The difference between what you say and what you do

Currently, the gaming space is obsessed with a new title: Grand Theft Auto V. As is the case with most “AAA” titles, the game has become the sole topic of conversation among both gamers and game critics. As can be expected, as soon as the reviews started to flood out, the conversations started about quality, gameplay, story, misogyny, review scores, and… well, every other bit of detritus that is often stirred up by these sorts of things.

My critical eye, however, was focused on something else: dissonance.

Often within “critical” gaming circles (either academic or otherwise) we often talk about this thing called ludonarrative dissonance. Ludonarrative dissonance is a term that generally symbolizes the common conflict within video games wherein the gameplay does not align with the story. This is a concept that any gamer who has played a major title in the last, well, forever, is familiar with.

Ludonarrative dissonance is important because for “contemporary” games, it’s seen as both a problem and a tool — and really, to understand why it still exists in contemporary gaming, you have to understand both dynamic sides of the issue.

For some, the dissonance presented within is unseen. I’d wager this is the popular position. Gamers are assumed to either a). not care, or b). not notice the dissonance present in, say, any of the Modern Warfare titles. It just is. It’s just video games. A limitation of the genre.

On the other side of the argument, it’s a problem — one that can either be used, tackled, or otherwise shifted. Both Bioshock: Infinite and Spec Ops: The Line arguably use the “dissonance” to say something — using the “limitation” of a medium to speak certain messages to the player.

Then, of course, there are the titles that attempt to tackle and eradicate the problem all together: take Gone Home, for example, or just about any adventure game — games that believe dissonance is just that: noise and chatter, something that needs to be eradicated or used in a precise way.

The latter two ways of looking at ludonarrative dissonance appear to be optimistic to me — they look at the medium as something that can grow, as something that can be art at the present moment. The former, however, is cynical: it sees gaming as nothing more than Tetris. The blocks fall, the soundtrack plays, and that’s all there is.

Interestingly enough, the above debate is mirrored in the critical space.

While thumbing through reviews of GTA V, I couldn’t help but notice that many of the reviews were saying the same things (I certainly wasn’t the only person to notice this). Let’s be clear: this isn’t something that’s new. It’s basically the same deal with every “AAA” title that comes out.

But what specifically struck me about all of these GTA V reviews was that they kept mentioning the game’s story in a negative light — its fractured characters, its misogyny, its inability to weave its narrative — and yet the score at the bottom wasn’t reflecting this. In the case of Chris Plante’s review, almost a sixth of his piece focused on storytelling flaws, yet he still managed to give the title an almost perfect score. The same was repeated over at Gamespot, where Carolyn Petite spent some time criticizing the game’s storytelling flaws — right before giving the game a 9/10 (and — even more problematic — she was horrifically harassed for giving the game anything but a perfect score).

So what gives? What is being reviewed here?

The obvious, knee-jerk answer is that gameplay trumps everything — that nothing else matters if the game is “fun.” (A note: what the hell is considered fun? What is being said by a reviewer that thinks a game is “fun” despite questionable content?)

But really, that answer is a cop-out. It’s a shitty response to a complicated question. Video games — especially video games like GTA V, that want to be taken “seriously” (yes, as art) — are not just “gameplay.” They are more than systems designed for the production of fun.

I’m not speaking from just an academic, ivory-tower position here — this method of looking at games like a fractured system of parts is tired and worthless. It ignores a great many of us who play games as more than just fun simulators. It ignores a great many of us who, hey, enjoy video games as a cohesive, unique form of entertainment, and not just something we plug into when we’re bored.

But more than that (and I’m climbing back in the ivory tower), such a method is critically destructive, and not in the Derridean way, either.

By honestly (truly) picking up GTA V and scoring it based on only the things we like, or that only we pay attention to (while pretending to be critics, and not New Critics — and making the “I” clear), we are preventing the genre from evolving. We are accepting its limitations. We are also just being disingenuous as critics — we aren’t being true to the medium we are working in.

BUT — that isn’t what’s happening, right? Clearly, at least in the case of Plante and Petite, they are fully reviewing these games, right? They are mentioning these things!

The problem is that there’s dissonance. The score and the words don’t line up.

In the intellectual bits of the game reviewing field, the score isn’t supposed to matter, right? It’s supposed to just… just…

What? What are we supposed to do with it?

