Imagining Alternative Worlds

Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture
By Adrienne Shaw
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2015, 317 pp., $25.00, paperback

Reviewed by Carmen Maria Machado

The video game industry is both in its prime and at a crossroads. It is a growing market filled with artistically ambitious, envelope-pushing projects in both the corporate and indie arenas, an increasing number of available gaming platforms, and an ever-expanding audience. This fact, combined with its relative newness compared to other media (younger than cinema, television, and literature), you might reason that diversity is, at the least, an active goal.

But Adrienne Shaw’s Gaming at the Edge opens with a grim anecdote that seems to condemn gaming culture as salted earth as far as diversity is concerned: Anita Sarkeensian, a feminist media critic, ran a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 to fund a project titled Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. She aimed to explore the limited roles for female characters in video games, a hardly unheard-of critique of the industry. The result was a horrifying avalanche of digital harassment, from the release of a free game in which the player could beat Sarkeensian “to a bloody pulp,” to threats of rape and murder. This reaction, “troubling yet, perhaps, expected,” says Shaw, drew public attention to the overwhelmingly white, male, heterosexual nature of the gaming world. Heavily occupied by a “militarized [masculine]” demographic, gaming culture has resulted in aggressive harassment campaigns like that against Sarkeensian and the more recent #GamerGate, in which personal information about women critics of gamer culture was posted on social media, and they were threatened with violence and driven from their homes.

In Gaming at the Edge, Shaw offers an astute critique of some of the common wisdom about video games, their players, and representation. Through a series of ethnographic interviews with gamers across the diversity spectrum, Shaw arrives at some of the same conclusions as other scholars about the importance of presenting diverse images in games, but she rejects oft-cited reasons why. People assume video games are different from other types of media, Shaw says, and this is often tied to the issue of representation; however these assumptions—of gaming’s uniqueness and why representation in it matters—are false. Scholars have made the mistake of looking at video games as discrete texts to be analyzed in a vacuum and at identity as immutable. But both identity and games are changeable and context dependent. She writes,

Part of what scholars (and game makers) must be more willing to embrace is that the text alone does not define how the player interacts or connects with the characters or avatars. Subjective reasons for play and personal preferences drive the very personal experiences of identifications much more than the textual elements can.
In other words, if your goal is to figure out how marginalized players relate to game characters (pre-set persons with names, physical characteristics, and plotlines out of control of the player) or avatars (customizable stand-ins for the player, which players can design to look like themselves), simply tallying up numbers of images is inadequate.

 

The responsibility for creating diverse images has been foisted upon the marginalized players themselves, for example, in the case of games in which players choose their own avatars and storylines. Shaw calls for “a rejection of that burden,” writing that “[t]he industry, as well as scholars, must treat diversity as a goal in its own right, rather than an exception to the rule or the sole domain of those who are marginalized.” She is deeply critical of what she calls “market logic”: the mantra that if consumers want more diversity in games, they’ll “vote” for it with their dollars. This is both difficult, as diversity is by definition fragmented, and short-sighted: why is diversity the responsibility of marginalized groups and no one else?

Shaw examines the history of representation in certain games, from the infamously offensive Custer’s Revenge, in which the prize for dodging arrows is being able to rape a Native American woman, to the Mario franchise, whose Italian-American plumber protagonist is almost entirely the result of design limitation and happenstance. She tracks sexual and gender identity through the three iterations of the Fablegames, the ever-changing state of Lara Croft and her infamous chest, and the problematic racial content of Resident Evil 5 and a handful of other games. But the book is not meant to be an assessment of bad (or good) representation in video games. Rather, Shaw uses these games to illustrate her points regarding problems with representation.

When games include racially and ethnically diverse characters, she says, they are “selective even when … not necessarily distortive.” As an example, she discusses Madden NFL, a football game. While the game’s adherence to reality cannot be argued—after all, its characters are actual players from the National Football League, which is heavily African American—only games about sports, or urban violence and war, include a significant number of characters of color (and those are almost always men). “Being represented can pose problems as well,” Shaw points out. “Invisibility is usually replaced by a ‘a kind of carefully regulated, segregated visibility.’ Who gets to ‘count’ as a member of a particular group is limited, even as popular representation is made more diverse.” This is true, too, of queer characters, among others: when they do appear, they’re often male, white, and upperclass.

