Date of Award

December 2020

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Human Centered Computing

Committee Member

Bart Knijnenburg

Committee Member

Erin Ash

Committee Member

Kelly Caine

Committee Member

Sabarish Babu


Video games are steadily becoming one of the largest and most influential forms of media in history. Today, video games are so popular that the Nintendo mascot Mario from the Mario Brothers video game series is more recognized than Disney's Mickey Mouse. The reach and influence of video games is cause for celebration and concern. After all, just like other forms of media video games can influence audiences far beyond their play sessions. Media can influence everything from how individuals treat others, to governmental policies. With such a large scope of influence over who they reach and how they affect society it's necessary to examine how video games represent real world people.

Representation in video games has the potential to influence audiences' perceptions of and attitudes towards real people. Video games already come under constant scrutiny for their numerous portrayals of sexist and racist imagery. These negative portrayals can affect real world biases against disenfranchised groups. Which in some cases can even lead to an increase in violence against those groups. Many forms of passive media, such as books and television, have already been analyzed to discern how their use of diverse non-stereotypical representation can combat biases, promote empathy, and encourage tolerance among their audiences. Video games have been researched in a similar manner, but stand apart from these mediums in an important way. Video games allow participants to take an active role in their entertainment. Unlike a book or a movie a video game offers participants control over the characters and the actions those characters take within the story. Video game audiences don’t just witness the narrative, they give it form through their choices and actions.

Other researchers have examined how interactivity in video games influences real world biases. The first part of this dissertation provides background information for these past studies. We expanded on this research with three studies of our own featuring race and gender bias. The studies reveal that in video games the experience of watching a character vs playing as a character greatly affects the character’s ability to influence audience biases. Just seeing a female or black character in a video game is a very different experience from playing as them and being able to control their actions. Furthermore, in video games this experience of play via character control produces a unique psychological phenomenon called embodied identification. Embodied identification represents how much a player feels they are physically and/or mentally immersed in a playable character. The level of embodied identification a player experiences directly effects the virtual character’s influence over the player. So, it plays an important role in influencing players and is the main focus of this dissertation. There is also an examination into how embodied identification effects players' attitudes toward underrepresented people. The third of the three studies in this paper includes perhaps the most prolific expansion on past research by incorporating intersectionality into the study. This study allows researchers and developers to better understand how all aspects of a player character's identity influence multiple societal biases. In this way, the study is able to look beyond a singular view of identity; only focusing on race or gender for example, to gain a more complete picture of video games' ability to combat biases and promote tolerance in society.



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