Do Cyborgs Dream of the Perfect Pump?

During November 2014, Digital Extremes (DE) ran a charity promotion through their popular free-to-play game Warframe (2012) supporting the Movember Foundation. The Movember Foundation has gained some notoriety recently for asking supporters to grow a moustache during the month of November–hence Mo(ustache)-vember–in order to raise awareness for men’s health issues. For DE’s “Moframe,” as they called it, players could adorn their in-game avatars with moustaches, with new and more elaborate versions unlocked as the promotion reached donation goals. To announce the event, publicize received donations, and showcase the unlockable moustaches, DE created a Moframe website featuring two playable avatars donning ‘staches: Excalibur and Mag. While there is no surprise that Excalibur, the first warframe and posterchild of the game, appears on the site, Mag’s presence is somewhat unexpected. The Mag avatar is assigned female, and yet the site shows her trying on an assortment of facial hair (see Figure 1).

Warframe's Movember site
Figure 1. Moframe website featuring Mag

During the Moframe promotion, DE allowed female-assigned warframes as well as the male-assigned to put on the Movember moustaches. Of course, DE would not want to suggest that only frames marked as male could participate in Movember or that men’s health is only a male issue. In fact, putting a moustache on Mag and other female-assigned frames highlights the obvious and awkward bias of Movember itself. I point it out here because Warframe’s Movember promotion exemplifies the complexity and slipperiness of gender in Warframe’s posthuman environment.

The discussion of gender in videogames has tended to focus on representation (Sarkeesian, 2014; Cassell and Jenkins, 2000). Though there is plenty to say about gendered tropes in Warframe, representational signifiers circulate through the game in unexpected ways. The game’s customization options and narrative setting offer the possibility and flexibility for hybrid configurations that undermine established tropes. And yet, these configurations are articulated through a persistent gender binary. What I want to suggest is that playing Warframe thus reflects back on or, rather, enacts the condition of its players, whose participation in digital culture allows play with and between gendered signifiers though never without the residual binary structure.

***For more, please check out Well-Played, vol.5, iss. 1.***

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.

Women in Combat Games

I was recently asked to comment in an Associated Press story on the potential effect the lifting of the ban on women in combat might have on military-themed videogames. The story was picked up today by NPR and elsewhere.

I had much more to say on the topic than I initially expected, and certainly more than would be useful for this piece. Below are my long-form responses to the interview questions. They are pretty raw still, but I think there is something here that I hope to flesh out soon.
Continue reading

Heavy Rain and the User-Character relationship

I am really excited about this game, Heavy Rain; I even bought a PS3 just to play it. The reason is because of possibilities for gaming like the ones described below. I’m reblogging this from Kotaku. Although I think its odd for the article quoted to suggest that the gaze will be a “new experience” or to suggest that playing a gazed-on character is the same as experiencing gaze, still, the suggestion is that Heavy Rain offers an interesting interpretation of the relationship between user and character has interesting potentials. On the one hand, what I understand from watching development trailers, the game mechanic will be like a HD, next-gen Dragon’s Lair. This report, however, speaks to an emotional depth that I would expect to be seriously lacking from that mostly cinematic, thus passive, mechanic. So, we’ll see if this bears out, but I’m looking forward to it.

The upcoming Heavy Rain features a sequence in which its female protagonist is forced to strip for a disgusting mob boss. It’s sex but it’s not sexy, and it moves the needle for games teaching us to differentiate the two.

Writing for PopMatters, G. Christopher Williams picked up on an interview with Quantic Dream, the developer of Heavy Rain, in which the writer confessed he felt uncomfortable being forced to perform the striptease. “Fantastic,” Quantic Dream’s David Cage tells Game Informer. “You know what? That is exactly what we wanted. … Yes, it’s a strong moment for the character. But if we managed to make you feel uncomfortable it is because at some point we made you believe you were Madison.”

This is a departure from other gameplay-based depictions of sex, Williams argues, where the object was either to reveal skin or engage in a mini-game that “reduces sex to the stabbing motions of button mashing.” He says the breakthrough lies not necessarily in a mature depiction of sex, but in delivering a new perspective on how it is understood, even if it means forcing someone in an opposite gender role to see its more degrading side.

The Gleam of Electric Sex: What Video Games Might (or Might Not) Teach Us About Sex [PopMatters, Oct. 14.]

If I am interpreting Cage’s thinking correctly, he seems to be suggesting that Heavy Rain is moving beyond the voyeuristic simulations of sexuality offered by countless other forms of more passive media and also beyond simply making a participatory simulation of sexuality into a mere simulation of the “‘ol in-out, in-out”. Instead, what seems to be offered here is a potential simulation of some of the psychology of the sexual experience.

In this particular instance, the psychology is particularly fascinating as it is likely a rather novel experience for the largest demographic of video game players, males. If feminist theory concerning the tendency for women to become the object of the male gaze holds any credence, the experience of being made object to that gaze may be an entirely new experience for many players. Indeed, it may also be an uncomfortable one as traditional gender roles and perspectives may be tested and reversed as a result of being made to “believe you were Madison” because players will participate in this humiliating act rather than merely view it.

Certainly, Cage and Quantic Dream’s efforts are not entirely new. Many video game players have toyed with gender bending experiments such as playing avatars that represent themselves as the opposite of their own gender. I have played female avatars in online games and have noted differences in the ways that I am treated when playing as a female character as opposed to a male character. Largely, my own experience had led me to observe that I seemed to receive a lot more gifts from other players when playing as a female (which may suggest something about cultural norms and expectations concerning male-female relationships).

However, this limited sort of experience was not placed in the context of a story or a character whose entire personality is coded as female (my avatar was always driven by my own personality as I am not one to play “in character” in games, not attempting then to specifically act like the character that I am playing in the context of the gaming world). Adding layers of storytelling and the more objective, dramatic qualities of scripted and directed behaviors into this mix may produce more focused statements on sexuality than we have seen in gaming thus far and may push this participatory art in directions that the passive arts are limited in exploring. Because we may have to reconsider who we are as we play out the experiences of someone else. Games have the potential to create empathy with characters rather than the sympathy that film or books might evoke in watching someone else suffer or experience pleasure.

– G. Christopher Williams

Weekend Reader is Kotaku’s look at the critical thinking in, and of video games. It appears Saturdays at noon. Please take the time to read the full article cited before getting involved in the debate here.