#MarioSoWhite: The Lack Of Racial Diversity In Games

Last night’s Academy Award ceremony has been marked by controversy regarding the lack of diversity of its nominees. For the second year in a row, only white actors and actresses were chosen for the top four categories — best actor/actress and best supporting actor/actress. Host Chris Rock opened his monologue with a jab at the montage that played at the beginning of the show, featuring all the movies the Academy is celebrating during the show.  “I counted at least 15 black people in that montage!” he laughed. “Well, I’m here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards.”  However, not everyone was laughing with him. The resulting backlash led to several African-American actors and actresses boycotting the event and the rise of the social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. As a result, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made changes in its structure and voting regulations in an effort to promote diversity.

While it is the film industry that is now being lambasted for failing to produce works that are reflective of the diversity of its audience, the game industry has an equally poor record with non-white characters. A recent study conducted by University of Southern California professor Dmitri Williams found in a survey of 150 games across nine platforms and all ratings that 10.74% of game characters were African-American. While this is about equal to the percentage of African-Americans within the U.S. population (12.3%), there is a caveat: almost all African-American characters in these games were either rappers or criminals.

Other non-white races are even more poorly or under-represented in these games. Fewer than 3% of video game characters were recognizably Hispanic and none were playable. Native Americans did not appear in any of the video games surveyed.

Why is this the case, especially given that so many game players are people of color? Studies show that African-Americans, Hispanics and those in lower socioeconomic groups play, spend more time, and buy more video games than other groups. According to The Kaiser Family Foundation, African-American youth between the ages of 8 and 18 play games 30 minutes more per day than white youth, while Hispanics play an average of 10 minutes more.

Perhaps the problem is a lack of diversity within the game industry itself.  In a 2012 International Game Developers Association study of students enrolled in college game design and development programs, 71.6% of participants identified themselves as white, 10.2% as Asian, 6.5% as African-American, and 2.7% as Hispanic/Latino. African-Americans ;and Hispanic/Latinos are therefore underrepresented with respect to the U.S. population, while Asians are overrepresented when compared with the US population.

Does this mean that African-Americans and Hispanics are not as interested in developing games?  Not according to my experience teaching game production at The Los Angeles Film School. Most of my students are African-American and Hispanic. Now, we are a trade school and not a college, which means that we only require a high school diploma or equivalent for admission, and so many of our students would not be qualified to enter college. Yet many of my students are exceptionally bright and will no doubt go on to become talented game developers. So, perhaps it is either their home, community or public school environment that has failed supporting many into getting grades necessary to go on to college.

It is an issue that needs further study. Diversity at all levels of society, and in the creative works that help to influence society is needed. It is both a business imperative for our industry and a moral one for our society.



About David Mullich

I am a video game producer who has worked at Activision, Disney, Cyberdreams, EduWare, The 3DO Company and the Spin Master toy company. I am currently a game design and production consultant, a game design instructor at ArtCenter College of Design, and co-creator of the Boy Scouts of America Game Design Merit Badge. At the 2014 Gamification World Congress in Barcelona, I was rated the 14th ranking "Gamification Guru" in social media.

Posted on February 29, 2016, in Games and Society and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I’ve noticed one thing missing in articles on racial diversity like those being an USA author’s bias.

    While complaints about too much whiteness among Academy Award might make sense in context, since it’s USA thing, videogames come from all around the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if the study you pointed out games made in other countries, too, where things are different.

    Since you grew up in a racist environment, it’s nature and power dynamics are obvious and natural to you – but it’s not that simple to others. it even changes over time: apparently, while asians were oppressed in the past, now there exists significant wage gap between yellow and white people. These things aren’t obvious to an outside looker; even the definitions of races are not obvious – I was extremely surprised when I found out that “hispanics” are considered to be a separate race from “white” in the US! Even if I wanted I wouldn’t be able to represent american culture well; I’m not even allowed to get into your country without a personal permission of an ambassador.

    And you really shouldn’t be nationalist about it. Demanding games from other ethnicities to be representative of yours is extremely xenophobic! And – by the way – pointing out Mario as a hallmark of a game that isn’t “diverse” is flawed – it’s really “diverse”, since it’s a game with caucasian protagonist that comes from a culture that doesn’t even have many caucasians in it!

