So, how are we doing?

Today’s reading was Maps of Digital Desire: Exploring the Topographies of Gender and Play in Online Games by Nick Yee. This was a formal book chapter based on Yee’s research in The Daedalus Project, which I’ve referenced before in previous bits of research. The Daedalus Project, in short, was (it formerly went into “hibernation” in 2009) a data collection project that looked at gender, playtime, age, and a handful of other variables relating to MMOs. The data was collected via player-given surveys every few years, and then collected into a database.

The article itself uses the data within the project to fuel a conclusion: that game communities are more impactful on gendered play than gameplay mechanics.

Outside of demographics, Yee notes that the motivations for play in MMOs are similar between male and female players. Yee categorizes “play motivations” into three spheres:

Achievement: progress, power, status, numbers, analysis, challenging others, provocation

Social: casual chat, making friends, support, group achievement

Immersion: exploration, lore, fantasy, appearances, escapism

Yee’s categorizations show the many ways in which players “enjoy” MMOs. Likewise, they also show that there’s a great variety of “enjoyment” to be had within most modern MMOs.

The assumed, “popular” differences between the genders (in the gaming sphere) would seemingly mark these categories as gendered. I’m sure anyone who has ever belonged to a virtual community of some sort would immediately know the implications of each category without me even mentioning them: the casual, feminine space would be clearly defined. Likewise, the competitive, aggressive male space would also be clearly defined. The borders would be understood. Yee’s research, however, clearly shows that this popular assessment is bunk: in the category with the largest gender swing (mechanics), the overlap between men and women was 66 percent. Overall, the overlap was 87 percent. While there was difference, there was far more shared ground than feminine/masculine ground.

Yee notes, however, that even these tiny “gendered” spaces can be explained away with other statistics: age differences, for example, slightly inflate the numbers, as women gamers tend to be older than men.

This is about where we get to the elephant in the room: if women and men play for similar reasons, then why is their such a gender gap?

Yee’s interviewees offer some perspective:

“The only really off-putting detail is that it’s ludicrous that every time my elf fights, her breasts stick out to the side repeatedly. It is a constant reminder to me that this game is made for 13 year old boys, or men who still think like them. (World of Warcraft, female, 42)”

“But every ounce in a while, I seem to meet someone who wants to violently deny that I am who I am. And how am I supposed to respond to a charge of ‘You are not a girl!’ — I can’t flash ID or body parts to prove it. (World of Warcraft, female, 36)”

“There are things that happen in-game that make me embarrassed, as a woman and as a person who tries to be socially responsible, to be playing. For example, male players will talk about getting ‘raped’ without really thinking about it, things that happen will be referred to as ‘gay,’ which is offensive, people do crude things to player corpses in PvP [Player vs. Player settings], etc. (World of Warcraft, female, 29)”

With the exception of the first comment, all of these women have problems with the game’s community (and not the gameplay). Even then, the first comment could be considered a community issue as well, as the “community perspective” defines what parameters the game is developed to.

And so it is obvious then, what perhaps the largest “block” is on gender and MMOs (if not the whole of gaming).

But here’s my question — this article was written in 2008. The data is references was collected sometime during early vanilla World of Warcraft (as far as I know), with very few updates since then.

So… have things gotten better? Has the perspective changed?

Or, perhaps more to the point: has the recent (I’d argue 2010 and forward) surge of feminist (and queer) criticism directed at World of Warcraft impacted the diversity of the playerbase? Has it impacted developer dialog? Gameplay changes? Have advertising campaigns changed?

These aren’t questions that I can really answer yet — but they are certainly avenues for research later on in the semester. In the short-term, I’d like to interview a few WoW-based feminists to see what they think.

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.

A formal beginning

In late 2012 — right around this time of year — I began grad school at TCNJ. While I had a general idea of where I wanted to go (academically), I really didn’t have much of a critical focus. Okay, I’ll be a little more honest — I didn’t have any focus. I was aimless. It wasn’t that I hated research (I don’t!) or that I didn’t enjoy any aspect of English (or literature), it was simply that I couldn’t choose. Nothing had my heart. Nothing reached out and really grabbed me by the shoulders.

And then I took ENG 505 — Contemporary Theory & Methods.

My professor (and current adviser) encouraged the class to think outside the box. What is a text? What can work? Why not a comic book, or a movie, or a video game?

That last one caught my attention. Of course, it wasn’t like I hadn’t heard of game studies — I had! But I’d hardly considered it a viable thing that I could do. Despite the fact that I’d been writing professionally about games for the last two years, something had acted as an academic block, preventing me from seeing this possibility. For some reason I thought it wasn’t an avenue available to me. Yet, here it was.

I jumped at the opportunity, stumbling through a discipline that I had a lot of passion for, though not a whole lot of knowledge.

The end result was a trip to a conference, where I presented my first “serious” paper: “Reaching for the Moon: Agency, Linearity, and Gender within Portal 2.”

That same semester I wrote a second game studies paper — once again about Portal 2, except this time the focus was on Foucault.

In the spring my attention turned to World of Warcraft, where I wrote a paper discussing the game’s queer nature.

Throughout all of this, though, there was a slight problem — a blind spot I couldn’t quite locate just outside of my vision. You see, despite my passion for the subject, and despite the research I had done, I felt like I had no right to write all of these papers without a more concrete foundation. Who was I to talk about all of these big subjects? How can I call myself a game studies theorist?

While I realize such questions are a little ridiculous, I still felt I needed some sort of critical surface to build off of. So with that goal in mind I set out to built an independent study for myself — the goal of which is to create that mythical academic foundation. As I feel like I do some of my best thinking publicly, I’ll be posting all of my “journal entries” on this blog. All of my thoughts, musings, and whatnot will be out in the wild. Hopefully this will help me develop — and hey! — maybe it’ll help someone else out a little bit too.

And so… we begin!

An Introduction to an Introduction: Frans Mäyrä’s An Introduction to Game Studies: Games in Culture

I’ll be referencing this book in the future weeks, but to start off I want to talk about something I find interesting — the interdisciplinary nature of game studies. It’s one of the earliest things Mäyrä brings up in his book, noting that there’s a certain interesting mix of media within digital games. This is further complicated by the different dimensions of possible study: you have the game itself, and then you have the community around the game (and everything in-between).

On one level, the study of games is mathematical — programming and design, switches and interface. On another, games certainly can be seen as texts (and as such, are completely open to interpretation by all the contemporary lit theory methods we can throw at them). Going even further, games are a amalgamation of different forms of media: music, visual art, literature, and more I’m likely forgetting.

There are, without a doubt, an almost limitless amount of perspectives you can take.

While that is freeing, it also can be intimidating.

One of the largest obstacles I’ve faced thus far is that it feels like studying games requires a monumental amount of theory knowledge — and by “theory” I don’t just mean “critical theory,” either. For a paper I wrote over the summer about the power of language in World of Warcraft, I found that I had to dig my hands into linguistics and ethnography — two fields I’ve never touched. Even after twenty or so pages of analysis, however, I felt like I was missing something — like I had to dig even deeper, into other fields and other disciplines.

I don’t have much of a direction here or end-goal for this post — but more of a question: how do you deal with a subject so incredibly interdisciplinary? Is there a limit? Is it acceptable to go this far and no more?

Mäyrä, in the first chapter of the book, discusses forming an “influence map” of sorts, to mark out your own gaming “cultural background” of sorts. The purpose is to situate the scholar in a certain place within the field. I wonder if such an activity would be helpful in sorting out my own “disciplinary” knowledge sets? Maybe figuring out what interdisciplinary route to take is just a matter of figuring out what route you’re interested in. Or maybe that’s an academic trap.