Just as is the case with ludonarrative dissonance, we can’t ignore the gameplay or the narrative when looking at the full picture. In a video game, both parts must be present. Likewise, in a game review (or a review of anything, for that matter), the score and the words matter. Yes — in a perfect wonderland there would be no scores and no MetaCritic, or whatever — but that isn’t the world we live in. We have scores. They are here. The people reading those reviews are going to look at the score. A great many of them will look at just the score.

So we can’t ignore it. It’s there. It’s saying something.

That is, of course, if you aren’t cynical.

Yo friends, check your proverbial six (because you’re doing bad things)

Feminism is not a switch, nor is it a binary. You do not get to turn it off. You do not get to decide intersectionality is too cool for you.

Feminism is not a switch, nor is it a binary. You do not get to turn it off. You do not get to decide intersectionality is too cool for you.

It’s fair to say that my musical tastes don’t align with MTV. While I don’t mind pop, I also don’t seek it out, so the VMAs aren’t exactly a “thing” with me. I don’t watch them and I don’t care about them.

But considering the overwhelming clusterfuck that was my Twitter and Facebook feed last night — well — I feel like I might as well have watched them.

You see, apparently Miley Cyrus did some things. By “some things” I mean perform on stage, the way many other performers have. Except, of course, there was some sexuality thrown in.

The result is an endless tirade of bullshit being flung at Cyrus. She’s a slut. A whore. A good ol’ jezebel. Oh, and she’s ugly. And fat. And her butt is gross. As is the rest of her body.

There are problems with this. Let me list them.

1.

Other lady performers (Gaga, for example), can literally parade around nude (and semi-nude at award shows) and not an eyebrow is raised. But Miley — that’s different. Miley is supposed to be the virginal pop starlet, she’s supposed to be the good down home gal, playing country guitar and singing folksy songs about… shit, I don’t know, cows or something. But when she breaks this narrative — when she dares, as a 20-year-old woman, to show her sexuality (in a flamboyant way, no less!) she is decimated.

This young adult performer is, apparently, not supposed to be like that. She’s supposed to be a role model for young girls — and lord knows that the only thing they should learn about sexuality is that it’s for men and bad and no no no no no~

2.

What the fuck, feminist friends?

I’m going to be honest — I don’t really care about Cyrus at all. I don’t. I can’t. I did not care at all about any of this until I saw some of the responses my (otherwise) feminist friends were making — everything from “that shouldn’t be on TV!” to critiques of her body.

Why.

Why. Why. Why.

Instead of going after the potential cultural appropriation issues, instead of going after the system that might make Cyrus feel like she has to sexualize her act to make money, instead of talking about Robin Thicke, instead of talking about the dwindling musical relevance of MTV… we get this?

How does that logic work?

“Objectification is bad! But totes not if we don’t like the woman in question!”

Which brings me to…

3.

The sound of the entire ocean cascading over the heads of everyone both patting Justin Timberlake on the head while simultaneously tearing into Cyrus.

Yes, yes. NSYNC is back.

On one hand, you criticize a lady who — by her own agency — decided to do something sexual in a performance on an adult show on an adult network.

On the other, you forget that the group (of men) you are cheering literally made their names on sex. What, did you think NSYNC was totally about… like, what? JT sells what, exactly?

Did you think Giddy Up was about horses? Did you think Let’s Take a Ride was about a wonderful drive through the enchanted forest?

Did you think FutureSex was talking about, shit, god, can you see the problem — do I have to continue? Can we remember — during a certain Super Bowl appearance — who helped a nip to slip? Man, who did that controversy fall on? I bet it totally was evenl–

OH WAIT

4.

Finally, let’s just step aside for a moment and acknowledge that yes, there is potentially a problem if women feel that they are forced to sexualize themselves in order to “make it.” That is serious shit. That’s something to write about.

But, here’s the thing — when you are writing about it, when you are talking about it in a serious way — you don’t target the woman who is the victim of the complex. You target THE COMPLEX.

And if you handwave all of this away under the guise of “it’s just good fun! cultural touchstones!” then realize you are basically the guy in the back of the room saying “it’s just a joke!” or “it’s just a MEDIATYPEHERE!”

