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Of Casual Games and Stereotype Threats

“Casual:” it’s a word that’s laden with hidden meaning in the gaming community. It’s an increasingly popular style of game that’s largely meant to target an audience outside of what might be considered the “core” gaming demographic. It’s the trend of game development companies to increase their funding and attention on games for smart phones or for the everyday player. It’s a type of game that’s opening the world’s eyes to the ubiquity of gaming. It’s a plague on the industry and “not real gaming.” It’s a derogatory name given to those who “aren’t really gamers.” And it’s a title I know both myself and many other female gamers have feared at some point in their gaming histories.

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Red Dead Redemption and the Myth of the Noble Savage

At the turn of the twentieth century, the thoroughly modern children of angst ridden-upper-and-middle-class parents wore feathers and slept in tipis and wigwams at camps with multi-syllabic Indian names. Their equally nervous post- World War II descendants made Indian dress and pow-wow-going into a hobby, with formal newsletters and regular monthly meetings. Over the past thirty years, the counter culture, the New Age, the men’s movement, and a host of other Indian performance options have given meaning to Americans lost in a (post)modern freefall. In each of these historical moments, Americans have returned to the Indian, reinterpreting the intuitive dilemmas surrounding Indianness to meet the circumstances of their times. (7)

-Philip DeLoria, from Playing Indian

I grew up a mixed blood Cherokee in quasi-rural east central Indiana. The truth is that in many ways, I “passed,” and it wasn’t until I was in my early teens that I realized that the ways and traditions that people marked as “crazy” in my mother were, in fact, Cherokee. But long before that, back when I was first socializing, the other neighborhood kids used to come to visit with their shiny cap guns and their toy feathers and plastic hatchets. The game we played was “Cowboys and Indians.” I was always the Indian. I was always the “bad guy.” And I always lost.

Traditionally speaking that’s how gaming has treated the other, particularly America’s most under-represented other, the Native American or American Indian. Comprising under 2% of the population and often marginalized on reservations or considered nothing more than the drunken denizens of casinos, people like myself are subject to an odd erasure. I am not white. I’ve never been white and never claimed to be white. A part of me is; that’s why my blood is mixed. But the Cherokee part of me is often treated as a curiosity, an addendum.

I’ve spent the last several years attempting to combine my study of popular culture and my love and interest in gaming with my studies of race and culture—particularly of my own. I’ve spent extensive time studying the World of Warcraft, producing pieces like this video:

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Why the heck did I buy that game?

I haven’t been gaming a whole lot lately. The reasons are typical: end of semester madness combined with writing and defending my prospectus. When I first started grad school, it was unusual for me to game at all during the semester. Not gaming during the semester was not a policy, rather it was more of a default. I wouldn’t even notice I hadn’t been gaming until the semester ended, and I fired up the Xbox only to realize I hadn’t played for months. Often I find this frustrating for a couple of reasons. Mostly because I find playing games mostly relaxing (also frustrating, but mostly relaxing), and also because not playing leads to a situation most of know as the pile of shame.

I think most of us have a pile of shame. (I say most of us because read a forum about the pile of shame and inevitably there is some poster who wants to let us know how superior he or she is for only buying games as they play them.) My problem is, with the exception of Humble Bundles, I do buy games only as I plan to play them. But, plans…well, you know, life and school get in the way. So, what this leaves me with is a big pile of half played games. I really, really want to finish these games. Many of them stick with me, and I keep thinking about them. I want to play. But, I don’t know which one to start with.  Read more »

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Feminist Scholarship: To Label or Not to Label?

Lemme start this blog all feminist-style with a story.

I got some feedback on my work recently that made me question what I’m doing with my dissertation. My diss work is on a theory I made up called procedural ethics (PE). PE, essentially, asks game scholars to start at the code and move backward, to look at the material conditions of the humans that created the game in the first place. Much of game study scholarship (my work at NYMG here also often included in this) focuses on representation in games. However, while we talk about fictional characters we often forget there are real people, real women, behind the scenes. Reminiscent of Lara Croft’s near rape in the recent Tomb Raider, women behind the scenes are being sexually assaulted and discriminated against in shocking numbers.

PE, then, puts these situations into the center of what it means to study games, rather than as solely being the purview of feminist game scholars. However, the feedback I’ve been getting suggests that PE would work much better as being labeled “Feminist Rhetorical Games Studies.” I can only infer the implications of that which I would be happy to share with any of you in a non-recorded form, but it did get me thinking. When almost all of my work is not only labeled feminist but represented proudly in pink colors (like at NYMG), why is it so important to me to have PE be accepted in the mainstream?

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Child Care and Video Games: A Guide for Mamas (Papas and Everyone In Between)

As if it was a bit of foreshadowing, I talked about the hours that I spent playing little puzzle games like Bejeweled on consoles when Pea was an infant because I had figured out how to play while feeding her and holding her upright afterwards (severe acid reflux made that necessary) and the music from those games soothed her and me through those long nights. Baby wearing is invaluable in situations like this.

Today, after two long days of vomiting and horrible fever dreams I find that I am again most thankful for handheld games. For the uninitiated the severity of the sickness of a child is directly proportional to the amount that said child will want to snuggle with her parent. This, unfortunately, makes it impossible to do most things like eat, work, or play regular console games. So I have spent a lot of time these last couple of days reliving those wonderful (and I do mean wonderful) nights almost six years ago when Bejeweled soothed us both, but this time there was no Bejeweled.  Read more »

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Episode 75: If Not Points and Badges, Then What?: On Gamification

Episode 75: If Not Points and Badges, Then What: On Gamification (“Save As” to download or head over to iTunes to subscribe)

The episode where we talk about gamification and the future of games based learning. Definitely a fun way to learn more about games and learning.

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Virtual Reality: Fad or Future?

Virtual reality: the Sims had it long before I was aware that it was something that was possible outside of kitschy sci-fi movies. It was the best and most efficient way to give a Sim some much needed entertainment, if you could afford it anyway. Once the Sim had strapped themselves into the headset they would flail around in some sort of unseen journey, completely absorbed . . . at least until their bladder couldn’t hold out any longer. But while the VR headset seemed to designate some degree of  financial success in The Sims – no matter how these funds were acquired, I don’t judge – I can’t help but approach the rush to develop and break ground in the market with caution.  It seems to me that VR may be ultimately destined to follow the same path as those of 3D televisions and movies if not approached carefully – ultimately finding itself in a state in which the initial hype of new technological capabilities can only support its existence for so long. But while it might be alluring to throw as many titles as possible at these new pieces of technology, I think that only creates the same problem that 3D movies encountered and continues to encounter: needless over saturation. Instead I’d argue that by pinpointing specific game titles and genres whose “magic circle” of immersion may genuinely be aided with VR technology, VR can avoid the spiral down into relative niche status.

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Amazon Fire TV: Steaming Device as Console(?)

This week Amazon released its Roku-like media-streaming device, the Fire TV. According to Amazon, the Fire TV is more than just a streaming device, it’s also a (sort of) gaming console. I’ve been having a lot of problems with my Roku’s lately, and have been shopping around for alternative solutions, so I went ahead and picked up a Fire TV. As a streaming device, I love it. It’s snappy and responsive, and it looks great. But, what about games? I was not sold at all by this feature. I barely like playing the games on my Kindle Fire, I couldn’t really image how those games where going to translate on a bigger screen and while using a controller. Amazon describes the games as a “bonus,” which seems like rhetoric used to distance themselves if this is all a big flop. I didn’t buy the Fire TV for games, but, of course, it’s one of the first features I checked out when I got the device.

Some of the games on the Fire TV work by using the remote as the controller, much like the Roku, but some need an actual controller. The controller currently retails for $39.00, way too steep for me, as I do not intend to use this as a console. But, lucky for me (and many of you), by Xbox wired controller plugged right in and works great. I hear PS3 controllers will also work, but I didn’t test this. The controller works both as a controller within the games, but also as a remote, so I suppose once I lose the tiny remote that came with this thing, all will not be lost.

So, I went to fire up some games. Out of about thirty-six games that I already own on the Kindle Fire, only five showed up as available on the Fire TV: The Walking Dead, Rayman Fiesta Run, Reaper, Minecraft, and King Oddball. I tried Rayman Fiesta Run first (of course), and I enjoyed it more than I do on the Kindle Fire because I typically like to play with a controller above all else, but it’s not a console game (not that I was expecting it to be). It was fun though, and it looked great, much sharper than I was expecting. Reaper was fun for a bit. Much the same as with Rayman Fiesta Run: more fun than trying to play on the touch screen of the Kindle Fire. The Walking Dead looked fantastic and ran great. I originally played this on the Xbox 360, but picked it up for free for the Kindle a while back. The game also looked great, and I imagine were I to play it again, playing it on the Fire TV with a controller would be more enjoyable (for me) than playing it on the Kindle Fire.

Other games I was interested in trying on the Fire TV didn’t show up as available. For example, I have a Kindle version of Dead Space, but I find the mechanics of using a touchscreen to play to cumbersome. I was hoping to try it out with a controller, but no luck at this point. I’m sure they will keep adding games, but at this point, there’s not really that much to choose from. Amazon claims over a hundred games are currently available, but I found some of those to be games hidden-objects games that I would probably never be interested in playing on the big screen. I imagine like everything else Amazon does, the games catalog will begin to grow. They boast on the average price of the paid games is $1.85, which is really the only thing that would possibly get me to really try to play through a game on the Fire TV. If for example, I got a game like the Walking Dead for free or super cheap, I could be convinced to play it on the Fire TV, but overall, I’m not sure Android Tablet games played on a big screen with a controller is really my thing. It might work for some though, especially those looking for quick games to play and want a bigger, better experience than a small tablet can offer. But, in the end, I agree with Amazon, the games are a bonus, no more, no less at this point.

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Is Tamriel the New Tuesday Cafe?

Now for all of you youngin’s who don’t know what Tuesday Cafe was let me start with a little story.

