Video games represent a modern, sophisticated, multicultural, virtual form of minstrelsy. In other words, they provide players—a broad cross section of white middle-class suburbanites and young urban minorities — with the opportunity to be black athletes or Ninjas. In those frequent cases where white heroes rule virtual reality, the enjoyment comes from dominating characters of color, from transporting oneself into a foreign and dangerous environment. Video games enable the virtual enjoyment of those bodies and spaces (dangerous inner-city communities) which are currently off limits to a predominantly white middle-class suburban playing population.

According to historian Eric Lott, minstrelsy was a “manifestation of the particular desire to try on the accents of ‘blackness’ and demonstrates the permeability of the color line.” He writes that blackface “facilitate[s] safely an exchange of energies between two otherwise rigidly bounded and policed cultures.” Video games operate in a similar fashion, breaking down these boundaries with ease, given their virtual realism.

The games are big business, rivaling television, music, and films in terms of their social, cultural, and economic impact on American life. Video game sales reached $6 billion in 2000, and speculations put that number at closer to $8 billion last year. In 2000 alone, over 280 million units were sold throughout the world. It is estimated that 60 percent of Americans, approximately 145 million people, play video games regularly.

Unlike film or television, the images, ideologies, and messages of video games are repetitions. Every time you turn on your machine, the same scenarios and images appear. Video games are equally unique because of their interactive nature. Participants can occupy different bodies and spaces that have gotten amazingly realistic, in terms of their movement, facial expressions, and presence of voice. Characters now get fatigued in sports games and will bleed in violent games.

But despite their huge popularity, very little work or discussion has taken place in understanding their appeal and impact. Unlike television or music, the racial and gender content of video games is out of control because of their perceived niche audience. Video games are still viewed as toys for kids, rather then sophisticated vehicles inhabiting and disseminating racial meaning. Extreme, blatant racial imagery flourish in this world of electronic games, but are dismissed by arguments that they are “just games,” or by conservative commentators focusing on their violent content regardless of racial meaning. As in other forms of genre fiction, video games are places where some of the political currents in society are explored in powerful ways, often beneath the radar of intellectuals and radical thinkers because they simply don’t play or indulge in kids’ leisure activities.

Revealing Numbers

According to Children Now, an Oakland-based child advocacy group, white characters account for the majority of those within video games (56 percent) and are the only characters within most children’s games. In their study, Fair Play? Violence, Gender and Race in Video Games (December 2001), blacks accounted for one-fifth of all characters, Asians represent less than 10 percent, and Latinos are scantly present with merely two percent, all of which were men and involved in sports games. Native Americans are virtually absent in the game world. Whites are not only the majority of the characters, but an overwhelming number of the heroes. Black and Latino male characters tend to be competitors within sports games. Women of color, similarly to white women, represent neither competitors nor heroes, appearing as props, bystanders, sex objects or victims (nine out of 10 black female characters were victims of violence).

“Live in Your World, Play in Ours”

One of the most popular home video games, Grand Theft Auto III, embraces racial imagery and racially-based stock characters. The black criminal, the Latino drug dealer, the prostitute, the Chinese crime boss, the Italian mobster, and the East Indian cab driver are all found within this game. Despite the inclusion of the Italian mobster, GTA III legitimizes white supremacy and patriarchy, privileges whiteness and maleness, all the while substantiating the necessity of law and order and reactionary social governance.

GTA III takes you to Liberty City, the “worst place in America.” As an aspiring thug in the Leone family, you accept jobs ranging from driving the “girls” (all of whom are prostitutes) to assassinating rival gang members (all people of color). Your enemies in Liberty City consist of a number of gangs: the Triads (Chinese), Yazuka (Japanese), Diablos (“Hispanic street gang”), South Side Hoods (blacks), Columbian Cartel, and the Yardies (Jamaican). The racial dynamics are at the forefront, with you and your white crime family battling a spectrum of people of color to control the streets of America.

The Leone family is described in the game instructions as a “charming, smart, traditionally well-dressed, strong Sicilian family.” They are above all else loyal, reflecting “strong family values” despite a propensity to murder and to have their enemies assassinated with car bombs. The Triads, on the other hand, are described as “obsessively territorial maniacs.” The South Side Hoods, whose turf is the projects, have a style consisting of “gold chains, rings and teeth, branded street wear, hooded sweatshirts, and platinum.” They are gangsters, of the hip-hop generation, as opposed to the businessmen associated with the Leone family. Members of the South Side Hoods drive “Rumpo XLS,” the Diablos drive low-riders and those who hang with the Triads all drive around in fish vans. On the other hand, members of the Leone family drive pristine sporty black sedans.

As the clear heroes, members of the Leone family are constructed with life-like qualities. Hollywood actors (Michael Madsen and Michael Rappaport, among others) provide their voices, and close-up shots further elucidate their depth of humanity. Your enemies, of which virtually all are men of color, have no voice or face.

