Major League Gaming: Race and Gender in Video Games and Gamer Culture

This week we turn our attention to videogames, an industry that has exploded in size, popularity, and complexity over the last few decades and now commands surprising amounts of both capital and influence, particularly with younger and, as the Nakamura article both asserts and seemingly refutes, male-skewing demographics. In addition to Flanagan’s Critical Play, we have three written pieces, the first of which is Modeling Indigenous Peoples: Unpacking Ideology in Sid Meier’s Colonization. Co-authored by Rebecca Mir and our very own Professor Owens, this article tackles issues of race and ideology in the digital world with an in-depth analysis of Sid Meier’s Colonization, an expansion pack to the massively popular Civilization history simulator. Second, we have Gender and Race Online, an article by Lisa Nakamura exploring the negative racialized and gendered discourse both within online videogames themselves and in the surrounding culture. Finally, we have Mission America Online Games about American History, a grant proposal by WNET to secure funding for their educational digital online role-playing game, Mission America.

Let us begin with a personal favorite that makes several appearances in these readings: Civilization, a series of popular games for PC that began in the 90s and maintains its popularity today, and its controversial add-on expansion pack, Colonization. To best understand its significance, one must know some basic information about the game itself: Civilization is a relatively complex history simulator that places the player in the shoes of one of dozens of historically significant world leaders and charges them with leading their civilization to victory over competing civilizations. “Victory,” however, is a far more expansive term in Civilization than in the average videogame. Most games require eliminating one’s opponent to win, and that is the most straightforward manner of achieving victory in Civilization: simply conquer or obliterate all neighboring civilizations with your military might. This is not, however, the only path to victory, nor is it always a smart tactic; just as in the real world, being overly aggressive and combative can quickly escalate into violence with dire consequences. While Civilization offers a “military victory” option, there are several other means by which one can secure victory; in fact, it is entirely possible to play the pacifist and, by outpacing rival civilizations economically, scientifically, or culturally, walk away victorious. Pacifism, of course, breeds its own challenges, and ultimately it is up to the player to decide how best to balance the olive branch and the sword. From discovering fire and inventing the wheel to cold fusion and mastering spaceflight, Civilization spans the entirety of recorded history and offers both open worlds that can be shaped into any conceivable configuration and period-specific, generally historically-accurate scenarios pulled from the annals of history. Whether it follows a plausible history with which we are familiar or plows headlong into fictional alternative history, Civilization challenges the player strategically, philosophically, and ethically as civilizations begin to interact, challenge one another, and develop socially, politically, economically, technologically, and militarily.

Civilization: Colonization is an expansion pack to the main Civilization game, adding a specific scenario simply entitled “Colonization” in which the player is placed at the helm of one of several European colonial powers following the discovery of the New World and tasked with colonizing the Americas and, in doing so, establishing your civilization’s dominance over others. In the 2008 version featured in the Mir-Owens article, Colonization offered just a few playable civilizations: the English, Dutch, French, and Spanish. Despite being heavily featured as valuable potential allies or dangerous potential enemies, Native American civilizations were tellingly excluded from the list of playable civilizations. As Mir and Owens make clear through their intense analysis of Colonization, this is at least in part a fundamentally racialized and gendered issue found in nearly all videogames that makes plain the more subtle and unconscious side of racism and sexism. In trying to create an historically-accurate scenario, Civilization recreates a world in which white European monarchies were socially, politically, technologically, and militarily superior to their Native American counterparts and in which the former unashamedly exploited and commodified both their own people and the Native Americans for profit. This racialized and gendered “otherizing” of non-white civilizations manifests itself through the lack of dynamism or variation of in-game Native American civilizations and extends all the way to the level of the code upon which the game is founded: “Native peoples are defined within the game’s procedural rhetoric, at the functional level of the code, to be the ‘Other.’” (96)

However, it is important to note that since 2008 Civilization has been updated and, evidently, Firaxis Games has been listening to its players, as many of the issues the article cites as problematic have since been addressed. In the current version of the game, Native American civilizations are a fundamental part of the Colonization experience: several civilizations (including the Cherokee, the Aztecs, the Mayans, and the Incans), are available to play and each can potentially hold its own against their European counterparts. In fact, some of their civilizational “traits” (bonuses unique and exclusive to each civilization) outclass those of Europeans, such as the inherent ability to treat forest tiles as roads for trading and military purposes. Though the game continues to give European players a distinct military, technological, and economic edge specifically in the Colonization scenario, it is no longer a solely Eurocentric scenario in which Native Americans are exclusively commodified and marketed as potential allies, potential enemies, or potentially lucrative targets. While the player is still encouraged by the game’s rules to think in these terms while playing as a European civilization (as many of these real-life practices were incentivized by being obscenely lucrative), Native American civilizations are no longer valuable but faceless mannequins to be objectified—they are fully-shaped and unique playable nations that barely resemble the helpless strawmen found in the Mir-Owens article.

