Majority of characters in the, well, majority
In video games, it's a man's world, a white world and a world without a lot of senior citizens.
Don't expect to see many American Indians, either, or Hispanics. You'll find a fair number of blacks.
"They're not so bad," University of Illinois Professor Dmitri Williams said recently. "How they're represented is lousy. But at least they showed up."
Blacks tend to be portrayed as athletes – think the "Madden Football," series, video gamedom's top seller – or criminals – as in "Grand Theft Auto," among others.
"If you took out the athletes and the criminals, the black population (in games) would be cut in half," said Williams, a UI speech communication professor who studies the social impact of new technologies and has a special interest in video games.
As it stands, white and Asian men nowhere near old enough to join the AARP dominate game worlds.
Williams, UI graduate student Nicole Martins and colleagues looked at the 150 best-selling games in taking a "virtual census" for a study the professor presented this spring at the International Communication Association annual conference in San Francisco.
The study included at least 15 games for each of nine major game systems sold in the U.S., from personal computers, the PlayStation 2 and Xbox to the handheld PlayStation Portable and Nintendo Game Boy.
Each game was played by an expert game player for 30 minutes, and a digital movie was captured of those sessions.
Specially trained coders then watched the game videos and logged the age, gender and race of the characters making appearances and also if they were prime actors in the games or secondary characters, more likely to be acted upon.
"This is just content, what's there," Williams said. "You can't have a role model if they don't exist. You can't have a villain if they don't exist."
The researchers also weighted the results by the popularity of the games, the idea being that bestsellers were likely to have more impact. Williams said it's the first time that's been done and probably the most extensive look at game characterizations so far.
The concern is that who appears in games, the focus of the UI study, and how, a subject for further research, can have an effect in the real world.
It's the same concern expressed (and still relevant) about characters, or lack thereof, on TV before video games – and in movies before that.
"It matters more and more every year as games become a larger and larger part of the media diet," said Williams, who's also studied video game violence and social aspects of online multiplayer games.
While still open to debate, some studies have indicated that what we see in the media, if the dose is heavy enough, can influence how we think about the world around us, other people and ourselves.
Williams likened the situation to the perception you might come away with of a com-munity, say Los Angeles, from a diet of crime-oriented local TV news.
"The problem is local news doesn't show you proportion," he said. "You don't get a good view of the world."
Likewise, if the only portrayals of Hispanics that you ever see are as farm workers or maids, you may be less likely to think of Hispanics as lawyers or engineers, even if you're Hispanic.
On the flip side in media studies, another school of thought views the way groups are portrayed as something of a window onto societal conditions.
"It's a decent proxy for what's going on in society," Williams said. "A group that's powerful in the real world will probably show up better in media."
In either case, it makes looking at the characterizations in games worthwhile.
Among other things, the researchers found that 85 percent of the characters were male and 15 percent female, 90 percent to 10 percent for primary game characters. Williams said this could be viewed as just one more factor that might make girls less interested in technology and technical careers, already a concern.
Meanwhile, the elderly and children rarely appeared. Hispanics, who make up 12.5 percent of the U.S. population according to census figures, were 2.7 percent in the game worlds and American Indians were almost nonexistent, a 10th of their approximately 1 percent population share in real life.
"Hispanics and Native Americans do not show up in primary characters ever," Williams said.