By Dan Gardner
To read Tom Boellstorff’s introduction to this book reviews series, head over to The Book Review as Conversation.
“In a fictional world where I can use magic on a regular basis, where faces carved in rock talk to me, and where I battle fantasy creatures, that particular types of reality and marginality are reinforced is both curious and indicative of larger systemic problems in how marginalized characters are incorporated into games.” (Shaw 2014, 32-33)
Describing a lineage of older video games and analysis pulled from interviews that combine classic interactions with “play” interviews that include gaming with interviewees, Adrienne Shaw in Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture (2015) makes an argument for diversity in video games by usefully unpacking the concepts of representation and identification within them. Though her book only manages to reference the initial activity, it was published in the midst of the #Gamergate controversy. #Gamergate refers to a trend of online activity attacking prominent female game developers and commentators that advocate for diversity within video games. Many of the activities associated with #Gamergate have been troubling, sexist, and violent. Though largely inconsistent, or at least incoherent as a group, a great deal of output associated with the hashtag can be characterized at least as “anti-criticism” attacks against those who would comment on the ills of representation within video games. Although her book was likely already in the hands of her publisher by the time #Gamergate escalated in the summer of 2014, Shaw, a queer gamer by stereotypical comparison, provides an insightful response to the views of many of the best-known voices associated with the #Gamergate controversy. She outlines misunderstandings around representation, and modes for the use of representation and identification to create more positively diverse gaming experiences.
The first of two primary issues with representation Shaw engages with throughout her book is the problem of who is represented within games. Currently the vast majority of human video game protagonists are heterosexual white males. While there isn’t anything specifically wrong with heterosexual white males in a general sort of way, it becomes indicative of problematic themes outside of the games themselves when they are nearly the only human heroes. Shaw states early in her preface that “representation in games has always been tied to expectations about audiences.” Why hetero-white males are chosen more, and importantly, why others are chosen less suggests certain assumptions on the parts of developers about who the audience is or wants to see. Developers make the games the way they do because of a broad perception and representation of “the gamer” that is a hetero-white male. Currently, developers only notice a need for diversity when marginalized players voice a desire for it. Voicing the desire opens up what the developers see as a niche target market. Shaw points out that this puts the burden of diversity on the consumer rather than the developer and urges developers to be aware of their own “default choices” (205). Rather than thinking about whom they should represent, they should think “critically why they have represented whom they have and why they have ignored others” (221).
All games must be described within the social context of their creation and consumption. She uses an example of violence within games, noting that violence isn’t unique to medium. As with Rock n’ Roll music, television, or movies, violence doesn’t simply come from the media–it comes to it. In an argument for the “virtual as real” in his 2008 book, Coming of Age in Second Life, Tom Boellstorff makes a point that much of what we often interpret as “real” in actual space is already virtual: we “experience life through the prism of culture” (2008, 5). Games and virtual worlds formalize this prismatic lens to varied intensities of structural governance. The lens, values, and characters in these games are shaped by the developer’s experience in the actual world. In a single-player game experience like those Shaw addresses in her analysis, the view of the world the player is able to experience is often relatively focused. An experience so precisely targeted indicates an expected targeted audience and it is through the audience that representation can be understood more clearly.
How representation comes to matter to respective audiences and demographics becomes a troublesome question. The second big issue that Shaw deals with about rep-resentation is how it is defined and implemented, and how representation is relative. Shaw creates an interwoven lattice throughout Chapters Two through Four to describe whether or not representation is utilized positively and effectively. In Chapter Four, Shaw describes how an analysis can then be constructed around whether or not players identify as what is being represented, how they are represented, the social context of the representation, and the realism of the game and why they are playing it. In her Introduc-tion, Shaw discusses how representation is often defined by single demographic identifiers such as race, gender, or sexuality, and uses this point throughout the book to orient her position. Developers have a hard time dealing with more than one of these identifiers at a time, and often simply represent them in aesthetic ways. Simply ensuring that there is a certain quota of African American, female, etc. characters undermines the complexities of identity variation within these demographics and fails to capture the complexity of inhabiting their bodies. Even if a player identifies as a member of the group being repre-sented, if the portrayal is unfairly stereotypical or token it will likely fail to capture the tar-geted audience. Shaw warns that game developers cannot tackle race, gender, or sexu-ality issues separately either, because doing so risks continuing to ignore the above mentioned complexity within demographics, and resists a character that may be defined by more than one demographic identifier. Or, as Shaw additionally points out, identities that shift and change over time: “The assumption that players/audiences with specific identifiers connect with characters who have those same identifiers trivializes the ways and reasons people identify with media characters” (2013, 9).
