Quest Log: Stereotypes in Games

quest log iconQuest Log is a feature in which I set out on adventure to learn how something works. This might be game mechanics, social issues, or technology. The goal is to gain a greater understanding of the topic and spread awareness.


This time I’m on a quest to demystify the phrase “stereotypes come from somewhere, you know” which the person using it always implies “this stereotype must be true, then.” Since it’s February, I thought I’d revisit some popular stereotypes about people of color and review their history. After all, these things do come from somewhere …just not where most of us tend to think. Also, this is a two part series. In this one, I specifically about stereotypes in some games and in the follow-up post I’ll discuss a few more and their history.

The Noble Savage

Games that employ this stereotype:

  • Turok
  • World of Warcraft
  • Street Fighter
  • Age of Empires III

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What’s it based on?

The term Noble Savage was probably coined by English writers during the colonial period and it was used to describe Native Americans (though this has certainly been used for other indigenous groups from other lands; here, I want to discuss Native Americans in particular). It was picked up by everyone who encountered the term thereafter, especially those who had never seen the indigenes the term replaced. Wherever it comes from, it’s not from Native Americans and it’s never been an accurate description of them. It’s a caricature invented for the comfort and intrigue of Europeans. It’s the invention of colonial racists whose primary concern was distinguishing themselves from “others” and to justify conquest. When we use this stereotype today, we’re tipping our hat and honoring those good (and by good I mean terrible) folks.

It’s disturbing that even in 2014, in the 21st century, the stereotype of the noble savage still persists despite how well documented the history of Native Americans is and their present day lives. Most people still think of Native Americans as protectors and companions of nature, as highly spiritual noble people with a fighting spirit. Just do a Google search for “American teams indian mascot” and it will guaranteed pop up the exact same type of imagery for each team – a so-called “indian” with dark hair, reddish skin, feathers, face paint, axe, or other stereotypical garments.

In addition to the way this stereotype reduces an entire people and culture to myth and dehumanizes them, one of the awful consequences of this myth persisting into the present is that it neatly places Native Americans in the past — removes them from our present – by superimposing this image onto the group. Native Americans still live here in all their diverse physical features, customs, and aspirations. Many tribes are barely hanging on to life in the bleak existence on most reservations, but this isn’t the image that the stereotype conjures. The stereotype of the noble savage contributes to our collective amnesia, simultaneously positioning Natives in our national conscience as a people of the past and constantly reinforcing the romantic, comforting imagery of the colonials. It’s an easy thing for game developers to grasp, who are more interested in their own games than in respectfully depicting any culture or the people within it. That’s not OK. People deserve far better and so do our games.

The Dangerous Black Men

Games that employ this stereotype:

  • Grand Theft Auto
  • Resident Evil 5
  • Ethnic Cleansing

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Many games employ this stereotype, and it’s not limited to only black men, but extends to really any race that’s non-white. They’re always dark, always violent, always up to no good. It’s very safe to assume in our games that if it’s not white, then it’s not right …so shoot it on sight. Grand Theft Auto is the worst offender in my opinion because it’s a celebration of these stereotypes and then some. I’ve heard some gamers argue that it’s all satire/parody, but I don’t think those words mean what they think they mean. GTA is no such thing.

What’s it based on?

This stereotype has many nasty, hairy legs and is a great example of the multi-dimensional nature of stereotypes. They are a combination of bad ideas woven together to create a total and negative picture of a person or group of people. The dangerous black male is an amazingly prolific stereotype in America, but it crosses over to the “angry black woman” stereotype as well because it emphasizes the aggression of dark people. There’s plenty of testimony from blacks about white people generally avoiding them on the street (say, crossing the street if they see a black man coming), harassing them in stores, and drawing their children and purses closer should a black man appear on a bus or train or any other public facility. So where does this stereotype come from and what’s the real root of this fear of black people?

