Damsels, Bronies, Tennos, and Toons: Gender Matters in Video Games

This week I’ll be presenting at the PCA/AVA national conference here in New Orleans. Below is the panel description with abstracts:

“Damsels, Bronies, Tennos, and Toons: Gender Matters in Video Games”
Thursday, April 2, 2015 – 11:30am – 1:00pm
Studio 2

Given the recent media attention and continuing backlash against women gamers, journalists, and game studies scholars–from Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian to actor Felicia Day–our panel brings together a range of interventions and perspectives on why gender, sexuality, and feminist critique matter in and for games and gaming culture. As media and games scholar Lisa Nakamura argues, “[M]uch of the pleasure of videogames comes at the expense of women and people of color, both literally and figuratively.” Looking at avatars, gamer behavior, posthuman identities, and queer(ing) mechanics, our panel hopes to challenge the gendered and normative status quo in games and to antidote some of the anti-feminist and anti-academic vitriol and violence in gaming cultures.

Come Get Some: Duke Nukem, Damsels in Distress, and the Default Avatar
Anastasia Salter
School of Visual Arts and Design, University of Central Florida

Male game avatars, from the sexually challenged Leisure Suit Larry to the stripper-rescuing Duke Nukem, share a hypermasculine construction and offer a space to consider male wish-fulfillment through gendered play. The focus on male as actor in these games holds consequences for the perception of feminine in gamer identity. Games are already a highly charged space for gendered discourse, and while the female avatar has often been considered, the ubiquitous white male warrior avatar has gone relatively unremarked thanks to his status as “default.”

Bronies on the Iron Throne: Perceptions of Prosocial Behaviors and Success
Bridget Blodgett
Division of Science, Information Arts and Technologies, University of Baltimore

Gaming culture is full of stories in which heroes receive their due reward, often embodied in the form of a woman alongside property, status, and wealth. These narratives are often translated into a perception of action and reward. White knights, or men to the rescue, are a common form of advocate in gamer communities. We will trace how the belief that men should be rewarded for their “good behaviour” is often a point of internal conflict within masculine gamer groups when issues dealing with women or marginalized groups arise.

Posthuman Possibilities: Gender in Warframe
Timothy Welsh
English Department, Loyola New Orleans

In Warframe, a free-to-play, co-op, third-person shooter, players take on the role of a “tenno,” a mercenary trained to wear specialized suits of armor called “warframes.” Though tennos may wear any frame they like, each suit has a clearly defined—and at times regressively represented—gender assignment. For this paper, I read warframe models with and against lore and community discussion boards to chart the matrix of gender organizing play. My goal is to determine whether Warframe opens a space for fluid, posthuman identities and performance between narrowly defined poles of a gender binary.

Queer (Im)Possibility and Straightwashing in Frontierville and World of Warcraft
Edmond Y. Chang
Drew University, Department of English

The blogger of Not Quite Literally posted a provocation titled “World of Warcraft is Inherently Queer” arguing that the virtual space of games like WoW offer an “other” space where “the boundaries of gender [and sexuality] are expanded, eviscerated, and recreated into something entirely new.” This paper hopes to antidote the assumption the virtual is “inherently” queer and to unpack what I call the interactive fallacy. Through a close reading and close playing of Zynga’s Frontierville and Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, this presentation interrogates the ways that gender and sexuality in games is both normative and subversive.

#GamesLit15 at Loyola in November

I’ll be hosting the third meeting of the Games and Literary Theory Conference, #GamesLit15, this November at Loyola. The call for papers is below:


International Conference Series in Games and Literary Theory

Third Annual Conference

Hosted by Loyola University New Orleans, Department of English & School of Mass Communication

New Orleans, Louisiana USA
November 20-22, 2015

Please note, we are EXTENDING the proposal due date to April 17th.

The Games and Literary Theory Conference Series addresses the scope and appeal of interdisciplinary approaches to the study of games and games’ impact on other fields in the Humanities. It began in 2012 as a PhD seminar and workshop arranged by the Department of English at the University of Malta in collaboration with IT University of Copenhagen and subsequently expanded into an annual conference. The inaugural Games and Literary Theory conference convened at the University of Malta in 2013; the 2nd annual conference was held at the University of Amsterdam in 2014. The 3rd annual Games and Literary Theory conference is scheduled to meet in the USA at Loyola University New Orleans during November 2015.