While game developers have begun to acknowledge that gamers might in fact be a diverse group, they have failed to realize that these demographic identifiers of race, gender and sexuality may not define what people want in a game. Shaw discusses throughout her book that she thought going into her research that representation would be much more important to her interviewees. She came to realize that for many of them, it was “nice” to be represented, but that often it was not necessary. She argues there are two reasons for this. The depressing first reason is that they have become used to a lack of positive representation and simply make do without it. Shaw outlines the second reason in Chapter Three, and further refines it in her conclusion– that players are still able to identify with characters that may not represent them physically or sexually, but who share certain other facets of identity. Demographic identifiers may influence at various levels of intensity individual gamers’ interests in games and play styles, but are not deterministic. Often token representation simply serves to reinforce marginality, rather than placate it.
Genuine diversity comes when the currently marginal demographics are no longer treated as exceptional. Shaw hopes for a move toward an industry that must defend a lack of diversity, rather than begrudgingly include it. Shaw begins to focus on “identification” as one tool that can help make this happen, and that game developers are already utilizing often unknowingly. Gamers who are members of marginalized demographics still play video games. Even some of Shaw’s interviewees who belong to more than one marginalized group are able to identify with the hetero-white characters they play in games, because they may have some personality trait, hobby, or interest in common. Identification happens on a gradient where the more affinity there is between player and character, the more identification occurs. There is even evidence to suggest that hetero-white male gamers are capable of this kind of identification. I put forth Jade Empire for the original Xbox as an example of a successful title that included no playable white characters, and only one non-playable white character who himself was a parody of European stereotypes, and only appears briefly. Shaw also references “market logics” that “presume that a strong woman is not a character with which male players could connect” (2013, 61). The complimentary logic then would be that female players would struggle to connect to strong male characters. Yet, many, many female gamers somehow manage . Creating characters that are more broadly identifiable, regardless of their demographic identifiers, becomes a means of normalizing diversity. Shaw contextualizes this point of identification by using an example of an exchange between Martin Luther King Jr. and Nichelle Nichols who played Uhura in the original Star Trek series (2013, 214-215). King urged Nichols not to leave the show not because she was a role model to black Americans, but specifically because she was a role model for non-blacks. Shaw argues that it is exactly the acknowledgement of identification from people who do not identify with Nichols’ single demographic identifier: “black,” that contributed to genuine diversity, even if relatively meager at the time.
Identification serves additional roles in the support of positive representation. Identifying with diverse examples of representation allows the player to imagine the world differently than their actual experience. Shaw makes a point of distinguishing between identifying with a character, and identifying as a character. With certain role playing games, and many online multiplayer games that allow the player to create a highly customizable character or avatar, identification potentially occurs a little more easily. But, as one of Shaw’s chapters points out —“He Could Be a Bunny Rabbit for All I Care”— identifying with a character is the kind of identification more likely to occur broadly. The point is that identification with characters because of certain parts of who that character is can create affinity with other elements of who they are, and therefore give a player a perspective into aspects of life they might not otherwise experience. These elements can be activity oriented, like skydiving, or jumping from a motorcycle while flying through the air onto the top of a moving train, but they can also be less experientially far-fetched. Shaw references David Leonard’s use of “high-tech blackface” (Shaw 2013, 139; Leonard 2004) which allows the player to experience the “other.” This use of the term blackface specifically recalls another relatively recent book: Playing Along, by Kiri Miller (2012), who uses the same description to describe playing Grand Theft Auto IV, whose protagonist is an African-American. Miller plays with similar themes as Shaw in determining the importance of performance within video games. Shaw’s functional description and value assessment of identification and representation pair nicely with Miller’s take on performance being a vehicle for identification, and identity work.
