Quest Log: Stereotypes II

This is a continuation of my quest to demystify the phrase “stereotypes come from somewhere, you know” which always implies “so this stereotype must be true.” Here I focus less on those found in games and more on those found in American culture. For Black history month, it seems appropriate to review these particular stereotypes about people of color. After all, these things do come from somewhere …just not where most of us tend to think.

The Welfare Queen

Black culture has long been accused of being matriarchal, but the power of that idea lies in the implied derogation of the term. Of course, a matriarchal family is no better or worse than a patriarchal one, but through the lens of the latter, it is seen as weak. This stereotype is a two pronged attack: First, on black men, and second a condemnation of the black family. The Welfare Queen arises from the myth of the all-powerful black woman who runs the family, runs the man out of that family and milks the government for a welfare check every month. All of those have a disappointing history of it’s own.

Welfare CartoonThe movements throughout the 20th century to develop housing projects in various cities within the United States were an outgrowth of the movement to continuously improve the welfare state. The Great Depression left a deep impression on Americans and the social safety net continued to be mended from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s years up until President Ronald Reagan’s nomination. Gaining access to that safety net was more difficult for Blacks than Whites, and employing the “separate but equal” theory, two separate and unequal standards were created for applicants. For a Black family to qualify for welfare benefits, such as public housing assistance, the men of the family were often not allowed into the residence [2]. Fathers were separated from children, husbands from wives by deliberate policy. Mothers moved into the apartments with their children, while fathers could do nothing but seize what little opportunity his family had for decent housing. Dividing the Black family actually has its genesis in slavery where families were divided as a matter of economic policy. The modern myth of the matriarchal black family began there, and the Welfare Queen is part of the extended legacy of that practice.

As the data goes, the welfare queen is absent from it. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, black and white families were equal recipients of financial welfare — white families received 41% as well as blacks. Today, black and white families still apply in equal amounts at 31%. Black families on welfare have been decreasing since 1985 — and continue to decrease while the data for white families has remained steady for 10 years. There is no Welfare Queen. It is a myth sold to citizens to encourage stereotypes, misrepresent groups of people, and trivialize the lives of millions of Americans.

The Lazy Black Person

This goes hand in hand with the Welfare Queen. This stereotype arises from the myth that blacks are lethargic and just outright lazy, requiring the muster of the whip to motivate them into productivity. Amazingly, this stereotype originated in American chattel slavery; a time when Blacks worked a thousand times harder than any other race in the country.

SamboEver hear of Sambo? Sambo is the trope of the unusually happy, but extremely lazy black male. They were eager slaves, easy to laughter and childlike to such an extent that they required the strong hand of their master to be productive. I think this is another enduring example of the power of the human mind to self-delusion. Slaves worked long, long days and could still be considered lazy. To add insult to injury masters imagined they were happy.

In reality, people of color have historically been some of the hardest working individuals in the country. They built houses, farmed vast plantations, cooked, cleaned, learned to read, sing, raise their children and that of others …this goes on and on. Needless to say, this stereotype is founded on nothing we could describe as truth.

As with other stereotypes, this still persists today. People of color, and especially the males, are thought of as unintelligent freeloaders looking for a good time and who will do anything to avoid hard work. There’s only one group of people in this country who have systematically avoided hardwork and forced said work upon other groups. Yet they are widely considered enterprising, hardworking people.

The Bad Racist/Sexist

norton-naziThere’s a very pervasive stereotype out there about Good People. It states that only Bad People can be racist or sexist. This can be spotted in any conversation where racism/sexism is brought up and some guilty man and/or white person gets upset and defensive about defining what is and is not racist/sexist. This stereotype helps to derail discussion of the topics by attributing these things only to Bad People (Nazis, Klan members, and Chauvinists are their ilk). The worst racism/sexism comes from Good People.

I’ve done racist/sexist things and I’m not immune from doing them in the future. I am who I am, because I grew up here like many of us. And “here” is a racist/sexist place with those things often enshrined in law and embedded in culture. None of us is untouched by this. By this stereotype, everyone in the country is a bad person and that’s one of the fundamental problems of the good/bad binary. It places people into these little neat, rigid, comforting boxes whose goal is to make Us feel better about not being like Them. But good people do bad things, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. The worst racism comes from “good” people. They are the people who believe that because they have good intentions everything they do necessarily has good consequences. Racism and sexism persist because of this. It’s the “good” people who perpetuate the systems.

