What I Learned From A Semester In A Video Games Class

Having completed my ten-week experience with my Video Games as Visual Culture class, I reflect upon and conclude my thoughts from parts one and two of this saga.

My relationship with video gaming has ridden a steep, turbulent roller coaster in the past year. I have always placed myself outside the reach of true gaming, in that I have named myself outsider. Growing up, I sat next to my brother on the couch as he mastered the realms of Zelda, The Elder Scrolls series, Borderlands, Left 4 Dead, Bioshock, Assassin’s Creed, Red Dead Redemption, and countless other titles. He deftly mashed the buttons of whichever controller while I backseat drove and pointed out a chest he’d failed to explore or called out the locations of concealed enemies. He hated it, but it was in many ways the primary way we related and spent time together. I gained a working, referential knowledge of games that could make me sound knowledgeable in conversation; I especially remember thinking to myself a few times during my freshman year of college how cool I must have sounded, like a true “gamer girl,” even though my brother rarely let me play myself.

The games I did get my hands on had little in common with the competitive blockbusters my brother preferred: I am a master at Rock Band, and own several installments and a few worn down instruments, though not a console on which to play them; I am sneakily formidable at MarioKart, a former 12th-place trash heap turned middle podium matriarch; and if there were competitions for The Sims or maybe the GameBoy Advance SP edition of Kirby: Nightmare in Dreamland, then I’d probably be unstoppable. My most recent gaming accomplishment was beating Portal (almost) by myself. These are not the games with brag-worthy achievements; and so I never considered my own various successes in gaming as worthy of even the slightest mention.

But now I’m beginning to wonder exactly how much of my outsider status is self-made. Was I made to feel like an outsider or did I make myself one? Mostly, I feel sure that I absorbed a lot of my internalized gaming elitism from a misguided industry and from my adolescent contact with highly competitive high school boys who laughed derisively while I tried and failed to learn the mechanics of Halo II. Now, though, it will be up to me to determine my own position in the sphere of gaming.

This class has enabled me to critically reflect on the numerous and often contradictory dialogues that cross gaming, which is a medium in its infancy. As a film major, it is my habit to apply ideological, humanities-based analysis to the text at hand, and so I find myself aligned with a sector of game studies called narratology, which focuses on the story events, character representations, and values at play in gaming. Though film communicates in a similar way, these issues are essential to study in gaming because they are often controlled by the player, so the values encoded by game designers regarding race, gender or class are reproduced in a more tangible way through the act of play. That, to me, is what makes games essential to study; as cultural artifacts with significant value and influence in society, they have the power to reproduce harmful stereotypes and maintain the status quo, or they have the power to affect positive change. Slowly, wading through the beginnings of game theory, gamers and game designers are beginning to understand the power they hold.

Despite seeing some evidence of the beginnings of potentially sweeping game reform, or at least more awareness that such an upheaval is needed or even inevitable in order for games to survive and continue to evolve, there are still numerous things that trouble me personally as a would-be gamer. This week I had my first contact with the 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider game series, and while Lara Croft, the game’s protagonist, was well-animated (see, Ubisoft? It’s not that hard) and more than just a hypersexualized avatar, the game engaged in a visceral, pleasurable spectatorship of the highly cinematic scenes in which Lara is beaten, restrained, or receives rape threats. Her cries of pain almost resemble moans of arousal. Like many female characters in action films, her role is inevitably relegated to one of healing medic or martyred savior. Tomb Raider, a game long celebrated for its female protagonist, somehow still mixes sex and death and female domesticity for the male audience. In this case, the quantifiability of the rare female protagonist in gaming wasn’t enough to justify the focus on her gender as a source of weakness. And action games aren’t solely at fault; recently, ostensibly in support of women’s history month, Nintendo emailed its subscribers images styled after the iconic Rosie the Riveter poster, where Rosie is replaced by pink (read: female) Nintendo characters. Nintendo then continued on to list female protagonists in their games, but again, numbers aren’t enough. Most female characters in the Nintendo verse are victimized (mostly through kidnapping) or made unplayable, thus represented as lesser than their male counterparts. Clearly, we still have a long way to go in terms of fair representation onscreen.

And then there’s the matter of representation off and around the screen. In our final week of class, we discussed the notorious Gamergate debacle. I came into class that day, prepared to be righteously angry and eviscerate any misogynist who dared raise his hand in defense of Gamergaters. While there were a few ignorant comments made by some classmates, I was overwhelmed by the handful of people besides myself who offered well-worded criticisms of the movement’s toxic spray. Additionally, the points offered by my professor allowed me to criticize my own reactions to the movement. Each time a new wave of death and rape threats circulated through the internet, rage and pain flooded through me, marking gaming as a whole in my mind as a world of backwards, sexist, fedora-wearing pissbabies. And while some gamers surely do fall into that category, it was a mistake on my part to characterize the entire community using the voices of a few, who just as likely joined in the fray only to express long-held hatred toward women, possibly not even related to gaming. In fact, as a TIME article pointed out, I was viewing gamers the same way Fox News did. That was a wake-up call.

All my essentialist thought regarding the supposed “true nature” of gamers, exposed by the events of Gamergate, was make me angrily exclude myself further from a community that I have the potential to really enjoy. During this class, I really began to see that while criticisms of the verbal gender violence that resulted from Gamergate are entirely valid and substantiated, the misguided voices of a few in that movement should not be allowed to characterize gaming as a whole; and the gamer identity should not suffer blows from that alone. In fact, to identify as a gamer in the wake of that catastrophe is an act of bravery: standing up for the medium you love, even and especially in spite of those that would sully its reputation.

This term does need a reworking, though; “gamer” should refer only to someone (anyone) who plays games. Any games. Not just AAA games, not just first-person shooters, not just games based on achievements or leaderboards. Games are to be played by all, not just the 17-year-old Mountain Dew chuggers who are so often used as an icon for the entire community. “Gamer girl” should not be wielded as a joke or as an oxymoron. Play is an essential function of society at all levels, and if I’ve learned anything from this class, it’s time to stop worrying and just have some fun with it, while still keeping an alert, analytical focus on the implications of that fun. And learning to criticize the things you enjoy is an essential part of social and personal evolution; just ask any “bad feminist” (myself included). So hell, if one need only play games to be a gamer, then I’m a gamer—but a cautious, critical one at that. Living in a post-Gamergate world will require wading through a lot of garbage in the continued effort for gender equality at an industrial level, but the players literally have the power to effect change, since we hold the controllers. Think critically or die trying, y’all, because we have a long way to go—but the end result will surely be worth it.

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