Teaching Race through the Lens of Gaming

Akil Fletcher

Image courtesy of pxfuel.

Race can be a difficult topic for both students and teachers to discuss and it has not gotten much easier over time. In fact, in many ways conversations around race have only become more complicated with the increasing use of social media and digital technologies. One particularly effective technique to critically discuss race is by analyzing video games. The goal of this activity is to introduce critical race theory to students and to help students engage in aspects of race such as race in virtual spaces, race in online social networks, and other areas which may escape their typical purview. The lesson can be used in any class that addresses the topic of race or online/gaming communities and would be especially appropriate for courses such as “Race and Ethnicity” and “Race and Power”.

Assigning the Literature

This lesson is focused around three short readings:

  1. Kishonna Gray’s Intersecting oppressions and online communities: Examining the experiences of women of color in Xbox Live (2012),
  2. David Leonard’s “Live in Your World, Play in Ours”: Race, Video Games, and Consuming the Other” (2003),
  3. Akil Fletcher’s White Fans, Liberal Ideologies, and the Erasure of Black Stories in Gaming (2019).

These three texts serve as the foundation for the lesson. Gray’s piece offers a harsh but powerful example of gaming communities and race by analyzing discrimination through the experiences of black female players. Leonard and Fletcher offer examinations of the industry by examining high budget video game titles that help shape these communities. Leonard explores the typical trends in the video game industry such as the high rate of violence against black women in games like Grand Theft Auto, and Fletcher examines a controversial decision around Jax, a black character in Mortal Kombat 11.

The readings serve to present students with real instances in which race has come to the forefront of gaming communities and engage them with diverse topics related to race. After all, many forget that race is just as prevalent in digital spaces as in physical spaces. These readings also bring an intersectional approach by providing students with questions of how inequalities based on gender and class compound those based on race. This helps to underscore the large-scale effects these topics have within the industry.

Grouping and Videos

Once the students have read the articles, they should be broken up into three groups. Each group will be assigned a short video (see the links below) to analyze taking into consideration what they learned from the readings. Each group must highlight a list of themes, images, and instances in which race is at play, and should consider how the developers, fans, and players may have reacted or used the images and ask for what purpose were they used. The students should consider who is the main subject of the images or audio and should additionally ask who is at risk by creators and players, making these images something to be played or played with. For example, is playing through Jax’s story a successful attempt at diversity or is it an offensive reduction of a black character. The three videos are:

  1. “Mortal Kombat 11 Jax’s Arcade Ending”, the controversial video mentioned in Fletcher’s piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmE_TuekaYU
  2. “Leeroy Jenkins” an older staged video made by PALS FOR LIFE a guild in World of Warcraft:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mLyOj_QD4a4&t=99s
  3. “Do you know the way: Ugandan Knuckles”, a video which became a popular meme from VR Chat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJp_3-VZZjI

Each of these videos illustrate aspects of race and provide instances in which game producers and gaming communities engaged directly with race, either directly or implicitly. Notably, “Do you know the way” which features the once popular meme “Ugandan Knuckles” is a powerful example. It is a fan creation based on Knuckles the Echidna (a character from the Sonic the Hedgehog series) transformed into a smaller pygmy or “chibi” version given a heavy Ugandan accent taken from Ugandan film Killing Captain Alex. The Knuckles is featured clicking in a stereotypical fashion and coveting women who it calls the queen. This provides easy examples of stereotypes to deconstruct for the students as both the clicking and the chasing of women are easily identifiable African and Black stereotypes. With this being both a game and meme phenomena, one could ask the students if this is harmful or simply a joke. Or, you could ask, just because people found this entertaining does this make it less harmful? Here questions of embodiment and representation emerge that can be pointed out to students so they can question what race and its representation come to mean. For instance, is playing this embodiment of a black stereotype (Ugandan Knuckles) a form of digital black face? Why or why not? Considering the character is not black but rather is perceived to be, how can such a clear cut usage of black cultures not be a form of racial embodiment?

The same can be done for “Leroy Jenkins” which is a staged video that ends with the player saying “at least I have chicken” (a racialized stereotype). A similar analysis can be done with“while different”, with Jax who offers the player a literal chance to end slavery. The objective of this task is to have students think broadly about race and racism and how it incarnates within digital spaces, where race is not so easily defined. Analyzing the intent and reception of these videos helps students think about race in these ways.

