Playing Race with Bonnie Ruberg

07 Apr, 2014

Playing Race with Bonnie Ruberg

This summer, BCNM DE Bonnie Ruberg will be teaching New Media 150 AC – “Playing Race: Investigating American Racial Identities through Video Games,” which will fulfill the American Cultures requirement.

The class starts from the premise that video games, often dismissed as “just for fun,” actually have a lot to teach us about racial representations in American media. Many claim that games have no relation to race, gender, or identity politics. Yet the representations of race in games are striking. White, male bodies dominate their privileged positions – while non-white, non-male bodies often become victims, villains, or abject others. Domestically produced series like Bioshock stir controversy with racial stereotyping of African-Americans. Meanwhile, international games, popular in the U.S., raise questions about racism and nationality. Classic games and contemporary ones alike, such as Custer’s Revenge and Assassin’s Creed III, struggle with images of Native Americans. In fighting games like Mortal Kombat and horror games like Fatal Frame, the female Asian-American body is used simultaneously to display sexual power and feminine weakness. In all of these instances, games present us with a tangled web of self and other – player and avatar, on­screen and off­screen faces, game creator and game consumer. Through texts including theorists like Frantz Fanon and Lisa Nakamura, this class explores how racial identity, for contemporary America, is both enacted and brought into question through the popular medium of video games.

In “Playing Race,” students will read extensively and experience games first-hand. Texts such as Gender, Race, and Class in Media and America on Film: Representing Race, Class, & Gender at the Movies will frame classroom discussion of racial representation in American media. From the new media perspective, books like Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter will help students approach games analytically. In addition to regular class time, students will attend play sessions. Each week guest speakers from the video games industry and Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies department will present on the game design process or the history of racial representation. Interactive activities will encourage students to think through the problematics of race and game design creatively. As a final project, students will write a “design document” – a detailed, long-form plan for their own video game that seeks to address the issues of racial representation, contestation, and possible reformation discussed in class.

Bonnie is a PhD candidate in the department of Comparative Literature. In addition to pursuing a designated emphasis in New Media, she is also a DE candidate in Gender & Women’s Studies. NWMEDIA 150AC will be the tenth class Bonnie teaches at UC Berkeley, and the first she undertakes as an acting instructor.