Likewise, if you critique Cyrus by calling her a whore/slut/pr0n*/whathaveyou, you are basically saying “hey, sexuality is bad unless it is on our terms*.” Also, slutshaming. That’s a thing.

Basically you’re part of the problem, stop it.

Or, for a more philosophical angle — take a lesson from Foucault. If everyone around you is screaming the same things, maybe you should consider why they are screaming those things, and understand the social methodology that makes you feel obligated to do the same.

* — Whatever conservative, straight, white cis-gendered male middle-America is comfortable with.

That OCD poetry thing? It kind of freaks me out.

Just a minor trigger warning here for frank discussion of mental illness and relationships.

You know that video that has been going around, the one with the slam poet with OCD discussing an old relationship? Well, it kind of freaks me out.

This is sort of sketchy ground, so let me preface this post by saying this:

I have OCD.

Now, when I say “I have OCD,” I do not mean “I like to organize things!” I mean I have OCD. I mean that I have a series of compulsions that require me to do certain things in certain ways. Whenever I interact with the outside world in any meaningful way, I have to wash my hands. I wash them once, usually.

If that doesn’t sound like OCD, then you need to know that if my anxiety is acting up I’ll wash them three or four times, and that I’ll count to thirty in my head as I’m washing. If I don’t get to thirty, or if I count too fast, or if I just don’t like the way the numbers sound, I have to start over. Back when I was in high school it wouldn’t be strange for me to wash my hands for five or six minutes.

During the winter — when my anxiety typically peaks — my hands will be constantly red, dry, and irritated. Even during the summer and spring my hands look a shade different from the rest of my body.

I have to be careful about daily occurrences repeating. If I get into a habit, I’ll never get out of it. When I take a shower the sides of the curtain have to be snug against the wall. I have to wash my body in a certain order. Breaking the order causes my throat to flutter. My anxiety rises. I’ve had a panic attack because of this in the past.

We have an automatic garbage can thing. You wave your hand and the lid opens. At night, I have to either watch it close or be out of the room when it closes. I feel a sense of incredible dread if I break this pattern.

I have obtrusive thoughts when I drive. I visibly see myself crashing. I see others crashing into me. My heart sometimes races. I’ve never taken a long drive without my reflux acting up because of this. I sometimes get terrible images in my head that I can’t get out — of anything awful happening to me or my family.

So I get it. I’ve been there. I know what this guy is talking about.

But… it creeps me out, man. It creeps me out because of the way he talks about his ex — like she’s a possession, like she can’t make up her own mind, like she can’t decide what is best for herself.

And — this is what really freaks me out — there’s an implication that she has an obligation to stay in the relationship because of his mental illness.

That’s just not cool.

Ideally, we should live in a world where mental illness is understood — that you can say you have OCD without someone chiming in about “me too!” — we should live in a world in which you can get genuine sympathy and compassion from people when you say you have a mental illness, regardless of what it is. None of us, after all, deserves to be exiled for things we have no control over.

But, in that same breath, when you combine illness with a relationship, things get complicated.

Mental illness is challenging. It isn’t one dimensional.

Mental illness (or illness in general) can turn into an abuser’s tool. Many people who are very close to me have been abused by proxy of illness. There is a special sort of helplessness one feels when someone else’s life is hung within your hands — when it is constantly teased between your fingertips, every little twang of the string can cause panic.

Sometimes the person suffering from mental illness will threaten self-harm if their partner does not comply with their wishes. This is dark stuff. It is not a good place to be.

Often, this is how abusive relationships spawn. The one with the illness throws the other for a guilt trip, making the other feel as they are trapped — that if they leave, they will be potentially harming their partner. This creates a terrible dependency, and it often leads to physical abuse, not to mention profound emotional abuse.

And honestly, I can’t look at that poem without seeing that — without feeling like the poet is calling out their old partner. That he is trying to stick that guilt in their hands.

As someone with a partner whose c-PTSD was caused by similar circumstances, I can’t help but see the language as potentially abusive. Really, seeing people fawn over this video on Facebook kinda worries me.

Barriers to Entry: Socioeconomic Class and Gaming

During the Noel Brown controversy last week, Patrick Miller wrote a long, interesting response/open letter to Kotaku, gaming journalists, and his own community. The letter has been getting dissected by just about everyone, but one particular item seems to be getting ignored — one that has been on my mind since I read the article.

Simply put: socioeconomic class in gaming.

To back up the discussion a bit to start, there seems to be an idealistic notion of “gaming culture” that exists throughout the gaming world. Gaming is seen, more or less, as the ultimate meritocracy. That “quality” is something that has been the standard for arguing any issue of privilege within any gaming interest. I’m sure you’ve heard the response before:

“But that’s why gaming is great! Everyone gets treated that way! People just judge you based on how good you are at the game!”

While we could rip that argument apart all day — for various reasons — I’m going to key in on the largest assumption: that video games really are open to everyone.

WE ARE ALL EQUALS HERE
AND WE FIGHT FOR DOMINION TONIGHT
WE DON’T ASK COLOR, RACE OR CREED,
DEDICATED, FREE-FOR-ALL

Machinae Supremacy, Republic of Gamers

The Assumption

Everyone can game. Everyone. Anyone with a controller is a gamer.

Of course, there’s already a problem — to be a gamer, one must have access.

Access is assumed to be infinite — to the world of gamers, access is assumed. From this perspective the only thing you need to be a gamer is the desire to be one. You know, anything you put your mind to and shit like that.

There’s a problem there:

Street Fighter and Street Fighter II became a worldwide sensation in the early ’90s in large part because these games offered the thrill of direct, one-on-one adversarial competition for a mere 25 cents. Over the years, this attracted quite a number of people who loved the excitement and stimulation of competing against friends and strangers in arcades. Since arcades mostly flourished in urban centers, and the barrier to entry was limited only by how many quarters you needed to save for laundry, the people who stuck around in the fighting game community typically tended to be young men of color. This stood in stark contrast to competitive PC games communities built around games like Quake, Counter-Strike and Starcraft; you invariably needed a $1200+ computer and a home Internet connection to to play those games.

Miller’s point is succinct — and likely obvious to some and completely invisible to others: games require money.

Yes, to be a “gamer,” one has to be able to game. You need access.

Class (and all the intersections of race, nationality, etc.) are going to impact this. How does someone who can’t even put food on the table afford an expensive gaming PC? How does someone struggling to get by afford a console plus a broadband connection — not to mention each game they must purchase?

For the privileged — those of us who have the means to purchase games at will — this is an invisible struggle. Yet, despite that, it’s one we entirely ignore. Realistically, there’s a fairly high barrier to entry when it comes to video games.

This isn’t a hobby like, say, soccer, basketball, skateboarding, or even reading (or writing). All of those things require a small “fee” to enter. If you live near a field — or even an open lot — you can potentially join the world of people who enjoy soccer. But if you want to become a gamer? You must have somewhat deep pockets, and if you don’t, then you don’t want to be a gamer.

The lyrics above from Machinae Supremacy seem to signal that video games don’t choose favorites based on race or creed, yet isn’t the financial barrier to entry a pretty damning counter to the video game meritocracy myth?

The Development of a Landscape

I don’t think I need to dip into a bag of statistics or papers to note how poverty impacts certain races more than others.

Likewise, I don’t think I need to dip into the same bag to find statistics on which groups play video games. Jump into a lobby anywhere and you’re likely to find a group of mostly white (and male) individuals. Likely, they’ll also be middle class.

This “open” landscape — the one that is welcoming to all — ends up being quite exclusive. The class dynamics presented within a group structure a community that further builds itself up.

While this has problems on the bottom floor — in individual gaming communities — it also has implications “higher” up. When we look at the critical landscape of those in the gaming world, we tend to see a pattern: the audience dictates the creators and the critics.

As is the case with most in-depth hobbies, the creators and critics tend to be individuals who grew up in the community. Therefore, there isn’t a whole lot of outside exposure. Developers who have moved from being players to creators likely have never experienced their “blind spot.” Likewise, critics (in both academia and otherwise — journalists included) who grew up in the same communities likely are ignorant to the inherent class issues surrounding gaming.

When Jason Schreier posted about Noel Brown, I don’t think he was being malicious. I simply think he was completely ignorant — how could he be expected to understand something he has (I assume) never been exposed to?

That isn’t an indictment, either. Class isn’t something we think about in gaming. We just assume (constantly) that everyone has the means to jump on in, but that clearly isn’t the case.

The Journalism Lock

It doesn’t just end there, though. The depth of class strikes even deeper in the development of the journalistic landscape.

When I decided to write about games a few years ago, I got immensely lucky — almost immediately after I started I was picked up by a site that was willing to pay me. And hey! The pay was good! Great!

Most gaming journos, however, are not so lucky.

While I could rant on (and on) about the nature of unpaid “internships” (especially in the gaming world), I don’t even really have to — even many “paid” positions in the world of gaming are, quite frankly, shit.

So say, for example, you’re a poor individual trying to write about games.

How do you do it?

If you want to make waves, you’ve got to be commenting on the latest games. Unless you work for an established site (which — more likely than not — you won’t, not in the beginning), you’re paying for those.

If you want to be relevant, you’ve got to attend the biggest events. E3. PAX Prime/East. GDC.

Do you have any idea of how expensive these things are? Do you really think you are going to get in for free? Do you think your place of employment is going to foot the bill?

The answer, more likely than not, is no.

If it isn’t obvious already, this is not a cheap hobby, and this is not a cheap profession to jump in on. How does the person who just barely made it to E3 feel about numbers like $399 and $499?

Of course, if you’re from a place of privilege, then all of this is invisible for you. Perhaps you’ll feel the burn in your wallet, but you will live with it. You’ll get by.

But if not?

Chipping Away at the Barrier

Realistically, I’m not quite sure there is a way to “solve” this problem. There’s no way to remove the barrier to entry. Consoles like the Ouya are a good step — as are things like bringing video games to libraries. But even then, there’s barriers to both of those things, too.

So we can’t. At least not now. At least not all at once.

What we can do, though, is stop acting like the barrier doesn’t exist. We need to ditch the meritocracy idea in regards to gaming. It isn’t there. It’s a facade.

Instead, we need to realize that — yes — socioeconomic factors impact our hobby, and they greatly impact the landscape. From the ground floor to the highest levels of “community,” the  ripples can be felt.

While gaming should be an inclusive hobby, it simply isn’t. While we should be striving to make it as open as we can, we can’t act like the optimistic, naive ideal is the reality. Doing so only increases the size of the blind spot that already hangs over gaming.

You know, something has really been bothering me

You know, something has really been bothering me these past few days. You see, unlike most individuals who spend a lot of time on the internet, I still have this little problem — I read the comments.

Never do that. It’s a bad idea.

But anyway, upon reading a lot of the comments regarding the DOMA/Prop 8 ruling, I’ve noticed a trend: individuals who post something along the lines of, “Hey! All these people are calling me a bigot because I don’t like gay marriage! I just don’t want gays to marry, okay? I don’t hate them! I’m not a bigot! Damn liberals!”

The cognitive dissonance is astounding — but it’s a trend, isn’t it?

Over the past few years I’ve noticed that a lot of conservatives have joined this mental movement in which they disconnect their beliefs from the consequences associated with them. Apparently it’s become something of a meme within conservative types — any time they are criticized with an accusation of bigotry, they hide behind a defensive wall of “no I’m not! That doesn’t exist!”

Perhaps more accurately, the belief seems to be that unless you express vehement rage toward a group, you are not a bigot.

Take Paula Deen, for example. I’ve had to endure a handful of individuals on Facebook defending her under the ideas that:

  • a). It happened years ago! (ignoring her current defense of her language) and
  • b). It’s “folksy” racism!

The thing is, if we can’t agree that a woman who admits to using slurs (and who believes it is acceptable to reconstruct an image of “Civil War society”) is at least somewhat racist, then we’re probably going to have a problem.

But I digress.

When it comes to homophobia (or general bigotry) it seems that people want to wash their hands of any wrongdoing — they want to believe they are a good person, and they know (even if they don’t accept it) that the “modern” narrative of a “good person” is one that is accepting — one that isn’t associated with bigotry.

At the same time these individuals can’t accept that they hold bigoted beliefs.

The thing is… if holding a bigoted belief doesn’t make you a bigot, then what does? What incredible stretch do we have to make to label and consider individuals bigots? Do we have to stretch to hate crimes? Is the binary that wide?

The discussion sort of loosely reminds me of the frequent arguments over “free speech” that appear all over the internet. Typically someone says something awful (usually a comedian, or some sort of celebrity), directing a slur toward some minority. The typical crowd yells at them, and then the *other* typical crowd pops up to defend them: it’s free speech! This is America! We can do what we want! DO YOU WANT TO CENSURE US?