If Mir and Owens used Colonization as a case-study of sorts, Lisa Nakamura’s article, “Gender and Race Online,” instead approaches the social and ideological issues shaping not just the games we play but gamer culture in general on a much larger scale. While Mir and Owen show how racial and gendered issues can be found in a game’s content, Nakamura analyzes the all-too-often malicious nature of the culture surrounding these videogames and how prevalent—even fundamental—casual sexism and racism are to this culture in an increasingly-PC world. Though the anecdotes and statistics featured in Nakamura’s article are as appalling as they are shocking, many of her assertions are as obvious as grass is green to anyone that is even remotely familiar with online gaming. As a straight, white male, Nakamura (by way of John Scalzi) would characterize my experience as “the Lowest Difficulty Setting” (82), a characterization with which I would concur given the inexcusable and vile behavior with which so many non-white, non-male gamers are confronted every day. As “professional black female gamer BurnYourBra” personally attests, “People get salty when they lose. […] but there is a difference between trash talking and calling other players disrespectful names. For me, I’ve been called a dyke, a butch, a slut, a bitch […]. I was even called a black bitch to my face along with being called a lesbian, a gorilla, and a monkey” (86). As someone who has logged his fair share of hours playing online games, though I cannot speak to or for the personal experiences of anyone else, I can say that the language BurnYourBra encountered is sadly commonplace, a sentiment shared by the gaming blog Kotaku: “The casual racism, snarling sexism and random belligerence one encounters in online play, particularly in a first-person shooter over Xbox Live, is not at all a new phenomenon. It’s sadly accepted as par for the course” (88).

As Nakamura notes, while there have been significant movements against the tide of racist and misogynistic ideology that finds refuge in the dark corners of online games, “gamer culture” is quite insular and largely continues to self-identify and self-label as masculine, despite the major influx of female videogame players over the last two decades thanks to less inherently competitive games like The Sims. The issue is doubly amplified by the fact that accusations of being a racist, regardless of how accurate, have become so commonplace that the word “racist” itself has become a weighted and charged term: “The discursive act of calling someone a racist is viewed as almost equally transgressive as actually using racist language: it is deemed so devastating that presumably no thing or body can survive it” (92). While crowd-sourced anti-bullying campaigns and other anti-bullying countermeasures are gaining traction and momentum, the problem is so widespread, decentralized, and socially ingrained that society will almost certainly continue to grapple with this issue long after I and anyone else reading this will have passed away.

Finally, we have Mission America Online Games about American History, WNET’s grant proposal for Mission America, an original educational historic roleplaying game that provides an excellent example of how enterprising organizations (academic and otherwise) are seizing upon the immense popularity of video games and using the medium to push content and reach new and younger audiences. In an era when barely 1 in 6 eighth graders measure up to the already low bar of standard knowledge of U.S. History, educators have been turning to the digital in a desperate attempt to reach out and connect with the current generation of digitally-fluent children and adolescents. As studies have shown upwards of 97% of children 12-17 (male and female) engage in some sort of digital gameplay, it is only natural that organizations like WNET explore educational gaming content as a potential vehicle for instilling the information that schools today are unable or unwilling to: “as young people become absorbed by this technology, educational leaders, including the NEH, are increasingly interested in turning it to educational use” (2). Mission America attempts to do this for children 9-13 by immersing the player in a digital recreation of five moments of U.S. history from the point of view of five unique characters: “a young apprentice in pre-Revolutionary Boston, a runaway slave, an assistant in the race to complete the transcontinental railroad, a muckraking journalist in turn-of-the-century New York, and a young Oklahoman whose family migrates to California in the Great Depression” (4).

As the grant makes clear, the role-playing aspect of Mission America is crucial to its mission, which is to “put students inside crucial moments in U.S. history, and help to challenge assumptions about historical inevitability. As participants in the story, players experience multiple perspectives of characters in our nation’s past” (3). The logic, while simple, has a ring of truth to it: if the student can place himself or herself into the narrative of each self-contained story, he or she is far more likely to pay attention to that story. The genius of this method isn’t immediately obvious, but it has profound implications: “[…] our very success in having students identify with the characters could keep them from realizing how different the characters’ world was from their own. […] A solution is to add more historical dissonance – moments when characters defy modern expectations” (18). Regardless whether one classifies it relatability or narcissism, WNET seems to have executed the development of Mission America successfully; despite knowing it was an educational tool meant to instill information (not unlike homework), “students regularly asked for more missions to play, not just at school but at home. They saw Mission America as a ‘school game’ in that it had educational aims, but also recognized it as a fully developed game with its own interest and momentum” (11). Ultimately, what makes Mission America so compelling is perhaps best explained by the grant’s author:

By designing a game that has simultaneously accessible and diverse views— such as loyalist and patriotic—we encourage critiques and revisions of master narratives of the past, encouraging participants to consider new ones. For example, participants each receive a different permutation of scenes from the Boston Massacre, showing snippets of historically grounded interpretations of what might have happened during the event. Thus, no two game experiences are the same, further enabling differing views on how the Boston Massacre unfolded and encouraging deliberation and a more nuanced and holistic perspective of history. (24)


Discussion questions:

  1. At what point does “historical accuracy” in a history simulator become “too accurate”? For instance, the Mir-Owens article brings up the lack of a “slave” unit and the complete omission of disease from the game as points of contention where historical accuracy lost out to modern day sensibilities. As one forum-goer puts it: “Why is it so hard to include Slave unit? Why is it so hard to include a Plague mechanics [sic] which would wipe up entire (and very useful) villages of Natives? If the mod would call itself—Beautiful Colonization—I would agree. But Authentic? Make things ugly, please … or change the name.” Should game designers “make things ugly?” in recreating historical event, and if so, how ugly is too ugly?
  2. Lisa Nakamura’s article brings to light the very real ugliness of sexism and racism that is alive and well online in an allegedly “post-racial” or “post-label” era. How can society realistically combat such a decentralized and widespread problem, and can a lasting or permanent resolution be reached that doesn’t ultimately encroach on freedom of speech?
  3. What are the qualities that make WNET’s grant proposal for Mission America so convincing? And what practical measures could the proposal’s authors take to improve either the game or their pitch?

8 Replies to “Major League Gaming: Race and Gender in Video Games and Gamer Culture”

  1. I think that, in addressing the historical accuracy question, we must also consider the impact that these games have on people. Now I don’t want to get into the whole government-led campaign against violent video games, that’s not my point. But if we are to look at the impact some of these games have on all players, not just the young ones, I think the exclusion of some things in certain games is acceptable. The plague/disease factor would be an interesting inclusion into a game like Civilization/Colonization as a seemingly random factor that affects groups, but including slavery in the game gets into murky waters. There’s always the chance that this could start making people think that slavery was and is acceptable, especially if it is something that would prove to benefit your society in the game. Even if you throw in a warning in-game, it’s likely it will be ignored, and if you age restrict the game, people find ways around it. As it stands I think this is a testy subject that must be considered by game developers, and as it is our job as historians to question the decisions they make in terms of accuracy, this is a discussion that will go on as long as creative liberties are taken.

    Nakamura’s article brings up a very real problem within not just the gaming community, but within all of society. In many games, the female characters are overly sexualized, and characters of different races are much less common than white characters. While I don’t know that society can ever realistically combat this problem without massive changes in beliefs and rewriting the First Amendment, I think the first step in creating a change is acknowledging this issue. More games today feature characters of color and female characters that are more realistic than they were twenty, even ten years ago. A recent South Park video game even addressed this controversy in the game & society by making it so that the more difficult you wanted your character’s life to be in the game, the darker your character’s skin color would be. While satirical, the game brought some attention to issues of skin color in America, and serves as a mainstream game that addresses the issue in both the digital and the real world. While I don’t know how exactly this issue will be resolved, acknowledging the problem and beginning a discussion of how to fix it will create a situation where it can be addressed, and it seems as though that process has begun.

    1. With regards to the slave unit controversy: I agree that there is always the risk of unintentionally sending a message that some would interpret as condoning slavery, but realistically, what percentage of players are going to positively interpret the inclusion of slavery in a historical simulator (a genre that already appeals to a slightly higher brow gamer than, say, the average Halo or CoD gamer)? Slavery in particular is still a hot-button issue in this country and, excluding various political fringe groups, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone that doesn’t immediately associate real slavery with abhorrent evil. While some people are indeed more impressionable than we’d like to think, generally only a handful are sufficiently skewed so as to be unable to distinguish video game morality from real world ethics.

