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.

Teaching with Race the Power of an Illusion Film

Teaching with Race the Power of an Illusion Film

The California Newsreel three part series Race the Power of an Illusion is, by many standards, among the best documentary films that teach the biological fallacy of race as well as the social construction of “race” in the US.

The film is available for purchase and is included in many college and university library film streaming services. The California Newsreel website provides some resources that can be adapted for use in college-level introductory anthropology classes.

Some of the highlights of these resources include:

  • A race literacy quiz
  • A discussion guide that include before viewing questions, comprehension questions and some great learning activity ideas.
  • A companion website with lesson plans and interactive content. While much of this content is geared toward k-12 students, it can be adapted for the college classroom.

Teaching Resource Contributed By: Katie Nelson, PhD, Inver Hills Community College

The Biology of Skin Color

The Biology of Skin Color

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (hhmi BioInteractive) offers some pretty amazing (free!) educational materials related to the biology and the evolution of humans and other primates. They will even send you DVD copies in the mail of some of their videos for free (if you are an educator)!

Their collection on the biology of skin color includes a short film, an interactive film, downloadable films in Spanish and English, student worksheets, educator materials and a film guide. The film introduces Penn State University anthropologist Dr. Nina Jablonski’s work on the biology of skin color. It discusses the evidence for how different shades of skin color arose among different human populations as adaptations to varying intensities of ultraviolet radiation.

Link: https://www.hhmi.org/biointeractive/biology-skin-color


Teaching Resource Contributed By: Katie Nelson, Ph.D – Instructor of Anthropology, Inver Hills Community College