In the early years of the American republic, there was a national belief in the inferiority of non-white peoples. To prop up that belief and give it credibility, all sorts of reasoning was invented via philosophy, religion and even science. In fact, Thomas Jefferson has quite a few memoirs and essays describing his thoughts on the “nature” of blacks, some of which included a belief that they require “less sleep” because of “their” bestial “nature”. Another was his belief that, due to this bestial “nature”, black men were dangerous [1]. Still more stereotypes were designed to inspire fear in fellow whites by spreading the idea that black men were sexual predators who especially preyed upon white women. This particular myth was exactly the kind of thing to rile up chivalrous white men who made it their duty to protect the virtue of white women. Such myths and stereotypes spawned real laws, such as Jim Crow’s “reckless eyeballing” which could get a black man killed if he so much as looked in the direction of a white woman.

A hundred years later and the myths and stereotype persist. While today stereotyping is less acceptable, we’ve seen that in practice it’s as prevalent as it’s ever been, and we have codified it into law once again as Racial Profiling.

Despite the fact that most acts of violence in the United States are committed by white men, you’ll rarely find a person crossing to the opposite side of the street to avoid us nor do we make up the lions share of prisoners. Nor are white men stereotyped as dangerous. A white male can shoot up a movie theater and be confident the police won’t shoot him on sight. A black man can stand in his own drive way, on his own property and be shot to death by the cops. Stereotypes aren’t just bad, but can be fatal.

How does this impact gamers? Whether we like it or not, the constant barrage of this kind of imagery in our games does affect our attitudes and thinking.

The Woman

Ah, does woman ever come in a multitude of ….oh, wait! She’s usually just one thing: The sex object. Sex objects are what you’d expect of any object: not very smart, no personality, very vulnerable, somewhat incompetent and totally willing to have sex. Generally, women in games are made for the eyes of men, designed for a male audience to enjoy. Their representation, in other words, disregards the fact that some young woman is watching and may feel bad about it. Women have been fighting a long hard battle in games to improve their representation and in recent years they’ve made some headway. But they’ve got a looooong ways to go still.

What’s it based on?

This one’s more ancient than usual. Many civilizations the world over began as patriarchal and many continue to be so. Within that structure of society, women play the role of property whose primary function is reproduction because men do everything else. And that’s my very abbreviated history of this long, complex explanation. Simone de Beauvoir wrote the most thorough and comprehensive history on this and I’d recommend it to any interested in more details.

Today, women continue to be seen as objects whose express purpose is the pleasure of a man. Video games reinforce this with each release that features a woman. In fact, let’s look at one of the more interesting examples in gaming history of how the stereotype of the woman combines with others for a deadly power combo.

I won't even talk about the "revenge sex" implied by the title of the game itself ...

I won’t even talk about the “revenge sex” implied by the title of the game itself …

Anyone remember Custer’s Revenge? There were at least 3 major stereotypes colluding in that game for total degradation and disaster: Jezebel (the licentious brown woman), the woman as sex object, and the Native American as painted with feathers. The creator of the game actually believed that in designing this he was bringing levity into the game or at least that’s the rumor (who knows). The question is why he believed such stereotypes to be appropriate or funny and why he thought others would too. This is exactly the kind of harm a video game can do to it’s audience, both in offending that audience and in making them more accepting of this kind of imagery.

Do games still employ this extreme imagery? All the time. Worse, game developers are working with such outlets as Playboy magazine these days to further humiliate female game characters for the pleasure of a male audience — despite women making up half of the gaming population! However, it’s not a far jump when you think about it. The sexualization of women in games does lend itself to magazines like Playboy and men’s/lad mags. Now we ought to ask ourselves if there’s something wrong with that picture.

Games employ stereotypes as much as all other media and entertainment, but woe to you who would use this as a defence. Games should raise the bar, not aim for the same standard. They do tremendous harm to our community by reinforcing stereotypes about its members and it lowers the quality of our games. These devices shun the people you and I play games with. It makes many among us feel unwelcome and devalued. It makes it easier for many of us accept and adopt these toxic attitudes by constant reinforcement.