It may help to provide students themes/prompts to look out for, for instance uses of racial slurs, racial stereotypes, accents, racialized visuals and so on. Additionally, asking the students to be on the lookout for the style or “point” of video may also yield a fruitful discussion. For example, both the Ugandan Knuckles and Leeroy Jenkins videos are meant to be comedic, if this is the case, who then is the intended audience? Who is meant to laugh and at whose expense? I typically provide at least 15 minutes for this exercise. I assign one student in each group to take notes or use large poster size paper for the groups to document their thoughts. Once the groups have had ample time to discuss,  I bring the class back together for a final discussion.

Wrapping Up

Gaming can be a sensitive topic for many students because, for many, these franchises hold a beloved spot in their hearts. However, providing the class an opportunity to come back together and share their thoughts can can offer students a chance to be heard. Nevertheless, these discussions can be divisive. It is common to get push back from students who are reluctant to be critical of games and topics they hold so near and dear. Worse yet, discussing games in the context of race, when many wish to see games as apolitical, can be a painful process and can result in strong and passionate conversations. As with discussing any sensitive topic such as race and gender, passionate discussions are to be expected and can in fact lead to authentic learning. The idea is not to drill in that these treatments of race in games are harmful (although this should be addressed), it is to get students to think critically about the online and offline spaces of gaming and provide them with tools in order to analyze them effectively.

References

Fletcher, Akil. 2019. White Fans, Liberal Ideologies, and the Erasure of Black Stories in Gaming. Platypus: The CASTAC Blog. http://blog.castac.org/2019/05/white-fans-liberal-ideologies-and-the-erasure-of-black-stories-in-gaming/

Gray, Kishonna. 2012. Intersecting Oppressions and Online Communities. Information, Communication & Society, 15:3, 411-428. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2011.642401

Leonard, David. 2003. Live in Your World, Play in Ours: Race, Video Games, and Consuming the Other. Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education. 3 (4): 1-9. 10.3138/sim.3.4.002.


Akil Fletcher is a doctoral student in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Irvine who researches race and gaming. His current research explores the expressions of race online and the ways in which black bodies come to be known and experienced online. His work explores the ways in which black people come to navigate the intricacies of online gaming spaces that are quite often perceived to be predominantly White and Asian. 

Cultural Differences and Positionality: Reflecting on Cultural Differences through a Roleplay

Sandy Wenger

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I discovered the blueprint for this roleplay years ago when teaching a seminar on cultural difference. As I am unable to trace the original source, I am sharing my own version of it here. The roleplay works best in smaller classes with both men and women present but can be adjusted for bigger groups, and any differences within a culture can fall along lines other than gender. However, gender has worked very well for me in the past because it is often perceived as an obvious, inherent, and fixed human trait. Thus, twisting ideas about gender is something that students tend to pick up on quickly, and it allows them to recognize that both gender and culture are fluid social categories that shape each other. This, in turn, opens the door to discussing and complicating students’ understanding of other social categories that are often seen as stable and universal.

Learning Objectives: I have used this roleplay in introductory social anthropology classes, courses on fundamentals of modern culture, and seminars about anthropological perspectives on issues of power and culture. Participating in the roleplay will enable students to identify and evaluate concepts such as culture, stereotype/stereotyping, the Other/othering, and cultural socialization. By reflecting on the roleplay experience and discussing their observations, students will be able to realize and analyze the ways in which their own positionality shapes interactions with people accustomed to different sociocultural expectations. It also allows them to think critically about social categories such as gender or ethnicity.

How to: One can easily spend 30 to 45 minutes on this roleplay, so it is not the kind of activity that lends itself to shorter classes. To get started, I divide the class into two groups, each of which is given a sheet outlining behaviors characteristic of the cultural group they represent. Each group will only know about their own traits. Here is a list of some of the traits that I have used in the past that has worked well:

The DurianiansThe Mangosteenians
Both women and men like to chat and laugh a lot. Men may only speak when spoken to and never initiate conversations.
Eye contact is important as it is a sign of interest and respect for both men and women.Men cannot look directly into a woman’s eyes.
People greet each other by hugging. Men must always be accompanied by a woman when going out- men should not go out alone.
In order to show interest, enthusiasm, assurance, or respect, people touch each other’s arms or hands. Physical contact of any kind is considered inappropriate and rude, especially when initiated by men.

Once the students know how they are supposed to behave, I tell them that both groups are abroad and meet at a party. Their task is to get to know one another in this party setting and act according to their assigned cultural norms. I ask them to pay attention to what people in the other group are doing, how members of the other group respond, and how these interactions make them feel. I let them know that after the party, each group will have to come up with a list of cultural traits they believe are important for the other group.

