Queering Representation in Games: A review of Adrienne Shaw’s Gaming at the Edge

By Evan Conaway

To read Tom Boellstorff’s introduction to this book reviews series, head over to The Book Review as Conversation.

“Identification is not about a static, linear, measurable connection to a character. Rather, it is about seeing ourselves reflected in the world and relating to images of others, both of which are critically tied to arguments for representation that focus on media’s ability to create possible worlds” (Shaw 2015,70).

With a novel take on queer subjectivities and representation in games studies, paired with a background in media studies and communication, Adrienne Shaw brings her passion and expertise to Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture (2015) to investigate the ways in which video game players experience the intersectional relationships of race, gender, and sexuality in the context of a largely heteronormative gaming industry. As the opening quote indicates, Shaw’s powerful words evoke utopian visions of inclusivity and intersubjectivity that are sure to serve as productive forces of inspiration in a number of diverse disciplines.

In her methodological framework, Shaw critically questions the stability of the categories of race, gender, and sexuality. She writes, “What womanhood means, what blackness means, and what queer means are contextual and malleable” (20). Making a strong argument for the importance of context in gaming, namely the medium of the video game, the games themselves, and how audiences engage with games, Shaw moves through case studies of games from the misogynistic arcade classic Custer’s Revenge to the gender- and sex-bending fantasy role-playing game Fable to make poignant claims about the ways in which media representation of women, LGBT individuals, and underrepresented racial minorities in games has evolved and how it is contextually situated in time and space. Shaw’s work departs from social categorization, replacing it with social contextualization to enhance her claim that “context matters in gaming” (49). In many ways, Gaming at the Edge serves as another milestone, a descendant of social gaming literature like T.L. Taylor’s Play Between Worlds (2006), in the journey of game studies toward breaking down the pervasive notion of the “typical gamer” as young, white, male, and heterosexual. She purposefully recruits informants using a Venn diagram of intersectionality with interlocking circles representing three categories of identities: Not heterosexual identified, Not solely White/Anglo identified, and Not male identified.

Interviewing with a Joystick

Shaw successfully uses a methodological framework that includes an interview-centered ethnographic approach, one that provides an interesting twist on the classic interview style that, excuse the pun, “changes the game” in research at the intersection of games studies and anthropology. Importantly, Shaw gives immense credibility to her diverse interviewees: “I want to take my interviewees at their word” (144). For each participant, Shaw conducts two interviews, one in the typical face-to-face mode, and a second follow-up interview called a “gaming interview.” This innovative interview style, largely inspired by Schott & Horrell’s work (2000) with female game players, entails asking interview questions and conversing with the participants while synchronously watching them play a game or even actively engaging in gameplay with them in tandem. This dynamic method serves the purpose of addressing Shaw’s commitment to context as one of the most critical factors in understanding issues of representation and identification in gaming. The gaming interview provided her participants the opportunity to reflect on the content of the previous interview, sometimes revealing new insights, and for Shaw to “[break] down many of the barriers between [her], as the researcher, and participants, as the researched” (51). While the gaming interview very much has the potential to go awry and create barriers rather than break them down, I think fields like virtual world ethnography which actively engage with inhabitants of virtual worlds on their own turf would do well to experiment with such a method to capture the full experience of the gaming subject.

Killer Instinct, Wikipedia, Creative Commons

Killer Instinct, Wikipedia, Creative Commons

Matters of Identi*

In her discussion of identity and identification, Shaw explores how video game players understand the process of identification, revealing how individuals identify with media characters and how this does not always overlap with identifying as a member of specific marginalized groups. She explains that research on representation and identification often assumes a conflation of identifying as a member of a particular group and identifying with a video game or media character. This confusion is an important idea that Shaw disentangles and elaborates throughout the book, but especially in Chapter 3, “Does Anyone Really Identify with Lara Croft?” To put her argument simply, she claims that a player might: identify as and not with; identify with and not as; both; or neither. The importance of this argument lies in the conceptualization of the perceived audience of video games. In her words, she explains, “Arguing that marginalized groups should be represented in games so that members of those groups have characters to identify with collapses being identified as a member of a group into consumer demand for representation. Identifying as a member of that group is also assumed to shape how players want to identify with video game characters” (65). The principal issue that Shaw critiques here, then, is the essentialization or idealization of identities for the purposes of a capitalist market logic which holds that an industry can increase revenues by offering more diverse representation in their advertised products. Such practices of branding of subjectivities have been seen elsewhere in the work of Ilana Gershon on self-presentation and the performance of corporate personhood (2014).