Much as the above situation, the problem seems to be a disconnect — while most people don’t argue for censorship, they do argue for moderation — self censorship, if you will. The idea being, of course, that words have some sort of innate power (they do something) and that they have consequences.

What does this have to do with the above bigotry thing?

Well, consequences — people want to believe that they can disconnect themselves from society, that they can say and believe whatever they’d like (they can!). The problem is that these choices have consequences. You can’t run from them. We aren’t discussing opinions on your favorite soda, after all.

Holding a belief that is bigoted reinforced bigotry.

Of course, the immediate defense here is “well, I don’t want to be gay married!”

Which is absurd.

For one, it’s an opinion that isn’t asked for (as if there’s a gay mafia going around forcing gay marriage on people?), and it’s one that seems to sprout directly from a fear of gay marriage (which, uh, homophobia). It’s the idea that one feels like they have to speak up about something else it will destroy them.

Worse yet, it’s an opinion that is inherently problematic. After all, think about how problematic it would be to say “I don’t like interracial marriage.” What does that convey? Doesn’t that send a message?

It says a little more than “I’d prefer not to have one.” It says “I think something is inherently wrong with the concept.” It reveals an underlying prejudice, even if the speaker is unwilling to come out and say it.

But even then — I’m giving this opinion the benefit of the doubt, aren’t I? They aren’t saying “I don’t want one,” they are saying “this is wrong to me.”

And hell, that doesn’t need any discussion, does it? It’s just bigoted. It is a belief that holds a group of people to be lesser than another.

You can’t escape that. Going back to free speech, if you say something wrong — if you say a racist slur — you’re going to be labeled. You’re going to have sponsors drop you. You’re going to fade into obscurity.

If you say something, you’re going to have to accept the consequences. If the thing you’re saying is bigoted, then you are a bigot.

Hey, remember that time racism was dead?

Remember? Racism is totally dead. We live in a post-race society, where minorities are treated fairly all the time.

Apparently, this is what the Supreme Court thinks.

States’ rights? States’ rights. Of course, of course. Here we are again.

And so now it begins: states may authorize their own voter ID programs, designed to combat fraud that doesn’t exist — fraud that literally is the equivalent of those racist chain mails you used to get from your uncle in the 90s.

There’s just so much wrong here that I’m struggling — I honestly don’t know where to start. Where can you even begin with all of this? Do you start in the beginning?

It’s amazing how these things work. Right before the last election there was a massive wave of “worry” about voter fraud — a fear that, yes, somehow the system was being gamed by Democrats and their ilk. It was a top priority. I remember seeing it trending as a headline on all the major news networks, Republican legislators presenting a false dilemma to both their constituents and the media: either you are for protecting our country from corruption, or you aren’t. That was the problem presented.

And of course, when the very concept of voter fraud was challenged, they continued to push forward. Typical rhetoric appeared.

Now, it’s important to remember — this specific hive of right-wing, ahem, number junkies — was the same that predicted anything from a “close” race to a “dominate Romney victory” in 2012. You know, despite all statistics saying otherwise. Nate says hello!

But I digress. The point here is that voter fraud was bunk — a non-issue in a desperate attempt to swing the conversation back around, to steal momentum.

Obviously, it didn’t work.

What it did do, though, was set up a court case that made its way to the Supreme Court. And hey! Guess what! Apparently race has changed and all of that, so now it’s up to our inept, useless Congress to try and work something out.

Yes: that one. Really.

What this inevitably means is that either:

  • a). Congress won’t do anything, which will mean states have a free ride to do whatever they feel like for an election, or
  • b). Congress will do something, and that something will be a watered down version of “Civil Rights” and “voter protection”

Wonderful.

World of Warcraft is inherently queer

A note: the following article is a reduction of a reduction — it’s an article based on a conference paper based on a 30 page research paper. It took me 9,000 words to explain this concept to someone well-versed in the subject matter. I, um, have no idea how I’m going to do that in less than 2,000. My apologies if it is hard to read!

