Reading Racisme et Jeu Vidéo by Mehdi Derfoufi

by: , October 5, 2023

© Book Cover


Book info: Derfoufi, Medhi (2021), Racisme et Jeu Vidéo, Paris: Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme.


As a feminist media studies’ scholar, I first became interested in the book Racisme et Jeu Vidéo (or Racism and Video Games[1] after hearing Mehdi Derfoufi, a gender and cultural studies’ professor at Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis University, discuss the book’s methodological framework for examining questions of race, class and gender at a seminar, which led me to look at these issues in new ways. And in fact, one of the strengths of Derfoufi’s research is to make visible ‘the invisible,’ [2] something at which he unquestionably succeeds in Racisme et Jeu Vidéo. He exposes the racism that is below the surface in media discourses, while shedding light on people, practices, and cultures that are seldom explored in video game research, such as the use and development of games in non-Western countries.

In the popular imagination, video game players (and their creators) are often envisioned as being white, heterosexual, and cis-gender males based in Western countries. In this innovative and thought-provoking book, Derfoufi invites us to question that stereotype, to turn it on its head, to ‘decolonise’ the video game, and to deconstruct the ways in which video game players, contents, and creators—as well as people’s perceptions of them—have been influenced by racism that has its roots in the colonialist and capitalist ideologies that he traces back to Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas in 1492.

Using postcolonial theory and studies as his theoretical framework, Derfoufi demonstrates that contemporary racism, which is both insidious and multi-faceted, is a legacy from European colonial times, when the categorisation of individuals and groups became a system for structuring the world order, resulting not only in official and organised racism, but also sexism and classism. He asserts that colonial-based ideologies of race, gender and class continue to permeate media, social, cultural, and political discourses to this day in ways that people are both consciously and unconsciously aware of, such as in the valorisation of the white saviour ‘hero’ figure in heroic fantasy narratives, who rescues supernatural characters, such as elves, who are often racially and class coded as ‘inferior,’ for example.

In the introduction, he writes that he hopes his work will be read by non-scholars and gamers, as well as by fellow researchers. To that end, he has provided a glossary of some of the English academic terminology he uses, as many key concepts in game studies come from American, British, and international scholarship published in English, little of which has been translated into French, the language in which the book is written. In so doing, he is also making some key ideas from research in the English-speaking world accessible to the French academic community. He feels this is essential, as theories and research in gender, race, media, and cultural studies have come rather belatedly to France, are not always well received, and have even been at the centre of recent controversy. His work is also quite unique and potentially controversial in another way: it breaks with traditional academic conventions of scientific objectivity and distance. He states that in order to study the media from a postcolonial perspective, he is obliged to be politically engaged. He argues that this approach enriches his work and allows it to be more profound—and I concur, as I will explain further after first examining the book’s premise and ideas—even if some academics may find his methodology problematic or questionable.

The book is divided into two parts: the study of Western and non-Western countries. To begin, Derfoufi examines questions of inclusivity, diversity, racism, and resistance from a postcolonial perspective in terms of video game production, conception, and reception in the Western World, as Western media products dominate the world market. His goal is not to study any particular video game or geographical area in depth, nor to do a detailed reception study, but rather to explore the multiple and interacting ways in which racism can be made visible when a postcolonial framework is applied to almost every aspect of the video game. Derfoufi’s analyses read more like a worldwide overview, as he applies the postcolonial framework to various themes, using numerous and uncountable games, facts, and examples, to bolster his ideas. Thus, the issues explored in the first part include the framing of video game history (Chapter 1), video game production and marketing (Chapter 2), racist discourses of the alt-right (Chapter 3), and questions of representation, stereotypes, racism, and heroic fantasy (Chapters 4 & 5).

After reading these first few chapters, the reader cannot help but become acutely aware of the ways in which video games, as well as contemporary mainstream visual culture, can be profoundly racist. Derfoufi finds there is racism even in progress—or perhaps ‘progress’ in quotation marks would be more accurate. Throughout the book, he underlines a strong link between capitalism, postcolonialism, sexism, classism and racism, and links many of the more ‘progressive’ efforts of the media to be more inclusive to the capitalist imperative to make money. For example, even if many video games are becoming more diverse by featuring people of different genders and ethnicities, Derfoufi asserts that this is often being done for the ‘wrong’ reasons: as superficial public relations and marketing attempts to appeal to and appease diverse publics in order to increase sales, and also because media producers increasingly fear consumer backlash and the possible loss of business and reputation. A notable example of this, he maintains, is the video game company, Ubisoft, which engages in ‘diversity marketing,’ that deploys representations of harmonious multiculturalism in an effort to sell products. According to Derfoufi, the character Layla Hassan from the game, Assassin’s Creed: Origins (2017), is a case in point. Hassan is an Egyptian woman who emigrated to the US as a child and is thus also American. Derfoufi maintains that this ‘hybridity’ is an attempt to sublimate racist conflicts by showing a happy fusion of identities and racial mixing as emblematic of the end of social conflict. He calls this a ‘United Colours of Benetton’ approach to showing social blending, and he asserts that it is not being undertaken in order to transform social mores, but rather to co-opt identity politics for reasons of ‘capitalist efficiency’ (Derfoufi 2022: 131). Furthermore, he underlines that many of these ‘progressive’ representations are still based on the same categories that formed the old-world order, which thus possibly limits their potential as aggregators and cultivators of social progress. He even questions the very idea—as outlined in many works of media research—that ‘progressive’ representations could have a role to play in changing mindsets, as he feels this gives too much power to the media, and that media researchers often underestimate the significant potential for resistance among media consumers.