Yet we all participate in this. Every time I plop down money for a game with these features (knowingly), I’m tacitly condoning it. We don’t like to hear it, but it needs to continue being said: When we buy games which contain this kind of content, knowingly, we are no better than its content creators and we’re on the same level as those who actively believe in and perpetuate those stereotypes. There’s no meaningful distinction between a person who uses a sexist slur and a person who hears it and does nothing about it.

I’m hopeful and optimistic that, as a community, we can do better at detecting and condemning stereotypes. After all, we can’t have a community at all when it’s divided up like this. Stay tuned for the follow-up article on stereotypes.

Scree Tags: #questlog #stereotypes

13 thoughts on “Quest Log: Stereotypes in Games

  1. Stereotypes tend to have a grain of truth to them, while being far from the whole story.

    most acts of violence in the United States are committed by white men

    Look again at the table. Not all the things in the table are violent crimes, and if you consider the racial mix of the US (according to Wikipedia about 72% White, 12.5% African-American), it is clear that black men make up a disproportionately high number of arrests for things like murder, rape, possession of illegal weapons. The fact that a 12.5% segment of the population accounts for nearly 50% of murder and manslaughter arrests is rather striking.

    Where it gets simplistic is that it easy to fall for a couple of fallacies, i.e That is it “blackness” per se that makes people likely to murder, and that whatever it is that that leads to this difference is an inherent and fixed attribute of the people of groups involved. (Also there are questions like whether you’re more likely to suspected and arrested if black.)

    On a more sophisticated analysis, you’d discover things like “murders are committed disproportionately by young males raised in poverty and involved in the drug trade”. Then you have to start asking why black men are disproportionately living in poverty, whether white men raised in similar circumstances are any less prone to turn out violent, and so on.

    Btw the victims here are also disproportionately other young black men living in the the same kind of circumstances. An interesting stat that I once researched showed that at the height of the insurgency, it was more dangerous to be a young black man living in Philadelphia than it was to be a US soldier serving in Iraq.

    If you haven’t watched The Wire yet, it’ll be illuminating. Also just a darn good TV series.

    • I actually only counted the violent crimes from the table. White men do almost double and that chart isn’t alone in bearing that data out. It is historically true as well.

      It’s still a more dangerous world for non-white men, this is true, but its compounded by the fact that its acceptable to kill, incarcerate, and mistreat them. There’s no doubt that there are serious issues of crime in non-white communities, but we are made to believe they do a disproportionate amount of the violence by playing up crimes they commit and playing down crimes committed against them.

      EDIT: I wanted to mention there’s an even more illuminating study conducted by Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow which also discusses crime statistics.

      • I don’t really want to get into a long discussion, but it’s hard to see how you get your numbers from the table. And even if a 72% segment of the population commits twice the crimes of a 12.5% segment, the smaller segment would be committing proportionately much more. To be proportionate the larger group would have to be committing 5.76 (i.e. 72 / 12.5) as many crimes not just 2 times.

        I don’t have any problem with the general thrust of your thinking. Just the use of stats in a problematic way.

      • It’s worth a long discussion if you’re really interested in exploring the impacts of stereotypes on our behavior. I don’t mind. The point I tried to make was that people crossing streets or harassing people of color in stores are usually acting based on the stereotype. I didn’t mention it in the article, but inter-race violence is lowest across the board; whites and non-whites mostly live in segregated neighborhoods which is part of the reason when each encounters the other, the stereotypes are more likely to be invoked and acted upon. A white person is more likely to be attacked by a white, a black a black, and so forth. I should have mentioned that, but here it is in the comments!

