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Ready Player TwoWomen Gamers and Designed Identity$

Shira Chess

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9781517900694

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9781517900694.001.0001

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(p.ix) Preface

(p.ix) Preface

Ready Player Two

Shira Chess

University of Minnesota Press

When I began writing this book, I was a different person. This, unto itself, is not entirely unusual—like many of my colleagues have done with their own works, I began various versions of this project while writing my dissertation. Like this book, my dissertation was a study of the design and marketing of video games targeting women audiences. I completed my dissertation in 2009, following the height in popularity of the Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS—a transformational moment for gendered gaming. Since that time, the video game industry has continued to change dramatically—what began as inklings of new kinds of games later became more developed and complex. For example, the seedlings of “time management games” (best characterized by Diner Dash and its successors) turned into the far more complex systems of the invest/ express category (described in great detail in this book). As video game companies saw the monetary potential of marketing video games to women—even women who did not necessarily characterize themselves as gamers—new kinds of games developed and became increasingly robust.

But it is not only the games that have changed since 2005 when I began this journey. I, too, am a different person. When I started I was a single woman in my early thirties. I had not yet met my husband and had not yet had children. I was a graduate student, unemployed beyond a meager graduate stipend. And, in this, my writing was a touch self-righteous. I wrote in great detail about how video games designed for and marketed to women tended to treat all women players as though they were mothers—regardless of whether they occupy this identity in the real world. As presumed mothers their play was meant to be necessarily productive, filling holes of time or functioning as a backdrop to emotional labor. While gaming has changed over the past decade, these aspects have not (although, (p.x) perhaps, they have become more refined and sometimes a bit more difficult to spot).

While the attributes of gendered gaming have gone relatively unchanged, my perspective on these aspects has changed dramatically. As a single woman graduate student in my thirties, it was very easy to look down on games such as those made for the Nintendo Wii system that were so heavily marketed to mothers (ca. 2006) as a method of gaining love and family togetherness through play. I could look cynically at these ploys and suggest that all women had the right to play, and that play should not be for others; rather, play should be selfish and personal. Similarly, I was troubled by Nintendo DS advertisements that suggested women use small snippets of time to play, as opposed to the long spans of time suggested to men in advertisements for games such as those in the Madden NFL series. “Why can’t we just have women play for the sake of play?” my dissertation seemed to ask.

Ten years, a tenure-track position, a husband, and a child later, this question feels entirely naïve. I would love a video game that my family could play together. The games I play, I play for research. And most of them, I should add, I play in small snippets of time—whatever is allowed by my busy schedule. When I tell people that I study video games I shrug loosely when they inevitably ask, “Oh … what do you play for fun?” I play for work. My play is almost 100 percent productive. Sometimes it feels as though my dissertation was predictive of my own path in life.

And given this shift, one that was inevitable to my own life choices, there is a subtler thing happening here that I cannot possibly deny. When I began this project in 2005, the games I wrote about were not really being designed for me. They were being designed, as I already noted, for busy mothers who were looking for snippets of relaxation. And because of that, I was never the target market for the games I studied. My position allowed me the ability to see these games from the perspective of an onlooker.

But as a working parent in her early forties, I am now the person for whom these games are actually made. To clarify, what I had written in the paragraphs above implies that my perspective on the games has, itself, shifted dramatically in the past ten years. What I am saying now is different: it is not just that I see these games differently, but that all of a sudden these games are made for me. I have become a target market within the central position of my study. This, of course, does not make my work autoethnographic—I am not writing about my feelings or myself during the process of play.1 I have, however, become strangely entangled with my (p.xi) object of study. I play with the keen understanding that I am part of an idealized audience constructed by the video game industry.

The idealization, though, goes beyond my positionality as a working mother. Although this is part of it, as an intersectional feminist it is impossible for me to look at my own subject position in my research without acknowledging that I am white, middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied, and cis-gendered. Throughout this book, this is the subject position that is presumed to be the identity markers for an idealized woman gamer. This is not to say that game companies would not accept other kinds of players—rather, it is to imply that these players will always be necessarily “othered.” My body, my position, implies that I am the game player for whom companies are looking.

At varying points in this project, I have found myself relating heavily to Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s groundbreaking book More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. In this book, Cowan documents the historical trajectory of how household technologies create a kind of make-work for their market, producing a system where women will always need to be supplying domestic labor. What strikes me the most, though, in my memory of this book is never the historical aspects but rather the personal. In her conclusion, Cowan writes of how she is of two minds. On the one hand she is fully aware of how she is being manipulated by advertising and technologies and through fear of social stigma to complete specific unnecessary domestic chores. On the other hand, she confesses that she finds it difficult to break out of these culturally predicated norms.

In a similar capacity, I have a mixed relationship with the technologies of play. I am aware that specific kinds of playful technologies are created for me and my lifestyle, but I feel a constant need to resist the rhetoric of those technologies. My privilege gives me more capacity to break these norms than most—the market conditions help support me to play a never-ending number of casual games that have been designed specifically for me. Yet it is difficult to lose myself in the process of play in the way it was intended. When I play, I feel guilty. I often even remind myself that my video game play is part of work, and therefore justified. I am both trapped and freed by the boundaries of my physical body, career choices, and cultural position. As such, this book might be seen as my own treatise toward a complicated relationship with play, vis-à-vis aging, family, and work life.

(p.xii) While the video game industry and my personal life have changed in the past ten years, another unexpected change has taken hold within our larger cultural landscape: GamerGate, a so-called hashtag movement that began under that name in 2014 (although its seeds can be spotted several years earlier). Others, at this point, have begun to write about GamerGate in quite a bit of detail, which is not my goal here. In short, GamerGate is a movement of hate speech wherein young, primarily male gamers have attacked, doxxed (publishing personal information about an individual), and threatened women in and commenting on the video game industry. Most notably, GamerGate targeted indie game designer Zoë Quinn and cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, bombarding them online with death and rape threats. Within the larger public sphere, GamerGate advocates have insisted that they are not a hate group but rather that their goal concerns “ethics in game journalism.” But the troubling actions of the individuals who have associated themselves with the larger group have forever connected the entire movement with a kind of bullying political position.

GamerGate has been a catalyst for change in the way that many people—gamers, nongamers, feminists, journalists, and audiences—think about video games. This project began before GamerGate, but this book was written during its fallout. This book sits under a dust cloud of Gamer-Gate, a topic that has influenced me in a number of ways. For the most part, I have gone primarily unscathed in terms of GamerGate harassment (although not all of my colleagues have been this lucky). My one brief brush with GamerGate conspiracy theorists has been documented,2 and for the most part I have been able to observe their behaviors with critical distance. Yet, when this project began around 2005, one could say that GamerGate was both unexpected and inevitable, all at once.

On one level, my work and this project would seem to have absolutely nothing to do with GamerGate. GamerGate’s culture war seems to be accusing the influx of women gamers on a shift in style and quality within the industry. While most of the accusations seem without merit, the proponents of GamerGate appear to be claiming that the white male gamer should remain central as the primary gaming audience. When GamerGate proponents write about games, they generally focus on console gaming and what is commonly referred to as “hardcore games,” with occasional nods to Steam games and indie games as outliers (and what they acknowledge as a large part of the problem). Many people who associate themselves with the GamerGate movement, for example, heavily criticized Zoë (p.xiii) Quinn’s Twine game Depression Quest, and similar criticisms have been brought against other recent indie games such as Gone Home. The culture war is often poised as a distinction between the hardcore and indie game makers and players.

But when I think about the games I have been studying for ten years now, I see other things at play. It is not only indie games that have transformed the video game industry (although, certainly, they have played a large part in this transformation). The theorized woman player who haunts this book is a central character in how GamerGate happened. As the video game industry began to recognize that young white men were not the only consumer audience, game companies funneled money into alternative modes of gaming and payment models. This shift began subtly in the early 2000s and may have formed the roots of what later became GamerGate. In some ways, I might argue that GamerGate is not only responding to the emergence of women players but is also evidence of the fading dominance of what is often considered the primary audience of video games. The rapid growth and changes to the industry have created a level of anxiety that has supported violent hate speech. Yet these very changes have also turned a medium that had formerly been highly targeted to one with far more mass appeal.

It is with these points of context that this book emerges. A book based on social technologies is a complicated thing to write. In the process of revisions, not only does the author change but so do the ephemeral technologies and culture around them. Surely, by the time this book emerges on the market they will change again, although in less volatile ways than GamerGate. The goal of this book is not to highlight the negative aspects that have engendered recent criticism of the video game industry. Rather, it is to shine a light on the positive aspects via an emerging form of video game play that has become a catalyst for change in video game culture, video game audiences, and the video game industry itself. The games, as I discuss throughout this book, are not ideal—they shed light on both positive and negative assumptions about women and leisure, as well as ethnicity, class, sexuality, and other points of diversity. Yet the games also are the harbinger of positive changes and the revelatory new styles of play that will continue to transform what it means to be a player. (p.xiv) (p.xv)


(1) One could, perhaps, argue that all textual-based game research is, in part, ethnographic since the study of those games is entirely dependent on the subject position of the player. But I do my best throughout this book to keep my personal experiences with games apart from my critical analysis.