Queering the Game Player.
Popular media portrayals of the activity of computer gaming, with few exceptions, associate the computer game with a male audience. In this article I will explore the implications of this linkage in order to foreshadow problems in the ethnographic enquiry I propose on the uses of x-box games and the x-box in everyday life. Part of my project here is to try to understand, how should I approach the gamer as an ethnographic subject. By considering gaming as an ‘a-priori’ masculine activity, I suggest that I would be ignoring the myriad practices and activities of female, gay and transgender gamers. My project in this article is to open the quotidian practices of gaming to include the heterogenous practices and pleasures that can only be accounted for by detaching games from the dominant discourse of masculinity in which they circulate; in short it is to ‘Queer’ the predominantly masculine field of games.
The particular ethnographic problem that I wish to foreshadow here is the issue of the perceived power imbalance between the academic ethnographer and the gamer as a subject. Certainly there is a responsibility to allow gamers to speak with their own voices, but not at the expense of an academic critique. If gaming and game culture is dominated by masculine voices, then to what extent should I seek to find alternate voices? I suggest that by deliberately seeking out marginal voices I am not simply – and rather patronizingly – allowing the subaltern to speak. By recounting their particular practices of gaming, the marginalised gamer will also add to my understanding of the polysemous potential of the game-text.
In order to open this inquiry I will begin with the assertions made by the Cultural Studies scholar John Fiske in Understanding the Popular:
So video arcades are popular, particularly among subordinated males (subordinated by class, age, race, or any combination of the three), because they can be used to think through, to rehearse in practice, the experiential gap between the masculine ideology of power and performance and the social experience of powerlessness. The players use the machines as symbols of our capitalist society, so that playing (against) them becomes a re-enactment of social relations, but the retelling is from the point of view of the subordinate – the meanings and pleasures they produce in playing are theirs, and therefore the relationship between human and machine is the reverse of that normally experienced in social life. [emphasis added][i]
From this quote I suggest that the crux of Fiske’s observation is that games are a space for negotiating the ‘experiential gap between the masculine ideology of power and performance and the social experience of powerlessness’. However, two key caveats should be placed on Fiske’s schema. First, Fiske’s identification of the various forces of subordination, omits sexual orientation. His claim is therefore associated with males that are any combination of working class, young or of a racial minority (what would this be in Perth in the 1980’s), but not with homosexuals. Second, the space of empowerment that Fiske identifies need not be coded as a masculine. There are other subordinated groups who might also wish to experience the pleasures that Fiske describes. Here, I am referring to both heterosexual and homosexual woman. With these caveats in mind I wish to explore Fiske’s notion that the subordinate is able to produce their own “meanings and pleasures” with the aim of opening these pleasures and meanings to include those produced by people subordinated by gender and sexual orientation.
Fiske’s own exploration of the “meanings and pleasures” of gaming to subordinated males lacks a firm grounding either in textual analysis of the games or in empirical evidence from the player’s themselves about their uses and pleasures. I suggest that these steps are appropriate to test Fiske’s hypothesis, and the modified hypothesis I have postulated. An investigation of previous theoretical work on textual analysis of games and fieldwork carried out on gaming culture both supports and challenges Fiske’s assumption that gaming is a purely masculine activity.
In the popular media games are often criticised for being violent and for their offensive portrayal of women. Media emphasis on content of this kind operates to concatenate gaming with masculine pleasures in the popular imagination. While many games employ neither violence, nor hyper-sexualized women, it is these games in particular that are used as ‘evidence’ that gaming is a masculine pleasure. While there is a possibility that female or homosexual subjects may take pleasure in these games this pleasure will always be within the context of a pleasure designed for another. Dianne Carr in ‘Playing with Lara’ describes her own experience of playing Tomb Raider [sic]: “When I play Lara, I play in the company of her creators, and in the shadow of the desiring gaze that her breasts and short shorts were formed to address”.[ii] Carr implies that the preferred reading, that it is the intention of the game’s creators is to make a text that can be enjoyed in this way, thought the visual pleasure taken in the body of Lara Croft. While it is clear that in many ways the hyper-sexualization of Lara Croft is a deliberate and cynical ploy of the game’s designers to appeal to their target audience, I suggest that Carr is theorising her own particular position in a proscriptive way. The implied consensual community of the masculine “desiring gaze” is potentially disrupted by an empirical enquiry that describes the pleasures derived from playing Tomb Raider from those outside this particular target group.
The work of Anne-Marie Schliener illustrates the diversity of pleasures that may be taken in Tomb Raider [sic]. In ‘Does Lara Croft Wear Fake Polygons? Gender and Gender-Role Subversion In Computer Adventure Games’ she argues for four particular alternate subject positions that that disrupt the totality of the heterosexual male gaze.[iii] These four positions that she describes are that of ‘drag queen’, ‘dominatrix’, ‘role-model’ and ‘queer female desire’.
