The study, published by Ohio State University, found that white gamers who used African-American avatars were more likely to associate negative behaviors with people of color, and act more aggressively towards them afterward.
“The media have the power to perpetuate the stereotype that blacks are violent, and this is certainly seen in video games,” the study’s lead researcher Brad Bushman, PhD, who specializes in communication and social psychology, said in a news release. Bushman, who is a known critic of video games overall, also said that being black in video games is synonymous with being violent.
The very small study of barely 300 college students has drawn strong criticism from the media, psychologists and gamers alike for generalizing the relationship between prejudice and aggression.
Researchers ran two experiments, one where a mostly male group played Saints Row 2 and the other mostly female group laying WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2010 or Fight Night Round Four, rather bluntly says playing a black character in a video game makes whites more racist. After playing, the first group of students were asked to match words, such as joy and evil, with either a black or white face in an Implicit Association Test to detect subconscious biases. The second group took a hot sauce test and was asked to give it to an unknown partner to measure hostility.
“Aggression is very hard to measure in the lab,” partly because you can’t let people act out violently and also because the standards vary from study to study, allowing researchers to hand-pick results, Chris Ferguson, PhD, a psychology professor with Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., told ThinkProgress. Also, gamers who choose black avatars and play them more violently — and later show aggression — are simply reinforcing a previously held stereotype, Uproxx’s Dan Seitz wrote.