    • I don’t think of myself as having grown up in a racist environment. The values I was taught as a child was to respect people as individuals, and not judge people based on their ethnicity.

      I don’t see how advocating that video games feature characters of races of than white is xenophobic. I’m not demanding that games be representative of my own race (which is white), I’m saying they should be representative of races other than mine.

      I’m not pointing out Mario as a hallmark of a game that isn’t diverse. I’m using the word “Mario” to represent video games in general, so that I can do a play on the hashtag “oscarsowhite”, by replacing “oscar” with “mario.”

      • Thank you a lot for your answer!

        By “racist environment” i didn’t mean your particular upbringing, but the culture (I presume that you’re american). That makes it easy for you to identify and understand racist stereotypes that surround you. While it might be obvious to everyone in the States that african americans are associated with low scale criminal activities and hard times finding an employment, but it’s not that simple to people outside of your cultural circle. Just look at how stereotypes about asians 100-200 years ago and now and you’ll see how different it was. Racism is simply not a natural thing – it’s extremely culture-specific and sometimes really weird: for example, apparently there’s a stereotype that “black people like KFC”, which is unbeliveably bizarre (when I first heard it I thought it’s a joke. I mean, seriously? Does that mean there are people that don’t like it?).

        That makes it really hard from someone outside of that culture and be relevant to it. And I really don’t think you should expect people to reject their culture to pander to your cultural expectations.

        I bring this up because it seems pretty common in editorials like these. While usually I brush them off as meaningless bigotry, you seem to be a really thoughtful person who bases his opinions on an insight.

        My point is that using games developed by other cultures to prove a point about your culture being misrepresented is flawed. I couldn’t reach the original study (it’s hidden behind the necessity to register…), but that’s the thing they usually do in such articles (it also made a pretty silly thing of randomising character and then using it to represent the option…). But now it seems to me that I think I’ve been reading too much into your article – sorry about that!

        There’s one thing, though, I wonder about – why do you think it’s important for videogames as a collective to properly represent US society? If I analysed every person who lives in my residential (I mean the administrative area with lots of houses; that’s what translate google tells me it’s called, but it sounds wrong), most people wouldn’t make sense to base the game on. I mean, they wouldn’t have the right physical or psychological qualities to base the game upon them (without any changes). And why should I? Obviously, there are some things you need to have to make the characters relatable, but it seems to me that many of those are overrated. Personally I fail to see the difference between people of different races other than the skin color, and that makes me view it as an estetic choice only. Which usually makes me prefer people of the rarer ones in media. While I do have a strong bias to playing female characters in games (to the point of being repulsed by the games with male ones; although I get over it once I start playing), but I prefer to think that’s it’s my personal preference and people should be free to express themselves in gaming creation. And what about games without anthropomorphicised/personified characters?

        By the way, some things in your blogpost (the one in cursive) are written with white font making them seem blank. Was this an artistic choice? 😉

  2. I do not consider the United States to be a racist country, at least not now, and not by comparison to much of the rest of the world. There are individual instances of racism, but that’s hard to avoid in a country of 300 million.

    I do not think that video games collectively should properly represent US society. I do think that video games should meet the needs of their players. Since many players are not white, then game developers should make an effort to have more non-white characters for them to play.

    I am not aware of any of my blogs appearing in a white font. I do not see that in my browser and no one else has reported it.

    • Thank you for answering again. I’m really sorry for asking you all those questions, and if they felt inquisitive or nitpicking. I know it was egoistical on my part to try to figure this out, and again, I thank you for taking your time to answer regardless!

      Thank you for sharing your view of the US. As I stated I’ve never been there, so I was possibly under wrong impression by some media, so it’s obviously quite flawed.

      Also, thanks for clarifying your opinion on what you actually expect. While I certainly do not share this view, I am grateful to you for expressing it.

      (As for the white font cursive thing, I checked the other browser (firefox) and it was fine, so it’s probably just problem with opera. Sorry for pointing this out without doing a proper research!)

      Have a good night, and once again, thanks!

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