I usually give them about five to seven minutes to play out the party, after which I give them an additional three to five minutes to discuss what they have observed in their respective groups. Then, we spend about five minutes as a class to compile two lists of behaviors that the groups have observed about one another, which I write down on the whiteboard. It is important to record the precise language used to describe the groups, because that is often very revealing when discussing perceptions. Once this is done, the groups get to share the list of traits that was given to them at the beginning of the session. I usually add the information to what is already on the whiteboard to make it easier to compare what is known to what has been observed.

We then discuss their experience and analyze how and why perceptions of other people’s behavior can differ so much from their intentions—what does that tell us about understandings of cultural differences and how we should approach them? I also use the discussion to introduce and discuss different concepts (e.g. the Other) that are associated with cultural differences. One of the things that tend to happen is that the perceived traits are viewed negatively, and students are often surprised when they compare their own perception to the list that the others have been given. This allows the class to reflect on notions of prejudice and stereotyping. During the discussion, I encourage students to reflect on moments in their lives when they have felt misunderstood or experienced a cultural clash. Usually, a few of the students are happy to share some of their experiences, which can help bridge the gap between the roleplay and real-life experience.


Sandy Wenger is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. Her research examines how queer men in Malaysia navigate competing societal ideas about masculinity, sexuality, and the body, and how this is negotiated in understandings of love and through different types of relationships. Before moving to UCI, Sandy spent several years working as an assistant professor at KDU University College in Malaysia where she taught courses on modern culture, food and culture, media policies, and personal development planning. She also has extensive experience teaching German and English as foreign languages at universities and in language schools.

Conceptual Outline Template for Constructing an Argument

Georgia Hartman

Image courtesy of Pexels.

“Since the dawn of humankind …” how many times have you read a student paper that started like this? Or perhaps simply a paper with an argument WAY beyond the scope of the evidence presented to back it up? I have certainly found these to be common tendencies among students at the various public and private institutions where I’ve taught. Many students arrive at college believing that a good argument is a powerful argument and that a powerful argument is one that makes a big claim (i.e. people are like this, society does that). What they don’t understand of course is that making a big, unsupported claim also sacrifices the quality of an argument.

This conceptual outline exercise is aimed at helping students to: a) construct an argument that is supported by the evidence they have collected, b) similarly, to construct an argument that is derived from an analysis of the evidence—as opposed to an argument imposed upon their evidence, and c) how to use evidence to effectively support their argument.

When I was in college, these skills did not come easily to me. I, like my students arrived at college with an idea of how to structure a paper (e.g. intro + thesis statement, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion, bam!), but I had little idea of how to structure an argument or how to use evidence to effectively support it. I would mic drop quotes into essays, assuming the evidence stood for itself. I was simultaneously afraid to be too explicit about what my evidence meant, and overconfident about making grand generalizations.

After years of running into this with my students, I finally decided to break the mechanics of argument construction down into a simplified template. This template for a conceptual outline is best employed as a sub-assignment of a larger scaffolded project. I typically require its completion within 2-3 weeks before the deadline for the paper of which it is a part. This lead time ensures that students are thinking concretely about their project sufficiently in advance of the deadline. It also allows sufficient time for conceptual adjustments and/or additional data collection.

I encourage students to approach the exercise as a draft. It is important for them to feel comfortable to take risks in their argument and analysis and not to feel judged in doing so. I suggest that they experiment by proposing more than one possible argument. The idea is for them to try things out. While I do not grade the assignment, I do give feedback. Thus, this can be a bit of work intensive exercise for the professor. That said, I’ve found that the work put in at this stage yields vastly improved final papers, which are ultimately much less work to evaluate.

The template for the outline is really very simple (see link to template below). It asks for the following:

  1. Proposed thesis/argument.
  2. One piece of evidence/data you plan to use to support your thesis.
  3. What is the significance of this evidence?
  4. How does this evidence support your argument?

It requires that they provide and analyze 3 pieces of evidence, though they are welcome to include more if they would like. Similarly, I indicate that while this exercise only requires 3 pieces of evidence, their final paper will inevitably require far more.