      If the game were *glorifying* slavery, I’d hands-down agree with your assessment. For instance, say there were a cotton plantation simulator a la Rollercoaster Tycoon or Sim City–not only would that be an unquestionably terrible marketing decision, but because the game itself would revolve solely around using slaves and slavery to the player’s advantage, it could potentially desensitize its audience to the real world horrors of the practice. I don’t see that as quite as much of an issue in the realm of Civilization, which as you know actually does include slavery as a government policy. However, slavery is one of the earliest technologies a civilization develops (around the same time as discovering bronze and the wheel) and exacts huge costs on the civilization that actually uses it–in fact, using the slavery technology to rush the creation of a unit or building frequently cripples the surrounding city for years to come, reducing the city’s population and production while unhappiness and civil unrest spike. While it is arguably more effective than the technology preceding it, Tribalism, it still behooves the player to advance quickly to a technology that renders slavery obsolete as soon as possible because its simply an inefficient means of production with almost no redeeming qualities. Thus I think it would be more than possible for game developers to include slavery into a scenario about colonizing the New World without glorifying it and without subjecting players to ineffective written warnings and disclaimers–it just has to be handled tactfully and with the utmost thought toward how it will be interpreted by the player.

  2. In response to your first question, I think there is something being overlooked here. Games need to be fun. Some games are designed as teaching tools but the games that are reaching wide audiences and consistent engagement are doing so because they provide some level of satisfaction or enjoyment. This is important because a game developer could create a very instructive and socially constructive game but without fun, it simply will not reach an audience. So when we talk about historical accuracy in games and how much we should be “making things ugly”, we need to understand that the balance between instructive and fun always needs to favor fun otherwise all other efforts made result in nothing.

    This is not to say that games do not have an important role to play in developing a better society with healthier historical, racial, and gender perspectives. Nakamura demonstrates thoroughly that gaming communities as well as games themselves have a long way to go. But we can’t forget that they are “games” at the end of the day.

    1. I agree that video games, to a certain extent, do need to simplify immensely complex and uncomfortable issues for the sheer practicality of reaching an audience and then not alienating that audience; this is simply self-preservation in an increasingly crowded and competitive global market place. But at the same time, could one not make the same argument about TV shows? Movies and film? Even books and newspapers? In this day and age all artistic mediums are feeling the same economic pressure (some more than others) to push profits higher and appeal to wider audiences at the cost of artistic integrity and historical accuracy. One could thus argue: “yes, it’s a TV show/movie/book that speaks to and influences the thinking of millions of viewers/readers, but at the end of the day, it’s just an economic entity that needs to reach an audience for its survival.” While that may unfortunately be true, personally I don’t believe that precludes holding those mediums to a higher standard of self-awareness regarding what messages they’re sending to their audiences. While forcing them to walk on egg shells could potentially be just as destructive to its audience, I really hope I don’t see a Confederate Plantation Tycoon simulator any time soon.

  3. In regards to your first question, I think there’s a level of historical accuracy that should be noted, but it shouldn’t necessarily dictate the way that the game is created. To make a comparison and go off of Blake’s point about it being a “game”, I can think of countless movies that are historically INaccurate, but wildly popular (I’m looking at you in The Last Samurai, Tom Cruise). And while these games are different than movies in an interactive capacity, it is worth noting the entertainment value of both. As historians and intellectual scholars, I’m sure many of us would like to see every movie and game as historically accurate as possible, but that is not always the point for the developers. They want an experience for the viewer/player. I can’t speak for developers personally, but I would assume that making the game playable, or the movie as enjoyable, as possible is generally their goal over creating something with 100% historical accuracy.

    1. Firstly… there is no excuse for Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. In fact, I think seeing Tom Cruise as a samurai probably discouraged aspiring samurai from following in his footsteps. Yes, Tom Cruise made the samurai go extinct.

      But back to the matter at hand: by that logic, couldn’t and shouldn’t one excuse any popular medium for wildly inaccurate, white-washed, possibly even harmfully misinformative TV shows, films, books, and magazines—so long as people will pay for them? At what point should historical accuracy and intellectual or even moral responsibility trump monetary gain–or should it?

  4. With regards to the first question, the point at which realism must intersect with game play is the point at which the “big takeaway” is accurate. All simulation games simplify the mechanics and stories of their material contents, but they can include diverse mechanics that can provide an accurate–though, not necessarily precise–“big takeaway.”

    The examples in the article–playable indigenous peoples and disease mechanics–serve to correct this accuracy. Based on the article, the game seems to provide a place in which to play out a white-supremacist fantasy of colonization because one can only play as a white colonizer and can win by murdering all native peoples. Diverse mechanics–or diverse perspectives–serve to disrupt this supremacist fantasy and makes a simulated experience that more completely reflects the reality of the dynamics of colonial invasion.

  5. One of the most interesting facets of mass culture history is it’s almost never historians disseminating it. I think far more people in the US have played a Civilization game than have read Bernal Diaz, for example. That becomes one of the most interesting parts in dissecting the role popular culture plays in disseminating racist, bigoted, colonial mindsets. A white male power fantasy is not exactly unknown in fiction. Trying to mediate fiction to increase accuracy, though, becomes an interesting conundrum, and one that goes far beyond one Civilization game.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *