA San Andreas, is meant to evoke black crime cinema, and if compared narratively to say, GTA 3, is relatively similar in terms of content- except it reflects a cultural paradigm that very much existed at one point in american history. By creating a game that explores that narrative space and contextualizing it with that form of cinema, Rockstar is exploring a space that does not get explored in a sympathetic manner at all, and avoiding the whitewashing of a specific cinematic period. In this way, Everett/Watkins paper is revealed as deeply problematic- it has a foundation based on assumption and without narrative or cultural context. Rhetorically wouldn’t it be worse to make a game about ghetto culture cinema starring a caucasian protagonist? San Andreas regularly gets cited as an example of a game perpetuating racial stereotypes, without regards to the cinematic movement it is trying to reflect, which was an actual facet of 1990’s black cinema.

    I’m not saying that perpetuating negative stereotypes doesn’t occur- but GTA San Andreas is a step forwards, not a step backwards. I would even hesitate to put Irish on this list, simply because RDR is a reflection of american westerns- in which the drunk irishman is unfortunately a constructed archetype (see John Ford’s entire filmography, or any interview where Tarantino discusses John Ford). In summation, Rockstar’s entire routine is depicting a period in american cinema culture in videogame form, their games are reflections of american cinematic culture, which itself is deeply embedded with offensive stereotypes, and to ignore them in what is meant to be a reflection of american culture is a blatant whitewashing of american cinematic history.

    It’s easy to dismissively handwave ghetto cinema or even blaxploitation- but both of these genres found success in depicting not only black protagonists who acquire power or success onscreen (which was a rarity in the late 1980’s/1990’s, unless it was nonthreatening Sidney Poitier-type character) but are an integral part of american culture, and to ignore them is repress a culture by deeming a type of crime cinema belonging to that culture as “too offensive” or threatening for mainstream videogames.

    • I think part of Everett’s point was noting a game where a conscious effort to be inclusive has been made, and they have create a culture based on a stereotype. The same carries through with propagating narratives about Italian crime bosses and such. So arguably the god father game does this as well. The only problem is the difference in the bubble they keep casting these characters in. So it is not enough to just include a race, but to make sure that people are equally represented in all classes and roles in society.

      Also saying that things are a tribute to a certain time period is interesting because they are following the mainstream representation of that history. We are still looking at whatever culture through the white lens of mainstream media.

    • Yeah, but homages can be just as racist as the original—they don’t get a pass because they’re harking back to something that had a marginally progressive aspect thirty years ago. I don’t think that acknowledging the context changes any of the points in the article.

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