MLA 14: Hard Mode: Games and Narratives of Marginalization

MLA 14: Hard Mode: Games and Narratives of Marginalization

Adeline Koh, Edmond Chang, Eileen Chow and I will be talking about games and narratives of marginalization in a special session at MLA 14!

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Provocation Materials:

Here’s the full proposal:

In 2012, the news and blogosphere erupted with the story of media critic Anita Sarkeesian, who experienced a torrent of Internet flaming and hate mail for her Kickstarter project Tropes vs. Women in Video Games.  Many anonymous bloggers, incensed at Sarkeesian’s attempt to intrude into the straight, white, male-dominated video-game preserve, posted vituperative responses, death threats, lewd photoshopped videos of her, and even made a game dedicated to inflicting virtual violence on a representation of her.  The Sarkeesian incident (and others like it) points out some of the many ways in which the game industry and game culture continue to be riddled with stereotypes and remain a space dominated by heteronormative voices and ideologies.  In a study of industry demographics in 2005, the survey found that developers identified as 88.5% male, 83.3% white, and 92% heterosexual.  In a provocative article on a popular gaming site, Kotaku, science fiction writer John Scalzi offered an explanation of straight white male privilege as like playing the game of life on its easiest setting, and the game industry itself is an apt case study for the metaphor.  Scalzi argues, “You can lose playing on the lowest difficulty setting. The lowest difficulty setting is still the easiest setting to win on. The player who plays on the “Gay Minority Female” setting? Hardcore.”

Games are still associated with discourses of dominance, control, and competition, aided in part by the privilege associated not only with access to gaming systems and games but also with production.  Other voices are truly marginalized in this space: movements such as the “#1ReasonWhy” hashtag on Twitter, with women game designers and would-be designers offering reasons for the small representation of women in the gaming industry, illuminate the serious lack of representation and outright hostility to marginalized groups in mainstream gaming.  This tension continues in the narratives and representations within games and in incidents such as the recent controversy over Lara Croft’s depiction as a victim in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the problematic racism of Resident Evil 5, and the furor over male human-on-male elf sex in Dragon Age: Origins.

In this panel, Hard Mode: Games and Narratives of Marginalization, we seek to discuss some of the ways in which games and game narrative can be marshaled for socially conscious purposes–particularly in the hands of creators and critics operating outside this mainstream game culture. We seek to continue the conversation begun by Mark Sample’s “Close Playing: Literary Methods and Videogame Studies” roundtable at MLA 2012, which began the discussion of video game studies as media objects of interest for their place in the discourse of narrative and storytelling. We propose this focused exploration in light of this year’s presidential theme, “Vulnerable Times,” invites exploration of the role of art and narrative in promoting social change.  Games produced in dialogue and outright confrontation with this mainstream, normative discourse of gaming culture are a powerful example of this potential, particularly as the visibility of marginalized groups as players and designers increases.  As Gonzalo Frasca once said, “If videogames are indeed persuasive tools, then they can be used for conveying passionate ideas…games will allow us to model our ideas and let others play with them and vice versa.”

Our roundtable will extend the conversations and lines of inquiry started by previous years’ panels and offer a further diversity of perspectives being brought to the challenge outlined by this year’s conference theme.  Each of the four presenters will focus on illuminating examples of games whose narrative and creation plays with industry norms and stereotypes.  Moreover, each presenter will limit his or her opening remarks to a non-negotiable eight minutes, centering on the specific game and its contribution to our understanding of the potential transformative power of these games.  Anastasia Salter will address the fetishization of violence against women as coded into mainstream gamer identity, drawing upon the recent packaging of Dead Island: Riptide in a model of a decapitated and bloody female torso and the controversy over the Tomb Raider debut alongside the virtual attack on Anita Sarkeesian. Edmond Y. Chang will engage sexuality and desire, particularly through massively multiplayer role-playing games like World of Warcraft, and the ways homophobia is hard coded into games and the limits of queerness in design and play. Adeline Koh will discuss the ways in which role-playing games can be used to teach race consciousness, through her development of a historical role playing game titled Trading Races, which places students in the setting of the University of Michigan affirmative action cases in 2003. Eileen Chow will focus on the pedagogical dimensions of game-play as well as of game-design, examining how classroom practices and assignments such as these enable engagement with issues of voice, race, gender, and authorship in radically different ways. The remaining time will be devoted to an open discussion, inviting comparisons and the drawing of parallels with contributions from both the panel and the audience.

“Hard Mode: Games and Narratives of Marginalization” will continue the examination of interactive storytelling alongside other media at MLA, inviting connections to the interest in digital humanities by applying humanities methods and theories to digital objects.  The discussion will be particularly relevant to those interested in the consequences of the digital divide and the impact of playable media on social discourse. Mark Sample’s “Close Playing” roundtable at MLA 2012 and the “Game Studies” panel at MLA 2013 were well-attended by a broad range of scholars, and have opened the doorway to discussions like this that illuminate the role games can play in wider concerns of the MLA community.

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