Teaching Transcoded Race in Videogames

Tanner Higgin's picture

In the past when I have taught race in videogames for my freshman composition classes I have had a hard time explaining how to push beyond representational critiques of racial signification. Naturally students are more adept at analyzing the visual presentation and iconography of race in games than breaking down the more subtle and technical ways race is coded into gameworlds. But it’s also important to demonstrate to the students Lev Manovich’s concept of transcoding where the cultural layer of games the visual material they can identify) is influenced by the software and hardware structures of games.

I have used MMORPG character creation tools as one example of how race is quantified and mapped into a set of options that presents the illusion of choice while adhering to a identifiable set of logics about racial difference. I have also had the students read David Leonard’s “Virtual Gangstas, Coming to a Suburban House Near You: Demonization, Commodification, and Policing Blackness” in order to understand how Grand Theft Auto can be interpreted as a metaphor for the necessity of policing race. I also tend to extend these discussions of Grand Theft Auto to analyze its satirical content and how it presents a critical view of racial antagnoism in American city by exposing the spatialization, hiearchicalization, and inequity of space.

However, it has been challenging to demonstrate, given the difficulty of bringing game consoles into the classroom, how racial representation is coded into the game world via easily identifiable population algorithms which fill the streets with what are considered the appropriate denizens of each sector of the gamespace. This recorded gameplay video of a member of 4 Player Podcast on Justin.tv solved my problems. In the video, the player enters an internet cafe in Grand Theft Auto 4 and encounters a glitch that causes the cafe to be filled with what he calls “heavy set black men.” The point of the video is not to expose some kind of hidden racism but to show students how the game’s technical architecture is a crucial component in understanding how race is manifested in the gameworld. The appearance of heavyset black men in a certain area of the game is not an entirely random effect but a programmed operation with both a technical and cultural logic at play that should be interrogated.

Tanner

Publication date (from feed): 

Sat, 23 May 2009 10:35:58 +0000