Therefore, as his goal is to expose racism, he does not spend much time detailing the many positive ways in which media consumers identify with new media representations of race and gender, but rather he focuses on a particular form of resistance: the discourses of the alt-right in the US, or the what he defines as the ‘fachosphere’ [3] in France, and their critiques and attacks on an increasingly inclusive and diverse media environment. He notes that the insistence on whiteness in media representations is often based on questions of ‘historical accuracy’ or ‘freedom of expression,’ but that this reasoning can nevertheless be perceived as a justification for racism. Moreover, he also demonstrates the ambiguity and hypocrisy in video game marketing and production practices in the ways in which certain video games are still conceived for and marketed to appeal to certain publics with a preference for ‘whiteness.’ To illustrate this, he makes a case study of the heroic fantasy genre, which he notes often features a white hero, who is positioned as ‘superior’ to the other supernatural characters who are racially and class coded as ‘inferior’ and that this is a reproduction of colonial racist ideologies and social stratification—something which, as a television studies’ scholar who has studied female heroes, I can confirm extends well beyond the video game. [4] For Derfoufi, The Witcher (2007), a video game developed by CD Projekt Red, is a clear example of this phenomenon, which he postulates may be tied to the rise of Polish nationalism, although the question warrants further research. [5] He also demonstrates that conflicting capitalist forces and inclusive and racist discourses are at work in the media strategies of ‘whitewashing’—or representing a fictional character or historical figure as ‘whiter’ than they might have originally been in another media format or context, which he says often erases the visibility of non-White ethnicities, while reinforcing White hegemony—and ‘racebending,’ or the changing the race of a fictional character or historical person in a way that often has the opposite effect, that of ‘forcing’ visibility, which can actually at times be considered as positively intended, like if it is used to give a ‘white role’ to an ethnic minority to make a media product more diverse.

In sum, in the first five chapters, Derfoufi successfully demonstrates that postcolonial racist, sexist and classist ideologies are far from being completely ‘cancelled,’ and as they are linked to capitalist interests, they continue to impact contemporary media representations in myriad ways and directions, in ways that media consumers both see and do not see. His goal is to ‘decolonise’ the video game and to ‘de-center it,’ by which he means creating awareness that the video game is not purely a Western phenomenon, and that the history of video games and technological advancement do not belong only to the West. He laments the fact that academic study tends to centre around questions of the Western world, when in fact video games are played and created all over the world, often in different formats and forms, and based on technology that is more readily available to people. For example, he discusses how in Africa, where large computer consoles are rarer than in the West, video games have been developed to be used on telephones, and that contrary to popular Western beliefs, computers have actually been present on the African continent since the 1920s, and video games (in the form of arcade games) since the 1970s. He also peppers the first few chapters with examples of video games in places as diverse as Vietnam, Russia, and South Korea, to name a few. Yet, it is only in the second part of the book (Chapters 6 and 7), that Derfoufi focuses more specifically on questions related to video games in the non-Western world.

He considers Japan—to which he devotes the second-to-last chapter, and which is the only country to which he devotes one in its entirety—to be a very important exception to Western media dominance, in that it is a non-Western country whose media products manage to cross borders and reach transnational markets. He also notes that Japan fits uneasily into a postcolonial studies framework, as it is a country that is a former coloniser, but yet was also heavily influenced by the US in the wake of World War II. One result of this is a certain ‘hybridity’ in Japanese video games, which is an effort to reconcile Japanese and more ‘mainstream’ (Western) video games and cultures. Finally, the last chapter is essentially an overview of video games and the video game industry specifically in geographical areas where it is rarely or barely studied, such as South America, Africa, or the Middle East.

While any study at all of media practices of these countries in Western academia is perhaps a step forward, the two main weaknesses of the work are apparent in the final two chapters. The book is highly innovative in applying postcolonial studies to video games in France—a country where both postcolonial studies and video games studies are not necessarily well received in the academy—and by inviting media consumers and academics to view contemporary Western video game contents through the lens of postcolonial racism. However, Derfoufi does not really offer much of a solution. Moreover, while he mentions video games and practices in countries worldwide throughout the work, only these two chapters are specifically dedicated to the non-Western world and are all-too-brief examinations of phenomena that warrant a much larger study. Derfoufi himself acknowledges that this is a weakness of the book, and he expresses regret that he does not possess sufficient cultural or linguistic expertise to delve deeply into studying many of the countries of the non-Western world. However, he nevertheless hopes that by shedding light on video game makers and players worldwide—by giving visibility to the invisible—he will open the door for further research.

