Tech + Health

03.21.14

Can a Video Game Make You Racist? New Study Says Yes.

Gamers are used to defending their hobby against claims of violence. Now they have something else to contend with: racism.

Academics are quick to debunk the conservative idea—repeatedly offered in the wake of school shootings—that Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty can turn someone into a mass murderer. Not only are video games unlikely to drive you to kill, new research shows that they might even be good for you. Several studies in 2012 found gamers to be more creative and better at decision-making. Last year, the American Psychological Association released a massive review of existing research showing that video games (even the violent shooter ones) “boost[ed] children’s learning, health and social skills.”

Still, there's no wanting for evidence that they might make you a pretty awful person. In the last year alone studies have shown that video games can make people unempathetic, aggressive, fat cheaters with no self control.

But put down that controller, now there’s something new to wring your hands about. A study out of Ohio State University suggests playing certain games can make you (more) racist.

According to the study, whites who played violent video games with a black avatar were not only generally more aggressive than when they play with a white avatar, but they also came away from the game with negative stereotypes, including the belief that blacks are more violent people.

In the experiment, 126 white students (60% males) were asked to play the game Saints Row 2 with a randomly assigned avatar for 20 minutes. The clothing and build were consistent, but the white avatar was given a conservative haircut while the black avatar was given cornrows and an inner city dialect. Students were then given a goal: either break out of prison, killing any in-the-way guards, or find a chapel and try not to hurt anyone.

“Whites who played violent video games with a black avatar were not only generally more aggressive, but they also came away from the game with negative stereotypes.”

The researchers then asked each player questions that measured their attitudes about blacks and found the players with black avatars had stronger negative perceptions. For instance, they more often agreed with statements like, ‘‘It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if Blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as Whites.”

And if that seems too crazy to believe anyone would openly agree with, the study also measured implicit racism with an Implicit Association Test (IAT), where photos of White and Black people are paired with positive (happy, love) and negative (horrible, evil) words. The longer it takes for a participant to link a black face to good words than a white face, the more implicit negative feelings one holds.  Again, the players with black avatars displayed stronger negative attitudes toward blacks.

In the second part of the experiment, students played either WWE Smackdown vs. RAW 2010 or Fight Night Round 4 with randomly raced avatars. This time, the IAT asked them to pair white and black people with objects—weapons and harmless items like a ball. Unsurprisingly, students who played the game as a black avatar more often associated black faces with weapons than students with white avatars.

This study also added to the loads of research backing the fairly common sense conclusion that playing out violent scenarios—in games and in real life—ups  aggression levels, if only for a short time after the stimulus. Most of these use some form of the “hot sauce test” where a subject is asked to give hot sauce to another student who must drink it, even though they hate spicy food. The more hot sauce they dole out, the more aggressive they’re measured to be. The twist here: playing with a black avatar made white students more aggressive as well. They gave out 115 percent more hot sauce than their white-avatar counterparts.

So, what does it all mean?

This study seems to be less about games and more about the people who make and play them. The basic idea is that when you have a black man (a stereotyped figure) acting out a stereotypical behavior (jailed, committing violent actions), it reinforces stereotypes in people who already have a proclivity to believe them.

"Usually, taking the perspective of a minority person is seen as a good thing, as a way to evoke empathy," Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University said in the study’s release. "But if white people are fed a media diet that shows blacks as violent, they don't have a realistic view of black people. It isn't good to put yourself in the shoes of a murderer, as you do in many of these violent games."

In other words, racists: keep playing your games. Just pick the white guy.