The game opens with a series of shots of some of its main characters: the self-reputed leaders of each gang. Among the leaders is 8-ball, leader of the South Side Hoods, scowling and holding an Uzi. A member of the Triads, whose sign of Asianness consists of the dragon on his shirt, is equally dangerous with his exposed gun and his “sneaky gaze.” Through the course of the game, the racialized differences between the Leone family and the other gangs become increasingly clear from their behavior. At those times where the Leone family participates in violence, it is always reactionary and justified. They obey the rules and etiquette of criminal behavior, further revealing their civility and humanity. The Triads, however, shoot at you just for driving in their neighborhood, additionally walking their turf brandishing guns and baseball bats without cause. The only rule that governs their behavior is kill or be killed.

The mundane racial dynamics of GTA III are overshadowed by its in-your-face imagery: the heavy accented East-Indian cabbie, the poor-English speaking Chinese women walking on the street, the purple-cladded black pimps. Almost all of the innocent citizens of Liberty City are white, the majority of whom are upper class and elderly. The police are all white as well, and devoid of any sort of corruption. They, like the Leone family, only resort to violence when they are forced to.

Taken as a whole, Grand Theft Auto III tells the story of city struggle, of whites under threat from the communities of color that surround them, eventually resulting to violence of their own. The violence and incivility of the city forces a return to more primitive instincts. While you or the Leone family may seem violent or immoral, you serve, along with the police, as the invisible wall of protection against the criminality, deviance and depravity of communities of color. Grand Theft Auto clearly constitutes a battle between good and evil. It is a battle between whites (the Leone family, yourself, innocent by-standers, and the police) and males of color; a battle to control the streets, to “control the worst place in America.”

While racialized images define Grand Theft Auto III, its presentation of women is equally troubling. As with most video games, female presence is peripheral. None of the gangs have female members, except an endless supply of prostitutes who exist to please the heroes. The prostitutes additionally serve you and the game in two ways: (1) to improve you health. If your health points are low (if you get to zero you die), a mere moment with a prostitute raises your health score. (2) After you are finished, you then have the opportunity to kill that prostitute and take her money. The graphic objectification of women within this game and the sanctioning of violence further reveal the reactionary orientation of the game, and its function as a virtual minstrel show.

Since its release fall 2001, Grand Theft Auto III has sold six million copies. With a large rental market and the sharing of games, the reactionary and racialized message of this game has the potential to reach homes across the country. Despite its propagation of stereotypes and conservative ideology (or because of these facts), Grand Theft Auto won awards from a number of industry insiders as “game of the year.” Would a film with such blatantly racist imagery win an Oscar? I think not, but video games continue to represent a unique medium where the mantra “it’s just a game” repels criticism.

Virtual Playing Fields

Sports games represent another genre that is dominated by characters of color. It becomes quite clear through these games that blacks dominate America’s major sports and do so because of genetics. Blacks make up a disproportionate number of athletes in both the real and imaginary because of what’s promoted as their innate athletic superiority. In Street, NBA players go head-to-head with street legends. Jumping as high as the sun, knocking their competitors through concrete walls, and making unfathomable moves on the court, the game reveals both their innate black athleticism and their superhuman strength, endurance, speed, and jumping ability. The few white players who do appear in the game have nowhere near the athleticism or the muscles of the black players. The white player’s dominance comes from their ability to shoot, which comes from hard work and long hours on the court, not good genes.

Madden 2003, as in most of the sports games, additionally, depicts black males as physically and verbally aggressive and having unusual body types. Black men are excessively muscular and hyper-masculine, talking trash and crushing bodies with sheer force. Black players tend to talk trash and engage in other forms verbal assault with greater frequency as well.

A Long Way from Pong

From the traditional fighting games and their modern incarnations, to games celebrating the DEA and the CIA, video games most certainly do not resemble my mother’s pong. With these technological advancements has come a tremendous focus on constructing and utilizing dominant ideas of race and gender. Their realism provides the illusion of a mirror into social reality, further enhancing the effect of creating, inhabiting, and transforming racial and gender meaning. Contributing to our “racial common sense,” and our understanding of what is meant by black or by women, while also justifying contemporary social policy (prison industrial complex, war on terrorism, militarization of the border), modern-day video games do a tremendous amount of ideological work, especially in regard to race and gender.

Video games represent a virtual minstrel show along many fronts. Sports games facilitate white bodies to occupy black bodies. They provide a world to play through racialized notions of black athleticism in exaggerated forms. They enable whites to experience dunking and the power of muscles, which, according to dominant mythology, they lack the genetics for. Violent games create a virtual slum, providing middle-class whites the opportunity to engage in behavior that is shunned upon and forbidden within a free, republican Christian society.

Many white suburbanites have surface knowledge of blackness, of otherness, through rap music and ghetto films. Video games provide similar exposure, but additionally allowing the occupation of an alternative space. They provide a virtual translocation away from the safety of white suburbia to a place where you can shoot a pimp, plant a bomb, or sleep with a prostitute. You can kill a terrorist or become a ninja all from the safety of your own home. The advertising motto of Playstation II being “live in your world, play in ours” reflects the power and racialized fantasy of contemporary video games. As Eric Lott says, blackface minstrelsy represented a “nearly insupportable fascination with black people.” Like minstrelsy, video games may be “less a sign of absolute power and control than of panic, anxiety, terror, and pleasure.” 

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