Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Computer Games, Racial Pleasure, and Discursive Racial Spaces

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Computer Games, Racial Pleasure, and Discursive Racial Spaces

Article excerpt

For my discussion of the theme of this conference, defining race, I offer a different context for study--computer games. My approach to this non-traditional arena for defining race is not that of a gamer--my most complicated computer games are versions of solitaire. My son is a hard-core gamer, and I have often looked over his shoulder and thought, "wow, that looks amazing" as he whizzes through virtual worlds, slaying dragons or shooting his way through battlefields. With that very limited experience, I only started to research this area after I was invited to participate in State of Play II, a conference on law and computer games. (1)


Computer games are now a very important part of popular culture. While television and cinema remain dominant media for popular expression, the internet has gained an enormous audience and may surpass them in influence. Computer gaming is less visible, but is an enormous enterprise. I was reminded of this size by a recent press release from Blizzard Entertainment on the latest version of World of Warcraft. (2) The makers of this Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) noted that their current online paid membership had passed eleven million subscribers, a number greater than the entire population of the state of Ohio. (3) Further, beyond the initial cost of the game, each member pays a monthly fee to participate in the game online. No matter how one does the arithmetic, this is an enormous industry.

Within computer games, there are countless worlds of human and creature images. When you see the images, you look at some of them and observe, "these are racialized." This intuition is well grounded and has been explored in cultural studies. (4) But the study of racial images is not a well developed area of legal investigation. To examine this material, one needs to examine and study various computer games. Compared to normal legal research--reading cases and law review articles--this research is so much fun that it is difficult to stay focused upon the jurisprudence involved. But finding the law is central to this analysis. As a writer on race and law, my task was to develop an analysis of the racialized images in computer games that can be linked to existing legal discussions of race in the law. To pursue this examination, two queries shaped my research: First, I ask, How is this racial? Do I have criteria to test my assertion? Second, where's the law? In what way is this a legal question? With these two considerations in mind, I present here an outline of my research to date.

The body images in computer games vary wildly. In some games, the settings are realistic and track familiar racial stereotypes. The very successful game "Grand Theft Auto" is set in a gritty urban environment. (5) The most recent version, Grand Theft Auto IV is a thinly disguised New York City full of the usual stereotypical representations of criminal behavior. (6) These representations are clearly susceptible to an analysis of the racial imagery. One could carry out a straightforward comparative examination of the stereotypes reproduced in Grand Theft Auto IV against a catalog of existing well-known and documented stereotypes. Such an examination would be possible, but did not attract my interest.

I was more interested in the body images found in fantasy games. Drawing from many fantasy traditions and the original role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, fantasy role-playing characters can include elves, dwarves, fairies, goblins, trolls and wizards. In seeing these images, there is again a sense that many of these are racialized. However, this intuition is not as strong. Various body-types may be dark and menacing, but are not so easily seen as a racial stereotype. Given these less closely related visual cues, fantasy figures are not susceptible to a simple representational analysis.

To investigate the fantasy figures, I turned to my research in other areas of cultural and social studies where race has already been identified as present. …

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