A Feminist Game

In our Second Life discussion group this week we looked at the dialogue between Lisa Nakamura and Maria Fernandez on Feminism, Race and Technology.  Lisa Nakamura made the point that when we talk about technology we are usually thinking about the digital, and I’d agree with her that the online world is only one of the areas we need to examine; that’s certainly the point Judy Wacjman made in the first dialogue. However, the digital certainly has a powerful hold on us these days.  I was struck by Nakamura’s discussion of the Slate article on the ”feminist gamer dad” who hacked the game Donkey Kong, reversing gender roles so his daughter could play as a girl and rescue Mario.

The sexist, racist and homophobic content of video games has been a common topic of feminist discussion. The Slate article highlights Anna Sarkeesian’s video analysis of the “damsel in distress;” her analysis unpacks ideas of gender and autonomy in gaming.  Sarkeesian demonstrates the malleability of games; they are easily “reskinned,” turning heroines into heroes, sexualizing characters, and objectifying them as prizes to be won.  Sarkeesian is arguing that female agency must be included in these games, and that by contesting cultural attitudes, gaming could be made more welcoming to female players. However, like so much I’ve read on this topic; this analysis overlooks a much more fundamental problem in popular video games.

As a political movement that is firmly based in ideas of consensus and equality, feminism should focus on a form of public entertainment that is so firmly set in simplistic ideas of the individual and society.  The “hero’s quest” may be a staple of our culture, but it hardly reflects social reality, and it is in direct conflict with feminist ideas of collaboration and consensus.  The ultimate confrontation with the “Big Boss” is an unhelpful binary that oversimplifies human relations, reinforcing the idea that social ills are caused by an “evil overlord,” rather than by historical and socioeconomic events.

Although the narrative of the video game should concern us, the deep structure of these games is even more disturbing. Most games function through a series of culturally-coded tasks that are built into the game. Players must accept the cultural premises of these tasks to play in a space where success is won step by hierarchical step. These games are also extremely consumerist: player advancement is facilitated by winning money, weapons, and “power-ups.” It seems to me that the problematic archetypes and narrative of gaming are only the symptom of this deeper structure,  just as sexism, racism and homophobia are only surface manifestations of an underlying ideology of domination.

OK, so maybe I’m being too serious about all this. It’s just a game, after all, a fantasy rooted in folktales and mythology that were designed to encourage and educate the young. My kids have played these games, and they’re O.K.  So I’m not about to get my torch and pitchfork and lead a mob into my local videogame store. But I do think that at the very least we should consider what we, as feminists, are overlooking when we study these games.

A truly feminist game would be other than this.  I can’t say what it would be, because it hasn’t been invented yet, but perhaps it would connect with what Maria Fernandez said about habit.

. . . I wanted to get away from the notion that racism is something that people think or intend. I decided to concentrate on how racism was manifested in behavior. . .  I think, at least at the time I wrote the article, there was very little understanding of racism, and any connection  of it to the habitual.

Where the video games described by Sarkeesian are informed by, and in some ways reinforce, unhealthy ways of thinking, a game that intentionally played with thought patterns like racism, sexism and homophobia might make these mental habits more evident to players, and this could encourage the players themselves to dismantle them.

A feminist game would have to have a different kind of play.  First, it would have to jolt the player out of habitual ways of thinking by presenting something incongruous and destabilizing, something to tell the players that the old rules of social interaction no longer apply in the digital world they have just entered. There would be no “power-ups,” no hierarchical ladder to climb; the goals of the game would have to be set by the players themselves. There would be no “big boss” to defeat; perhaps instead there would be the possibility to build something wonderful. A truly feminist game would undermine all the habits of thinking players bring to the game. It would follow new rules of what it means to “play.”

unlearn_004I think that the site for such a game might lie in virtual worlds.  Although virtual worlds are modeled on reality and can provide breathtakingly realistic recreations of the actual world, play is an integral part of avatar life. It is true that there are dubious aspects to gender and identity play in virtual worlds, but roleplay also encourages a carnivalesque atmosphere where social norms can be questioned. The liberty of a virtual space makes it very hard to enforce hierarchical rule; players just go elsewhere. Above all, it is an extremely malleable space, and can be very difficult to navigate using learned patterns of thought. It is this playful attitude to established patterns that makes virtual worlds so compelling and so powerful, and it seems to me that if there is such a thing as a feminist “game,” it will be played here.

2 thoughts on “A Feminist Game

  1. I’m not sure they meet your precise definition but there are already games out there that might.

    There are certainly level-less games so the massive hierarchy of your typical game is gone (although most games have some form of advancement still).

    There are class-less games (there are classless games in the other sense too) so your character isn’t constrained to fulfilling a certain role based on initial choice of class. In many games, if you start as a spell-caster but decide you like hitting orcs and wearing armour it means starting a new character in a different class. In games without classes, your spell-caster starts picking armour and a big thing to hit orcs with and thumps away. She or he won’t be good at it at first, but can do it and in most games after a while will be quite competent at it. Of course that’s a game with a central concept of conflict and some form of progression which isn’t destabilising the game-playing concept that much.

    (It’s worth pointing out that although I like class-less and level-less games I’m in a small minority. Most of them have goals and things too, but perhaps that’s an adjunct of story-telling? And part of gameplay in that sense is telling your own story? But there are games like EVE Online where their universe is big enough you can create your own life story within in to a pretty large extent. They nudge – not very subtly – to try and encourage you to play the way they want, but you can ignore it and play the way you want quite happily. I have a character in EVE who is nearly 3 and has no weapon skills beyond the basics you get in character setup.)

    There are games like Minecraft where there seems to be no object beyond ones you impose (although I’ve not explored in detail). You can build your own world and make it do what you will. Someone recently converted all the OS maps of the UK into a Minecraft world – so there’s a virtual world that recreates the UK land surface. I’m not sure why, but it’s certainly not a traditional game outcome!

  2. Minecraft is really free-form, and I’d say the big difference between it and SL is the monsters that come out at night – they’re really an encouragement to help you learn how to build safe places!

    I’d still argue though (and I think you do, too) that there is always an underlying ethos that structures play. In Minecraft, the monsters set out a very basic (and, I’d argue, conservative) message that the universe is a dangerous place, and that the only way to save yourself is through industrious and clever gameplay.

    That underlying ethos can be in the background, as with Minecraft, or it can be very evident. I remember my daughter, an avid fan of The Sims, stomping down the stairs after a gaming session in which the social workers took away her baby. She was furious that their standards of childcare were different from her own.

    Maybe what I’m looking for in this is the idea that there are games with intrinsic cultural content (like the ones you describe at the beginning of your post) and there are others, like SL, to which we bring our own cultural norms (sexist, racist and homophobic as they may be).

    Dunno. The whole thing is an ever-unfolding mystery to me.

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