Miller describes in her book the ability of game players to “move in and out of immersion at will and to let their virtual and actual domains of experience inform each other” (2012, 8). The construction and curation of identity is neither an internally productive, nor an externally receptive function of being a gamer (or any other kind of person). It is through stimulation that change occurs, but how that change manifests is itself shaped by already present identity. I would argue that this is not unique to the players, and the developers experience something very similar as part of the creative process. Just as “the relationship between the player and the character/avatar is complex, contextual and malleable” (Shaw 2013, 226), so too is the relationship between the creator, character/avatar creation system and game world.
While this may be hinting at a game development utopia where white male development leads learn the power of diversity through a transformative game creation cycle, how will they make money? Too many game publishers still believe that most of people who buy games are white middle class 12-24 year olds. Shaw rightly critiques this antiquated model of the gamer. If I have one very small oversight to point out in Shaw’s work, it is that she pits the Indie developers against big name developers, without including the publishers. Publishers are generally who decide what development teams —and what concepts— get money. In development funding land, there is a fairly reliable indirectly proportionate ratio of budget for game to creative freedom. Indie developers are considerably freer to make what they want to make, while many larger developers necessarily have to meet the expectations of their patrons to retain funding. Some very large developers are also publishers, true, but this is becoming a whole other conversation about the role of the publisher business model in the game industry, which is not relevant to this book. This oversight, however, doesn’t take away from her central analysis of the rolls of representation and identification within the player experience.
Shaw’s contribution within this book is useful for any games or digital media scholar, writ large. It provides a model of discussing the meaningful relationships players can form not only within games, but also with games. It describes a clear ambivalence on the part of many gamers toward being represented, if it means not being represented accurately, or in a personal way. Gaming at the Edge describes how those who belong to marginalized groups who are not represented well or at all can still find themselves within the games they love. The complimentary point is that even those who are currently well represented could and likely already do identify with characters who are not defined by their individual demographic identifiers. She makes an optimistic case that gamers, regardless of individual demographic identifiers, do not play games simply to find exactly themselves within; they look for the opportunity to experience something else, and through diversity, they come to understand and acknowledge each other. By making this point, she is acknowledging that the themes of representation and identification are not simply tools for feminists and internet personalities to wield in their criticism of games and developers. These themes are the means to build better games in general, that also happen to favor a diverse cast of strong characters.
Dan Gardner is currently a Medicine, Science and Technologies Studies Masters student with the Anthropology Department at University of California, Irvine (UCI) where he will be continuing as a PhD student of Informatics in the fall. He is currently working on a project about the politics of avatar creation systems within online games. Dan’s research interests are primarily in the realm of digital ethnography, including virtual world and game studies, social network sites, and more specifically how these are utilized in identity curation through the lens of governance, and cultural ownership and fluency. He is interested in how scholars leverage the affordances of digital technologies in order to develop new methods of knowledge collection, creation, and narration, particularly through collaborative means. Secondary interests include transnational networks, Third Culture Individuals, intersectionality, satire, evolutionary medicine, and food narratives (and basically whatever has caught the attention of his academic ADHD most recently). Dan brings experience from his professional history of digital animation, video game retail, and Information Technology (IT) security analysis to bear in his work with digital technologies. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
Boellstorff, Tom. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton. Princeton University Press.
Leonard, David. 2004. High Tech Blackface: Race Sports, Video Games and Becoming the Other. In, Intelligent Agent vol. 4 num. 4.
Miller, Kiri. 2012. Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance. New York. Oxford University Press, 2012.
Shaw, Adrienne. 2015. Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press.
Jade Empire (2005 and 2006). Developed by Bioware. Published by Microsoft. For Xbox and PC.
Goat Simulator(2014). developed and published by Coffee Stain Studios For PC, Mac OS X, Linux, and iOS and Android.
Grand Theft Auto IV (2008). Developed by Rockstar North. Published by Rockstar Games. For Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC.
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Thank you for this review–I’ll be picking up a copy and recommending it to friends (and foes!) ASAP.
Hetero white males are the unmarked category–it is assumed that all those in “marked” categories will by default be able to identify as such a character. (Ugh.) Another reason why books like these and the work that people are doing to speak out against #GamerGate and #WeNeedDiverseBooks are all so important. Push back is necessary to change a culture that routinely perpetrates violence against those who aren’t already in privileged positions.