Representation and cultural formation in new media

this post was collaboratively written by Cheol Gi, Heather, and Ted:

In the Williams article, data is presented that shows the imbalances and disparities between the U.S. population and the in-game universe. The “virtual census” shows that males, whites, and adults are over-represented across the universe of games. In fact, it is interesting to note that the imbalances reflected in-game are similar to the ones seen on television and other “old media” systems, with one notable exception: the gender disparity is significantly higher in-game than on television. The authors draw on ethnoliguistic vitality theory, cultivation theory, social identity theory, symbolic interactionism, and more, in order to show that: there are differences between RL and OL worlds; and that these differences affect the participant. There is a high possibility that the imbalance of representations in-game, reflects and affects the inequality of social groups in real life. As suggested by the authors:

There are several reasons why the presence, absence or type of portrayal
of social groups matter in a diverse society, ranging from social justice and
power imbalance to models of effects and stereotype formation. . . [T]he media work as a mirror for existing social forces as much as a causal agent of them. Therefore, measuring the imbalances that exist on the screen can tell us what imbalances exist in social identity formation, social power and policy formation in daily life. . . [T]he world of media exerts a broad, ‘gravitational’ pull on the viewer, systematically shaping their worldview to match that of the symbolic one. (pp. 819-820)

So, according to this article, there are definite effects when a player becomes accustomed to a virtual world where the white, adult, men vastly outnumber and almost always overpower men of minority status and all women. According to one of the theories (cultivation theory) advocated by the authors, players/participants draw on what they see both in-game in in RL in order to make sense of the world. If players/participants spend a lot of time in a world where diversity is not valued or reflected, and where existing male, heterosexual, white power structures are reified and even flaunted, then is it any wonder that players/participants might emerge with a false sense of the world?


As we think about this article, the other articles for this week, and our own experiences with media, we are left to ponder the question and process of normalization. Foucault suggests that, as a society, we begin to categorize people and ideas based on our conceptions of what counts as normal and abnormal; what counts as authentic/real, and what counts as false. When we come to see certain types of bodies, ideas, and ways of being as “normal,” all other types get categorized as abnormal. This process of categorization becomes seen as a natural thing to do based on the “realities” of identity. What we see becomes produced as the “real”. And so, we wonder about the dearth of racial and gender diversity showing up in-game. Do in-game worlds work to validate the idea that white men really are more powerful, more important, and more “real”–because they are more visible?  We also notice that, while the article pointed out disparities in race and gender, the article did not point out the ways that both heterosexual-norms and able-bodied norms are also perpetuated in-game. We wonder about the effects that might exist because heterosexuality and able-bodiedness is also normalized—and made visible out of proportion to the U.S. population.


The Williams article specifically invokes the notion of the census. What does it mean for our society when on-line games portray a world where sexist, heteronormative, white, able-bodied, age-ist stereotypes are all portrayed as normal; as “real”? Can the video game industry be seen as a backlash to gains made by under-represented and oppressed groups? Or, is the in-game reality just a reflection of the subconscious desires/realities of those who make and buy the games?  The article wisely includes demographic information about those who produce popular video games, which is perhaps one of the major factors in the dearth of non-white, non-male primary characters in popular games. Is the solution to picket the gaming industry, or is the solution to provide more incentives for a more diverse population of coders? Is it a chicken/egg problem?


The valuable data produced by this study provides a strong basis on which to create new research into the politics of identity formation and visibility as mediated by video game play and participation.  One particular strength of the article is the researchers’ focus on both players/participants and the producers who create popular games.  Building from such research, more work should be conducted that analyzes the complex ways in which players and game developers negotiate their own identity as well as the non-simplistic ways in which subjects relate to and identify with ‘others’ – in the form of playable characters that do not represent the player’s own “real world” identity.  The ‘Virtual Census’ article also indicates what we have acknowledged throughout the semester, that engagement with media is neither simple nor one-way, and that it both reflects political realities that exist in our larger culture *while also* affecting those realities.  Thomas’ article provides a useful perspective to understand the complexity of representation and culture in new media when he says “we need to pay careful attention not only representations of race and ethnicity as they appear on the surface, but also to the emergent cultures that spawn around these images and representation” (p. 172).


Just a few weeks ago, an interesting case study in the politics of video game representation popped up in the forums for the video game Dragon Age 2, in which a self-described “straight male gamer” complained about the queer content available to game players.  This elicited an eloquent and interesting response from one of the game’s developers, in which he calls out the complaining gamer for the privilege involved in his complaint, and indicates that as a game producer, the decision to include queer content was made from a combination of politically-minded critique of such privilege *as well as* some sort of market research that indicated a market for queer content.  The opening paragraph of his response engages some of the tricky questions we have discussed throughout the semester, especially concerning the ‘rights’ of video game consumers:

“The romances in the game are not for “the straight male gamer”. They’re for everyone. We have a lot of fans, many of whom are neither straight nor male, and they deserve no less attention. We have good numbers, after all, on the number of people who actually used similar sorts of content in DAO and thus don’t need to resort to anecdotal evidence to support our idea that their numbers are not insignificant… and that’s ignoring the idea that they don’t have just as much right to play the kind of game they wish as anyone else. The “rights” of anyone with regards to a game are murky at best, but anyone who takes that stance must apply it equally to both the minority as well as the majority. The majority has no inherent “right” to get more options than anyone else.”

The full text from the complaining gamer and the game producer can be found here.

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