Sexuality, sex, and gender: all three of these subjects are infinitely complex. The reaches of each stretch way past their own borders, both in a literal sense and in a not-so-literal one. In contemporary society, we’re sort of cultured to believe a handful of things about them, but we also live in a time in which those boundaries are changing — if not being destroyed entirely. And really, that isn’t a bad thing. The ways in which they interact (and the ways in which they don’t) are expanding — and let’s not forget, the inherent binary nature I’m trying to prod them with here is essentially passé (once again — a good thing).

But that’s in our world. Our present. The real.

What about the virtual?

Earlier this year while playing World of Warcraft I had a bit of a revelation. Those same three things — sexuality, sex, and gender — existed in this virtual space. Likewise, they were frequently bound by the same social constructs. And yet… they weren’t. There were different rules. There were different limitations of what sex was, of what gender was, of what orientation was.

In this virtual space the biological is shattered and replaced by algorithms and pixels. The boundaries of gender are expanded, eviscerated, and recreated into something entirely new: a social construct (contract?) built entirely within the World of Warcraft.

The boundaries within World of Warcraft sometimes align with those in contemporary society, but for the most part they reach far beyond what is “acceptable” — or even possible — in the “real” world. What is other in the real is entirely normal in the virtual.

In terms of sexuality, in a “contemporary” space (for various reasons) we have certain expectations about sexuality, sex, and gender. We are cultured to expect that male bodies will perform male roles, and that they’ll align with their “proper” sexual role (that is, straight). Even further, we have expectations of what a male body looks like. The performance of “male” signifies both an aesthetic role and a psychological one. The same formula applies to female bodies.

When someone sits outside of this, they become the other. Even if the transgression is minimal, it is still seen as an aberration.

Even though (once again, in “contemporary society”) this is changing, bodies still tend to be defined by binary roles. You are straight or gay, you are male or female, you are feminine or masculine, you are or you aren’t.

Rigid categories — not fluid ones — are the current staples of culture. Society wants individuals that fit into its categories. To be different is to be anathema.

The virtual space, however, is not bound by the same rules. World of Warcraft does not impose such strict boundaries on its users, nor do the users impose those boundaries on themselves (that isn’t to say that they don’t exist entirely, though — they are just stretched — they are more liquid).

Of course, there’s sort of a missing step here. What is gender in World of Warcraft? What about sex?

So here’s something radical: those things don’t exist.

Well — okay — they do exist, actually, but they don’t exist in the same way as they do in the real world. Instead, they are spread out over three unique categories (spaces), each having its own identifying qualities.

These individually space all have their own markers — some for gender, some for sex, some both both. Each is its own complex entity, existing both within the influence of the others, and outside the influence of others. They can exist on their own (that is, without the presence of the other two), or they can coexist in a constant state of flux with the other spaces. Importantly, all of the spaces are also defined by the player. It is their filter that creates the image that others see.

A little confusing?

Maybe explaining the spaces will help!

First, there’s the roleplaying space. The roleplaying space is that of the player’s role: their class, their profession — not to mention the entire realm of “creative” roleplaying. The roleplaying space is, quite plainly, the role of the player.

Judith Butler would likely see the roleplaying space as the ultimate zone of gender performance.

But wait! Doesn’t that require these roles to be masculine and feminine? Wouldn’t that require a binary to be here?

Yup! And there is! Sort of.

A few years back researchers decided to study demographics and stereotypes within World of Warcraft. What they found was interesting: players clearly had defined social gender roles for players. Roles that involved healing or ranged damage were feminine, those that involved melee damage and tanking were masculine.

By picking a role (say, a tanking warrior or paladin) in World of Warcraft, you’re essentially taking on a gender performance in the most direct way.

Next up, there’s the avatar space.

The avatar space is the aesthetic, the visual. What can the player self-define that other players can see? Race, character gender, armor, and any other facets of appearance fall into the avatar space.

As these items are all visual (in one way or another), and as World of Warcraft is still an entity within “real” space, typical social rules apply. This means that avatars that look like male bodies will still invoke expectations of male roles within World of Warcraft.

This is where someone inevitably points out that there is no gradient in gender within World of Warcraft. Bodies are either male or female. They are binary. How can I have such a contentious title while ignoring such a blatant fact?

Simple: because aesthetics do not equal gender.

Wait, what, but you said–

Nope.

To quote the same study I mentioned before:

In our sample of 1,084 participants, we had 281 women and 801 men. On average, they had 2.79 (SD = 1.51) characters. Among men, 53.3% had a character of the opposite gender. On average for men, 33.4% of their characters were of the opposite gender. Among women, 18.5% had at least one character of the opposite gender.

As every player of World of Warcraft knows, just because someone has a male avatar, that does not mean they identify as a male in “real life.” That’s precisely why this is called the avatar space: because your aesthetic appearance in the virtual is just an avatar of you. It is mean to best represent what you wish to be represented. It is not meant to be an identical copy… unless you wish it to be so.

This isn’t to say that the (binary) gender you pick within the virtual does not matter. While seasoned gamers will argue that there is no meaning at play here, it’s important to recognize that within an MMORPG you are not just picking something you like to look at: you are picking your avatar, your representation in a virtual space. You are not a disconnected entity in a cold digital world. You are part of it.

Finally, there’s the conversational space.

The conversational space is perhaps the easiest to define: any form of communication within World of Warcraft falls into the conversational space. Text and voice communication fit in here, naturally — but so do a few others.

Conversations simply require information transmitted between two players. Thus, other forms of “communication” count as well. If you see another player in World of Warcraft and they have a specific title over their head, that counts as communication. Likewise, even digital “body language” counts: “emotes,” after all, convey emotion.

So then, now that we have all the spaces… what do we do with them?

First, two quotes on queer theory, the first from Eve Kosofsky, the second from Kath Browne:

The question of gender and the question of sexuality, inextricable from one another though they are in that each can be expressed only in the terms of the other, are nonetheless not the same question, that in twentieth-century Western culture gender and sexuality represent two analytic axes that may productively be imagined as being as distinct from one another as, say, gender and class, or class and race.

And Browne:

Queer has been used as shorthand for an increasing list of sexual and gender diversity, but as authors beyond geographies have noted, this limits the possibilities of queer. I (and others) locate ‘queer’ in the radical requirement to question normativities and orthodoxies, in part now by rendering categories of sexualities, genders and spaces fluid.

Kosofsky’s quote shows one of the founding ideas of queer theory: the splitting of gender/sexuality. To “queer” in this sense is to split the idea that one needs the other. Do they interact? Yes! But they don’t require each other for identification.

Browne’s quote also sets the foundation for queer theory. To “queer” something isn’t just to discuss gender or sexuality, it’s to question the idea of normativities — it’s to try to make a space fluid.

To combine both of these ideas, any space that both:

  • a). splits prior identifying qualities that once stood together, and
  • b). is liquid

…can then be seen as a queer space.

By analyzing the above spaces, we can see World of Warcraft is doing both.

While it is possible to assign gender to each individual space (a male body is seen as male, a male voice is seen as male, and a masculine role is seen as male), the filter of a virtual world complicates things.

A practical example:

A player with a male character plays a healer (a feminine role) while communicating in a feminine voice.

The above row throws off identifiers across the spectrum in World of Warcraft: depending on the space you choose, they can be identified in many ways. Likewise, they have chosen to portray this liquidity.

Imagine what the real-life equivalent would be:

A human with an overtly masculine body wears full make-up and a dress while talking in a feminine voice.

In World of Warcraft, the player with the mixed identifiers is seen as normal, yet in the “real world” it’s safe to say that our example would be othered.

While the individual spaces within World of Warcraft might offer aspects of “identification,” when they’re all taken together, they suddenly become complex. Just as the case with queer theory’s view on gender/sexuality, the spaces of identification within World of Warcraft are both grouped and not — they can reflect on other aspects of an individual, but they also might not.

What makes World of Warcraft queer, then, is the simple fact that a normative identity does not exist — nor is identity meant to be fluid. In the realm of the identifying aspects of the game, there is no way to be “othered.” When your virtual sex/gender do not “line up” in an “acceptable” way within the World of Warcraft, you are not anathema: you are normal.

Queer is normal in World of Warcraft, and therefore World of Warcraft is a queer space.

(!) Minor note: additionally, it’s worth noting that while this is an obsession with identification in society, all of these facets cannot be used to adequately identify the player — only the player’s avatar. This can even be seen in the raw data. Remember the study about gender and role? While players believed that the stereotypes they were latching on to impacted “real” (player) gender, in reality those stereotypes were only true for character gender.