#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.