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Study suggests playing as a black character can reinforce racist attitudes

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Playing as a black character in a video game, commonly viewed as a laudable choice promoting diversity, still can foster or strengthen racist attitudes, according to a recently published study.

White players act more aggressively after playing a video game with a black avatar or character, says the study, led by a researcher at Ohio State University.

The research also showed a stronger likelihood for white participants to openly express stronger negative attitudes toward African-Americans, and to show implicit attitudes linking them to weapons.

"Playing a violent video game as a black character reinforces harmful stereotypes that blacks are violent," said Brad Bushman, the co-author of the study, which appears online in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Scienceand will be published in print later.

Bushman's study tested two groups. One comprised 126 white university students, 60 percent of them male, asked to play Saints Row 2; they were randomly assigned to play black or white avatars. They were also randomly assigned two missions from the game — either to break out of prison, or to find a church without harming anyone.

Afterward, the players were asked questions about their views of African-Americans. Those who played as a black character were more likely to agree with a statement saying African-Americans would be as well off as whites if they only tried harder. Further, those who played as black characters were more likely to associate pictures of African-Americans to negative words, such as "terrible," or "horrible."

The second study, comprising 141 white college students — 65 percent of which were female — asked participants to play either Fight Night Round 4 or WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2010. Again, they were assigned characters of either ethnicity at random. After playing, the subjects were asked to associate pictures of faces, white or black, with images either of weapons or harmless, everyday items. Again, those who played as black characters were more likely to associate African-Americans with weapons.

The study then used a longstanding test to measure aggression: the "hot sauce" test, in which participants are given the opportunity to force an unseen partner, who does not actually exist, to eat hot sauce after that partner revealed he or she strongly dislikes spicy food.

In the hot sauce test after the Fight Night/WWE test, those playing as a black avatar forced more than double the hot sauce — 115 percent — on their invisible partners than did those playing as white avatars.

"Usually, taking the perspective of a minority person is seen as a good thing, as a way to evoke empathy," said Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State. "But if white people are fed a media diet that shows blacks as violent, they don't have a realistic view of black people. It isn't good to put yourself in the shoes of a murderer, as you do in many of these violent games.

"The media have the power to perpetuate the stereotype that blacks are violent, and this is certainly seen in video games," Bushman said. "This violent stereotype may be more prevalent in video games than in any other form of media because being a black character in a video game is almost synonymous with being a violent character."

Another recent study, led by researchers at the University of Barcelona, found that experiencing virtual reality as a black avatar reduced implicit racial bias in test subjects. This study, however, involved a much more sophisticated virtual reality environment, including a full VR headset and a tight fitting suit that enabled body tracking, rather than playing commercially available video games with third-person avatars.

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