EGO/ΣΤΔ Conference Keynote: Dr. Kishonna Gray


Once again, the annual EGO/STD Conference has arrived, and with it another fantastic keynote speech. This year’s speaker was Dr. Kishonna Gray, an assistant professor of Communication and Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The majority of her work is on identity and digital media, with a specific focus on video games and the culture that surrounds them. Her most recent publication is Race, Gender, and Deviance in Xbox Live, and during her introduction she revealed to the audience that she has a second book currently in the works, though the details of that text were not discussed.

            After a brief but charming introduction, Dr. Gray began her presentation, “Hypervisible Blackness. Invisible Narratives: The Digital Stories that Games Tell.” She opened with a brief history of black representation in media, particularly in recent years with events such as #GamerGate and #BlackLivesMatter. In discussing these issues, Dr. Gray touched on the ways in which video games “legitimize white masculinity through the ‘othering’ process” through what she called “pixelated minstrelsy.” This pixelated minstrelsy is propagated through the constant use of people of color in video games as either criminals or buffoons, to the exclusion of all other possible representations. Through this representation, game developers create “digital Jim Crow” situations, leading to commercially rooted white supremacy.

           Dr. Gray then explained how this has come to pass through a visual analysis of some key games, noting their failure to diversify that has led to the normalization of the punishment of minorities. To define this, she provided a quick overview of African-American representation throughout American history and created a narrative through line that anchored the audience. Dr. Gray discussed the initial interpretation of African-Americans by the media, in which slaves were not considered dangerous but instead amusing, with later representations creating a fear of blackness once slavery started to come under attack.

            From here, Dr. Gray began her speech in earnest, discussing the cultural imperialism that generated the idea of white masculinity as the norm, and showing examples of this in popular video games. World of Warcraft was the first video game examined through an event revolving around Leeroy Jenkins, using the example of the character changing from black to white when it was transitioned to a new game to discuss the topics of Blaxploitation and black deletion. Next, she discussed the ways in which CJ, the main character of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, ignores the reality and causes of inequality in minority lives. This thread of logic continued through the examination of Cole Train, one of the sole black characters in the Gears of War series. Throughout the experience, Cole is portrayed as the typical black comedic buffoon, showcasing minimal language skills that create the notion that Cole is stupid. Dr. Gray brought this example into stark detail, discussing the ways in which the use of Ebonics in limited situations, like the Cole Train case, is done solely as a marketing tactic that reduces and simplifies the black experience.

           From here, Dr. Gray shifted her focus to discussing the ways in which games reinforce the false notion that black masculinity is inherently lesser than white masculinity, examining the game Def Jam: Fight for New York. This title is a fighting game populated entirely by black males, taking place in the ghetto with a visual focus on physical strength that reinforces stereotypes of black masculinity as only able to be portrayed through that strength. This led into a brief segue discussing the creation of the character of Lara Croft, whose initial name was supposed to be Laura Cruz, but was later changed due to the belief that players would want a more traditionally white, British protagonist. This reinforces the notion of black deletion in gaming, as well as touching on the ways in which the male gaze is privileged.

            Dr. Gray then began to discuss the various counter narratives that have begun to arise by examining the character of Adewale, a protagonist in the Assassin’s Creed games. Adewale is a former slave who goes on to murder his former slavers, portraying an empowering moment for the character, as well as a sign of solidarity that rejects the typical notions of black masculine inadequacy. This led into an analysis of the character Lee Everett, the player’s point-of-view character in The Walking Dead game, whose portrayal ironically uses all of the tropes of the typical black narrative in gaming to break the character out of these cultural bounds. She then rapidly covered the positive portrayal of characters in other titles like Marcus Holloway, Aveline de Grandpré, and Lincoln Clay, whose narratives also try to remove the black identity from their placement as the archetypal ‘other.’

            Unfortunately, these counter narratives occasionally miss the mark, as Dr. Gray explained with the portrayal of the so-called “Harlem Hellfighters” in Battlefield 1. For the first time, in a high budget, mass-market title, the player is put in the perspective of a squad of soldiers entirely made up of black men as the game forces the player to live through each soldier’s death. While this division would go on to fight in the rest of World War I and World War II, after their death in this early section of the game they are nowhere to be found. This not only creates a false counter narrative but also strips the context of their lives away by focusing on their deaths.

            Dr. Gray finished her speech with a few examples of how the gaming industry could improve, and was met with a standing ovation, an accomplishment that many in attendance noted afterward as an impressive feat, given how rarely academic speeches receive such applause.