If the future of entertainment is interactive media, some minorities are still headed back to the past.
The first comprehensive survey of video game characters, encompassing the top 150 games in a year across nine platforms and all rating levels, and weighted by each title's popularity, shows that the video game industry does no better than television in representing American society.
In some cases, video games do worse, said study leader Dmitri Williams, a social psychologist and assistant professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.
In his study, Williams cited research showing Latinos are making modest gains on television.
They are? Who knew?
Are there any Hispanic stars on HBO, the most prestigious network? I can't afford HBO, so I don't know. There sure aren't many on Mad Men. There are various Hispanic maids and repairmen on Curb Your Enthusiasm, with whom Larry David interacts awkwardly, but I can't remember Larry meeting any Latinos of his own class.
By contrast, fewer than 3 percent of video game characters were recognizably Hispanic, and all of them were non-playable, background characters. ...
"Latino children play more video games than white children. And they're really not able to play themselves," Williams said. "For identity formation, that's a problem. And for generating interest in technology, it may place underrepresented groups behind the curve.
"Ironically, they may even be less likely to become game makers themselves, helping to perpetuate the cycle. Many have suggested that games function as crucial gatekeepers for interest in science, technology, engineering and math."
Women, Native Americans, children and the elderly also were underrepresented. For example, only 10 percent of playable characters surveyed were female, though women now make up 40 percent of video game players.
African-Americans appeared in proportion to their numbers in the real world, but mainly in sports games and in titles that reinforce stereotypes, such as 50 Cent Bulletproof.
Males, whites and adults were overrepresented.
Williams noted that some newer games give players more options for customizing their characters. Those games were included in the survey, with characters chosen randomly.
The fact that random selection did not have a major impact on the results suggests that when players have a choice, their range of options is limited.The study itself was limited in two important ways. Many games feature non-human characters, and many are first-person games where the player never sees himself or herself. The study only included visible characters that were clearly human.