Game Theory

It has been a long day at work. The freeways were clogged, the air-conditioner is broken, and the number of items on my to-do list has spiked exponentially to the point of absurdity. Finally home. Feed the cat, make dinner, put away the dishes, and fire up the machine. I’m ready for a new life.

Don’t get me wrong. I like my life. But I love trying on new identities. And with each new game disk that I put in my PS2 there is the chance to be someone else. For several weeks in late July, I was the hired assassin Agent 47, mercilessly dispatching my victims with a variety of weapons in Hitman: Blood Money.

Yet my recent incarnation as Agent 47 freaks me out. Like me, he’s a white guy. Unlike me, he’s a serial killer with an odd tendency to kill victims of color. My first mission takes place in an abandoned amusement park. Within moments of starting the game, I find myself locked in a heated exchange with an African-American gangster. He calls me a cracker, and asks me to identify myself. “Names are for friends,” I say, smashing his head into a fence and breaking his neck.

The computer has performed this first murder for me, but control soon shifts back to my mouse. From this point forward, I have become Agent 47.

By the end of the tutorial level, I have garroted two Black men, shot several others, and knifed two men of unknown ethnicity. Throughout, the dialogue has crackled with racial tension. The leader of the mostly Black gang, referred to by one character as Mr. Spook, has a harem of spaced-out women stashed away in the basement. Is it a coincidence that “spook” is a racist slur for African Americans?

To be fair, I should note that Agent 47 doesn’t limit himself to killing African Americans. His trail of victims also includes Don Fernando Delgado, Manuel Delgado, Carmine DeSalvo, Rudy Menzana, and Skip Muldoon. After clearing the first level, I wonder if I’ve found a game that makes the content of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas seem less shocking. Does this game — with slick graphics and impressive game mechanics — further lower the bar?

In the most recent version of the GTA series, mostly white young men were invited to role-play an African-American gangster who kills and steals from people of all races. For some reason, this is less troubling to me than a game in which mostly white young men are encouraged to respond to racial tension by slaughtering digital representations of mostly Black young men.

How sick is that? It’s like choosing bird flu over SARS. A far-fetched analogy perhaps, but ideas and stereotypes are transmitted through the network of human culture like biological viruses. And though the gameplay in both titles is stellar, the content is toxic. But at least these games are honest about their racism. One almost expects to encounter unimaginative racist stereotypes in the gangster genre. When racist stereotypes ooze into fantasy role-playing games, one realizes how deeply entrenched white supremacy is in American and global culture.

In World of Warcraft, players can choose to play any of eight distinct races. Each race and gender comes with a unique set of audio snippets. “It’s not easy being green,” says the male Orc. “I’m in a rotten mood,” reply the undead females. All of the trolls in the Warcraft series speak with a Jamaican accent. The male trolls discuss the size of their genitals and ask other characters if they would like to “try a little jungle love.” The female troll flirts by saying “Aren’t you going to axe me out?” — a direct reference to Ebonics.

Games researcher Beth Cox studied emotes of humanoid races in the multi-player game, and found that more than half of the violent emotes were voiced by trolls. These racially coded characters were also responsible for more than two-thirds of the sexually suggestive comments. When one considers the long history of racist tropes that portray African Americans as violent and highly sexualized, this is an intriguing finding.

At this point, some readers will roll their eyes and think, “Not that PC nonsense again.” But it’s possible to highlight racism in games without calling for censorship or trampling on free-speech rights. Those who try to dodge discussions of race by railing against “political correctness” are afraid to talk about contemporary racial politics. But American popular culture is increasingly global, and our racism is propagated throughout the planet’s global networks. Communication researchers consistently demonstrate that such stereotypes affect people’s perceptions in the real world. Penn State researchers have shown that “African Americans are especially likely to be mistakenly identified for perpetrators of violent crimes,” and they specifically link this to negative images found on television.

Many gamers argue that we shouldn’t bring race and politics into the world of play. But who is really responsible for initiating this conversation? Is it the player who notices and responds to racially coded characters? Or is it the designers who inject that content into the game in the first place?

Racial stereotypes are endemic in all forms of American popular culture. Yet the intense identification that forms between players and their game characters amplifies the games’ power. This identification also creates moral culpability. After the first murder in Hitman: Blood Money, I killed those young Black men. I picked up the gun, aimed, and pulled the trigger. And every single person who plays that game will do similar things.

Later that evening, I turn off the game, brush my teeth, and climb into bed. I grudgingly admit to myself that it is a “good game.” Like Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will, Hitman: Blood Money is technically an impressive piece of work. The graphics are stunning, the musical score is remarkable, and the designers paid loving attention to subtle details. Yet, as I drift off to sleep, the game’s slogan echoes in my mind: “Once you call that number, the blood is on your hands.”

I hope it doesn’t stain the sheets.

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