Videogames as Critical Race Pedagogy

Tanner Higgin's picture

Education Beyond Edu-games

Researching and designing educational videogames continues to be one of the most popular forms of research within the critical tendency of game studies. Without question, the push to leverage the strong and unique persuasive and educational aspects of games via the design of new games is a worthwhile endeavor. However, focusing on the design and creation of educational games, newsgames, and serious games also monopolizes the attention of those of us interested in the potential for games to educate. We need to not only create new games that educate, but reflect back on games of all kinds that have already been created. There’s a lot to be learned about our culture from Call of Duty.

The problem is that this learning often takes place without basic literacies of the videogame medium. If we build these literacies we can use them to cultivate the critical faculties of game players and expose to them the important cultural meanings embedded within all games, not just those devoted explicitly to education or persuasion. This meaning cuts across race, gender, sexuality, power, and capital. For my purposes, these cultural meanings are most often tied to critical race theory. I use games to expose students to how race is constructed, but remains a fundamental component of social and political life.

The Need For Literacy

Literacy is becoming increasingly important as videogames continue to gain prominence in the media landscape yet critical engagement within the “gamer” community is undervalued. As a videogame fan and critic I spend a lot of time, as may some of you, traveling between the discourses of academia and the public moving from critical examination of games to debates about the aesthetics merits of games. The gap between these two discourses, while narrowing, is, in comparison to a more “mature” medium like film, massive.

And here I am not referring to the proliferation of racist, sexist, and homophobic language that predominates on message boards and online gaming. Although I do think this is partially related to literacy, it’s also simply a product of the anonymity and politics peculiar to internet culture. Instead, what I am concerned with are the dismissive reactions of fans to serious discussion of the meanings of play, particularly when that discussion engages with issues of race, gender, and sexuality.

To illustrate, let’s look at just two of the 428 comments (the majority of which are negative) to an article called “Blackface Goes HD? The Case of Resident Evil 5” posted on the Microscopiq blog. This article calls attention to the insensitive imagery of hordes of African zombies being shot to death by a classic white male hero in the first pre-release gameplay trailer of Resident Evil 5 at 2007′s E3 conference. The author of the article makes the argument that the trailer is offensive given its connection to historically oppressive images of black people as savage and violent.

Apr 20th, 2008 at 5:21 pm
Honestly I think the person writing this article is looking at this waaaay too deep. I should remind you it’s just a video game. Resident Evil has never had a reputation for being racist and as you mentioned before although RE 4 did not give you this same feeling of racism. While I see why you might jump to conclusions, let take into consideration that RE is a game series where no matter what the people are out to kill you due to their infectious disease. I believe this game is no different. If anything the choice of location is nothing more than a move for a different scenery (too keep the game looking fresh) You can look at it as racism just because of history and the on going conflicts happening in Africa, but I think you’re really overlooking the obvious truth that this nothing more than a video game with the purpose to thrill/scare players, regardless of location/culture/skin color.

Aug 1st, 2007 at 9:03 pm
It is a video game. People will not change their perception of Africa. It seems that’s your main issue here. If you want to change how people view Africa, then educate them. Playing RE4 did not change how I view Spain. I’m sorry but people play video games for fun/entertainment, not for educational purposes. So please dont bring race into this. Most people (including me) didnt even look at this (as a white man killing black people) until people like you brought it up. If you want people to stop looking at peoples race, then stop pointing it out. Just let us play our games without thinking about race. I just hate it when people play the race card for no legitament reason. I cant wait until my generation are the leaders of this country. We are so sick of thinking about race when people like you bring it up.

