You start your favorite video game, go to character select, pick a black avatar—be it a fighter or gangster—and start playing. As a white person, what effect, if any, does this have on you?
According to a new study, the effect is significant: White players who adopt black characters are more likely to exhibit aggression and express strongly negative attitudes toward blacks, even after ending the game.
"The media have the power to perpetuate the stereotype that blacks are violent, and this is certainly seen in video games," said Brad Bushman, an Ohio State University communications professor and psychologist who co-authored the study. "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."
The experiments for the study targeted white university students playing three different video games: Saints Row 2, a brutal interactive landscape of crime and gangs; the wrestling focused WWE Smackdown vs. RAW 2010; and the boxing challenge Fight Night Round 4.
Each participant was randomly assigned to play either as a white or black avatar. The player was then given either a violent goal (break out of prison) or a non-violent goal (find a chapel without harming anyone).
When game time ended, the students were given a series of tests, and participants who had played black characters displayed two types of behavior:
1. They showed stronger negative attitudes toward blacks than those playing with white avatars.
2. They took longer to associate black faces with positive words such as joy, love and peace than they took to associate white faces with such words.
The study showed that those who played as black avatars were more likely to agree with statements such as, "It's really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites."
"This suggests that playing a violent video game as a black avatar strengthens players' attitudes that blacks are violent, which then influences them to behave more aggressively afterward," Bushman said.
Trading places with another person does not always improve people's outlook when the perspective with which they are interacting is a stereotypical violent black person, Bushman said.
"Usually, taking the perspective of a minority person is seen as a good thing, as a way to evoke empathy," Bushman said. "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."