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July 8, 2020

Informatics Ph.D. Candidate Daniel Gardner Leads Teams Looking at Representation in Games

The general research focus of Informatics Ph.D. candidate Daniel Gardner is the social implications of various interfaces on the periphery of games — interfaces such as character configuration and microtransaction storefronts. “These are the kinds of interfaces that might be considered in the realm of usability, but I look at the ways they mediate different trade-offs for users/players, and sometimes reproduce certain broader inequalities,” says Gardner, who is collaborating with undergraduate and graduate students to advance this work. These partnerships originate from his involvement with the iSchool Inclusion Institute (i3) at the University of Pittsburgh, a leadership program that helps students from traditionally underrepresented groups prepare for graduate school and research professions. Gardner is advising two groups of i3 scholars.

“My 10 mentees are spread across all U.S. time zones, almost all at different institutions, and all different stages in their college careers,” explains Gardner, who first joined i3 as a teaching fellow in 2017. He returned in 2018 and 2019 as a research adviser, mentoring students between their first and second summers in the program. “Both teams had posters accepted to iConference 2020 in Borås Sweden in March, with one team being best poster finalists.”

Representation on Video Game Covers
In one poster, “Exploring the Perceptions of Race on Video Game Covers,” Thomas Nguyen (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), Noman Khan (Rutgers University), Abigail Berardi (Dominican University), Shanley Corvite (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), Carlos Norman (Pennsylvania State University) and Gardner examine potential game players’ perception of video game cover art. The team analyzed 298 survey responses from a diverse sample on their impressions of racial representation on the top 20 best-selling games (by units sold) from 2010-2015. “The teams’ results add empirical grounding to larger debates about representation in games by showing that people perceive representation of non-white people to be significantly poorer than representation of white people,” says Gardner. The team also found “that people of all demographic identities desire more diverse representation in games.”

Perspectives of Video Game “Skins”
In the other poster, “‘I Like the Way the Skin Looks’: Player Perspectives on Aesthetic Appeal and Self-Representation With Video Game ‘Skins,’” Alia Fatima Reza (University of Denver), Adanna Floris Nedd (Pennsylvania State University), Sabrina Chu (California State Polytechnic University, Pomona), Amy Castillo (College of Westchester), Zuaira Khan (Stony Brook University) and Gardner build on earlier work on representation in games and microtransactions.

Daniel Gardner kneels with one of his two i3 teams (from left): Sabrina Chu, Adanna Floris Nedd, Alia Fatima Reza, Zuaira Khan and Amy Castillo.

“For two years, they have been studying the relationship between microtransactional purchasing practices, representation in games, and diverse player identities by examining how diverse players feel about and participate in the purchase of ‘skins’ in games, especially when tied to diverse representation,” says Gardner. The term “skins” describes purchasable changes in character appearance, and the team wrestles with the sometimes-uncomfortable use of the term to describe applying racialized and commodified performances to characters. “The main thrust of this project is that because representation in games is still less than diverse, and sometimes access to diverse skins can be locked behind a pay wall, it creates a situation where, if players of color would like to self-represent in games, they may have to pay more to do so than white players,” he says. The team’s work, a best-poster finalist, was highlighted in an i3 article, “Game On for Everyone: Effects of Racial Diversity on Spending Patterns In Gaming.”

People say that they buy skins because they “like how it looks,” explains the team. “In the poster submission, we describe how this simple response may encompass many different potential personal and social implications that influence personal taste and impressions of appearance, and which we hope to explore more deeply in future work.” Gardner notes that these relatively new interfaces have “highly understudied implications for the marketing of games and other media, and the ways we may convert our actual resources to virtual assets.”

Shani Murray


Informatics Ph.D. Candidate Daniel Gardner Leads Teams Looking at Representation in Games

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