In the wake of Sony's now-infamous white PlayStation Portable ads, the issue of racism in games is drawing a lot more attention these days. One person who's been studying the topic for a while is University of British Columbia graduate Robert Parungao, who last week released the results of his honors thesis on the subject.
After an eight-month study of the subject, Parungao concluded that racist stereotypes, which draw condemnation in other forms of media such as television and film, are quite prevalent in games. A fifth-generation Canadian of Chinese and Filipino descent, Parungao focused his research on Asian stereotypes and took an in-depth look at Grand Theft Auto III, Shadow Warrior, Warcraft 3, and Kung Fu.
Parungao noted that nonwhite characters in Grand Theft Auto III were mainly criminals and obstacles to be disposed of by the white hero. He also focused on the lack of distinction between Asian cultures in Shadow Warrior.
"The villain in Shadow Warrior goes by a Chinese name, Lo Wang," Parungao said in a statement. "But when he fires his rocket launcher at his enemies, he screams 'just like Hiroshima.'"
Parungao said games aren't subjected to the same scrutiny from minority groups that other media endure. Consequently, the industry has not seen the same changes in minority portrayal that those media have.
Earlier this year, the 23-year-old Parungao earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of British Columbia. He will be attending Concordia University this fall, where he hopes to continue studying the industry as he works toward a masters in communications.
GameSpot recently had the opportunity to speak with Parungao and ask him about his thesis.
GameSpot: So how long have you been a gamer?
Rob Parungao: Oh god...I was born with a controller in my hands. Since I got my Nintendo at six-years-old, seven-years-old, and I'm 23 now. So 16 years.
GS: When did the portrayal of minorities in games start bothering you?
RP: Not initially. What happened is, back when I was younger, as a person of color, when games like Shadow Warrior first came out and I was young, I was actually very happy of the fact that I could see and play an Asian character. And I was actually amused by the fact that [the main character] ran around with chopsticks and poking people's eyeballs out. But in my university career, I became more and more aware of [regional] stereotypes and hierarchies that continue to be perpetuated in the mainstream media. Not just in video games--[but] television, news, movies, and stuff like that. And then being an activist on campus about racial issues and learning about racial issues in class, and then coming back home and playing the games in my spare time, these things started to become more and more apparent. I decided to revisit some of the games I played back when I was younger, and I approached them with a more critical eye.
GS: By handpicking the four titles that you looked at, doesn't that kind of predispose you to come to a certain conclusion?
RP: Definitely. And that was one of the issues that I was working with when I was presenting at conferences. A lot of academics agreed that rather than simply random selection, the hand picking does bias the data in a very certain way...But from my own personal experience as a gamer for a long time, choosing these games [according to] the criteria I laid out for it, I would try to be as objective as possible. I feel that these games symbolize, in many ways, the constant trend in themes in video games when considering "Asian-ness" and stereotyping in video games.
GS: Can you think of any games that are making positive strides in race portrayal or is it all negative or neutral?
RP: I've actually been trying to find games that are positive--and I'm finding quite a few games that are neutral. But because my research only focused on the four games that are spread over that 20-year period, it's only now after I'm starting to get a lot of press coverage for my thesis that I'm being asked these questions...I've started looking but I haven't been able to go find any.
GS: Do you think that the black character, CJ, in the lead role of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a step in the right direction or the wrong direction?
RP: Partially. To a certain degree it is [a step in the right direction], allowing the character to take on a person of color. But in many ways it still often entrenches and reinforces these racial hierarchies that we've seen in games similar to these and in rap music, and certainly not to rain down on rap music or anything like that, but it just constantly reinforces this image of the black character and the black image into the minds of gamers or just the general society overall.
GS: Why have sex and violence in games triggered this political outcry and public outcry over it, but what you'd call blatant racism really hasn't?
RP: Partially it answers itself in the fact that violence and sexism have taken a large role in media coverage. After Columbine, there's been so much discussion about stuff like that. But race has fallen to the sidelines because of those other two, and addiction to games is another big one. Those "big three" kind of push all other criticisms again. So it's partially because of those big three pushing other criticisms aside, but also because our society works under this false notion that we live in a racism-free environment in Canada. We've got the notion of multiculturalism, this however perfect mosaic of communities, so why bring up any more criticism of race when we know that that's all been done and taken care of 20 years ago, 30 years ago? So it lies just underneath the surface, and nobody wants to be willing to talk about it or challenge it.
GS: You mentioned the outcry about the violence and the sex in games but not racism. Do you think a certain amount of racism should be acceptable in a game as long as the ESRB rating reflects it?
RP: Partially. I'm certainly not in favor of more enforcement of [government] rules in that sense. [Other media outlets] have been asking me about what kind of restrictions we can put onto these games. I don't think at all it's about that. I think it's more about taking on responsibility from the game developer's side and understanding that they should be trying to promote positive images of people of color. But it's also up to the player to think critically about games. When I brought this information to the game community, what I've heard and what I expect to continue to hear is, 'Lighten up. It's just a game. It shouldn't be treated this seriously. It doesn't matter.' And I actually feel that games do matter. I wouldn't be taking all this time to research them if I didn't think that they were important locations of study and worthwhile of academic attention.
And with that in mind, I think that many players often forget that they should be approaching any kind of media that they consume--television, movies, video games--with a critical eye and thinking about the things that they are looking at. And if that happens, if people do think about games and they critically analyze games, then these issues don't necessarily become a problem because that rating reflects the fact that [a game] had these racist images within it, but people have the ability to critically think about them and understand that sometimes they're parody and other times they're overtly problematic.
GS: Have you noticed any difference in the handling of race in games developed in different regions?
RP: I would like to have. The thing is that in the terms of my thesis, I focused specifically on how Western or American game companies perceive Asian culture. I think that if I were to take a look at how Japanese games perceive white culture or Asian culture, it would compound the research a hell of a lot longer, and already as it is, it's a long paper.
GS: Wasn't Kung Fu developed by Irem, a Japanese company?
RP: Yeah. I treated Kung Fu in a kind of a different scope, in a certain way in how its popularity and how its perception of a lot of cultural racial issues can be perceived by, let's say, a white gamer. I explained it better in my thesis.
GS: How do you see the issue of race and games 5 or 10 years from now? Is it going to get better or worse?
RP: My hope is that it does get better. My intention with this thesis was to shine a flashlight in kind of the dark corners of the game studies. There's a growing field of game studies in academic research but very little of that has looked at race. And because very little academics have looked at race and very few media outlets have looked at race, it's kind of gone under the table. Hopefully, by shining the flashlight on it and pointing out that issues of race still have to be considered in video games, people will start thinking about it. I know that with heightened interest in sexism or violence in games, there's been more of a push from the industry to at least try to create games that are positive in that sense. And I think that in that same way, the issue of race in games will spur a lot of developers to think about how they perceive race rather than simply throw in the same stereotypes over and over again.
GS: Thanks for your time.