On the one hand, we can assume some of these commenters are overly defensive of videogames because they feel as a media form it is often subject to undue attack from politicians and watchdog groups. And it is. On the other hand, and more of interest to me, is how people want to preserve videogames as sites of white masculine hetereosexual fantasy, free of the political contestation of the “real world.” Consequently, games are defended as “just fun” and any claims to the contrary, in keeping with a post-racial reversal, call out anyone wanting to talk about race as racist. In this way whiteness, and the racial hierarchy it sits atop, are protected and anti-racist discourse is nullified and the only viable position of progressive politics is a colorblind view which dismisses the significance of the lived experiences of people of color. Not to mention, as evidenced by the second comment, games are seen as lacking any educational or cultural importance and not worth discussing.

So how do we build videogame literacies which attempt to educate videogame players so they can appropriately critique what they consume and recognize the importance of race, and appropriate representation of race, in videogames?

Toward a Critical Race Pedagogy of Videogames

Since the importance of race to games is often not acknowledged, we need to start with mass market games (i.e. games they actually play) and show how cultural meaning exists within the games they consume. I’ve found that critical reflection is most effectively achieved if a historical lineage of representation is charted that travels from eras students will identify as overtly racist to current games.

To return to Resident Evil 5, N’Gai Croal, a game journalist and current design consultant, performed this very pedagogical role in an interview with MTV’s Tracey John about the game.

They’re hidden in shadows, you can barely see their eyes, and the perspective of the trailer is not even someone who’s coming to help the people. It’s like they’re all dangerous; they all need to be killed. It’s not even like one cute African — or Haitian or Caribbean — child could be saved. They’re all dangerous men, women and children. They all have to be killed. And given the history, given the not so distant post-colonial history, you would say to yourself, why would you uncritically put up those images? It’s not as simple as saying, “Oh, they shot Spanish zombies in ‘Resident Evil 4,’ and now ‘black zombies and that’s why people are getting upset.” The imagery is not the same. It doesn’t carry the same history, it doesn’t carry the same weight. I don’t know how to explain it more clearly than that.

Croal makes several important points that instruct readers on simple critical gamic racial literacy. First, he offers a visual and affective analysis of the imagery showing the representational techniques of darkness and deviance used in the trailer as well as the positioning of all the Africans as violent and expendable. Second, he connects the imagery to colonial history. Third, and following from the history of empire and slavery, Croal explains that dismissing the imagery as harmless or ethically equivalent to killing white or Spanish zombies, is ignorant of the differing significances attached to black bodies.

In addition to teaching this critical literacy of the visual, we also need to build new kinds of critical analysis that are attentive to the unique representational means of videogames. Since games are simulations, players need to understand that race does not solely function through overt representation but through logics and processes embedded within games. Ian Bogost’s “procedural rhetoric” is a useful term to describe this logic.

Perhaps the most basic examples can be found in roleplaying games which imbue races with differing statistics much like racist conceptualizations of racial difference as biologically determined. Moreover, character creation systems quantify and measure a range of human difference which is programmed into the interface as a range of determined options.

I have tried to explain one of the more complicated ways that procedural rhetoric communicates race in games. The population algorithm that generates racialized bodies depending on the spaces the player traverses in Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row locates race as a product of spatial arrangement. In addition, Mark Sample’s blog post on Sim City’s crime rate algorithms, while not engaging with race, provides another very explicit illustration of how procedurality generates meaning.

Each of these examples can be tied within a classroom to critical race theories about white supremacy and the deterministic and reductive ways non-white identity is socially managed through digital media technologies. In this way, students can learn through games how race is constructed and struggled over in the world and through game technologies.

In closing, we know people learn from videogames, and we can, and should, create games that provide worthwhile knowledge. Yet this should not be our only focus. All games teach and often what players learn is insensitive or politically regressive. In response, we need to develop and teach procedural literacies that encourage people to be more ethical and critical consumers of games so that they can better see the continued and fundamental importance of race, gender, and sexuality to social formation.

This post is adapted from a talk given at the 2011 Digital Media and Learning Conference on March 4, 2011.


Publication date (from feed): 

Fri, 04 Mar 2011 19:00:45 +0000