Guilt is usually the reason for the swift denials and passionate defenses of “good” people, but the proof is in the pudding. If the consequences of your actions/inactions perpetuate things you’d ordinarily call bad if a Nazi did it, then you’ve got to confront it. We can’t be immune to critique and beyond reproach; if someone calls us out, we have to confront it and do our best to correct it. Guilt is a very personal issue and it’s often of no good use. Goodness must be defined by actively working against these things we think are so evil, especially when it comes to ourselves. It’s not about pointing it out and patting ourselves on the back for noticing. If we’re not actively pushing back against it, we’re not any better than Klan members or card carrying sexists. The worst offenses are the racism and sexism we don’t see in ourselves due to the Good Person stereotype. It makes it possible for us to ignore our own racism/sexism and prevents us from examining the ways we contribute to problems.

I have shorthanded the -isms here, but it’s not because racism and sexism represent the totality of the issues we face. There are dozens of ways in which we all discriminate against others based on stereotypes.

Stereotype Threat

This has been studied exhaustively and the results consistently report the same findings: stereotypes harm us, negatively impacts our lives, and reduces economic opportunity for the individuals and groups targeted by them.

Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group   (Steele & Aronson, 1995). This term was first used by Steele and Aronson (1995) who showed in several experiments that Black college freshmen and sophomores performed more poorly on standardized tests than White students when their race was emphasized. When race was not emphasized, however, Black students performed better and equivalently with White students. The results showed that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes. – Source:

The consequences are well documented and researched. When we – including gamers – use stereotypes to pass judgement on a person or group, we take something away from them and shutdown opportunities. There’s no such thing as a harmless stereotype.

Another thing with stereotypes is that they become self-fulfilling prophecies. If a myth is invented which says that a certain group of people are known for a certain set of qualities, society will seek opportunities to make it their plight, such as what we saw during the Jim Crow era. So the stereotype served to reinforce prejudice and bigotry, to give truth to the lie. This is how ancient stereotypes persist into today; its a remarkably effective strategy that only self-awareness can begin to dismantle. The average American has no conception of our history and do not question the origin of such stereotypes. Instead, we chalk it up to “stereotypes come from somewhere, you know, so they must hold some truth.”


Signaling is when a member of a certain group becomes self-conscious about a stereotype based on cues from their environment. This signal then impacts their performance from that moment forward and usually in a negative way. For example, perhaps one of my gamer buddies is from Russia and he’s listening in on a voice chat conversation within our guild. He may be reluctant to speak knowing it will color the way people look at him and it could diminish his performance in-game [3]. This happens in games like League of Legends routinely, except voice chat isn’t even required for these signals to set them off. It doesn’t help that fellow participants in any given match are quick to throw around racial slurs and who immediately think of negative things when they know a player from a different country is in their game.

Gamers posture, just like any other group. We have signals we send to those who are inside and those who are outside of the group. With stereotypes, those signals can often exclude groups of people by making them feel like outsiders — even when they’re insiders.

A great example is the way female gamers are viewed by the community at large. We all know they exist, yet the myth that this is a boys club persists — and we all act accordingly. Should a woman determine she’s got something to say about games, she’s shouted down in the worst possible way. But there are racial stereotypes as well and to make matters worse the games themselves are usually the worst offenders when it comes to signaling.

It’s been pointed out years ago that the races in World of Warcraft were inspired by various cultural steretotypes. This can be observed by anyone who logs into the game.  What makes them stereotypes rather than say, presentation and celebration of those cultures, is that they don’t draw on any truths that actually define the culture. Instead, they romanticize white perceptions of those groups because they are comforting tropes for the target audience. Few developers actually work with the groups they attempt to present in their games, nor do they make the effort to hire on people who could help them with that. This makes it deliberate, however benign their intentions must be. I don’t think it’s asking a lot for a little self-awareness in our games development. The industry won’t get it perfectly right, but Bioware has shown us that passionate effort is warmly welcomed, very successful, and highly rewarding for fans and developers alike. They never get it perfect.

In America, it’s the time of year when we celebrate black history, but if we really want to start seeing non-white people we have to unlearn our stereotype vision. In this particular community, we have to be much more self-aware and interested in these issues as a whole. I’ve seen game developers try to be more open and more aware the past 2 years, but it’s been painful and slow and shows a certain reluctance to change. I hope we can keep pushing the envelope and do significantly better in 2014.


1 Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson. See Query 14: Laws.

2 The Pruitt-Igoe Myth – A documentary about the Pruitt-Igoe housing project of St. Louis Missouri. The information is derived from the living testimony of mothers and wives who lived through it. Available via Netflix.

3 Stereotype Threat: Theory, Process, and Application by Michael Inzlicht and Toni Schmader (p. 21)

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.

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