As a new-ish grad student and a budding technorhetorician I entered Connections MOO on a Tuesday evening for the first time almost 20 years ago. The place was full of Taris, mdays, tengrrls, Kafkazs, and kiwis wiggling their toes. It was love at first sight. In this cafe with the bartender appropriately named Rhet who supplied me with all of the coffee that I wanted (which got as cold as the cup next to my keyboard did IRL) I found not only mentors, but friends. It was years before I met some of them in person (and some of them I never did), but these were the people who reassured me that play could be educational, even at the post-secondary level. It was these people who helped me to figure out what the hell I was doing with technology in my meatspace classroom. These people that I talked with about articles that we would never have read in my own graduate seminars (C&W classes really didn’t exist back then). This was community building at it’s best. When Tuesday Cafe closed it’s doors and Rhet cleaned up for the last time I think that there were a lot of us who shed a tear. Our space was gone. Our community had ironically moved…offline.

Today I still study play. And I still want to be surrounded by smart people who do the same thing to talk about what we do in the classroom and to have someone to bounce research ideas off of. And I longed for Tuesday Cafe. And then I did it, I took the plunge and joined the Venture Guild. Something that I hadn’t done before now because their presence was mainly in WoW, which I had sworn off of a while ago. But now Elder Scrolls Online has launched. As a huge fan of the Morrowind series I have been anxiously awaiting the release of the MMO based in Tamriel and when I learned that a bunch of academic type folks from Venture Guild were going into ESO I was elated!  Read more »

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Women and Technology and the Future of Games

Below is a post that follows in the vein of arguments I have made here and here about procedural ethics. Where many theories of games, and ways of analyzing games, start at the code and move forward, procedural ethics starts at the code and moves backwards. Rather than see code as something that solely influence by the culture at large, procedural ethics analyzes code, images, and games as something influence by specific contexts. In a way, it connects procedures in the game to the procedures that produced the game.

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The AAUW labels environmental improvements (programmatic and cultural) as the single most important factor in improving the recruitment and retention of women (62). Getting a company to adopt a comprehensive sexual harassment policy or to examine hiring practices may not seem like big changes, or even meet much resistance. However, they are a start to much deeper, systematic changes that can have enormous repercussions. Further, policies like the ones I’ve examined in this dissertation are certainly not the sole source of the gender inequities in the video game industry, though they are also not free from having significant influence on employee behavior. The policies function as a discursive manifestation of and perpetuation of deeply ingrained attitudes about technology and gender.

In Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Technology, author Autumn Stanley writes, “…including women’s contributions [to the applied history of technology] will not merely revise but transform the history, and especially the prehistory, of technology. When technology is no longer just what men do, but what people do, both the definition of technology and the definition of significant technology must inevitably change” (xvii). In her work, Stanley takes a similar approach to a similar problem: she recognizes that the entire technological industry is built upon a skewed perspective of who and what counts, and she is arguing here that the only way to change it is to completely redefine the key assumptions the history of technology is built upon.

Similarly, I hope that Procedural Ethics serves this function to redefine what is and is not important when it comes to studying video games. While most popular methods of game scholarship starts and the procedures (ie. the video game) and moves forward, tracing player reaction (Sicart) and cultural implications (Bogost), Procedural Ethics argues that ethical research practices must also start at the procedure and move backward. Video games did not program themselves. They are the result of an enormous industry filled with ideologies, opinions, policies, norms, and so on. Can we really make an argument about how one of the most sexist games in recent memory, Duke Nukem Forever (Gearbox Software 2012), has impacted society without also talking about the fact that roughly 5.8% of Gearbox’s workforce is female? I certainly don’t think so. And while critiquing, engaging with, and discussing the representation of women in games is crucial, it should not be done while ignoring the actual women in the industry.

The underrepresentation of women in the video game industry is in no way unique to that industry. It is a problem across many technology-based and technology-producing fields. Stanley reports that “most historians of technology and most anthropologists, particularly males, before the 1970s seemed to define technology as what men do” (xxxi). In support of this she looks as multiple cross-cultural studies of sexual division of labor as well as publications. For example, women were primarily responsible for inventing almost all early agricultural technologies. Over time, these were redefined as horticulture and male inventions were connected to agriculture. In patent offices, then, horticultural patents were filed under  “hobbies” while agricultural patents were filed under “technology.” This type of silencing and redefinition partly contributes to the lack of women in technological fields. The fields are first defined by men according to what men do, so are already exclusive of women, and then women who do attempt to work in the field are ousted as not adhering to the “way things are done.”

In order to include women’s contributions to the history of technology, we must redefine what counts as technology. To do this we need to provide alternatives, or rather provide more accurate, accounts of technology’s history to include women’s contributions as well as technologies surrounding things like women’s reproduction as central, rather than tangentially related, to core definitions of technology. Stanley’s work begins to do this, but she also opens the door for others to do this as well. Her work is not about recounting every contribution women have made, but to be an example of how we can go about creating the kind of change that’s needed. Taking Stanley’s approach, the work we do here at NYMG is the kind of work I believe needs to be done in order to remake the games industry and game scholarship.