How do we change the (virtual) world?

There’s so much I could comment on in the articles this week. Not that it isn’t normally true, but I’m going to limit my comments to how Shaw in “Putting the Gay in Games” and Higgin in “Blackless Fantasy” deal with questions of representation.

Shaw, or rather for those gaymers she interviewed, find the notion of including stereotypical LGBTQ characters and avatars in COTS games problematic. Interview responses seem to echo the notion that no representation is better than bad representation. I am curious how much of this sentiment reflects the internalized homophobia and outright sexism of LGBTQ folks and gay men in particular. It’s an increasingly popular sentiment in certain gay circles to exclude and discount feminized representations of gay men (see “No Fats, No Femmes: The Cult of Masculinity” Personally, I understand the fear of what insensitive or thoughtless game designers might do in presenting LGBTQ characters, but I would argue the opposite. Omission can be more damaging than poor representation. LGBTQ folks have often lauded characaturish depictions not because we agree with that such depictions represent all LGBTQ people, but because these characters opened up dialogues (internal or external) about sexuality and identity. We don’t hold such characters up as role models per se. However, these characters, such as Jm J Bulloch’s as Monroe on Too Close for Comfort, Allison Hannigan’s as Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Wilson Cruz as Ricky on My So-called Life, help break through a sense of isolation or atomization we might feel in our local spaces. This is particularly true and important for young people dealing with coming out and looking for alternatives to what they see represented in the lion’s share of popular media. Furthermore, as Higgin points out, not having representation certainly doesn’t mean that issues of race and racism (or sexuality and bigotry) don’t rear their heads. There are no LGBTQ NPCs in WoW lore and yet bigotry expressed in chat channels and voice servers runs wild. The same holds for non-white/European human races and blatant racist behavior and comments.

For me, both Shaw’s and Higgin’s articles were missing essential components in any such deiscussion on sexuality and race in video games. On one hand, I realize that game designers and developers are the audience for both articles. On the other hand, neither author addresses how LGBTQ folks and people of color game the sexual and racial norms of various games. In some ways I think such studies might provide more rhetorically savvy arguments that could affect game companies. Such research might focus on empirical evidence, such as how representations are read into games despite or in spite of designers’ intentions. For example, most WoW players identify male Blood Elves as gay based on their feminine stature, their hair styles, and some of their emotes (“Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?”). Furthermore, certain LGBTQ megaguilds like identify male Blood Elves as a certain “type” of gay man, a twink, and often times character names reflect this. My point is that players already read into the content regardless of designer intentions. Designers might respond by going a step further and incorporating content to match player expectations if they understand how prevalent such maneuvers are and how much financial investment stands beyond these actions.

Finally, Shaw raises some interesting points about what game companies and game designers listen to in terms of adding “controversial content:” money. Although I am not sure that this holds true in terms of race. Higgin provided data showing how many people of color play video games, yet video games haven’t changed much in terms of presenting racist stereotypes. Shaw argues that a number of factors, in addition to economic leverage. that are essential to adding such content, including public pressure and motivated designers. Short of designing small, independent games, the question then becomes one of organizing these factors to line up and who will set about doing that.