How Not To Investigate Gamer Identities

Back when I wrote my short Gender in Gaming series, I lamented the lack of good-quality academic papers on gaming freely available on the internet. Thanks to scholar Christina Hoff Sommers’ Twitter feed, I’ve just learned of a new journal, Press Start, that seeks to remedy that. At first I was pleased with this development, until I read the journal’s call for papers for a special issue called “Negotiating Gamer Identities.” Then I reminisced about my old, horrible college honors seminars, cried over my Milton textbook for about an hour, and decided I needed to go through this, piece-by-piece.

The Press Start Journal invites the submission of analyses and reflections regarding the recent controversies surrounding the plurality of players, communities of play, and perceived gamer culture (in terms of gender, race, sexuality, class, #gamergate, etc.), as part of a special issue on negotiating gamer identities. Through this special issue, Press Start aims to allow undergraduate students, graduate students, and PhD candidates to contribute to this timely site of discourse.

Okay, it starts off pretty well. I’m not sure if you really need the word “negotiating” in there when the issue could just be about Gamer Identities, but whatever, that’s nitpicking. “Timely” is also a bit generous, but understandable from an academic perspective; I mean, Harold Bloom just wrote a new book on Hamlet like a year ago. You would think that corpse had been picked clean, but no.

Players, gamers or #gamers?

The issue of identity in games has long been a subject of studies regarding games and players. Studies observing the prevalence of male identification in digital play are at least as old as Sara Kiesler et al.’s “2nd-Class Citizens” (1983); and analyses of the oversexualization of women have appeared since Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkin’s From Barbie to Mortal Kombat (1998). Later, studies regarding race, sexuality and class have followed suit (cf. Leonard, 2006; Hitchens, 2011; Shaw, 2014). Indeed, much scholarship suggests a split between the overrepresentation of white, male, cis-gendered heterosexual player identities within games; and the actual diverse player base that supports and plays these games.

Starting to get a little hairy. I don’t see why an issue on gamer identities necessarily has to start with gender and racial issues; after all, the thing that defines games, interactivity, is something that transcends all such barriers. It’s not that gender and race aren’t issues in gaming, but if that’s your concern, make it transparent; call the issue “Gender and Racial Identities in Gaming.” “Gamer Identities,” should, and does, apply to a much broader area of concern. So two paragraphs in, the journal already seems confused about what it’s targeting.

If gamer culture is perhaps unfairly seen as the site of marginalized, white men (cf. Kowert & Oldmeadow, 2012), recent tension has arisen around the right to claim gamer identity. Attempts to reclaim gamer culture as a place for women, non-whites, transgender people and others have been downplayed and attacked by vocal gamer communities as ‘social justice activism,’ poor scholarship or proof of a secret feminist conspiracy. Most recognizably, this vocal minority of gamers have gathered under the #gamergate hashtag.

Oh my Gold chocobos, did that go south fast.

First of all, even if you absolutely despise Gamergate, I think you have to recognize that the above is a complete mischaracterization of what the movement claimed to be about, but that’s the minor issue here. Much more important is this business of “attempts to reclaim gamer culture.”

Who was gamer culture “claimed” by, and how did they do it? Presumably it’s the “marginalized, white men” (which you would think might be forgivable, considering the fact that they’re marginalized and all), but even so, how? How do you claim a culture that primarily consists of sitting on your butt in front of a screen in your own living room? How has gaming ever been taken away from anyone, barring those occasional times when Mom would lock the Playstation in the trunk of the car because Kevin’s math grades were slipping?

I mean, sure, you can make the argument that gaming culture has been claimed by certain parties and thus is eligible for reclamation by other parties; it’ll be a tough sell for me personally, but you can make that argument. But here, Press Start is presenting the argument that gaming has been claimed as a statement of fact. To put it another way, a journal asking for papers on gamer identities states, as a kind of article of faith, that the gamer identity is already a battleground, with winners and losers. It’s a willful distortion of reality, as well as presumptuous and limiting.

