At the onset of network culture, the online dream of the 1990s was a world without gender, a cyber-sidestepping of patriarchy’s reign on the body, Foucault’s biopower re-imagined through integrated circuits. Though this vision was only tangentially related to gaming, one look at the multiple controversies involved in Gamergate is enough to declare the dream of the 1990s long dead. In A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway (1991) writes, “Some differences are playful; some are poles of world historical systems of domination” (p. 161). Parsing the layers of these embedded systems is a start.
As Ian Bogost puts it,
Videogames are an expressive medium. They represent how real and imagined systems work. They invite players to interact with those systems and form judgments about them. As part of the ongoing process of understanding this medium and pushing it further as players, developers, and critics, we must strive to understand how to construct and critique the representations of our world in videogame form (p. vii).
Videogames employ what Bogost calls procedural rhetoric, “The art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions rather than the spoken word, writing, images, or moving pictures” (p. ix). Distinguishing videogames from other media, he adds, “In some sense, videogames both are and aren’t other media. They do what other media do—and some things they do not—but they do them differently.”
In Gaming at the Edge (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), Adrienne Shaw writes that “the discourse about representation (from industry and academic points of view) is what needs to be transformed, not just the representation of particular groups in game texts” (p. 15). Quoting Stuart Hall, Shaw sees representation of marginalized groups as a discursive device, “which represents difference as unity or identity” (p. 16). How identification in videogames differs from identification in other media an entire chapter in Shaw’s book, as is one on when and why representation matters to players. As one interviewee puts it regarding a player character, “He could be a bunny rabbit for all I care!” (the subject of Chapter 3). In addition to these many important questions and issues, she also spends a chapter investigating if anyone actually identifies with Tomb Raider‘s normative Lara Croft.
Gaming at the Edge is about out how marginalized gamers engage with game content, identify with players and characters, and see themselves within these systems. It’s about using new models where the old ones have failed.
Where we need to reduce theoretical uncertainty in one aspect, Greg Costikyan argues in Uncertainty in Games (The MIT Press, 2015) that games need uncertainty to hold gamers’ interest. “In a sense,” Costikyan writes, “‘game’ is merely the term we apply to a particular kind of play: play that has gone beyong the simple, and has been complexified and refined by human culture” (p. 7).
Though there’s nothing in here about representation as discussed above, Costikyan’s book is not entirely apolitical because it is written for procedural rhetors (game designers). This fun, little book is a guide to using uncertainty to engage players. It’s a smart, serious look at current game design.
“Some things have gotten better,” Shaw writes in her conclusion to Gaming at the Edge, “but others will not get better unless researchers, activists, and designers change the way they think about why and how representation matters” (pp. 201-202). In order to revive the cyborg dream, we need not just to represent more marginalized groups but also to reexamine the details of our default settings, to interrogate the systems themselves. Haraway (1991) ends her Cyborg Manifesto, writing, “It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories. Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess” (p. 181).
Bogost, Ian. (2007). Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Costikyan, Greg. (2015). Uncertainty in Games. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Haraway, Donna J. (1991). Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Shaw, Adrienne. (2015). Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.