The study, published by Ohio State University, found that white gamers who used African-American avatars were more likely to associate negative behaviors with people of color, and act more aggressively towards them afterward.
“The media have the power to perpetuate the stereotype that blacks are violent, and this is certainly seen in video games,” the study’s lead researcher Brad Bushman, PhD, who specializes in communication and social psychology, said in a news release. Bushman, who is a known critic of video games overall, also said that being black in video games is synonymous with being violent.
Researchers ran two experiments, one where a mostly male group played Saints Row 2 and the other mostly female group laying WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2010 or Fight Night Round Four, rather bluntly says playing a black character in a video game makes whites more racist. After playing, the first group of students were asked to match words, such as joy and evil, with either a black or white face in an Implicit Association Test to detect subconscious biases. The second group took a hot sauce test and was asked to give it to an unknown partner to measure hostility.
“Aggression is very hard to measure in the lab,” partly because you can’t let people act out violently and also because the standards vary from study to study, allowing researchers to hand-pick results, Chris Ferguson, PhD, a psychology professor with Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., told ThinkProgress. Also, gamers who choose black avatars and play them more violently — and later show aggression — are simply reinforcing a previously held stereotype, Uproxx’s Dan Seitz wrote.
In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court found that research involving video game violence — even those with a racial or ethnic motive — relied too heavily on correlation rather than evidence linking game violence to aggression. It’s pretty clear that the study is “agenda-driven science,” that’s using the same methods the Supreme Court debunked years ago, where the researchers were looking for an outcome and used non-standardized and unreliable methods to get the results, Ferguson said.
While the study may have meant to prove that choosing game characters of a different race doesn’t automatically make users more empathetic, it also highlights the video game industry’s constant struggle with diversity.
Video game developers have largely failed to create more diverse cast of lead characters that include women and minorities. But while there’s been some improvement with games like The Walking Dead — which has a strong black male lead — the study itself failed to look at how gamers’ attitudes change based on how the character is portrayed. It’s more interesting to look at how empathetic roles change people’s attitudes toward African-Americans or women, Ferguson said. It would have been interesting to see the results if games like The Walking Dead, even with its violent zombie-killing theme, were included.
“We would like to see a greater diversity of characters in video games,” Ferguson said. But Bushman’s study missed a great opportunity to explore how gamers respond to characters portrayed in both positive and stereotypically negative roles, he said. Other studies have shown that television shows with sexual violence don’t have the same negative affect on viewers’ perception of women as long as there are also strong female characters.