Researcher examines racial and gender representation in top 50 video games

June 4, 2014 by Stephen Shoemaker, Ithaca College
Researcher examines racial and gender representation in top 50 video games

Violence in video games has been a topic on the political and media radar for decades. But research conducted by a recent graduate from Ithaca College examines the medium through different lenses: racial and gender bias.

Ross Orlando is a lifelong gamer and sociology major with a minor in African diaspora studies. He decided to merge his passion for video games and race studies in this research.

"Race is [a topic] that pervades society in a lot of different ways and has a lot of hidden meanings—especially as portrayed in media—that really interested me in terms of decoding and learning everything I could about it," he said.

Orlando broke down main, playable in the top 10 most-highly rated games for each year from 2007-2012. He chose his sample pool from, which aggregates reviews from major gaming websites.

"I either played or had beaten a good number of the games that ended up going into the study," Orlando said. "So it gave me a head start and gave me more time to do the analysis rather than having to play through the games." He also made use of online walk-throughs on YouTube for games he didn't play.

He analyzed a variety of characteristics, both simple and nuanced, including race, sex, age group, level of violence or passivity, whether the character is portrayed in a hyper-sexual manner, and whether they convey traits such as loyalty or smugness. The research even examined the racial makeup of the protagonists' foes, when applicable.

Orlando outlined these character audits in his paper titled "Race and Gender: A Look at Modern Video Games," which was presented this spring during the James J. Whalen Academic Symposium.

Engendered Differences

Some of his findings won't be a surprise to those familiar with the . For example, of the 61 protagonists assessed across the 50 titles, only five are female (8 percent total); of those five, only two are the main protagonist of the .

While the minimal sample of female protagonists in the games Ross researched made the study of gender bias a smaller part of the study, he still sees important implications in how men and women are portrayed in games.

"[Gender] is another broad topic that is very important in day-to-day life and has an interesting intersection with race, and their effects together," he said.

Racial Omission

Racial diversity is lacking in these games, as well. Black and Asian characters each have 3 percent representation in the pool of main protagonists; Latino a mere 1 percent. There are no representations of Indigenous peoples among playable characters. White protagonists, on the other hand, comprise 67 percent of main characters in the games.

"I feel like race is either seen in this culture as stereotypes to mock or not seen at all. The narrative of colorblindness is dangerous and one that is taught from a very early age," he said.

In terms of video games specifically, though, he notes in his paper, that "there were little signs of blatant racial stereotypes present outside of racism by omission."

Of the games developed in Japan, Orlando notes that 75 percent feature white main characters. "Which was kind of the most interesting finding. I attribute that, more than anything, to business and marketing to the large markets that are North America and Europe."

Hyped-Up Attributes

The games developed in Japan and Western Europe also contain the highest percentage of hyper-sexualized (male or female) at 15 percent and 11 percent respectively. Hyper-sexualized characters in the games developed in the United States appear in only 4 percent of the sample.

Of the 45 male characters in the games, Orlando found one-third exhibited stereotypical masculine qualities such as hyper-aggressiveness.

He notes that stereotypes of women in scant clothing and behaving in hyper-sexualized manner, and of men as muscular and hyper-aggressive, are the same stereotypes seen in other media, such as movies or comics. "This helps perpetuate the dominant narrative of 'how men and women should be,'" he writes in his paper.

Orlando acknowledges that this his study is relatively shallow in depth, but he hopes his research – and similar work in the future – could kick start serious conversations in the gaming industry about the ways characters are – and aren't – portrayed.

Study Sample

These 50 games were included in Ross Orlando's research:

  • Journey (2012)
  • Mass Effect 3 (2012)
  • Xenoblade Chronicles (2012)
  • Trials Evolution (2012)
  • Borderlands 2 (2012)
  • Mark of the Ninja (2012)
  • Guild Wars 2 (2012)
  • Dishonored (2012)
  • Far Cry 3 (2012)
  • The Walking Dead (2012)
  • Batman: Arkham City (2011)
  • Portal 2 (2011)
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
  • The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011)
  • Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (2011)
  • Gears of War 3 (2011)
  • Deus Ex. Human Revolution (2011)
  • Dead Space 2 (2011)
  • Dark Souls (2011)
  • The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (2011)
  • Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010)
  • Mass Effect 2 (2010)
  • Red Dead Redemption (2010)
  • God of War III (2010)
  • Halo: Reach (2010)
  • Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (2010)
  • Bayonetta (2010)
  • Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (2010)
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010)
  • Bioshock 2 (2010)
  • Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009)
  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009)
  • Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009)
  • Assassin's Creed 2 (2009)
  • Killzone 2 (2009)
  • Demon Souls (2009)
  • Shadow Complex (2009)
  • New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009)
  • Resident Evil 5 (2009)
  • Dragon Age: Origins (2009)
  • Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
  • Metal Gear Solid 4 (2008)
  • Gears of War 2 (2008)
  • Fallout 3 (2008)
  • Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (2008)
  • Braid (2008)
  • Dead Space (2008)
  • Fable II (2008)
  • Bionic Commando: Rearmed (2008)
  • Valkyria Chronicles (2008)

Explore further: Sexualized avatars affect the real world, researchers find

Related Stories

Sexualized avatars affect the real world, researchers find

October 10, 2013

( —A Stanford study shows that after women wear sexualized avatars in a virtual reality world, they feel objectified and are more likely to accept rape myths in the real world. The research could have implications ...

CDC: Trends in cholesterol levels of US adults estimated

October 24, 2013

(HealthDay)—From 2009-2010 to 2011-2012, there was no change in the percentage of adults with high total cholesterol, or in the percentage undergoing cholesterol screening, according to an October data brief published by ...

Recommended for you

Paleontologists report world's biggest Tyrannosaurus rex

March 22, 2019

University of Alberta paleontologists have just reported the world's biggest Tyrannosaurus rex and the largest dinosaur skeleton ever found in Canada. The 13-metre-long T. rex, nicknamed "Scotty," lived in prehistoric Saskatchewan ...

NASA instruments image fireball over Bering Sea

March 22, 2019

On Dec. 18, 2018, a large "fireball—the term used for exceptionally bright meteors that are visible over a wide area—exploded about 16 miles (26 kilometers) above the Bering Sea. The explosion unleashed an estimated 173 ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jun 05, 2014
Freaking losers and their video games. Get a life!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.