Schliener’s description of the ‘drag queen’ configuration of play focuses on the implications of Lara as an avatar, which is the object in the game that the player controls and uses to act upon and within the game world. The crux of this point being that in Tomb Raider the male player is playing with, and identifying with a female avatar. The avatar is identifies by Espen Aarseth in Cybertext: Perspectives on Cybernetic Literature as a contested site.[iv] This In this case I suggest that Schliener’s observations locate the contest between the subjectification of the masculine gaze and the identification that comes with play. Schliener locates this virtual tranvesticism within the experimental gender space of the Internet chatroom.[v] This reading of computer games as potentially disrupting strictly defined gender roles, and providing a space for experimentation is also noted by Marsha Kinder in Playing with Power. Observing her son and his friends playing Super Mario Brothers 2 she explains the selection of a female avatar ‘Princess Toadstool’ due to her characteristics within the game as coming with the “risk of transgender identification.”[vi]
Here I believe it is important to distinguish between games that have primarily female avatars and those that allow the player to select a female avatar if they desire. A player faced with numerous choices over their avatar, is likely to experiment to discover the different abilities and characteristics of each avatar and chose the avatar with the characteristic that she or he prefers. In Kinder’s description she implies that her sons selection of a female avatar is weighed against the safer option of choosing the more masculine avatar of Mario or Luigi, but that his decision is finalised on the basis of the characteristics of the female avatar that give him some advantage in the game world – in this case Princess Toadstool’s ability to hover when she jumps. This kind of choice leads James Newman in ‘The myth of the ergodic videogame’ to argue that understanding avatars in terms of representation and identification is ignoring a peculiar set of evaluations taken by the player during the course of the game which enable them to define the character not only in a representational sense as a male or female, but “as sets of capabilities, potentials and techniques”[vii] that are made available to the player within the game. This is not to say that the gender of the avatar becomes irrelevant! Rather in games where different avatars are available, other considerations apart from gender identification become important – if not paramount factors – in the player’s decision.
Tomb Raider and many other games are deliberately different in this regard, as the player must chose to play a female avatar, there is not other intervening valuing system that affects how the player’s decision. Thus the play of these games by males involves more certainty than “risk” when it comes to transgender identification. This tension between identification and objectification in the avatar, needs to be explored without being simply resolved in favour of one or the other. I suggest that during the course of play identification with Lara is necessary in order to make sense of the action that occurs on the game screen. This form of identification is prosthetic, the player identifies with Lara because she is the tool that enables them to act within the virtual world. The player cannot make sense of their own actions within the game without understanding that they are acting through Lara.
This identification with Lara the avatar opens up the play of a game such as Tomb Raider that uses female avatars to more than the pleasures of the male gaze. The heterosexual male player has to negotiate the contested space between Lara as ‘I’ and Lara as ‘Other’. Thus I suggest this particular configuration of play, those games with conspicuously gendered avatars, have a peculiar possibility for exploring issues of sexuality and identity. Beyond the possibilities in Tomb Raider, there are games with male avatar – Serious Sam, Metal Gear Solid and Max Payne for example – the female games could also use is a similar manner. This possibility is opened further once the position of women gamers’ vis-à-vis female avatar is considered.
The tension between objectification and identification is played out in a different manner with female gamers. The negotiation is between identifying with Lara Croft in Tom Raider, for example, and Lara’s construction as a male ideal of femininity. Scliener points out that even though Lara is visually a heterosexual male stereotyped fantasy, she does not fit the typical bimbo stereotype, as she is both highly educated and physically competent. Furthermore, as game playing has an important role as a pedagogical tool for teaching general computer skills, women and girls, in particular, who play games are empowering themselves in a ‘real’ sense.[viii] To take Carr’s position that the potential pleasures of games like Tomb Raider are somehow flawed due to their address of an intended heterosexual and masculine audience does not acknowledge this empowering aspect of the game, and games in general to female gamers. Rather it serves to entrench a homogenous gendering of the game audience and consequently the pleasures of game-play.
[i] John Fiske Understanding the Popular, Unwin Hyman, Boston, 1989, 139.
[ii] Dianne Carr ‘Playing with Lara’, in Greg King and Tanya Kryzwinksa (eds), ScreenPlay: Cinema/Videogames/Interfaces, Wallflower press, London and New York, 2002, 174.
[iii] Anne-Marie Schliener ‘Does Lara Croft Wear Fake Polygons? Gender and Gender-Role Subversion in Computer Adventure Games’, Leonardo, 34:3, 2001, 223.
[iv] Espen Aarseth Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1997, 120.
[v] Schliener, 223.
[vi] Marsha Kinder Playing With Power In Movies, Television, and Videogames: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, University of California Press, London and Berkeley, 1993, 107.
[vii] James Newman ‘The myth of the ergodic videogame’, Game Studies 2:1, 2002, 6.
[viii] Schliener, 224.