Research exploring race and gender in video games is first of its kind

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Examining gender and race in video games is nothing new. But one aspect researchers failed to look at previously is the intersection of gender and race in the gaming world and how that affects the ways users learn.

“I study gaming from a learning sciences, educational lens and I believe that people learn in practice,” said Gabriela T. Richard, assistant professor of learning, design and technology in Penn State’s College of Education. “A big aspect of how we learn is through cultural practice and, for many years, the learning sciences has been investigating the ways that people learn through culture and their surrounding environments,” she said.

“There have been studies showing the disparities of gender in technology and gaming, but people weren’t really looking at how this intersected with race,” she said. “That was a big concern for me because, as a woman of color, I am someone who has not only played games and worked in tech but am also a researcher.”

In 2009, Richard decided to address her concerns and initiated a first-of-its-kind study where she applied intersectional theory to understand the different types of exclusionary practices in gaming across gender and race. 

“I found that there were significant barriers across gender and race, and that certain supportive communities, specifically female supportive communities, actually served as a buffer for women, while showing measurable benefits for men as well,” she said, explaining that the communities also promoted women in the gaming industry.

After this initial study, Richard worked with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to take her research one step further. They knew, she said, that women faced barriers in the gaming world and knew that people of color faced similar barriers, but there was no research exploring that. 

Richard and her colleagues decided to change that and edited a book that looked at the intersections of race and gender. The book — “Diversifying Barbie and Mortal Kombat: Intersectional Perspectives and Inclusive Designs in Gaming” — was published in early 2017 and was the third in a seminal series that presented different perspectives on gender and gaming. The first volume was released in 1998 by researchers from MIT and looked at leisure spaces and how they impact women’s participation in the tech industry, Richard said. 

“Almost nobody was looking at race,” she said. “Nobody was exploring what sort of barriers people of color were facing in gaming and we knew that needed to change.”

“We all have these intersecting identities so we really wanted to promote this idea of intersectional theory, which seeks to understand the various way we may experience privilege and marginalization,” Richard said.

When putting the book together, the researchers collaborated with scholars from multiple disciplines, including the learning sciences, media studies, gender studies, game studies and computer science, among others, to provide an intersectional perspective on the experiences of those who play games as well as those who design games.

“Working on the book was basically our way of saying that there is this whole area of gender and race in gaming that still needs to be explored,” Richard said. “Research is behind the curve when it comes to gender and race in gaming.”

Because gaming is considered a leisure activity, many fail to see its relevance in our greater society, she said. 

“It’s important to understand what’s happening in leisure spaces because many of these things have ramifications.”

For example, in 2014 the Gamergate controversy grew into a racist and sexist campaign geared toward women game developers, female players and women in the tech industry.

“There was a lot of misinformation floating around that started in the gaming world but found its way onto social media,” Richard said. “A lot of this stuff happens in smaller hobbyist or leisurely communities, and we ignore it because we think it’s not important. Nobody thought it mattered because gaming was just a leisure activity so how would that have ramifications on the ways that we interact with each other and discuss information?”

Richard said she finds this topic area to be important because it emphasizes the significance of supportive communities in online environments. 

“Think about how we could put these supportive structures in some of our tech-enhanced learning environments. We have a ton of online communities that we utilize in our online courses or in games we are designing or using in our classrooms,” she said. “What are the best features and ways we can manage communities to be supportive and culturally engaged in these environments? 

“Additionally, we continue to see declining numbers of women who are working in STEM, other than the biological sciences, and we know that being part of these early sort of leisure activities has an influence on who eventually feels like this might be something they would really enjoy doing,” Richard said. “So, in order to increase those numbers we also have to increase the support that we provide along with a wider array of opportunities for women and people of color who have those interests.”

Although Richard is one of just a few researchers looking at the intersection of race and gender, she is hopeful that others will follow suit. In the meantime, she has been expanding her research to include makerspaces, e-sports and game design communities, as well as exploring ways to design and create learning opportunities that are equitable for youth of various backgrounds.

“I try to focus primarily on ways that we can increase cultural diversity and women’s participation,” she said. “Those are the areas that are important to me as a researcher of color in an area where both people of color and women are woefully underrepresented.”

Gabriela Richard, assistant professor of learning, design, and technology in the College of Education Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated October 24, 2017