        As for the data, I think perhaps you missed the definitions for the data at the bottom of the table, such as what qualifies as violent crime. It’s described in the footer of the table, but basically it’s the first four crimes listed (murder, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault). I added them up, but it’s not the single source of my conclusion on this (actually Wikipedia has some well cited numbers which also show this). In any case, just a cursory rounding of the numbers will show you that whites commit nearly twice the violent crime of blacks so I felt the table was sufficient to the point I was making, as readers are welcome to dive into the data themselves to verify, as you did. I often miss the small print on things like that and I don’t mind going through the data if what I wrote is unclear.

        Even if we only compare murder, the two groups do just about the same amount of damage. In the context of the article, I concluded that citizens, especially white ones, are not more likely to be attacked by people of color and are more likely in fact to be attacked by people of their own race yet we aren’t avoiding whites on the street. I think we can both agree on that based on murder alone.

        As you mentioned before, there’s lots of more sophisticated numbers analyses, including things like acquittal rates by race, crimes vs incarceration, disparities in charges and sentencing, and so forth — all of which are by writers better than I am and who can do a better job of explaining them. I haven’t trawled all of it myself, but enough to know the information in the article. I don’t know how interested you are in the topic or the numbers, but there’s data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, FBI, and so forth that’s publicly available. Sociological studies such as the work done by Alexander mentioned above are good reading, but also The Spirit Level by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, which while it doesn’t talk about crime specifically it does a superb job of running the numbers and relating them to things like the impacts of inequality on stereotypes (indirectly), crime and incarceration.

        Don’t worry about not having “long conversations”. They’re perfectly safe in the comments and I don’t bite (hard), but you can always email me as well.

  2. The construct of the noble savage is much older than colonialism. It was a regular use among Romans and Greeks for example, where they referred to anyone wearing pants as barbarian. There was more to that, but pants were a stereotypical piece of clothing back then. As much as Romans thought of themselves masters of the world, Tacitus made a thing of pointing out the flaws of Rome comparing them to Germanic tribes. Another example would be Roman and Greek grudging respect for Gauls, even if they had them for backstabbing thieves. This is shown in the art, prime example being the statue of Dying Galatian.

    Aside from that, I would argue that Colonialists never tried to mask, or even try to justify their conquest of the new land. I will admit that my knowledge of history of that period focusing on America is lacking to say the least, but even if we just compare to the rest of Europe, it seems clear they did all they did because they thought it was right. To justify something you need to at least question the thing. Colonialists did nothing of such. Conquistadors a century, century and a half earlier slaughtered so many of Mayan, Inka and Aztec people simply because they were able. Not just that, they did not even consider the natives their equals. They did not consider them for a human. They saw the new continent as a land of opportunity where they could get so filthy rich, they would not need to worry about anything until the end of time.

    That does not abolish their sins. But it is hipocritical of us, as their descendants (not direct, but we are where we are, because they did what they did) to judge them for something they did not even understand. It is an ugly way of putting it, but you cannot accuse them of racism, when they did not even consider the natives for people. Sure, racists today might claim the same, but it is different mentality. If not for anything else, today they are acutely aware of other people being people, and not a simple stock ready for slaughter, even if they would deny it vehemelty.

    In short, it can be dangerous applying our way of thinking and the modern-day constructs when examining the history.

    As for the stereotype itself, when it is used in games, it is used for easier reference, for the lack of better term. To be easily recognised. Games are not social justice champions, and do not bother examining how a group of people is struggling today. Frankly, this is not their territory, and they do not deal with it. As I said before, some games are art, others a simple entertainment. But at the end, art is simply a mirror of society. Games as such, as well. Thus it is not on game developers to think what could be done about society, but on society itself to do something about it.

    • I almost didn’t approve your comment for this reason:

      ” I will admit that my knowledge of history of that period focusing on America is lacking to say the least …”

      …in addition to all the bullshit you just ungraciously smeared on my blog. I don’t appreciate it. I’m always willing and I always do in practice, talk back and forth with lengthy responses for as long as a dedicated commenter would like as long as they’re gracious and respect not only my other guests, but my intelligence. You’ve insulted me by posting this.

