When it comes to issues of intersectionality in gaming, often the response is to only address the bare minimum in order to survive as a game, developer, or platform, then continue on. Unfortunately, when marginalized voices do speak, they often go unheard, or ignored.
Given that the dominant faction of gaming communities in places like Twitch, Reddit, or 4chan, still consists of conservative vocal portions of the larger gaming community, when these marginalized voices meet silence, opposition, or find themselves spoken for, the overwhelming dominance that surrounds them often creates a suffocating feeling that persists until they remain silent altogether.
Only when we learn to accept these voices as they are, genuinely listen to what they have to say, and begin to incorporate intersectional analysis into gaming discourse, will we find ourselves capable of attempting to consider the vast complexities of the virtual world.
Even just to begin, the common discourse of the gaming community ignores its class distinctions. As of today, even the 4-year-old main consoles, the Playstation 4 and Xbox One run from $250 to $300, with the new remodels at $400. Once you get all of the extra hardware to go with it (monitor, headset, extra controllers, etc.) plus games, that is easily upwards of $500 or even $600. And despite PC gamers insistence, even a custom built pc will cost at least $400 if you want to be able to play games, closer to $1,000 if you want to play them on their intended settings. On top of which, online gaming necessitates a stable internet connection with decently high speeds. Online gaming is not a plausible pastime for anyone without disposable income.
Gender in Gaming
Then, as the vocal male portion of the gaming community actively ostracizes female gamers, even though women make up a nearly equal portion of gamers overall, they will be less likely to openly participate in multiplayer competitive online games. Emphasis on the word “competitive,” with women seeking competition at a significantly lesser rate in games than men, focusing instead on completion, whereas non-binary gamers prefer fantasy by far.
When women do participate in competitive games, especially when they utilize features that give away their gender (by classic assumption), like voice chat, women often find themselves openly harassed. While it occurs frequently in game, instances of harassment appear in more overt ways in areas like Twitch and by stigmatizing speaking out against the harassment of women gamers when you see it (by creating, and socializing negative connotations of, terms like “white knighting“), the culture of anti-femininity maintains dominance.
Taking Humor Seriously
While much of the “grill gamer” rhetoric and anti-feminine sentiment obviously utilizes sarcastic, trolling humor, the fact that these attitudes appear at all, however, and that they appear in such frequency, normalizes the otherwise unacceptable views. The informality and relative lack of serious consideration that we afford to comments of this type due to a societal inability to recognize trolling or meme humor with sincerity results in the use of these styles of expression as linguistic loopholes to communicate offensive rhetoric without reproach.
Essentially, by refusing to acknowledge the severity of widespread offensive sentiment in internet gaming communities due to not viewing trolling as a serious act of expression, we fall into a trap that impedes our ability to consider gaming from an intersectional standpoint and silences the voices of those who find themselves victim to the abhorrent spam we allow to exist.
Invisibility in Gaming Politics
However, when we do get political in gaming it often boils down to talk about anti-femininity in general, or the divide between men and women as a concrete binary, but what if reality is not that simple? Where does this discussion leave people of color, people with non-cis identities, or people with disabilites, both inside and outside of the game? Analyses of the lack of female protagonists may only go so far, and to consider only the “female” aspect of characters, and gamers, identities is reductive, to say the least.
Symmetra, for example, the only non-healer support in Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch roster, receives a wealth of support as a positive representation for people with autism, however, on twitch and especially in troll habitats like reddit and 4chan, fans often consume her autism as a meme instead. Much of this results from the relative lack of positive representation of, and societal education on, people with autism or people with disabilities in general. And this does not even begin to consider the issue of labeling Symmetra’s identity as Indian without any specific follow through.
However, in our society, use of the word “autistic” or even “ret*rded” as an insult, especially in troll havens of the internet like Twitch, remains widespread enough to maintain a vernacular position beyond public reproach. The average person may not even realize how offensive their words are and in a space where offensive vernacular persists as the dominant norm, marginalized voices often struggle to find a platform to contest.
Here we see a disparity between Blizzard’s intent, how the oppositional portion of the fanbase reads the content, and how the dominant portion consumes it. In the wake of controversies like Gamergate or in contrast the various recent instances of internet call outs on prejudice or bigotry in gaming, we see a movement in the industry towards a seemingly more “progressive” era while the vocal portion of the gaming community lags behind.
Additionally, this is not to ignore the disparity between the mythic concept of “progressive” content and the white feminist version we find in reality. The recent Horizon Zero Dawn for example, which one side of the internet champions and the other vilifies as feminist media in the wake of controversy surrounding its female protagonist, also appears in an article that cites the appropriative use of terms like “braves” and “tribal” in a white centric narrative filled with echoes of Native American (more specifically, “Hollywood Indian”) culture. Overwatch‘s Pharah, an Egyptian woman, appears in the same article in reference to Blizzard’s use of Native American iconography in two of her cosmetics, and the subsequent lack of response on Blizzard’s behalf.
The issue, that Dia Lacina highlights in the article, draws on the theory behind Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” According to Lacina, what we see in gaming mirrors that of Spivak’s subaltern in that the marginalized voices that these problems actually affect often find themselves spoken for by the developers and the community.
What I see in these articles is hyper-specific spot analysis. A problem pops up for one, individual aspect of identity and a blogger writes a think piece in response, however what if we consider all of these ideas together?
Take, for example, Lisa Nakamura’s Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft, which considers issues of race and class (in the monetization process of said labor). Additionally, it brings into question the nature of fan content and how these secondary creations alter discourse surrounding the original text. We see similar interactions within the disparity between Blizzard Entertainment’s decision to canonize Symmetra’s autism as an instance of positive representation and the similarly widespread use of Symmetra’s autism as a meme by trolls within the fandom.
In all aspects of analysis, we must acknowledge the necessity to consider the plethora of differing uses and consumptions of content that appears throughout fan communities, theorists, and developers. Not just individually, but all at once. For example, it is possible to read the appropriation that Lacina highlights as ignorance or prejudice within the industry and stop at that, but what in order to better understand the situation we must look further.
What about the current cultural and industrial environment allows for these types of appropriations to occur without hesitation? And what permits companies to continue to evade widespread reproach even after writers like Lacina call them out?
In a response to Lacina, Horizon‘s narrative director, John Gonzales, explains that “it [brave] was a term that [we felt] was not derogatory, as we came across some terms that were definitely slurs against Native Americans and other groups throughout history. And so, our decision was based on ‘brave’ not being a ‘hot button’ term.” The issue here is that the final decision on the use of historically racialized language comes from a group of non-natives, however this is not to claim that the solution is to put the pressure of speaking for an entire race on the shoulders of one “Native American Consultant” as we often find throughout the history of film and television (John Ford’s use of consultants, for example).
However, this quote also highlights the attitude our society takes towards Native American issues specifically, in that the approach and response in this instance differs from what we find with more general racial issues due to the specificity of the relationship between Native American people and the United States. The appropriative, and disrespectful, use of Native American culture occurs so frequently at a national level (sports team mascots, costumization in media, and national attitudes in general) that people often do not even recognize the appropriation of Native American culture as appropriation.
Because we socialize Native American culture as a costume, thus severing iconography from cultural identity, a resulting failure to recognize the appropriation occurs. This failure then spreads to other countries, as the context of the relationship between the United States and Native American people is too specific to translate properly.
Intersectionality in Niche Culture
As for appropriations of culture by corporations in gaming, the abuse of societal ignorance for capital gain comes as no surprise.
In further discussion of the current unlikelihood of an intersectional approach to gaming and the internet discourse that accompanies it, I ask that we look to Jasbir Puar’s theory of assemblage as a complementary addition to intersectionality that appears in “I Would Rather Be A Cyborg Than A Goddess.” The distinction that Puar makes between the two is one of fluidity and impermanence versus rigid, hyper-specificity.
My theory, then, is that the splintered, niche nature of internet discourse, in which an endless number of different and distinct demographics coexist simultaneously within one larger fandom, encourages discursive practices that create a level of specificity inaccessible to more than one portion of the group at one time. However, in these contexts it is important to understand the difference between specificity and exclusivity.
For example, a think piece on the appropriation of Native American culture appeals towards the specificity of the Native American identity, while movements that center around the lack of female protagonists in gaming often do nothing to consider the disparity of representation in major roles between white women and women of color.
So in order to move towards a discursive style that encourages a complication of the current meta through theories of intersectionality and assemblage without undermining specificity in the hyper-niche mentality of the internet (where gaming discourse happens, for the most part), we must first find a way to destabilize the structures that force a mutually exclusive relationship between the intersections of identity without instead disallowing specificity.
I will not pretend to possess the answer. Although, perhaps one solution involves a communal investment in modes of discourse that require engagement from normally apathetic, or ignorant, groups. While the internet does well to promote a variety of nuanced discussions across all networks, that same hyper-specificity allows for a majority of gamers to consume the content and exist within the community without ever having to encounter areas of discourse that do not apply to them personally.
Cisgender heterosexual white women, for example, may exist within the gaming community and participate in the discourses surrounding femininity or the gender binary, without ever coming in contact with conversations of the trans experience in gaming or the fetishization of Japanese culture in western media. Not because these arguments do not exist, or because they are not important, but because the current modes of discourse position certain narratives above others, providing them greater visibility, and allowing the dominant portion of the gaming population to exist without interference from other theory or experiences.
The Importance of the Study of Gaming
So while articles like Lacina’s or Khosravi’s exist within reach, they will continue to fly beneath the radar until dominant society amplifies discussions outside of their own. The question, then, is how do we enact a strategy to do just that? One place to start may be with promoting serious, academic discussion of gaming. More than simply a few professors and online journalists scattered within obscurity. Considering that a number of these discourses occur within fragmented fan-circles buried beneath blog posts or forum comments, a movement towards the complication of gaming discourse may necessitate the academic legitimization of internet culture and online modes of discourse.
Although internet journalism produces new and exciting theory, it fails to garner the same respect, or impact, as traditional academic work like Nakamura’s Don’t Hate the Player. The issue, then, may lie within the socialization of what constitutes “worthy” or “legitimate” theory. In a society where those most likely to occupy academic positions that allow for the lifestyle conditions necessary of a researcher or theorist, represent dominant identities and ideology, this presents a problem. Even within journalism, the voice of someone like Lacina, who is not only trans, queer, and native, but also writes about theories of gaming that challenge current industry norms, is significantly less likely to be heard than the voices of journalists who allow developers and industry executives to get away with ignoring complaints or faking apologies.
Some may argue that the simple fact that these conversations occur at all inherently proves that there is nothing that needs to be done to further complicate the gaming discourse, or that it is the job of the marginalized to find a way to make their voices heard. However, silence and inaction only serve to reinforce the dominant infrastructures. By denying the need to take action, or shifting the responsibility onto groups whose voices already experience systematic silencing, we would only further disenfranchise those who the current paradigm ostracizes the most. To ignore the current disparities simply because our personal identities reside among the most visible groups within the industry representation and discourse is reductive, at best.
So when the majority of discussion occurs in inherently biased, and known to be dominant, communities like Twitch, Reddit, and 4chan, where even non-intersectional, white feminism is controversial.
When the voices that speak up for identities that are otherwise underrepresented, exploited, or ignored, lack the platform to affect the the industry in meaningful ways (that necessitate response from, and garner influence within, the community).
When a mirror may be held up to the gaming industry, and reflect the power dynamic between the prevalence of dominant sentiments and the relative infrequence of oppositional or marginalized ideologies within our culture.
This is when we encounter a necessity to complicate the gaming discourse.