Shaw draws a careful distinction between identifying as and identifying with. Most of her interview subjects did not identify as their avatars, even when the avatars superficially resembled them. They did identify with certain characters—but their identification went beyond simple demographic matching. Furthermore, whereas much gaming scholarship has focused on the idea that games with customizable avatars do more for diversity than set, diverse characters, Shaw believes the opposite. She points out that the customizable games make diversity optional: players who do not choose characters or avatars who are of color, queer (which in gameplay usually manifests simply as having same-sex relationships), female, etc., will rarely encounter them. In contrast, games with set characters could manifest diversity no matter who is playing. However, in reality, these kinds of games, Shaw says, have “less diversity and thus are rich sites for interrogation and intervention.”

One of the most fascinating subtopics of Gaming on the Edge—which is potentially an entire line of inquiry and academic study in its own right—is the way that reality (the idea that the game reflects “how things are/were”) and fantasy (the idea that the game is “just a game”) are wielded as weapons against marginalized players. One the one hand, Shaw cites the example of Fable II, a fantasy role-playing game in which a player can use a magical potion to permanently change gender. However, if he or she does this, the other players inevitably ask about it: “Didn’t you used to be a man?” Shaw dryly notes,

Although transphobia is an everyday reality for many in real life, I doubt that the game designers were trying to highlight and critique its pervasiveness. Given that this is a fantasy game, one of the few places where gender transition might not be bound to “real-life” violence, why is it not celebrated? In other words, whose fantasy are we working with, here?
(Similarly, people who criticize the misogynistic, sexualized violence in the Game of Thrones television series are told that violence against women was a reality “back then”—as though the show were history instead of a fantasy complete with magic, dragons, and the walking dead.)

 

On the other hand, the character design in the hockey game NHL 2K5 is exasperatingly specific—players even choose the width of characters’ muscles—yet it does not permit women or dark-skinned characters, even though “both women and racial minorities have historically been players in the National Hockey League,” writes Shaw. In Fable II, transphobia intrudes even in a fantasy world, where the rules of reality could easily be thrown out; while in NHL 2K5, reality is no match for the notion that it’s “just a game.” “The trouble is,” writes Shaw,

that even in representing worlds that might be, games and much of mainstream media represent very homogenous worlds. Players/audiences are not always given or forced into a space that allows them to escape into, aspire to, or imagine worlds where marginalized groups are not defined by their marginalization.

 

Shaw concludes that previous scholarship has failed to interrogate the market logic that assumes marginalized people “want to see people ‘like them’ in the media they consume,” and that consumers can use their purchasing power to influence media images. This logic has resulted in a plethora of niche games, including the singularly awful girl games of the 1990s, which were usually pink and involved Barbie, fashion, shopping, and other deeply gendered gimmicks. Shaw points out that “those targeted as a ‘different kind’ of player often see themselves as excluded from both the primary game market and the targeted niche market.” Mainstream players are never confronted with new, different images, and marginalized players are forced into painfully narrow understandings of their demographic and presented with inferior, niche games supposedly designed for them. There’s a difference, Shaw says, between pluralism and true diversity: “[W]hile pluralism further differentiates between norm and other, diversity promotes difference without fetishizing it.”

Shaw’s research does not support the theory that gamers are searching for characters “like them.” Rather, the “understanding of representation as broadly important, without assuming it defines consumption practices, is much more in line with the complex relationship interviewees had with identities, texts, and how they understood representation to matter.” Marginalized people don’t necessarily need to see themselves on the screen, although it may be “nice when it happens”; they want “others to see diverse experiences and identities on-screen.” Representation is important, Shaw says, because “it provides evidence of what could be and who can be possible.”

One of the most satisfying elements of Shaw’s argument is that although she rejects the notion that marginalized people want games to include images “like them,” she then shows why diversity can and should be encouraged anyway. “If marginalized players learned to enjoy games that did not represent them, it is likely heterosexual, white, cisgendered men could, too,” she points out. Experiences such as Gamergate warn that this process may be painful for some of those in the majority—and their resistance could result in harassment as ugly as any we’ve yet seen—but Shaw argues that the change would ultimately be beneficial. “It is not game play that stands to benefit from, or even be dramatically transformed by, more diverse representations but rather culture more broadly.” Considering the youth of the medium and the current state of its diversity disrepair, this is an ambitious goal—but if Shaw is correct, it’s an achievable one.

Carmen Maria Machado is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist, whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, Granta, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications. She lives in Philadelphia with her partner.

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