Academic Gamers, Your Assistance with 'Gaming Representation', Please

You might care about the concepts raised in Gaming Representation, but you probably won't be able to understand them.

Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games
Jennifer Malkowski, TreaAndrea M. Russworm

Indiana University Press

03 Jul 2017


A major difficultly with reviewing any anthology like the recent Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games, edited by Jennifer Malkowski and TreaAndrea M. Russworm, lies in evaluating each essay on its individual merits as well as how each contributes to the strength of the whole.

For this text, the editors' stated intention is to resolve what they call in the introduction "a notable retrenchment from addressing critical theories of identity politics in gaming." [Emphasis mine because, dear lord, "retrenchment".] To that end, I evaluate here how effectively each essay presents a thesis that does some work for the critical theories the editors name in the foreword. In this sense, the volume is a success; I make this claim with some pretty important caveats.

To begin with, these scholarly critiques of video games and representations of marginalized identities are plagued by vagaries of audience: Do the individual authors understand the needs and motivations of the audience of so-called "hard core gamers", which many of the essays invoke? Have they got a clear grasp of the target audience to whom they're writing? If this is a text for scholars (and I would argue that it is) this fumbling of audience understanding is a symptom of a larger problem, manifesting throughout contemporary critical work in academia.

For example:

Among gaming's more notable paradigmatic shifts are theoretical debates about the primacy of narratology versus ludology in games' meaningful play and procedural rhetorics; interrogations of gaming's structures of play and affective engagement on- and off-line; the rise of professional gaming; and, most recently and interestingly, the neo-formalist tech turn to platform, software, and code studies.

Did your eyes just roll back in your head so hard that you could see your brain attempting to parse that sentence? Thus it begins; this sentence appears in the editors' foreword to the entire volume. I had to read it three times and I have a Ph.D. in rhetoric and pop culture. I could spend the rest of this review just deconstructing that one sentence, but it would distract me from making my first point about audience.

Setting aside the seriously debatable notion that "the neo-formalist tech turn" is actually what's interesting here, this is what readers can expect for the rest of the anthology: Unnecessarily complex sentence structure and insider jargon that immediately creates an exclusionary area of scholarship, which limits the accessibility and usefulness of the otherwise critically important ideas about contemporary gaming's lack of inclusivity with regard to race, gender, and sexuality.

Put simply: People who might otherwise care about these concepts won't be able to understand them. Some of those people are referenced in the text—the invoked groups of marginalized gamers. Given that the book's entire raison d'etre is to shine a light on inclusivity (or the significant lack thereof) in a popular field of entertainment, the use of exclusionary language seems to be spectacularly myopic.

Don't get me wrong—these ideas are critically and socially relevant. But the issue with this anthology is the same issue with how scholarly theory is disseminated in general: it's almost entirely made up of discourse that preaches to the choir. There isn't anything inherently wrong with the bulk of the content —some of the essays even make cogent points and draw interesting conclusions—but the exclusivity of language negates its probability of a wider dissemination of those important points.

Liberal leaning socio-politically minded academics will find fodder for their tenure-track motivated scribblings, and graduate students in liberal arts will have more sources to add to the annotated bibliographies of their digital media studies term papers, but who else is going to benefit from this book? There's no "praxis" (a term that raises my hackles for the reasons I'm already discussing) inherent in this collection of essays: How does a thoughtful layperson put these concerns about non-inclusivity in gaming into any kind of actual practice? I don't find fault with any of the essays specifically, but with the usefulness of the collection as a whole.

Some might argue that the audience for the anthology isn't laypeople and therefore doesn't need to appeal to them linguistically. I agree. That's my point. How are these theories about gaming's problematic representation of traditionally marginalized groups useful? Can scholarly discourse provide workable solutions to real world problems? I really want an answer to this question. How does this kind of scholarship effect actual systemic change?

Whoops. Fell down a rabbit hole there. Let's get back to the book.

Here's another symptom of the larger problem of audience confusion: the number of times the text's editors and various authors manage to shoehorn the word "ludic" into the essays. The first appearance of the word, which essentially means "spontaneously playful", makes its debut in the first sentence of the foreword and appears throughout the volume so many times, I lost count.

Why am I making a big deal about single word? Because its use demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how video games are consumed by the majority of their target market. The word's use demonstrates a misconception of video games as primarily a lighthearted pastime, which undermines the otherwise explicitly acknowledged notion that gamers consume video games as a hard core activity akin to how pornography is consumed. Characterizing hard core game series like Resident Evil or Grand Theft Auto as "spontaneous" and "playful" is completely misleading. Basing an entire collection of critical essays on a misconception of the audience under discussion is the same crime the collection itself accuses the invoked audience of: intentionally misrepresenting the core identity of a subgroup, either for selfish gain or out of ignorance. Maybe I'm reading too much into the use of a single word. Read the essays for yourself and let me know.