      Conversation Etiquette (linked in the header): ask when you don’t know and cite your sources. Respect the rules and you’ll be respected in return. You didn’t do that. So I’m going to be forthright with you about how I feel about that.

      Your ignorance bothers me and since you decided to post that shit here, I’m going to tell you why it bothers me. I’m also going to keep this strictly about you, since you kept yourself firmly at the center of your reply.

      Opinions are worth the toilet paper we wipe our asses with. You are full them; it’s all you ever have. You admit you know nothing and you have a go anyway, no citations, no idea whether what you say is true, but here’s why you did it: you only care about what you think and you happen to believe in white innocence. That white people of the past were innately good and would never have done these horrible things if they only knew. I can smell the naivety in this defense, can almost taste it. This was the summary of your entire response.

      I’ve told you this twice before about your worthless opinions and you haven’t learned anything, but here it is a third time: you don’t get to have an opinion about what colonialists did or did not know, since you don’t know what they did or did not know by your own admission. The next time you comment here and it doesn’t end with a question mark, I will delete it automatically. Because you don’t know how to have a discussion without inserting your gloriously ignorant opinions and this time I don’t have the patience nor the graciousness to entertain you. You don’t deserve it.

      I’m sure you aced whatever multiple choice tests you’ve taken in your life with intelligent guesses, but that’s not knowledge. You hide behind your opinions and avoid actually learning stuff, avoid listening to people and avoid anything which doesn’t serve your vanity. You even convinced yourself to write a comment here on something you knew you had no knowledge of. I know you’re used to passing for smart, but I think even less of your ability to learn and know something than I ever did before. Don’t shit on my site. When you don’t know, ask or don’t comment. Use citations when doling out “facts”, of which you had none. Zero.

      What really bothers me though is you have no interest in this topic or discussion, and you showed it by commenting when you didn’t have a clue about the subject matter. You clearly didn’t bother with the comment policy. Then you type this bullshit out, knowing you’re spit-balling every factoid you printed, and you posted it anyway. I don’t even know what kind of person mounts the frivolous defense you did for something undeserving of that defense. I mean what was your point? That those poor slave owners were well-meaning? That they honestly thought they were dealing with monkeys even as they raped them and married them? That they couldn’t understand the English that slaves learned when they wrote letters renouncing the horrors of slavery? That abolitionists of their own race weren’t shouting “THOSE ARE PEOPLE” loud enough? That the kingdoms European conquerors witnessed were the work of upright monkeys? Clearly no one could tell whether they were human! Those poor white bastards must have been mistaken! They would never have raped, killed, chained, brutalized, starved, shot, lynched, and enslaved PEOPLE. Right? Was this the point you were making? Congratulations. I hope you feel good about the books you didn’t read about this which allowed you to come here and smear shit on my blog.

      Don’t do it again.

  3. I didn’t want to have long discussions because I don’t have the time or the energy to devote to it, and I don’t see the likelihood of such discussions being productive as very high.

    Actually I am somewhat kicking myself now that I commented at all. Normally I would do the internet equivalent of crossing the street when I saw a discussion like this coming. But as it’s you, and it’s your new blog, I thought it would be nice to comment on this post that you obviously put a lot of effort into writing.

    Probably I should’ve figured out something supportive to say and left it at that.

    • Yet here you are, so I’ll assume you do have the time and energy, but you don’t feel it’s a worthwhile topic or else it is uncomfortable for you. And in that case, I agree with you. Best not to comment on this particular issue, though I have to encourage you to engage the topic on your own time; that’s often better than public discourse. It will not be a walk in the park nor will it be pleasant, but it has to be done if we ever want to get to place where these conversations are unnecessary.

      It’s ironic that you talked about doing the internet equivalent of “crossing the street” even as we speak about avoidance of groups of people.