For many students, completing this outline template is a completely new experience and can be a bit of a struggle. Though I take pains to detail what exactly constitutes evidence/data (i.e.  a direct quote, an observation, something specific), some students nonetheless include unrevealing “data” such as, “interview with interlocutor,” or they place their analysis of the evidence in the place of the evidence itself. I also find that students still want to make arguments that are beyond the scope of the evidence they present. Indeed, they struggle to figure out what is an appropriate scope. Many express concern that an argument about a small group of people or about a single text is not sufficiently powerful to constitute a strong thesis statement. But this is precisely why this exercise is so helpful! Together we are able to narrow down a compelling, evidence-driven argument.

Note, this exercise is particularly helpful with projects based on independent ethnographic research, though it has also been helpful with assignments where the data is drawn from text or other media. For students doing their first ethnographic projects, it can be challenging to understand that the interviews they conducted and observations they made are data. This exercise helps to make that clear.

The exercise, along with feedback from the professor, helps them to recognize what exactly is evidence, to analyze its significance, and to use it to support a compelling argument based upon it.


Georgia Hartman is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States (UCMEXUS). She is currently conducting research at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. She previously taught for two years as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Pitzer College and variously as Instructor of Record and Teaching Assistant at UC Irvine and UC San Diego.

Teaching Early Societies (as a prelude to environmental anthropology)

Teaching Early Societies (as a prelude to environmental anthropology)

Arial view of winding road ocean.

In introductions to cultural anthropology, teaching hunter-gatherer societies might seem like a necessary (although boring) pitstop on the way to the exciting, recent ethnographic studies. For me, the “early societies” week in the syllabus is one of my favorites. While students might be reading about the Azande or the Trobrianders, I use this activity to remind them how these seemingly outdated perspectives are pertinent to their own relations with the environments around them.

I like to teach this week as if it were a prelude to environmental anthropology, encouraging my students to think about the ways they engage with their immediate environments, in this case, the college campus. I find that this activity is also an opportunity for some of my quieter students and kinetic learners to shine among their peers. My objective for this lesson is to have students understand that the way society is structured shapes their environmental engagements and imaginaries.

This activity can be conducted in several ways depending on how much time you have or your objectives for the class. The first iteration is fairly simple, teaching the hunter-gatherer perspective with a competitive spin. The second is to teach hunter-gatherer, pastoral, and agricultural societies in comparison to one another. This iteration is more complicated and takes more time, but it makes for better discussions and a more holistic perspective.

First Iteration: Hunter-gatherers

I separate my students into small groups, usually four or five students depending on the class size. Each group is a hunter-gatherer society, and as a team they have two tasks. First, they must research what local edible foods they may forage for, and what animals they may hunt. I generally give them fifteen minutes for this part of the activity. All of their potential food sources must be native and local to the area – no invasive or introduced species. With ten minutes left to the activity, each group elects one person to leave the classroom, tasked with finding something edible on campus (no, they may not buy or find processed food) and bringing it back to share. Groups not able to bring back anything edible fail as a society.

I had a student once bring back a poisonous plant. Her society died. In another class, one of my quietest students rolled off with his skateboard, coming back within eight minutes, and with nine oranges! His knowledge of the campus environment earned him applause from his society.

Second Iteration: Comparative early societies

In the more complex iteration of this activity, I separate my students into small groups (4-5 each), but groups are separated into either hunter-gatherer, pastoral, or agricultural societies.

  1. Hunter-gatherers have the same tasks I detailed above.
  2. Pastoral societies must research where on campus they would be able to raise animals, and how long this would take. The group must provide data on where and what they would raise, and why. In the first ten minutes of this activity, the group elects one person to scout the nearby campus, taking photographs of the animals they see and bringing them back to the group for analysis.
  3. Agricultural societies must plan where they would plant crops, what crops they would plant, and how many people these crops could feed. This society must research local weather and soil conditions in order to make these decisions. This group may elect one member to scout possible growing areas, this person has ten minutes to take photos of places and plants that the group could use to plan their society.

The group research and scouting part of this exercise takes about 15-20 minutes. I always bring students back together after this activity in a group discussion, asking them to reflect on how their perspective of the campus environment changed as a result of their tasks. I usually give them three-five minutes to do this in their small groups before we discuss as a class. Below are some possible questions for the class discussion.

Discussion questions:

  • What are some of the challenges you faced when planning your society?
  • What kind of political or legal conflicts would you have encountered based on your society’s plan?
  • What kind of social conflicts might you have encountered?
  • How far in the future did you have to think when you were planning your society?
  • How did you see the campus environment as you were planning your society, and how is this different than how you see it on a daily basis?
  • Which type of society do you think would best flourish here (on this campus, in this city, in this state)? And why?
  • What type of society do you – as a college student today – live in?
  • How does this shape the way you understand your environment (on campus)?

