Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario Brothers, Call of Duty.
These best-selling video games provide entertainment for millions of Americans. But for Dr. Kishonna Gray, they also offer a valuable platform for exploring race and gender issues, social inequality, and digital culture.
Gray is an assistant professor and director of the Critical Gaming Lab at the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. For the next school year, she’ll be a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. Before she left for Boston, Gray talked with KET’s Renee Shaw on Connections about the role video games have played in her life and academic research.
Imagine taking a college class that requires you to play video games. That’s what Gray does with her criminal justice students at EKU. She has them play Grand Theft Auto in the school’s gaming lab as a way to enter a discussion about how women, minorities, and poverty are depicted in the popular game that rewards players for committing crimes or for causing death and destruction on city streets.
Gray describes Grand Theft Auto as one of the most flagrantly sexist and racist video games on the market. She says the British company that originally developed the game in the mid-1990s based it on American television news reports about gang violence in New York City, Los Angeles, and other major urban areas. Gray says the game narratives are often very simplistic and built around racial stereotypes and hyper-sexualized female characters.
While the professor acknowledges that video game companies are in the business to entertain and make a profit from their products, she contends that as the games reach wider and wider audiences, those companies have a responsibility to think about what they depict on the screen.
“There comes a point where they have to say, ‘What are we actually doing to perpetuate stereotypes, what are we doing to perpetuate these inequalities?’” Gray says.
Back in the classroom, Gray explains race and gender theories through the lens of Grand Theft Auto and other popular games. She contends that it’s critically important for those pursuing careers in law enforcement and criminal justice to consider these issues before they’re out in the field.
Since many of her students come from homogenous urban neighborhoods or small, rural communities that lack diversity, Gray nudges them to explore the misconceptions they may have about minority groups and urban culture as they reflect on how the games portray inner-city life.
“It’s overwhelming because this is like a brand new way of them thinking about the world,” Gray says. “A lot of them have never been challenged in this kind of way… It’s not easy at all and there’s a lot of push-back.”
But Gray adds that the video games allow her students to examine their own identities and privileges in a way that is one step removed from the entrenched racism and sexism that exists in the world.
“So I use [the games] as a simple way to digest those tough topics and be able to take the conversation a little further without them having to feel like we’re all complicit in this system,” Gray says.
These conversations aren’t limited to virtual worlds played out on a video screen. When Ferguson, Mo., erupted in waves of civil unrest after a white policeman fatally shot a black man in the summer of 2014, Gray decided to take a group of her students to the community to get an unfiltered look at the situation. Once in Ferguson, Gray says the students met with community members, law enforcement officials, and activists to get a holistic view of the crisis.
“It was very moving and very powerful for them,” Gray says. “They realized that there’s not just one side to be on with this.”
Gray says the trip sparked discussions about social justice and how people can find compromise and rebuild their communities based on faith and humanity. And she wanted the students to see the commonalities between Ferguson residents who are struggling to provide for the families, and local police officers who had a job to do.
“Especially since the majority of my students are going to be criminal justice practitioners, I needed them to see firsthand, not just from a textbook what it was about,” Gray says. “I need them to see these are real people in front of your weapon, these are real people in front of that riot gear.”
Gray’s life today can seem far removed from her childhood in Hopkins County. Since there wasn’t much to do in her small hometown, Gray’s mother bought video games to keep her children occupied.
Little did Gray know she was laying the foundation for a future career.
Gray says her interest in Sega and PlayStation games tapered off in high school, but she returned to gaming in college. She jokes that she and her future husband fell in love playing Halo and Tony Hawk games on Xbox at their EKU dorm. But through her undergraduate and graduate studies, she began to notice the disturbing ways the games often depicted women and people of color. She also realized a striking difference in the backgrounds of gamers based on what sorts of games they played.
“There is very much a class and race distinction in type of games that are played,” Gray says. “Kids who have means to keep up their computers with the latest graphic cards [and] video cards, they’re into computer gaming a whole lot. But for some poor kids, rural kids, inner-city kids… we usually get the console [-based games], and that’s all we got.”
Gray’s first book, “Race, Gender, and Deviance in Xbox Live,” explored the nature of social interactions on the multimedia gaming platform that has more than 20 million users. Her next book will examine how blackness is punished in contemporary culture, from criminal justice to education to health care, and how digital media can be place where the humanity of African Americans is embraced and promoted.
As a native of rural western Kentucky Gray admits she’s a little overwhelmed by her forthcoming stint at MIT and Harvard. But she says she’s eager to add her perspectives to those institutions and to return to EKU with new ideas for her students in Richmond.
“I have to realize that I have something to contribute there,” Gray says. “I just want to show them what I’ve done [and] how I can contribute to their intellectual community… And I want to bring that information that I learn… back here to Kentucky.”