Ist we not der super men?

Saturday, 29 July 2006 — 1:02pm | Video games

I can’t remember the last time I saw an undergraduate thesis make international news (if not necessarily headlines), but this week it was done by recent UBC Sociology grad Robert Parungao, whose study concerned the apparent dissemination of racist Asian stereotypes in video games. Here be the UBC press release, here be a GameSpot interview with Parungao, and here be everybody from CBC to The Middle East Times getting in on the action, thanks to the story hitting the AFP wire.

And here be dragons. Double dragons.

Nothing out of the ordinary so far. Someone of an academic bent decides to play video games for his honours thesis under the pretence that nobody’s thought to talk about race before. (I get the impression he honestly believes that, and I’m baffled.) Press box spectators who have never played a video game and don’t know what they’re talking about spread the Good News. The quasi-illiterate teenage kids who make up a self-defined “video game community” leap to the passionate defence of their favourite hobby, in spite of the fact that while they do play video games, they also don’t know what they’re talking about. All in a day’s work.

This is, as far as I can tell, no cause for indignation. This is an undergrad who made headlines because his study was topical. Now, I’ve done some searching around, and it seems that neither I nor anybody else has actually read the paper in question, but I can just about guarantee you that a big chunk of it is what you would usually expect: copious footnotes and name-drops from sociological theory, a few well-chosen citations to demonstrate the alleged double standard in the press coverage of video games in contrast with other media, and maybe – if we’re lucky – a brief defence of the methodology. Those are the elements that would be subject to academic scrutiny. I don’t think it’s an expectation that at this nascent stage of studies in interactive entertainment, the part of the paper that actually concerns video games is all that rigorous, or even good – though an idealist would say it should be, and an idealist would be correct.

In other words, it’s not that big a deal, and the press attention is completely out of proportion. The worst you can say about it at face value is that it reeks of a very bad case of fudging the data to fit the thesis, but this isn’t in the natural sciences, so nobody cares.

This isn’t saying that lowly undergrads can’t make an impact. I know at least one exceptionally gifted student, a recent Sociology grad herself, who found that curiously, nobody in the establishment had bothered to study something that you would think would be really obvious (in her case, Canadian internment camps). But I am saying – again, at face value – that this particular study has very little impact at all. It’s almost fiendishly inconsequential, and it’s just more ammo for the Hillary Clinton lobby.

For a global perspective on things, it might be helpful to look at the Japanese video game industry and marketing strategies that stereotype westerners, as in this Mario Kart DS commercial.

And while we’re on the subject of stereotypes, consider the jingoistic cartoons that my generation grew up on in the 1980s. Now consider Saddam and Osama, a cartoon that I lavished with praise two years ago. I finally thought to find it on YouTube, and it’s even better than I remembered.

(If you are at all baffled by the title of this post, it may be time to brush up on your Disney classics.)

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