In addition to these concerns about audience, some of the essays present highly dubious premises, which make trusting the rest of the argument difficult, such as one author's note that games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Dishonored, and Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor are in the same dystopian genre as games like The Last of Us and The Walking Dead. Another author posited the premise in her essay's introduction that "we play [video games] to win", setting up her argument that losing is a queer activity. Play to win? That warrant needs backing. (I can use academic jargon, too.) Also, the idea that losing is queer is deeply problematic. It was difficult to trust the ethos of authors making those types of specious claims.

Additionally, there isn't a good representation of essays examining games that offer players a "blank slate" for their playable avatars. The player characters (rather than non-player characters), are a significant focus for most if the discussions of representation so this absence is notable. (Also, none of the authors use PC/NPC shorthand, which I attribute to editing, because it's hard to believe not a single author in the volume would use such recognizable gaming terms.) There are plenty of games that give players the agency to create their own avatar with regard to race, gender, and appearance (such as the offhandedly mis-genred Skyrim, which was mentioned but not discussed). There's one essay that discusses the visual beauty of custom avatars in virtual realities like Second Life, but it's incongruous with the rest of the anthology. Among other reasons, Second Life and its ilk are not games. Seriously, hard core gamers (the audience invoked repeatedly in this text) are not durdling around (to use gaming slang) in such virtual worlds devoid of action and conflict. They're exploding Super Mutants "into a red, gut-ridden, eyeball-strewn paste" with the Bloody Mess perk in Fallout.

In fact, games like the Fallout series allow players to make their character any race, gender, and appearance they want and even role play socio-economic, political, and ethical dilemmas. Newer Fallout gameplay even makes the PC inherently bisexual, giving the player the freedom to choose whom to romance, but games with these features are barely mentioned.

With all these concerns in mind, let me get back to analyzing the meat and potatoes of the volume. The individual essays and the sections in which they appear are divided into three parts: gender, race, and sexuality, which the editors rightly acknowledge is an artificial division of categories that are by nature intersectional.

"Part One: Gender, Bodies, Spaces" is arguably the least innovative of the three sections, offering up some obvious and perhaps even threadbare theses about representations of women in gaming. Anyone at all familiar with issues of feminism and misogyny in contemporary gaming will recognize the threads of debate presented here. To be clear, this would seem to be a primary audience for this text as a whole, so suggesting the book will expose the uninitiated to the ongoing debate is a silly counter-point. Anita Sarkeesian is invoked multiple times in the anthology, and while reading some of the essays in part one, I felt like I could simply watch her video series Trope vs. Women in Video Games on YouTube and get the gist of it.

All the essays in the first section present variations on a central theme: Contemporary gaming culture is hostile to women and strong female protagonists are lacking. From there, the essays diverge on the particulars of that hostility, the reasons behind it, or analyses of specific games.

Here's the progression:

Video games have "yet to unlock [the femme fatale's] considerable representational and ludic potential."- > Video games are a "privileged sphere of masculine art and leisure" that is carefully and aggressively policed by the players to exclude women. -> The aforementioned violent policing is a cultural problem. -> This problem exists in cosplay too. -> Sometimes the policing is humorous and parodies are a thing.

If you want the Cliff'sNotes of the arguments in part one, just watch Anita Sarkeesian's videos.

In the next section, "Part Two: Race, Identity, Nation", the authors examine racial representation, and the theses were a little more diverse. (See what I did there?) Some arguments that appear in this section include the notion that black identity is a signifier for dystopian survival, war games are culturally complicated, and to understand racial representations in video games, it has to be culturally contextualized. Seems legit.

In "Part Three: Queerness, Play, and Subversion", the essays get all queer. Two of the three editors' picks didn't look at representations of sexuality so much as attempt to apply queer theory to gaming. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for queering up the joint, but many of these essays were queering for queering's sake, furthering a trend in recent cultural studies where academics attempt to apply queer theory to everything from television shows to card games to grouting bathroom tile. But let me step over that land mine of debate to make the point that analyzing and interpreting an artifact through the lens of queer theory, while interesting, isn't the same as analyzing actual representations of identity. The essay that does look at identity basically says that the ability to play an LGBT character in 2005's Jade Empire and 2011's The Binding of Isaac are innovative. Okay, the essay is a bit more complicated than that but the author's use of phrases about how the referenced game "enacts its own ludoaesthetic strategies" and contains "strategies of structured, compositionally rooted, queer spatiotemporality" made me somewhat hostile to the ideas. Yes, red squiggles in Microsoft Word, those terms are spelled correctly.

As you can see, there's a lot to respond to in this text and I do believe it is of value, though perhaps not in the way the editors intended. I hope others will read the essays in this anthology and react accordingly. Speaking as an academic, a gamer, and a queer, I'd like a second player's perspective.

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