Tag Archives: GAW

Content on the Margins: How we know what’s in.

Originally published by Mo at Gaming as Women on June 16, 2014

I’ve been having many thoughts recently about stories and gendered (and other marginalized) content, and the practical challenges that groups and individuals face in introducing diversified content to games. While it comes out of a long history of reading and musing and discussions with other Cultural Studies geeks, its recent momentum to get it out of my head and on to Gaming as Women was sparked by (the very smart and articulate) Samara Hayley Steele’s talk Beyond Lords and Ladies at the Living Games Conference in New York City this February, a recent social media discussion that was initiated by GaW’s own Rowan Cota about “the call to adventure”, and after I have just completed a playthrough of Ubisoft’s new video game release Child of Light.

When we come to gaming (or any activity) we come to the table with a framing context. We have a pre-established understanding of what a “game” is and what it does, about what a “story” is and what makes for a good one, and about what behaviour appropriately constitutes the “heroic” or “protagonistic”. This understanding is developed through our lives via a cumulative and learned process. It is influenced by our locality, our community, our media environment, our critical and educational institutions, and very, very strongly through the process of our socialization (in gender and other attributes).

Our understandings are maintained performatively: when we play or even when we talk about games, stories and characters, we create and talk towards the ideas that confirm our understandings, and casually – often unconsciously – reject those that don’t. When gaming with others we are in a constant process of negotiating, cultivating and policing our communal and personal understandings (even if we never have an actual conversation about or can articulate what we think they should be). Social feedback can come as overt and direct policing: “This plot sucks, dude”. However, the majority of feedback is more subtle and subtextual: ideas get picked up by the group’s attention, excitement, or engagement… or they don’t. As communities form and operate, they are in a constant state of reinforcing communal standards of many things, including what a game, a story or a protagonist is and should be.

Some play communities exist in more isolation than others. For instance, some localized groups have been playing the same game for 25 years with each other who might not be engaging with the culture of gaming as part of their hobby: they don’t talk about it online, go to conventions, or really know anybody outside their home group that plays. However, it’s important to note that even groups like this aren’t operating fully in a vacuum; they will watch movies, read books, and have life experiences that will influence their individual understandings and the way their communal standards evolve over time.

Highly cultivated communities like this will likely have strong network of community standards. Standards will be custom-fit to the needs of the community in question (1), they will feel consistent, be more entrenched and will change with greater difficulty. If newcomers come, they will be more likely to be subject to the community’s standards than to be able to use their own. In short, strong community standards are established enough to form a contextual social gravity. That social gravity is also strong enough in the gaming context to override appeals to the standards of society-at-large.

On the other end of the continuum there are play communities which exist in much more open field. Games may be short or long with a continual ebb and flow of different players that have more, but weaker (and even sometime absent) ties in the gaming context. These players intermix across many different types of games and styles. Greater transitional movement also brings a wider network of ties to the wider culture of gaming through conventions, community events, social networks and social media. Less time in play with specific playgroups provide less consensus-making effort resulting in a more diffuse common core understanding of ideas like game, and story and protagonist. This creates a greater propensity to directly use inherited definitions and recreate power structures from dominant culture and mass media as a shortcut to play.(2)

All this is to say a number of things. Every participant’s experience in the game is subject to some kind of (strong or weak, custom or inherited) definitions of what appropriate play, stories, and characters are, and of what they should do and what they are permitted to be. As I move forward, this is the basis in which I’ll be evaluating how marginalized content, especially gendered content) might meet that model and experience challenge and resistance in integration.

(1)This is not intended to imply that standards in an entrenched community will serve all community members equally; the standards we create recreate and reinforce of the power and status dynamics existing within the community. Socially powerful members of a community will have a greater say in legitimizing standards than others.

(2)This reflection about re-creating the dominant paradigm within open systems is sparked by Samara Hayley Steele’s talk at NYC Living Games. Steele was addressing the propensity for players to recreate dominant power structures within the games fiction when playing in an open world. Once the Living Games publications are available, I highly recommend checking it out. On an unrelated note, you should also check out her talk on LARP and Leisure Labor, it is fascinating!

You Could Be Me, I Could Be There: The Joy of Representation

Originally published by Mo on Gaming as Women, September 28, 2015

Act One: In Which I Am Changed

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a little obsessed with women’s history, particularly when it comes to the role of women in WW2. And anyone who reads me on GAW knows that I am particularly interested in the Hx/Relationship/Bond mechanics in Powered by the Apocalypse games and how they related to gender socialized play.

So when Jason Morningstar asked me to consult for him as he was fine tuning Night Witches, I was all in. As a thank you, he gave me a gift that he would later offer backers of the Kickstarter: a portrait of me (done by GAW’s own Claudia Cangini), in a Nachthexen uniform. This delighted my inner history geek! But I didn’t realize then how important that it would become to me.

As part of the campaign, a deck of cards was produced to enhance the experience of the game. In it, were plane diagrams, medals, ceremonial dedication speeches…. and portraits of sample Night Witches, new ones plus all of the portraits that had been commissioned for the Kickstarter – including the consultants.

Once Night Witches fulfilled, people started posting pictures, of their books, of the cards, and of their games. As I came across those posts on social media, I would often get a moment of cognitive distortion when I noticed my portrait was on the table in people’s game set up. There I was: a Hawk. There I was: a Pidgeon. There I was: a Raven.

People were picking me as the visrep of the person they wanted to be in their game.

Now, I’m a woman living in the age of media-mandated perfection. And as such, I’m subject to the cruel and usual punishment of the Beauty Industrial Complex. I have not – just like every woman (and most men) I know – come through life without a complicated relationship with my appearance. I think most women, secretly or openly, whether they are beautiful or not, spend a lot of time hating on their bodies. We look into mirrors and see all the ways we fall short.

But here people were, picking me to be what they wanted their character to looked like.

And then this happened:

Someone posted their character sheet with me as their Sparrow. In the options under Body, they circled “beautiful”.

I can’t quite articulate what happened then, but it feels in my memory like that cartoon moment when the Grinch’s heart which is three sizes too small suddenly is pictured expanding so big it takes over the square it’s confined in. And between this lovely thank you gift and this innocuous social media post, I have – even if only a little – changed how I feel about my own body. In the moment that my picture and that option were chosen together by someone far away, the two ceased to be incompatible by default.

And that right there is both the power of representation, and the power of role-playing games as a medium to provide unique and innovative ways to make representation matter more.

Act Two: In Which We Need to Change Things for Others Too.

Games are our dreams. Stories are the way we make sense of our lives, and understand our place in the world. Seeing myself in a game made me dream about myself differently. And sure, this is a pretty specific example: It’s specifically an image of me, and specifically coded in a way that will drive the point home. But we don’t need to go so far to have exact pictures of ourselves to feel represented. In fact, short of actual portraits of ourselves, detail can get in the way. Scott McCloud talks about this idea in Understanding Comics: The less detail a character on a page has, the more a reader can project themselves into their place in the story. Our minds differentiate and create distance from characters by difference: when we see something that is not us, we categorize and say this is me and that is not.

I’m a white cis woman. While there are a lot less white cis women in game art then there are white cis men, there are a lot of white cis women too. Few of them look anything like me. They conform much more magically to the strange and terrible demands of the Beauty Industrial Complex, often even where those demands include the need for anti-gravity technology or spinal surgery.

The art in game books include enough things that aren’t me to make my brain trigger distance. People who look like me do not exist in this game. But the art in game books include enough things that are me to make my brain trigger proximity too: I see white faces, female faces, cis people. They read: the people in this game are more beautiful versions of me. That might not be the best thing, but it’s a place we’d all like to escape to.

But if I’m not white, or I’m trans, or I’m otherwise absent in the visual field, all the game says to me is absence. This is not a place for you, you are not here.

I’d really like everyone engaging with games (and other media) to have equal opportunity to dream themselves beautiful.