We are particularly interested in digital game modalities and how these might be seen as reconfiguring and questioning concepts, practices and orthodoxies integral to literary theory (i.e. textuality, subjectivity, authorship, the linguistic turn, the ludic, and the nature of fiction). The conference will also explore the ways in which theoretical discourses in the area of game studies can benefit from critical concerns and concepts developed within the fields of literary and cultural theory, such as undecidability, the trace, the political unconscious, the allegorical, and the autopoietic. Likewise the conversation about narrative and games continues to raise questions concerning the nature of concepts such as fiction and the virtual, or indeterminacies across characters, avatars and players.

The Games and Literary Theory conference has adopted a single-track format allowing all attendees to attend all presentations and discussions. The organizers of the Third Annual International Conference invite proposals that focus on issues related, but not limited to, any (or a combination of) the following:

  • Textuality in literature and games
  • Rethinking fiction after with digital games
  • Characters, avatars, players, subjects
  • New forms of narrative and games
  • Games and the rethinking of culture
  • Genre study and criticism
  • Digital games, literariness, and intermediality
  • Digital games and authorship and/or focalization
  • Reception theory, reader experience, player experience: New phenomenologies for critique
  • Gender in games, literature, and theory
  • Digital games, literary theory, and posthumanism
  • Representations of disability in interactive media
  • Possible Worlds Theory and games
  • Digital games in literature

For earliest consideration, please submit abstracts of 250-300 words as the body of an email with a subject line “GamesLit15″ to Timothy Welsh (twelsh@loyno.edu) by April 1, 2015 April 17, 2015. The organizers will review proposals and confirm acceptances beginning May 1, 2015.

For information and updates, please refer to the conference website and twitter feed.

Playing inFamous in New Orleans

This piece originally appeared on First Person Scholar, February 26, 2014.

Advocating for videogames can be paradoxical. Often the very features praised for making videogames a unique and powerful medium are assailed as threatening the public good.

Take for example the oral arguments in the Supreme Court case Brown vs. Electronic Merchant’s Association from November 2010. The state of California argued for the right to impose tighter restrictions on the sale of violent videogames to minors. Since no such restrictions are placed on violence depicted in other protected media forms like cartoons, rap music, film and even Grimm’s Fairy Tales, much of the debate revolved around why videogames require extra provisions. California Deputy Attorney General Zackery Morazzini explained that it is the “interactive nature of violent [games],” in which the player is “acting out this—this obscene level of violence” that makes gaming “especially harmful to minors.” Then, to support his claim that all content being equal, interactivity makes videogames significantly more influential, Morazzini presented “video clips of game play.”

This line of argument seems nonsensical. How was the court to assess these supposedly obscene interactions by watching video clips? Morazzini here takes interactivity for granted: whatever players actually do when they play games—he suggests—we can agree that we don’t want them participating in what we see on-screen.

This is the kind of argument that draws scoffs from the gaming community. Furthermore, it evinces the need for people who know about videogames—developers, critics, players—to speak for them. Thus, as the tragic events at Newtown brought violent videogames back into the public spotlight, exactly how the gaming community should address misconceptions and reductive assumptions about interactive media became an urgent topic of debate.

Yet, the issue here can’t be neatly explained by the ignorance of non-gamers. Even successfully demonstrating the variety of the wonderful things one can do with videogames might not help, for underlying a great many public discussions about videogames—both positive and negative—are similar assumptions about what happens when players engage with virtual environments.

For more please visit First Person Scholar.

Xbox is ordinary

This piece originally appeared on MediaCommons, November 18, 2013.


Our discussion of digital media and narrative coincides with the launch of the eighth generation of video game consoles. Microsoft's third console, the Xbox One, will appear on store shelves around the world later this week. It seems appropriate that, as the release of new platforms heralds the next evolution of video game development, we take this opportunity to (re)assess the intersections of digital media and narrative study.

Videogames have long been at the forefront of discussion about digital storytelling. Particularly in the nineteen-nineties, when affordable personal computing, the popularization of the Internet, and the rise of the dedicated gaming console coincided with advances in virtual reality simulation research led to speculation about a version of Hamlet playing on the Holodeck, video games looked like the future of narrative. Whether or in what capacity games have fulfilled those projections is a topic for debate. If Microsoft's own introduction of the Xbox One last May is any indication, there is still a great deal of optimism that video games can capitalize on their narrative potential. And yet, their press event revealed that this optimism still hinges on videogaming's assumed immersivity.

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