In general, Racisme et Jeu Vidéo is very broad in scope. It is intended to be more of a jumping off point for future research than to be an exploration of any particular issue, work, or geographic area in a thorough way. The book is, however, very rich in theory and methodology, notably due to the fact that developing a new framework for exploring issues of gender, race and class in the media is clearly one of the Derfoufi’s most important objectives. In proposing this new framework, Derfoufi leaves almost no stone unturned in critiquing and exploring previous frameworks, methodologies and concepts in media and game studies, which includes, among other examples, critiquing the use (or misuse) of Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze by contemporary scholars,[6] the methodology of representation studies that gives too much power to the media, and research in which stereotypes are considered as necessarily being all bad.

In using postcolonial studies to centre his arguments and to deconstruct and expose racist ideologies in video games, Derfoufi’s work is quite unique in its genre in France. His admission that he is being overtly political in his work not only puts it at odds with the academic objectivity of traditional research and researchers, but is also potentially highly contentious, risky and controversial in the current French cultural, academic and political climate in which there can be hostility to research in postcolonial, gender and race studies and the ‘Americanism’ they represent; something I have felt keenly as an American gender studies scholar in France studying television—a medium that like video games, is considered to be ‘low culture’ by many French academics who feel that such topics are not ‘university worthy.’ However, Derfoufi maintains that examining an issue as important as racism in the way that he does is necessary to understanding and ‘seeing’ it, and thus warrants such deviation from traditional scholarship. Furthermore, he questions the commonly-accepted idea that taking a stand on a subject invalidates the legitimacy of the research on it, or the fact some may not find his work ‘scientific’ enough on these grounds.

In truth, Derfoufi may be politically engaged, but the information in this book is far from just being his opinion. Not only are methodological and operational concepts very concretely and completely reasoned and defined, but the book also overflows with bibliographical sources that are meticulously and rigorously footnoted. While some of the book’s theoretical and methodological conceptualisations may perhaps not be easily understood by non-scholars, it is definitely highly accessible to scholars who are not experts in video games. As a television studies’ researcher, I found there were many crossovers in concepts and methodologies that are useful for examining other visual media besides video games, and that reading it gave me significant fodder for further reflection and study in terms of my own research.

As for the questions of academic objectivity and scientific validity, one must concede that media scholars, like any other media consumers, can and will make up their own minds when confronted with new ideas and discourses, and that the text is not all-powerful. As we are capable of sorting fact from the opinion through the lenses of our own personal perspectives and scientific trainings, there is room for a plurality of voices and approaches to further the dialogue about important societal issues. Therefore, Derfoufi’s work is an interesting and important contribution to French and international scholarship.



[1] The book was written in French and the title is Racisme et Jeu Vidéowhich is singular but meant to represent all video games as conform to French usage. I translated the title in English as Racism and Video Games (plural) to conform to English language norms in that a plural subject means video games as whole and not an individual subject. A more literal translation like ‘Racism and Video Game,’ would seem quite awkward in English, as would ‘Racism and the Video Game.’

[2] Forms of the terms ‘invisible’ and ‘visible’ are used throughout the book to describe the racism that people ‘see’ or do not ‘see’—or have real awareness of—because racism is often internalised and ‘normalised’ in postcolonial societies. But Derfoufi also applies the concept of ‘invisibility’ people, groups and practices that are ‘invisible’ because they are not studied by academia or represented in the media, or even because they do not really fit within the labels, categories and groups that are ‘visible’ with in mainstream society and/or are used to organise the contemporary social order. The complexities of contemporary identity politics are notably addressed in Chapter 2.

[3] Translated from the French ‘fachosphère,’ or the French version of the alt-right. In France, alt-right adherents are often determined to undermine what are considered to be leftist discourses of gender, inclusivity, and ‘woke-ism’ that are felt to be imposed upon the French people by way of American universities and American cultural dominance. See also Onishi (2021) and Williams (2023).

[4] See for example, Ono (2000), who examines questions of the racial coding of supernatural creatures in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2004) created by Joss Whedon.

[5] He also underlines that even though Poland is neither a colonial nor a Western country, it is nevertheless a European country, and thus the representation of ‘whiteness’ in The Witcher is significant, as it is an internationally played video game based on a series of Polish novels and short stories by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski that later influenced an American Netflix series (2019-) created by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich.

[6] See also Mulvey (1975).


Derfoufi, Medhi (2021), Racisme et Jeu Vidéo, Paris: Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme.

Mulvey, Laura (1975), ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ Screen, Vol. 16, No. 3, pp. 6-18.

Onishi , Norimitsu (2021), ‘Will American Ideas Tear France Apart? Some of Its Leaders Think So,’ The New York Times, 9 February 2021 (updated 11 October, 2021), (last accessed 19 February, 2023).

Ono, Kent A. (2000), ‘To Be a Vampire on Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ in Elyce Rae Helford (ed.), Fantasy Girls: Gender in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television; Lanham: Rowan and Littlefield, pp. 163-186.

Williams Thomas Chatterton (2023),‘The French are in a Panic over the Le Wokisme,’ The Atlantic, 4 February 2023, accessed 19 February, 2023).

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