Lack of diversity in video games has negative mental effect on players, says Sask. researcher

Cale Passmore says conversations about racial and ethnic diversity in video games usually included references one or two games.

U of S student Cale Passmore says industry has problem with tokenism, 'colour-blindness'

A University of Saskatchewan researcher says most people want to play video games in which the character reflects themselves. (Getty Images)

Cale Passmore says conversations about racial and ethnic diversity in video games usually make reference to one or two games.

"That one game where there is a Hispanic protagonist … those sorts of tokenizing examples just don't match up with the actual data we're seeing," he told CBC Radio's Afternoon Edition on Friday.

Passmore is a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan Human-Computer Interaction Lab in Saskatoon.

Driven to find out more about the impact of the lack of diversity in games, he started researching the impact to health and psychology.

"We started out talking to friends, people of colour, we created a survey that asked the types of questions that are on people's minds but get buried or not approached," said Passmore.

Effect is similar to 'everyday' racism: researcher

The 92-question survey was tested and then released to almost 300 Americans. 

Passmore said the results showed that the lack of diversity affected people in different ways depending on their own experiences.

We're giving way more credit to this highly-vocal, negative minority, to this sort of fear, than is actually warranted by data.- Cale Passmore, U of S computer science researcher

"The same long-term effects of depression, detachment, disengagement, low self-worth are present as outcomes, as you would see in everyday, daily racism," he said.

Passmore said the research found that "colour-blindness" is part of the reason behind the lack of diversity.

As an example, he said game developers might create a skin-tone option for a character with Caucasian features, creating what he said was effectively a character in "black face." 

Gamers want to play characters like themselves

Passmore said one of the main findings of his research was that most people who play video games want to play as a character that reflects themselves.

Most of the people surveyed, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, agreed that most video game characters are white and that most non-white characters are stereotypes.

But when it came to assessing the extent of the problem, Passmore said the observations of participants who identified as being a person of colour were more accurate when compared to the actual data on the lack of diversity. 

The survey participants were also asked how they think the United States would respond to greater ethnic and racial diversity in games, and Passmore said the respondents were divided.

Perception of negativity does not match numbers 

Many predicted a negative reaction from some groups of people, but the same respondents said they believe their own "community" would support an increase in diversity.

"So this was indicative of a trend we see throughout the literature where we're giving way more credit to this highly-vocal, negative minority, to this sort of fear, than is actually warranted by data," said Passmore.

Passmore said there are ways game developers can do better.

"You can go through all the data, all the science to try to create an accurate character that is different to yourself, or you can just bring in the type of people that you're wishing to represent," said Passmore.

"Allow them to sort of influence and create, to give feedback."

With files from CBC Radio's Afternoon Edition