Design Principles for Multicultural Education in Video Games
Since the start of the 20th century, American classrooms have increasingly become diverse in multiple aspects. Language diversity, cultural variety, and mixed ethnic visibility make race an inevitable topic in multicultural education (Mahiri, 2017). In the meantime, given the rising popularity of video games among young people, the immersive and empathic experience in a virtual game world may help young players/learners embrace their ethnic identities, and encourage educators to deconstruct racial categories.
Advocates of video games as immersive learning spaces (Gee, 2007) believe that games create rich educational experiences to engage young people to consider the problematic but hidden issue — race. Through narratives, representations, and construction of a belief system, a video game can portray “authentic” racial stereotypes of the real world for young players, or it can break the conventionality of race to present a new ethnic worldview.
According to the Children’s Now report (2001), white males accounted for 52 percent of the non-player characters (NPCs), compared to 37 percent for black males and 5 percent and 3 percent for Latinos and Asians in the ten top-selling games. When black and Latino NPCs appeared in video games, they were often supportive characters in stereotypical roles (i.e. athletes, law breakers, violent offenders, etc.).
Driven by the above statistics, some researchers examined the depiction of race in “urban/street” games. They considered how these games and their richly detailed and textured urban landscapes create powerful learning environments that help young gamers understand, perform and reproduce race and ethnicity (Everett, & Watkins, 2008). This specific game genre allows young players not only to experience powerful representations of urban culture, but also to immerse themselves in environments that promote active ways to learn about race.
Inspired by Mahiri’s book Deconstructing Race: Multicultural Education Beyond the Color-Bind, this paper will provide three design principles for building culturally-rooted games to serve today’s multicultural and multiethnic classrooms.
Principle 1: Deconstruct the Notion of “Race” in Game Design
As the rendering power of video game developed, artists and designers benefited in a much more explicit and powerful way to produce characters with diverse racial and ethnic markers (e.g. skin color, gestures, voice, music and setting). Because one’s racial identity is not only determined by his/her skin color, the design of player-character (PC) and non-player character (NPC) in a culturally-rooted game should avoid the color-bind perspective. In addition to skin color, the game needs to characterize the PCs and NPCs through a combination of racial determinants including ancestral origins, nationality group, and cultural experiences. The design of game assets also needs to revitalize and capture the micro-culture of minorities as well. In order to connect players with the game characters, it is also necessary for game designers to adopt a cultural anthropological approach (Schell, 2014). Through a cultural anthropologist’s view, designers will study players’ ways of life, immerse themselves in the world of players so as to imagine what the players have experienced and gain insights which will inform better design of the game experience.
Principle 2: Create Commentary Track to Enrich Learning
Whatever forms of learning that take place in video games occur not only because of those detailed and rich game design elements, but also because players bring their cultural knowledge repertoires to the gaming experiences from the realistic ideological environment. Taking people’s identity contingencies and resistance to stereotypical racial views into account, it is crucial to document young games’ experience when playing a culturally-rooted game. If a player has agency over the selection of identities in the game, his or her justification of choice will become a reference for future players. Therefore, creating commentary track which shares previous players’ decision of choice in terms of performing relational identities or rejecting imposed identities will enrich learning and discussion in multiculturalism.
Principle 3: Co-design with Teachers, Parents, or Community Members
The design process should also include ongoing consultation with teachers, parents, and community members. Since young players identities are hyper-diversified, mixed, and fluid, ideas from teachers, parents, and community members will ensure a proper contextualization of the game content, a reasonable representation of game mechanics, and a consequentiality generalized from the gameplay to the real world. Meanwhile, working in an iterative design environment will benefit classroom teachers to adjust their pedagogical approaches and expectations to accommodate students who hold different cultural perspectives and practices at home. Playing a culturally-rooted game can more easily become a family activity when parents are involved in designing the game environment where children will not feel exiled in the state of racial in-between-ness.
Example of a Culturally-rooted Game
Never alone, a puzzle-platform game provides an example that demonstrates the possibility of promoting multicultural education through culturally-rooted video games. The game developer worked in deep partnership with 40 Alaska Native elders, storytellers and community members to craft the game and revitalize interest in Alaskan indigenous folklore (Principle 3). Through infusing ethnographic interviews and historical images/videos in different levels, this game created a non-traditional commentary track which reward and motivate players to engage in Alaskan cultural exploration while enjoying the game (Principle 2). Moreover, character design of this game is very unique. A little Inuit girl named Nuna and her Arctic fox took on the mission of saving their village in blizzard. The girl’s strong belief in the Inuit culture and the confidence of her Inuit identity stimulate players to reflect on their attitudes towards Inuit culture. Additionally, the background music, designs of NPCs (elder community member, polar bear, and spirit, etc.), narrations, and mechanics (e.g. the girl uses the traditional weapon “bola”) invite players into the appreciation of Inuit cultural traditions within a world of ice and snow (Principle 1).
Reimagination of Game Design for Multicultural Education
The trend of multicultural education provides game designer with a cultural lens. Creating a culturally-rooted game will not only add profound educational meanings to entertainment, but also help marginalized culture and ethnic identities survive and thrive through gameplay. As identities are gained from variegated lived experiences and constant socialization, a culturally-rooted game should have its ideology situated in diverse contexts. In other words, homogenization of game characters can be culturally disrespectful and biased. The oversimplification of identity dynamics and group complexity will result in a loss of fidelity in game design.
Professor James Paul Gee, a linguistic scholar argues “Neither thinking as individual nor thinking in a labeled group, but investigating what experience in life a person has. Ask under meanings, not under labels” (personal communication, 2019). This comment also applies to the game design discourse in ways that using culturally-rooted games to tear away the identity labels attached to people and infiltrating the concept of multicultural education into the game design process.
Children’s Now (2001). Fair Play? Violence, Gender and Race in Video Games.
Everett, A., & Watkins, S. C. (2008). The power of play: The portrayal and performance of race in video games. The ecology of games: Connecting youth, games, and learning, 141–66.
Gee, J. (2007). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy (Rev. and updated ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Mahiri, J. (2017). Deconstructing Race: Multicultural Education Beyond the Color-Blind. Teachers College Press.
Schell, J. (2014). The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses. AK Peters/CRC Press.