      • It’s ironic that you talked about doing the internet equivalent of “crossing the street”
        It’s not ironic. It was a deliberate allusion.
        The reason for avoiding such topics is their propensity to become acrimonious or an echo chamber or both. I’m not even white as it happens,

      • Pls fix the formatting in my comment above. The whole thing was not meant to be a quote.

        Maybe you should reflect on what the purpose of these posts is, who you think you are talking to, and what you hope to achieve by them.

        Do you imagine people with racist attitudes are going to reading your blog? And if they do, do you think you’re going to alter their views with stats and citations? That’s not the way change happens.

        They will do the same as you do when I point out a problem with your math. Ignore what you actually said and double down on their existing beliefs.

        It was dumb of me to spend my time making points about probability and stats and social science methodology. The world was not improved, nobody learned anything, no difference was made. And that was fairly predictable.

        Participating in this conversation is looking like an unproductive waste of my time.

        Maybe contemplate the stereotype you have of your readers, and how you see yourself in relation to us. Aren’t you setting yourself up as the enlightened one holding forth to the lesser unwashed? The great missionary to the uninformed idiots?

        Well I’m unwashed alright, but not lesser.

        So I’ll be spending my time on more fruitful activities like taking a shower,

      • I know my purpose in writing and in continuing to write: to critique and engage issues I care about, as ever in all my years of blogging. Maybe you should reflect on why you read them and comment. I am grateful for your interest in my blog, but I’m perfectly aware of my own purpose here. I can only guess that you are questioning your own (especially as you continue to question why you’re commenting). And that’s fine with me — but keep that out of the comments.

        If this is a waste of time for you, don’t comment. That’s the intuitive and best solution. When you comment next time, try to engage in a discussion about the topic itself. There’s much we could have discussed about stereotypes, which was the subject of the article.

  4. Just the savage alone is the one major stereotype that has persisted over the centuries. Anything not white and british/american was deemed as savage. I’m guessing based on face value when the pioneers did see some of these other races they did seem more undeveloped by comparison but they were so much more. The savage, as a myth and schema still persists today for anything not white it seems.The dangerous black man being a more recent change. Wondering where it will go next.

    Even when you look at the stereotypes of woman it seems to stem from the same, savage myth in that they are deemed lesser in terms of cognitive/social functioning

    The thing with a lot of these stereotypes is that the construction of them are always in relation to the white western male, that being the norm of course. It immediately places any other race or person as the other. There is a lot of psychological babble around that and how the dominant group will always attempt to bring up their own characteristics as positive while that of the other as negative in comparison.The industry being what it is, it’s no surprise we see these stereotypes so often so often.
    I do think it’s changing, slowly… too slowly but it is. The industry is becoming more diverse thanks of course to the affirmative action of some companies but also due to the rise of the indie and kick starter

    • The thing with a lot of these stereotypes is that the construction of them are always in relation to the white western male, that being the norm of course.

      Speaking from experience, I think maybe this has some of us white men reeling from the backlash. In today’s media climate, we are being made aware every hour of the misery distributed by this aspect of the structure alone. It’s not an insignificant part of the foundation of western society. I think this is why so many among us really can’t fathom what a change would possibly look like, and many seem to opt for the “thats just the way it is” mode of identity, because as it implies, at least we know exactly where we are even though its a bad place (in general).

      The more I experience it the more I understand what a fundamental challenge to male (especially white male) identity these things are. I think that on a fundamental, basic level, allegations of racism, sexism, classism, able-ism, etc, are challenges to the identity of those who benefit from it (especially those unaware of their complicity) and humans are really fragile when it comes to questions of identity (“who am I? what is my purpose?”). I really believe this is a central reason for so much of the negative reaction to people who point out things like stereotypes. I didn’t do it enough in the article, but I should have linked back to some past articles which also spoke about stereotypes. I’ll work on that next time.

      Thanks for contributing.

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