Game characters are too white, too male

Los Angeles, CA – Games developers are failing to reflect diversity, according to the first survey of game characters. Latinos are nearly invisible, and women and other groups are woefully underrepresented.

Study leader Dmitri Williams, a social psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication looked at the top 150 games in a year across nine platforms and all rating levels, and weighted by each title’s popularity.

In his study, Williams cited research showing Latinos are making modest gains on television. By contrast, fewer than three percent of video game characters were recognizably Hispanic, and all of them were non-playable, background characters – rather as if, says Williams, no Latino on television had a speaking part.

“Latino children play more video games than white children. And they’re really not able to play themselves,” Williams said. “For identity formation, that’s a problem. And for generating interest in technology, it may place underrepresented groups behind the curve.

“Ironically, they may even be less likely to become game makers themselves, helping to perpetuate the cycle. Many have suggested that games function as crucial gatekeepers for interest in science, technology, engineering and math.”

Women, Native Americans, children and the elderly also were underrepresented. For example, only 10 percent of playable characters surveyed were female, though women now make up 40 percent of video game players.

African-Americans appeared in proportion to their numbers in the real world, but mainly in sports games and in titles that reinforce stereotypes, such as 50 Cent Bulletproof.

Males, whites and adults were overrepresented.

The study itself was limited in two important ways. Many games feature non-human characters, and many are first-person games where the player never sees himself or herself. The study only included visible characters that were clearly human.

In their study, the authors discuss possible reasons for their findings. But Williams cautioned against jumping to conclusions. “The characters the developers put in the games do not match the real world,” he said. “Our thoughts about why are all informed guesses.”

He did have a word of advice for game developers: “These are highly underserved groups. It’s a missed sales opportunity.”

The study is available online in New Media & Society.