Sambo gets digitzed!

The Color of Mayhem, in a Wave of ‘Urban’ Games

(By MICHEL MARRIOTT – New York Times – August 12, 2004)

The sense of place, peril and pigmentation evident in previews of the game, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, underscores what some critics consider a disturbing trend: popular video games that play on racial stereotypes, including images of black youths committing and reveling in violent street crime.

“They are nothing more than pixilated minstrel shows,” said Joe Morgan, a telecommunications executive in Manhattan who is black and is helping rear his girlfriend’s 7-year-old son, who plays video games. Mr. Morgan argues that games like the Grand Theft Auto sequel, which was described glowingly and at length in a game magazine the boy recently brought home, are dangerously reinforcing stereotypes. …

The issue, critics say, is not that the games’ representation of racial and ethnic minorities is as blatantly threatening as the sort found at hate sites on the Web, where players are asked to gun down virtual black or Jewish characters. Rather, the racial and ethnic depictions and story lines are more subtle, and therefore, some say, more insidious.

“It’s not just the kinds of stereotyping people generally think of,” said Eileen Espejo, a senior associate at Children Now, an advocacy group in Oakland, Calif., that has studied video games. “It is the kind of limiting what characters of color can do and cannot do in the games that sends a message to kids.”

Video game developers counter that no offense is intended. They say their games are simply parodies, or a reflection of a sort of “browning” of popular culture that transcends race and sells to all in a marketplace captivated by hip-hop styles, themes and attitude. …

And the reaction if there were a Grand Jihad Auto, full of wife-beating, polygamous mullahs, and rage-suckling young “sand niggers”? Is that acceptable? After all, it merely draws on obvious features of Islamic culture — right? Or if there were a Priestly Pedophiles RPG? Or a Niggaz and Ho’s board game — oh wait, there already is.

The prominence of black characters in those story lines is all the more striking because of the narrow range of video games in which blacks have been present, if present at all, over the years. A 2001 study by Children Now, for example, found that of 1,500 video-game characters surveyed, 288 were African-American males – and 83 percent of those were represented as athletes.

Video game sales in the United States reached $7 billion last year, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Game hardware, including consoles, added more than $3 billion to that total, industry analysts estimate. But with Hollywood-scale success have come Hollywood-style pressures, including the need for games to “open big” and achieve enough success to sustain lucrative sequels.

“Games are attempting to drive market share beyond the traditional 8- to 14-year-old male player,” said Michael Gartenberg, research director for Jupiter Research, an Internet consulting firm. Part of that drive, he suggested, involves having video games reflect what has proved to work in popular films. And as in Hollywood, that may mean subject matter that drives sales even as it draws criticism for gratuitous violence, sexual exploitation or racial insensitivity.

In any case, limiting content to realistic, multidimensional portrayals of racial minorities may be unfair to game developers, Mr. Gartenberg suggested. “Video games are fantasies,” he said, “and are not attempting to mirror any reality whatsoever.”

My skinny white ass. Am I really to believe the feverish mad dash for the ultimate virtual on-screen experience is not an attempt to mirror reality at all? This is exactly the kind of two-faced slipperiness that has sold millions of copies of Dan Brown’s *The Da Vinci Code*: in one breath pretend it’s just good fiction, in the next breath claim you’re just telling us how it is.

Rockstar Games, the publisher of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (to be released in October for the Sony PlayStation 2), is known for infusing its games with gritty yet cartoonish violence. Players were famously rewarded in earlier Grand Theft Auto games for killing prostitutes and, more recently, brutalizing Haitians.

I swore off Japanime when I saw one about a pedophilic pimp, drug dealer, hit man, and I guess I’m off race-playing video games now too.


About The Codgitator (a cadgertator)

Catholic convert. Quasi-Zorbatic. Freelance interpreter, translator, and web marketer. Former ESL teacher in Taiwan (2003-2012) and former public high school teacher (2012-2014). Married father of three. Multilingual, would-be scholar, and fairly consistent fitness monkey. My research interests include: the interface of religion and science, the history and philosophy of science and technology, ancient and medieval philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience. Please pray for me.
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