With the initial responses of perceived leftist game journalists, academics and #gamergaters out of the way, it is time for analyses that do not dogmatically take sides nor attempt to moralize the situation without critical engagement. This special issue aims to offer a place for all related research. Some suggestions include:

You have to kind of quirk an eyebrow at the “perceived leftist game journalists.” When virtually all of the games bloggers are writing about intersectionality and white privilege, is it my perception that these writers hail from the far left? Or is it perhaps the truth? Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with leaning left, but I find it interesting that they won’t even acknowledge that these writers are, indeed, leftist. So the gamer identity being claimed (i.e. stolen) is a statement of immutable fact, but we’re stuck with weasel-words like “perceived” about other things? Interesting.

I would also be more impressed by their interest in analyses that “do not dogmatically take sides,” if this call for papers were not itself filled with dogmatic language. I believe they are sincere in calling for alternate views, but don’t realize how hypocritical they sound.

  • What does the question of identity mean for ‘gamer culture,’ and how does it relate to social context, media content and the game industry’s production cultures?

Oh, so now you care about issues of gamer identity beyond gender, sexuality and race? Opening paragraph sure had me fooled.

  • What can be made of the increased representation of ‘marginalized’ voices through the proliferation of independent production and platforms such as Steam and Twine?

Waitaminute, I thought gaming was the turf of marginalized, white men (cf. Kowert & Oldmeadow, 2012). Now there’s increased representation of marginalized voices, in addition to the marginalized white men? Is there anyone involved who isn’t marginalized, and if so, how would we know? Furthermore, if this were explained to me in the form of a Twine game, could I remain conscious long enough to finish it?

  • Is such a classification as ‘gamer culture’ (whether monolithic, hegemonic or pluralistic) a productive identifier, in comparison to ‘reader cultures’ or ‘movie-goers’?

No. Somewhere, I just saved someone $100,000 in college tuition. They’ll be much less marginalized now, what with all that extra money in their pocket.

  • What to make of #gamergate’s professed criticism of existing academic game studies organizations (such as DiGRA); and related initiatives to start up alternative, positivist (or non-activist), venues for game analysis? Which epistemologies and politics form the basis for these criticisms and what would an alternative entail?

Is it just me, or are they smugly insinuating here that recent criticisms of academic game studies are laughable because they were made by the kind of people who rarely use words like “epistemologies?” Classism much?

As to what a viable alternative would entail, well, I would think a journal that doesn’t swap back and forth between subjective opinion and objective fact as though the two were interchangeable would be a start. I’m no epistemologist, though.

Oh, and “which epistemologies and politics form the basis for these criticisms…?” Has it even occurred to anyone involved here that some of these criticisms might not be political in nature? When you have a big enough hammer….

  • What roles should communities, game designers, game journalists and academics play; and how do these roles interact and overlap?

This is fine; nothing to see here.

The editors of Press Start are open to any academic work that relates to this special issue; we encourage students and PhD candidates – from ‘SJW’ to ‘#gator’ – to submit work that they have produced as part of their studies or otherwise, provided that it meets the editorial guidelines for the journal….

Yes, I’m sure the people that have demonstrated above that they haven’t the foggiest idea what Gamergate was even about will be super-receptive to submissions from “gators.” I’m sure it’s a totally even playing field here.

…All submissions will be subjected to double-blind peer review, so make sure your submission is sufficiently anonymized….

This raises an interesting question: does it matter if peer review is double-blind if the entire thing is conducted in an atmosphere of shameless bias? Will they be meticulously, scrupulously fair within their completely warped paradigm, and if so, would it matter?

Furthermore, could this issue be explored in the form of a Twine game, and if so, would you be able to trust any of the reviews?

I just…I want there to be research into games, really I do. Why does it always have to be like this?

5 thoughts on “How Not To Investigate Gamer Identities”

  1. What is there to investigate or even “negotiate”? The person who wrote this proposal has it all figured out. Nothing about it leads me to believe that investigation has any part in what they want. /shrug

    1. You mean, proposing a bunch of hilariously vague, non-question questions doesn’t strike you as genuinely inquisitive? *snort*

      Sometimes I feel like I should have stayed in academia to help make it less awful. Then I lie down for a while until sanity returns.

      1. Hah! I wish it were that obvious to everyone.

        I am glad you sometimes have that feeling and write about it. It helps my own sense of sanity to know that not everyone buys in on this kind of nonsense.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *