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Becoming Gamers: Moving Beyond the Constructed Audience

Version of Record: Shaw, Adrienne (2013). On Not Becoming Gamers: Moving Beyond the Constructed Audience. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.2doi:10.7264/N33N21B3

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Creative Commons License
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1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 To borrow a turn of phrase from Simon de Beauvoir (1989 [1949]): one is not born a gamer, one becomes one. This is perhaps even more true of being a gamer than it is of women in Beauvoir’s original formulation. As an identity defined by consumption, identifying as a gamer is more clearly a choice than are identities more directly written on the body, defined by familial relations, and/or dictated by legislation. It is not, however, a consequence free choice. Here I interrogate gamer identity in a manner similar to what has been done for other more traditional notions of identity. The application of critical identity allows this paper to move beyond studies that merely focus on how the audience for games is constructed by the video game industry and the impact this has on representation. The focus on texts, on industry construction, and on dominant discourses about gamer identity lends itself to reactionary constructions of the gamer audience, which seek to find an alternative truth(s) to the dominant stereotype (Shaw, 2010). In turn, researchers tend to focus on video game representation in terms of specific identity categories. The demand for representation based on these identity categories has led (indirectly perhaps) the video game industry to target identity markets defined by essentialized notions of those groups. In turn, this targeting seems to shape how members of marginalized groups relate to games as a medium (Shaw, 2012). Here I use the insight offered by critical theories of identity, primarily from a feminist and queer political critique of identity categories, to disentangle the mechanisms by which gamer identity is formed. In doing so I map a different approach to issues of representation of marginalized groups in video games that directly engages with a feminist and queer approach to politics.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In this paper, I discuss how interviewees who are marginalized from the stereotypical White, Heterosexual male of U.S. gamers (along the lines of their race, gender, and/or sexuality) account for whether they identify as gamers or not. First I will discuss the construction of the gamer audience, from both an industrial/popular discourse perspective and an audience perspective. Being targeted as a gamer, however, does not a gamer make. Identity as a gamer intersects with more ingrained (which is not to say natural) identities like gender, race, and sexuality (as discussed in Shaw, 2012). It is called upon and made relevant in specific contexts. It is performed, via consumption practices, but it is a precarious identity, as other people’s opinions shape whether or not individuals feel they can or should identify as a gamer. Gaming is often viewed negatively, which leads people to both not identify as gamers, not openly identify as gamers, and even to not play games. All of this contributes to whether or not people feel the right or need to demand representation in video games. Rather than argue that the gamer identity is too narrow or blissfully democratic (it is neither), I assert that critical perspectives, such as feminist and queer theory, offer an approach to video games that can focus more attention on the construction of medium and not only the construction of the audience or texts alone.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Critical Identity Theories

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Referencing Spivak’s essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” Lisa Nakamura asks, “can the subaltern read?” (2006, p. 29), in reference to the work of critical theorists like Homi Bhabha, Judith Butler, and (of course) Gayatri Spivak. She goes on to argue that, although “there is no shortage of theoretical fire power if one is looking for critical theories of cultural difference” (p. 29), the adoption of ‘theory’ into cyberculture studies leaves a lot to be desired. Nakamura asserts that the “high theory” turn in cyberculture studies is, like in ethnic and women’s studies before it, a compromise, which sacrifices relevance and accessibility for intellectual respectability. There is a disconnect between theorizing about cyberculture, and actual research on interfaces and new media objects (p. 32). I do not use critical theories of identity here because I believe that new media reflect these theories’ conception of the self, though authors like Turkle (1995b) and Filiciak (2003) make this point well. Instead, I assert that these theories are particularly constructive in deconstructing gaming and gamers as objects of study. These theories also are useful to this analysis of how individuals articulate their identities.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The institutional construction of identities is a prevalent theme in both media representation and social theory. Many authors have argued for the critical rethinking of the “essentialness” of identity (see for example Appiah, 2005; Gilroy, 2004; S. Hall, 1996). There is a empirical evidence that identities are experienced at the nexus of the individual and the social (for two recent examples see Gray, 2009; Valentine, 2007). Many contemporary theorists have argued that identity exists between rather than within individuals. We are not, as earlier structuralist theory would argue, wholly shaped by external forces; that everything we do is inherently social, does not mean that social structures determine our actions, as Latour (2005) argues.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Identities are performed, but only within the context of systems of meaning which allow those performances to be intelligible. These identities are also precarious, as Butler (2009) develops in her most recent work. What Butler’s latest articulation allows for, as has been consistently debated and reformulated from Marx through Spivak, is that we can conceive of the self, the individual, identity, as the result of a momentary, fraught and complex intersection between the social and the individual. This act creates subjects and agents simultaneously, through the process of interpellation. Interpellation, remember, is a two-way interaction. A person must turn to the hail to become a subject. In this paper, I explore how and if people who play video games turn to the hail “hey gamer,” and the implications for diversity of in-game representation if they do not believe that they are the ones being hailed.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Identifying as a member of a group is part of the process of identity formation. This entails connections, rather than the reification of difference some identity politics and studies of fan communities rely upon. In an unnecessarily dichotomous formulation, Figueroa Sarriera states that “[i]f identity formation operates in a mode of exclusion, then the identification process operates in a mode of inclusion, connectivity within ruptures” (2006, p. 102 italics in original). In contrast, I argue that identification is a more useful way of understanding identity formation, as Hall (1996) describes. Identities and subjects are made in specific moments, via a process we can call identification.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The notion that an effective suturing of the subject to a subject-position requires, not only that the subject is “hailed,” but that the subject invests in the position, means that suturing has to be thought of as an articulation, rather than a one-sided process, and that in turn places identification, if not identities, firmly on the theoretical agenda. (Hall, 1996, p. 6)

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Hall argues that a focus on identification is more politically useful than the focus on identity, as it allows for the self-definition of the individual rather than on defining them from the outside. I focus on how people identify as gamers, rather than gamers as a fan group or industry construction. Identification does not entail audiences creating their own “identities,” but rather working within a context in which particular identities are being articulated. We can think of this in terms of reflexivity, as Giddens explores: “the self as reflexively understood by the person in terms of her or his biography” (1991, p. 57 italics in original). That is not to say that identity is wholly self-defined, but rather researchers can look at how structures shape identities through individuals’ reflexive articulations of their identities.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Here I look at interviewees’ reflexive interpretations of how their relationship to gaming, as well as the relationship between games and larger social structures, defines them as gamers or not. The construction of the video game audience may affect the representation of groups in games. It also shapes, though it does not determine, who identifies a gamer. Demands for representation cannot simply focus on making the category of gamer more expansive, however; attempts thus far have simply resulted in the further marginalization of marginalized audiences. Female gamers, for example, have been appealed to as “girl gamers.” Gay gamers are marketed to via ads placed in gay magazines (Sliwinski, 2006). As explored in previously published research from this study, target marketing defines marginalized groups as particular kinds of gamers who are discursively distinct from an implied mainstream gaming audience (Shaw, 2010). In addition, however, the social status of gamer as an identity affects who is willing to adopt that label, and in turn, what they expect, in terms of representation, from the medium. As argued in this paper, this is where those interested in arguing for diversity in games must turn their focus.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Method

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The broader study from which this paper is drawn focuses on why, when and how media representation is important to individuals who are members of groups which have traditionally been marginalized in mainstream U.S. media, focusing on the intersections of sexuality, gender and race. This was a three-stage study. First, I used a general survey, administered online, to locate potential interviewees[i]. A sample of interviewees[ii] (N=29) who identified as non-heterosexual, non-male, and not solely White/Anglo, were then selected from the completed surveys. Additionally, I was interested in people who play video games, rather than “gamers” per se, so I sampled across the types of games, platforms, and amount of time they play. In addition, I had the opportunity to speak with two heterosexual, White male partners of two of those interviewees, and the non-gaming, queer White female partner of one other participant. I conducted two separate interviews. During the first interview I focused on their general backgrounds, thoughts on media representation and how and if they identify with fictional characters. The second interview was a “gaming interview,” as described in Schott and Horrell (2000), during which interviewees played a game they were familiar with while I watched (or played with them depending on their preference) and asked questions.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Construction of the Gamer

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Gamer is an oft-gendered category and typically conjures up the image of geeky, young men who are often White, middle class suburbanites.  Gamers play certain kinds of games, including epic role-playing games (RPGs) and first-person shooters (FPSs), which is different from simply playing video games in a more casual sense like those on the Nintendo Wii (Shaw, 2010). Gamers spend an inordinate amount of time and money on their hobby. Rather than try to disprove these assertions and articulate a new definition of gamer identity, I will demonstrate that it is a highly contextual and contingent category. What I describe here are the traces of group formation Latour discusses (2005, p. 34). This is distinct from work that seeks to analyze the creation and boundaries of gaming culture. The focus instead is on how individuals relate to an identity category and on what that illuminates about the construction of the category.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 How the gamer self is constructed has important implications for representation. Evident in interviews for this and my previous projects, there exists a popular assumption that people prefer to consume media that represents them in some way. From a media industry perspective, if a group is not the target audience for a text that group is not necessarily represented. When game makers assume that their audiences are “like them” and make their products accordingly, they make games for a heterosexual, White, male audience (following from industry statistics anyway).[iii] “What unfolds in the managed dialogue of commercialized digital design is a process in which commodity form and consumer subjectivity circle around each other in a mating dance of mutual provocation and enticement” (Kline et al., 2003, p. 196). Game developers create games that they think appeal to their target market. These games are successful and thus the companies continue to produce them over time. As only really successful genres are reproduced, this results in a narrower vision of what ‘gamers’ play. This is particularly displayed in what Kline et al. (2003) describe as the “militarized masculinity” prevalent in many video games.  In response activists, scholars, media producers, and other stakeholders find ways to demonstrate that said group is indeed a viable market.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 I have previously found that audiences have internalized this logic (Shaw, Forthcoming). Players who are members of marginalized groups accept, if begrudgingly, the lack of representation of that group in video games because they are not part of the adolescent, White, heterosexual male gaming market. At times this results in a sort of defeated apathy or the assertion that their groups are indeed good markets for video games and that not marketing to groups is not only discrimination it is illogical. Carol, an interviewee from this project, recounted a scene from the show Mad Men in which executives from a television company clearly allow their racism to trump their desire for money when the character Pete tried to convince them to sell to African-American markets: “It’s stupid to not market to people who have money to spend on your product.”  Sasha, another interviewee, made a similar point: “by excluding certain characters you are more likely to exclude certain markets […] that’s why they made a black Barbie.” While not all games are designed for “gamers,” the definition of what a gamer is impacts how games for both gamers and non-gamers are designed.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Asserting one’s location and importance in the market is part of the discourse of demanding media representation or creating one’s own media representation. This is the audience studies corollary to cultural production analyses demonstrating that industries shape and divide market segments based on the presumed value of those segments (Blumer, 1996; Ewen, 1976; Marchand, 1985; Ohmann, 1996; Sender, 2004; Turow, 1997). Indeed, one might even argue that it represents a kind of hegemonic dominance described by Gramsci (1994). The industry insists that they only create what audiences will buy and in turn individual audience members assume that purchase power is their only way to demand representation from media makers.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 To assert one’s presence in the marketplace does not ensure an equal place in mainstream gaming texts. The ‘girl games’ movement, for example, did not result in the creation of a place for female gamers in the mainstream video game market, but rather the active marking of content designed to be ‘for girls’ (Cassell & Jenkins, 2000; Hayes, 2007; Kafai, Heeter, Denner, & Sun, 2008). Carol described this in one interview: “The marketing for girls’ games that I see is so atrocious. It’s like everything has to be pink.” In the context of discussing whether games will be marketed to a gay audience, partners Devon and Ephram brought up the girls’ games example as well:

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Ephram: I think it can happen I don’t think it’s really going to happen a lot. Like it’s happened with girl gamers already where they had these awful awful…

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Devon: oh those were awful…

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Ephram: here’s girl games, and everything is pink and has ponies and you can decorate stuff and cook

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Devon: and yeah that’s what girls want

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Interviewees recognize that representation is tied directly to expected profits. Marketing to particular groups, however, results in the same sort of marginalization that mis- or under-representation does. As Morley and Robins assert “the very celebration and recognition of ‘difference’ and ‘Otherness’ may itself conceal more subtle and insidious relations of power” (1995, p. 115).

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Targeting specific markets via representation in game texts or working to prove that members of marginalized groups play games has dominated how we understand the relationship between audiences and representation. The problem is that it is not just relating to the constructed audience, the institutionalized gamer identity, that makes one a gamer. Other factors shape one’s relationship with this identity. In previously published research I have described the way gamer identity intersects with gendered, racial, and sexual identity categories. In this piece, I address how context, including the research moment, social relationships, and temporal and geographic contexts shape how and if people see themselves as gamers. Identities, as Butler (2009) argues, are both performed and precarious. I discuss this in terms of the relationship between subcultural and social capital and gamer identity. Gamer identity exists in relation to forms of subcultural capital including recourses (ex. time, money, desire), abilities and knowledge. Gamer identity is also claimed or rejected as a form of social capital. As an alternative to identity politics approaches to representation in video games, I discuss the insights offered by critical identity theory to this issue. Rather than change how gamer identity is understood, and the marketing discourse that calls upon, I argue that the goal should be to change how audiences think about their relationship with this medium.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Contextual Accounts

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 The relevance of particular identities in particular social interactions helps make sense of how people come to identify with categories like gamer. This is because, as Althusser argues, subjects are made through interpellation.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 For Althusser, the notion of an essential self disappears as a fiction, an impossibility, and in its place is the social being who possesses a socially produced sense of identity- a ‘subjectivity’. This subjectivity is not like the old unified individual self; it can be contradictory, and it can change within different situations and in response to different kinds of address. (Turner, 1996, p. 20)

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 This is particularly true of the research moment. When recruiting people to talk about video games, for example, there is an assumption that you are calling upon them to answer as gamers. Snowball sampling and distributing the recruitment announcement through my social networks allowed me to encourage anyone who had played any sort of digital game to fill out the survey. Yet even then many people wondered why I wanted to interview them, particularly as they did not see themselves as gamers. In many ways, this is the precise reason I did not emphasize that I was looking for people who were members of marginalized groups in the recruitment announcement. It would, as it had in my past research, put individuals in the position of answering as members of that particular group.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Related to this, when addressing gaming interviewees who did not identify as gamers were not sure what they had to offer. Conversely the two interviewees who fit the standard image of a gamer assumed that their viewpoints were “a dime a dozen,” as Chuck put it. There is an expectation that as an interviewee one is being called upon to speak from a particular point of view. Interviewees wanted to know which identity I was attempting to hail when I made them research subjects. Certainly, researchers must be conscious of over-simplifying the identities of their participants, which is part of the political project of this dissertation. And yet, at the same time, in any social situation people perform in particular ways and interviewees were quite conscious that they were being called upon to take a particular role.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Choosing to identify as a member of a particular group can also involve aligning oneself with a particular political perspective. Caine, for example, said out he feels an affiliation with those who rally against the ravings of lawyer and violent games legislation proponent Jack Thompson, even though he does not play the games Thompson condemns. There is a political position involved in identifying as a gamer. In a broader sense Caine viewed gamer identity as a subset of his identity as a geek. This particular political position made gamer identity more specifically salient. I would argue that for many different types of identity it is political investments that most often call upon people to identify as members of a specific group. This is the type of investment most arguments for representation rely on and hope for when they state that people want to see people “like them” in their media.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 How interviewees identify themselves in the interviews must be understood as a particular momentary articulation of how they view themselves rather than a solidified identity. Some interviewees, for example, identified themselves using certain identifiers on the survey but in different ways in the interview. Sexualities shifted from bisexual to gay, queer to gay, races Latino/White to simply White, multiracial to Black. Similarly, identifying as a gamer was not a constant state for interviewees, rather it was viewed as relative as Janet described.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 I always think of that as a comparative term and I know people that are so much more into gaming than I am. […] But it’s–I guess in more of an objective sense then I am. It’s like I don’t really think of myself as a hardcore biker but then I talk to people who don’t ride bikes at all and they’re like: “Wow, you ride seven miles a day?!” […] So I guess in that sense I don’t think of myself as a gamer. But I guess I am.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Indeed, several interviewees mentioned identifying as gamers at other points of their lives, but not at the time of the interview.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 In her ethnography of Everquest Taylor found that her identity as a member of a particular server became relevant during a ‘real life’ Everquest convention (2006, p. 3). This particular space made her identity as a specific kind of gamer relevant. Similarly, gamer identity can shift over time. The research moment only gives me glimpses into interviewees’ identities and tastes. In an email exchange a few months after the original interviews Connie said that she would not have identified as a gamer at the time of the interview, but as she had recently bought a Wii she currently does: “I had been a gamer growing up and now am it again.” Chuck said that he identifies as a gamer now that he plays so much, but he went through a long period where he did not. Moreover, while he was a child though he did play video games he did not identify as a gamer because “that wasn’t a thing. There wasn’t a gamer. You were an 8 year old boy, you played Nintendo.” The act of playing video games and being a gamer has been conflated in recent research and popular press. As this is a particular construction that both researchers and marketers have helped create, both have a role in recreating the category of gamer. So far this has only involved developing new ways of defining gamers. Instead the focus should be on how audiences view their relationship with this medium.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Performing Precarious Identities

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Butler describes identity as a performance. “[P]erformativity is not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effect through its naturalization in the context of a body understood, in part, as a culturally sustained temporal duration” (2006, p. xv). Subjectivity is constantly performed and made natural by subjects (p. 190). This notion of performativity highlights the absence of internal identities, but also that structures themselves are “empowered” via performance. Butler’s notion of performativity, as she explains in her response to Benhabib (Butler, 1995),  is not akin to Goffman’s (1959) dramaturgical self. People are not simply playing parts in different social contexts (though I would argue people do that as well). Rather, for Butler the performance of gender is like much more like a speech act (Austin, 1962). The performance of gender is what constitutes gender. These performances must draw on a broader system of meaning which helps render those utterances, those performances, intelligible.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 In her more recent work, Butler (2009) has proposed that precarity works hand in hand with performativity. Precarity refers to the ways in which one must perform identities in an intelligible way, in a way which can be read by others, in order to be recognized. One might perform in a variety of transgressive ways in order to destabilize categories, but “to be a subject at all requires first complying with certain norms that govern recognition” that make a person recognizable. And so, non-compliance calls into question the viability of one’s life, the ontological conditions of one’s persistence” (p. xi). While she is discussing this at the level of the nation-state and citizenship, her articulation is useful for a variety of types of identity. Identifying as a gamer, for example, does not necessitate fulfilling a specific set of criteria, and yet being recognized as a gamer implies a certain level of social readability of the codes of game consumption. Identifying as and being seen as a gamer, as with anything, is defined by one’s relation to social norms surrounding that category, including performance of “gamer” capital.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 When he arrived for the first interview on a rainy October day Devon sported an orange t-shirt with a picture of a 1980s-era Nintendo controller and the word “Gamer” on it. While this made the question of whether or not he identified as a gamer rather redundant, I asked it anyway as one should be hesitant to make assumptions based on outward appearances. Indeed, Devon mentioned being a gamer a few times during the interview. Specifically, he defined this identity in terms of consumption of specific types of texts: “it’s my main hobby. […] I like to play games, board games, video games, it doesn’t matter. I also play WoW[iv] […] I played Everquest when that was out. Oh my gosh, wasted so much time on those games.” Consumption, the spending of resources (time, money, energy) on selected texts and objects, has long been described as a way of displaying identity or group belonging (Bourdieu, 1984; Hebdige, 1979; Simmel, 1957; Thornton, 1996; Veblen, 1965 [1899]). This is particularly true of studies of fan cultures (Barker, 1997; Gray, Sandvoss, & Harrington, 2007; Jenkins, 2006).

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Whether or not individuals identify as gamers is done in the context of certain social constructions of gamer. Gaming culture is not just defined by the tastes and practices of those that play videogames. Certainly there are texts that are prominent in interviewees’ memories. Twenty-two interviewees brought up playing Mario Bros and eleven mentioned The Legend of Zelda, but these shared cultural texts were more viewed as part of a general conception of generational culture than as part of gaming fan culture (though they exist as both). There is not necessarily a static standard of gaming to which one might compare themselves. As Bourdieu describes, culture is a representative practice, symbol, more than it is an objective reality (1977, p. 2).  “Culture, for Bourdieu, refers to the resources or to the material, the code and frames that people use in building and articulating their own worldviews, their attitudes to life and social status” (Alasuutari, 1995, p. 26). He calls this the habitus, the process by which outer structural dynamics become internalized and thus shape individual practices. “[H]abitus which results from the homogeneity of the conditions of existence is what enables practices to be objectively harmonized without any intentional calculation of conscious reference to a norm and mutually adjusted in the absence of any direct interaction or, a fortiori, explicit co-ordination” (Bourdieu, 1977, p. 80). A presence and influence that can, for example, be seen in individuals’ relationship to the category of gamer.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Sometimes interviewees said they were not gamers because they did not play certain types of games, games with deep narratives or games focused on killing. Amy might play a game “on the caliber of World of Warcraft” once every few years, but as for the puzzle games she plays on a more regular basis she said: “I don’t really consider them video games as much.”  Undoubtedly, certain types of games are often deemed outside the gamer habitus. Ephram described his sister as a casual gamer because she only plays Dance Dance Revolution or Rockband. Other forms of consumption, on the other hand, demonstrate a claim to the gamer identifier. Connie stated: “I think of gamers as folks who play video games very often, owning not just older game systems but also new systems and games.” According to Klara “a gamer by today’s definition is either someone who either plays WoW or Halo, and like a PS3 or Xbox. I mean I have a Nintendo 64 and a Wii and those aren’t usually associated with gamers.” Chuck described getting “in jokes” and knowing developers names as part of why he identifies as a gamer. Certain types of games, amounts of play, and so on constitute the cultural capital of gaming (re: Bourdieu, 1997). These kinds of cultural capital are necessary but not sufficient for identifying as a gamer, however. Similarly, just playing a certain type of games for a certain amount of time does not a gamer make, but neither can one really be a gamer without engaging in video game play in some particular ways. Both Pouncy and Christine did not consider themselves gamers yet both keep up with video games to some extent by following reviews and new releases; instead Pouncy identified as a nerd and Christine a casual gamer.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Gamer identity is described as a general approach to games often tied to a willingness to sacrifice one’s time, a form of consumption (time is money after all). Tala, for example, identified as a gamer because, as she put it, “I’m not ashamed to admit that I play video games and I truly enjoy them and that I don’t feel that an evening is necessarily wasted by play a video game.” This also requires, she stressed, a willingness and ability to be critical of games, a reflexive distance cultivated by true consumers but not casual dilettantes. Elaborating on this theme, Bryan has many friends that play video games of various types, but he doesn’t consider any of them a gamers. He identified as one, however, because if he had nothing else he had to do, his first choice would be playing a video game. This is because it is not just if one plays, but one’s attachment to the medium. Hatshepsut, for example, identified as a gamer even though she doesn’t currently have a game system. Her old console was stolen and upon moving to Philadelphia from California she was still in search of work at the time of the interview: “But once I find a job I’m going to go out and buy video games (laughs). It’ll be my first priority after that.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, articulating how and if one is a gamer is intimately tied to consumption, however, it is not necessarily in the conspicuous sense described by Veblen (1965 [1899]). It is not as simple as playing games or not, or being in possession of the cultural capital symbols of gaming culture (a murkily defined concept at best). Rather it is using these as part of one’s performance of gamer identity.

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Not identifying as a gamer was articulated, in every instance, by a lack of what interviewees considered to be adequate consumption. “I don’t play enough” was a sentiment echoed by seven out of eight interviews that said they were not gamers. Sasha, the final non-gamer, still tied that fact to consumption however: “I don’t think I would spend my last dollar on a game. I wouldn’t pay to go to a video game show.” Inadequate knowledge about gaming (another form of subcultural capital) was another reason people gave for not identifying as a gamer. Julia did not think of herself as a gamer because “I don’t think I know enough about games to you know to go into a game store and start throwing stuff around like I know what I’m talking about. I don’t know what I’m talking about!” Her partner Elise, however, countered “but you get into it with the guy, [to me] there’s a guy in GameStop over in a strip mall by us, and like you [to Julia], to me it seems like you know what you are talking about.” Julia went on to explain that this was only in the context of the particular game she was discussing. It is not just purchasing power or being part of the constructed audience, but instead how people are invested (or not) in this medium that is important here.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 One can also think of gamer identity as a form of social capital, both in a positive and negative sense. Positively speaking Devon said that:

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 Whenever I make friends I’m always excited if somebody else plays video games […] I think a lot of people that identify as gamers have similar personality types. Outside of the fact that we all like video games, if we weren’t talking about video games we could also talk about similar things.

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Having a social circle defined by gaming was part of what defined the gamer identities of Zahriel and Ephram as well. Connie attributed part of her newly rekindled gamer identity to the fact that she now talks with other people about games. Those that did not identify as gamers related this to the fact that they are not social about it. Violet discussed the fact that she does not play online as one of the reasons she does not consider herself a gamer. Indeed World of Warcraft, a widely popular massively-multiplayer online roleplaying game, was mentioned by several interviewees to be a touchstone of gamer credibility.Losing this, as Malcolm felt he had, can problematize one’s ability to identify with this category. When asked if he identifies as a gamer Malcolm said “I don’t really have any gaming cred, as it were, anymore.So yeah, I would still check that box, but that’s just because I would still sort of think of myself as that. But I don’t think a gamer would consider me a gamer.” There is an uneasy tension between how one might identify themselves and how they are identified by others as a gamer; demonstrating the precarity of these identities to use Butler’s term.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 Identities are not only positive. Identities can also be formed via disidentifications, in Munoz’s (1999) sense, when individuals see themselves in and yet not fully represented in the portrayal of a group. Such moments are no less socially determined than positive identifications. As McRobbie describes “[o]thers are an integral, necessary part of who we are” (2005, p. 30). Generally interviewees, like Yates and Littleton’s (1999) focus group participants, discussed this in terms of the negative connotations about gamers. From from high school coolness to romantic relationships, interviewees discussed the many ways in which playing video games can be a problematic social position to take. As with a variety of marginalized genres, from soaps (Ang, 1989) to romance novels (Radway, 1984), there is a stigma attached to certain media, a guilty pleasure as it were. Not even those that consume these texts necessarily speak highly of them. Some texts, genres, and media are viewed as either feminine or juvenile, both of which are commonly viewed negatively. Along similar lines, many interviewees described games are “silly” and thus not to be taken seriously, as Newman (2008) reviews.

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 The fact that video games are seen as a guilty pleasure and as a (sometimes) negative medium affects whether or not interviewees thought that representation of their social group in games mattered. When teaching undergraduates about video games, for example, my students rarely consider games as important as television or film, particularly when it comes to analyzing (mis)representation. Games are seen as stupid, childish and violent; as a former student put it “I’m not really insulted that my group is being underrepresented in video games. I don’t care that the hand holding the gun on the screen[v] is not black.” This may be in part because, as some interviewees and former students have discussed, there is less critical attention in both popular and academic discourse about games and thus audiences do not have the theoretical tools to address this medium. It also offers an interesting reversal (or embodiment) of the high/low culture critique offered by MacDonald (2006 [1960]) or the Frankfurt School (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1993). Rather than argue that low culture is damaging, they argue that it is inconsequential and thus does no real damage.

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 Similar to the dismissal of the medium, the game audience has largely been constructed as peripheral. Zahriel pointed out that “most people have a television. Not as many of us have a console attached to it, you know.” She went on to argue, as I do here, that attacking this marginalization may offer the solution to the problem of representation in video games: “People are starting to say: ‘Hey wait. A lot of people play video games. A lot more people play video games then we thought.’ They don’t have to play in the closet any more. Yay!” The link to queer politics, alluded to by her reference to the closet, should be noted here. Much as feminist and queer politics have long questioned the construction of categories, the site for struggle in video game representation is not just the construction of the gamer audience. Rather, critical scholars must instead turn to the construction of games as a particular type of media.

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 Conclusion

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 Cultural production studies argue that the lack of representation of marginalized groups is attributable to the fact that the gamer market, at least in Europe and the North America, is constructed as primarily young, heterosexual, White and male. Researchers tend to position their work in opposition to this construction, question the construction, and offer their own construction. This is certainly an important line of inquiry when it comes to the politics of representation in video games. Here, however, I moved beyond this and looked at how and if these constructions play out in actual audiences. I used critical identity theory to make sense of this process of identifying as a gamer. The audience is an industrial construction, yes, and these constructions shape how peopleapproach media. But other factors such as the relationship between gamer and other identities, different contexts, individual performances of gamer and the precariousness of gamer identity and games in relation to mainstream media culture are important factors as well. Whether people see themselves as members of the intended audience or not shapes their reactions to the medium.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 Relying on the construction of particular kinds of audiences means that the only members of marginalized groups who are represented are those in the position to be “good” consumers. If Gregory, for example, were to say that it was important to him that he see himself, then that would only be of interest to those marketers that wish to target him as a consumer. As he is currently an unemployed, gay, African-American male, in his early 30s, who lives with his mother, he is unlikely to be a target market for many game makers, let alone other media industries. Market logic makes a social argument personal, as it stresses an appeal to individual consumers via an appeal to “group-ness.” The emphasis on consumer choice obscures the social and political importance of representation.

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 If one wants to create demand for representation in games, they first need to focus on getting people to think differently about their relationship to this medium. When video games are not taken seriously, the portrayals of groups within them are seen as unimportant. I do not think that we should make games more serious, as the serious game movement argues. Rather, I suggest that researchers should be more careful about how they deploy games’ difference. Researchers should not focus on gaming as a subculture when addressing issues of representation. They should not emphasize games as distinct from other media, even though they should address their particularities. Instead, an effort should be made to create alternative ways for audiences to relate to this medium. Researchers must not assume that peoples’ media use is used to articulate internal, naturalized identities (i.e. that all people who play video games are gamers). In this way, researchers can help to create a space in which demand for representation is not contingent upon fandom or targeted marketing.

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 Some might argue, that what I call for here amounts to dismantling the master’s house with the master’s tools, referencing Audre Lorde’s oft-quoted castigation of second-wave feminism. In that famous essay, Lorde calls on feminists to learn “how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (1984, pp. 112, italics in original). What she discusses, however, goes beyond the way the analogy is often used. She argues that the oppressed are often called upon to educate the masters, the oppressors. To assert that the marginalized demand that the center acknowledge them, however, is a displacement of responsibility. That displacement is the very core of the market logic argument for representation. Market logic is more precisely the master’s tools, which “may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change” (Lorde, 1984, p. 112). It is also the logic behind games that offer players the option to create their own avatars, instead of integrating diversity into texts. Rather than call upon groups to demand representation, or display their need to be heard, researchers, activists, and interested producers can argue that the impetus is on everyone to acknowledge and celebrate difference.

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 Works Cited

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112 Leave a comment on paragraph 112 0 Notes

113 Leave a comment on paragraph 113 0 [i] The survey allowed me to sample from marginalized identity categories I use as the starting point for this study without making it necessary for me to signal that these are identities were of interest.

114 Leave a comment on paragraph 114 0 [ii] Of the fifty-two total people who fit into one or more of the selection criteria, 38 were contacted and 27 of those agreed to be interviewed. In addition, partners of three of my interviewees (two heterosexual men who play video games and filled out the survey and one non-gaming, queer woman who did not) also took part in the interviews.

115 Leave a comment on paragraph 115 0 [iii] This demographic outline is drawn from the raw survey data from IGDA’s 2005 workforce diversity survey. I was given permission to use this data during another research project (Jason Della Rocca, Personal Communication, July 20, 2007).

116 Leave a comment on paragraph 116 0 [iv] Shorthand for World of Warcraft.

117 Leave a comment on paragraph 117 0 [v] Here she references an assertion made in the documentary Game Over: gender, race and violence in video games (Huntemann & Media Education Foundation., 2002). The commentators in the movie point out, as have other scholars (G. King & Krzywinska, 2006), that in FPSs where the identity of the avatar is of no consequence the hand (the only part players see of their avatar) is always given a White skin tone.

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