Identification as Shaw sees it is complex and cannot be reduced to feeling or expressing empathy for a video game character; the two are not synonymous. Shaw found that connecting to a media character was about experience more than anything else, for imagining other realities, realizing aspirational potentialities for alternative selfhoods, and connecting through affect to struggles and successes of the character. Identification with a character is not always predicated on similarity with that character. In many cases identification occurs when the character seems more realistic rather than fantastical. Identification might involve a distance between the player and the video game character, requiring that people see what they are identifying with as separate from themselves. In general, players identify with narratives more so than the physical characteristics of characters or avatars.

Perhaps one of the most direct calls to action in the book is Shaw’s critique of the lack of diversity in games where players do not have agency in the customization of the appearance and narrative of their character. Shaw identifies those games that entail creating or choosing the character or avatar that the player embodies (e.g., the Elder Scrolls franchise, Mass Effect) as having the greatest potential for increased diversity in representation. In these games, Shaw’s interviewees report that players do not tend to identify with the character or avatar that they have chosen which appears on-screen, even though, through game play and narrative, perhaps they may develop strong investments in them. Shaw explains that the primary goal in increasing diverse representation of marginal communities of people in video games is not through developing more thorough customization features in avatar creation interfaces, “but rather making more games that reflect more modes of being in the world” (143). Therefore, Shaw places explicit pressure on those games that have a set protagonist that cannot be customized as places where designers can show more diversity.

Some of Shaw’s previous research hypothesized that representation in games mattered to queer players, yet the results were quite the opposite. In this book, she makes it a goal to fully flesh out the argument as to why representation does matter, explaining the reason for her previous findings and theorizing solutions to this issue of representation the industry faces now. So if people truly don’t care about representation, as her previous research has suggested, then this presents an opportunity to show more diversity in the types of games where the default avatar cannot be customized to reflect difference in race or gender.

Shaw’s research also functions to break down the division between online gaming and solitary gaming. A better dichotomy might be social gaming on/offline and solitary gaming on/offline, as both may occur in or outside of digital space. Because the majority of game studies work in the social sciences has focused specifically in the realm of social gaming, venturing into solitary gaming is a lofty endeavor, one that Shaw confronts confidently, making valuable contributions for future research on representation, identity, and sociality in online social game play. She makes several contributions to our understandings of sociality in online game worlds, specifically citing the work of virtual ethnographers Celia Pearce and T.L. Taylor on avatar-player relationships and identification with virtual bodies in massively multiplier online role-playing games. By coupling her solitary gaming research with the online world, Shaw expands the ways that her work may be advanced or applied beyond the solitary mode of gaming.

Locating the Margins in Virtual Space

One exemplary contribution that Shaw makes in Gaming at the Edge, as it pertains to my own research on LGBT guilds and identity in online game worlds, was highlighting a novel and crucial aspect of our understanding of sociality in gaming: people perceive membership in social groups as another category separate from race, gender, and sexuality. Sentiments expressed by her informants are echoed in studies of queer community formation in digital media. To cite a particularly profound example, one of her informants posted on Facebook about gay films and received negative backlash:

“They’re like, ‘I don’t know why it’s so important to have a gay movie.’ And I’m like, ‘That’s because you’re not gay [laughs], and that’s why you don’t realize how important it is that everywhere you go.’ You know, I think they would be offended if everywhere they go everything was a gay movie.” (191)

This same silencing rhetoric can be seen in discourse about the presence of LGBT guilds in World of Warcraft. In his 2014 study of forum posts about LGBT guilds, Alexis Pulos found that the oppressive undercurrent of discrimination within the gaming environment creates barriers to representation and community-building, while reinforcing stereotypes and heteronormative hegemonies. One poster claims that “LGBTQ guilds foster more problems than they solve, and by segregate [sic] queer sexuality into a guild they’re separating themselves from other players” (Pulos 2014, 88). This discourse is a silencing tactic reminiscent of “don’t ask, don’t tell” that is highly problematic and isolating.

#Gamergate and Inclusive Imaginaries

As exposition to her book, Shaw opens with a discussion of Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter campaign Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, a proposed series of online videos with the goal of exploring and combating stereotypes of female characters in games. In the months since Sarkeesian was met with intensely misogynistic, homophobic, and “generally vitriolic” responses, a larger, even more sinister storm cloud was growing over the Internet, casting a dangerously dark shadow on women involved in the gaming industry. Under the guise of a response to bad ethics in journalism, Gamergate became a controversy that culminated in various doxxing campaigns and specific violent (and gruesomely graphic) death threats against outspoken women in the industry like Felicia Day, of The Guild fame, influential game journalist Leigh Alexander and, perhaps most notably, Brianna Wu, cofounder and game developer at Giant Spacekat. Recently, Wu gave a talk at the University of California, Irvine for the Institute for Virtual Environments and Computer Games. Regarding the silencing techniques of Gamergate supporters, she powerfully remarked, “Silence doesn’t cut it anymore” (February 27, 2015).

Voices like Shaw’s are crucial to stressing the importance of representation of game players that exist at the margins of video game culture and mitigating the negative and potentially life-threatening consequences that controversies like Gamergate precipitate. They reflect a larger issue of the notable dearth of female designers in the video game industry, a dearth critiqued in the work of critics like Sarkeesian. Wu’s activism and Shaw’s literature on representation might be read as a call to action for video game development companies to not only include more women, people of color, and LGBTQ people as primary characters in their games, but to also hire such members of society as game designers. As a result of these practices, we may see an improvement in the ways in which people at the margins are represented in this medium. Increased representation has the potential to refract outward and more broadly change the exclusive nature of the entertainment industry that so profoundly impacts the way we perceive and enact societal norms of race, gender, and sexuality. It is not simply gameplay that might be transformed by more diverse representations in video games, but perhaps our culture at large. Shaw writes, “When we go to the edges of play, we can see that what we know of games thus far is just the beginning, and in changing the conversations we have about games, we can begin to imagine a more inclusive future” (232). That inclusive future will demand a redefinition of what and who constitutes the “edge.”

 

TGA_Evan_photoEvan Conaway is an East Coast transplant currently geeking out in southern California. Armed with BAs in Anthropology and Spanish from University of Georgia he has moved on to his next epic quest: achieving PhD status in sociocultural anthropology at UC Irvine. He is developing a virtual ethnographic project that addresses the ways in which queer online gaming spaces shape and are shaped by gender and sexuality identity exploration and queer forms of play. Within anthropology, Evan situates himself in the realms of game studies, queer studies, linguistics, and visual media. He is also interested in communities and ideologies that form around geek fandom, conventions, and cosplay. In his down time, he indulges in Brandon Sanderson novels, role-playing video games, Magic the Gathering, and RuPaul’s Drag Race. You can reach him on Twitter (@ephaen), in Guild Wars 2 (Ephaen.3685), or by email (econaway@uci.edu).

 

 Works Cited

Gershon, Ilana (2014). “Selling your self in the United States.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 37(2), pp. 281-295.

Pulos, Alexis (2013). “Confronting Heteronormativity in Online Games A Critical Discourse Analysis of LGBTQ Sexuality in World of Warcraft.” Games and Culture, 8(2), pp. 77-97.

Schott, Gareth R, and Kirsty R Horrell (2000). “Girl gamers and their relationship with the gaming culture.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 6(4), pp. 36-53.

Shaw, Adrienne (2015). Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture. University of Minnesota Press.

 

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About Emma Louise Backe

I graduated from Vassar College, which makes me an official liberal-arts witch, where I majored in Cultural Anthropology and English. I focused on the intersection between medical anthropology and folklore, indigenous narrative practices and healing techniques, and the role of language and storytelling in healing. I'm a logophile at heart--the bookish type that's always carrying around three or four books, loves experimenting with language, and has something of an Indiana Jones complex. I've worked in South Africa at the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit; interned with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, The NAMES Project Foundation, and the UCLA Center for Art and Global Health; served as Head Consultant of Vassar College's Writing Center; volunteered with Peace Corps on community health empowerment; and worked as the Research Assistant at The Global Women's Institute at George Washington University. I have spent most of my professional career working on human rights issues, specifically violence against women and girls and reproductive health rights. I am currently pursuing my Master's at George Washington University.

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