Identity, Identification, and Media Representation in Video Game Play: An audience reception study

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Video games
and audiences
Communication Technology and New Media
Critical and Cultural Studies
Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Ethnicity in Communication
Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies
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ABSTRACT IDENTITY, IDENTIFICATION AND MEDIA REPRESENTATION IN VIDEO GAME PLAY: AN AUDIENCE RECEPTION STUDY Adrienne Shaw Supervisor: Dr. Katherine Sender Research on minority representation in video games usually asserts: 1. the industry excludes certain audiences by not representing them; 2. everyone should be provided with characters they can identify with; and 3. media representation has knowable effects. In contrast, this dissertation engages with audiences’ relationship to gamer identity, how players interact with game texts (identification and interaction), and their thoughts about media representation. This dissertation uses interviews and participant observation to investigate why, when and how representation is important to individuals who are members of marginalized groups, focusing on sexuality, gender and race, in the U.S. The data demonstrate that video games may offer players the chance to create representations of people “like them” (pluralism), but games do not necessarily force players to engage with texts that offer representation of marginalized groups (diversity), with some rare and problematic exceptions. The focus on identity-based marketing and audience demand, as well as over-simplistic conceptualizations of identification with media characters, as the basis of arguments for minority media representation encourage pluralism. Representation is available, but only to those who seek it out. Diversity, however, is necessary for the political and educative goals of representation. It requires that players are actively confronted with diverse content. Diversity is not the result of demand by audiences, but is rather the social responsibility of media producers. Media producers, however, can take advantage of the fact that identities are complex, that identification does not only require shared identifiers, and that diversity in a non-tokenistic sense can appeal to a much wider audience than pluralistic, niche marketing. In sum, diversity can address both the market logic and educative goals of media representation. I conclude by offering three suggestions bred from this analysis. First, researchers should be critical of this emphasis on pluralism rather than diversity. Second, rather than argue video games should include more diversity because it matters, producers should include it precisely because representation does not matter in many games. Finally, those invested in diversity in games should not be to prove the importance of representation in games, but rather argue for it without dismissing playfulness.

Dr. Katherine Sender
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