Kyrstin Mallon Andrews is a cultural anthropologist of environments, borders, and health on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. Her research examines how diver fishermen navigate changing ocean environments amidst emerging politics of conservation. She is currently finishing her dissertation as at UC Irvine, where she prefers to be outdoors or in the ocean, activities that are tertiary resource, of course.

Teaching Personal Narratives of Youth, Gender, and Activism in the Middle East

Teaching Personal Narratives of Youth, Gender, and Activism in the Middle East

Mural exploring gender relationships in downtown Amman, Jordan.

I use this resource in three classes: my introduction to sociocultural anthropology (when talking about the social construction of gender), a class on everyday subjectivity in the contemporary Middle East, and a class on Arab activism after the Arab Spring. I will outline the lesson plan from my intro course here, but I use it similarly in the other courses.

Sample Lesson Plan: Introduction to Anthropology, Topic: Gendered Subjects

The goal of this lesson is to get students to think about the ways that gender is constructed in everyday practice, as gendered subjects encounter social boundaries and policing mechanisms. In preparation, the students are assigned a reading, “Gendering the City, Gendering the Nation: Contesting Urban Space in Fes, Morocco,” by Rachel Newcomb (2006). This article examines the ways that women in Fes, Morocco negotiate social spaces where gender roles are not clearly defined, including cafes, internet cafes, and gyms. I open the class with a debrief of the reading, asking first, generally, how social space connects to gender in the article, and then how gender roles are enforced. After laying out the basic concepts, we discuss the specific spaces analyzed in the article: cafes, internet cafes, and gyms, asking why gender roles are ambiguous in these spaces, and how the subjects of the article negotiate these ambiguities.

We then turn to the videos. I break students into groups of four or five and assign them a “jigsaw” exercise where they view and then discuss videos from the website. Students are instructed to visit the website, pick a video, and watch it. Each student in their group should watch a different video. As they watch, they should pay special attention to the following questions: What happens in the video? What social situations make the narrator especially aware of gender? How do they negotiate and/or challenge gender roles? (For example, one young woman becomes aware of gender while riding a bicycle. One young man describes being criticized for playing with dolls).

Then, students should discuss the videos with other students in their group. Each student should share with their group mates, describing the video they saw and how it addressed gendered experience. Students should compare their observations with one another. In what ways were the experiences described in the different videos similar? What differences could be observed? How does this build on (or challenge) themes raised by the reading?

Optionally, as needed, we can take 5 minutes of class time for students to read the attached publicity article. This can be useful in two ways: first, the article draws explicit connections between the different gendered experiences discussed in the videos (helpful if students are having trouble drawing these connections themselves), and second, it provides additional context, including commentary from the video makers (useful for students who are ready for a more in-depth conversation). Once students have had a chance to discuss, we’ll reconvene as a large group and work together to draw out some general observations.

Finally, I challenge the students themselves with the prompt that the activists in these videos were addressing. I ask the students to describe a social situation where they became aware of gendered difference and their own gender role, preferably the earliest such situation they can remember. “What is an ordinary social situation where you became intensely aware of your gender?” Depending on the available time, students can either write a short response or they can storyboard an imaginary video similar to those created by these activists. Sharing is optional, but there should be time for discussion.

Important note: It is important for the instructor to be prepared to help relativize the experiences described in these videos. The aim is for students to understand how subjectivity is constructed through everyday encounters that help define gendered selves. This exercise connects the student’s own experience with the experiences described in the reading and the videos. It would be a mistake for students to take these as evidence of exceptional Arab difference.

Accompanying Ancillary Materials:

https://www.challengemystory.com/7iber  (The video collection)

https://doi.org/10.1525/city.2006.18.2.288 (Recommended preliminary reading: Gendering the City, Gendering the Nation: Contesting Urban Space in Fes, Morocco,” by Rachel Newcomb)

https://www.dapp.dk/ligestilling/challenge-my-story-unges-egne-fortaellinger-koen/ (Optional: A short publicity piece I wrote about the video workshop as part of my participant observation. It needs to be read through a translator app, but it scans pretty cleanly in English. Students can use this for additional context on the videos or as a discussion prompt).


Teaching Resource Contributed by: Colin McLaughlin-Alcock, Scripps College

Colin McLaughlin-Alcock is a visiting lecturer at Scripps College. His research examines the community building practices of artists in Amman, Jordan, and the political impacts of artistic community. He received his PhD from University of California, Irvine.