I originally wrote this as a rant to keep saved on my personal computer, and it was not meant to see the light of day. It was a file for me to go to when I lost my way, when my work seemed aimless, or when I needed to articulate why I do what I do. As I go through my work and scholarship, I see three levels of feminist inquiry into games begin to surface. Sometimes one element is heavily present while one is almost invisible (typically my academic work is heavily 3 and my industry work is heavily 1). There are things acceptable in industry work that are unacceptable in academic work, and vice versa, and thus I find myself pulled on an odd continuum where things at times seem disjointed.
Anyway, to help myself wade through this, I wrote about the three levels I see in my research. I hope this sparks some discussion or helps others who find themselves with multiple audiences. I have revised it substantially, but I may have missed a few f-bombs and so forth. Enjoy.
The physical is a crucial component of what I do—visible or not. When I read through posts on http://lwn.net/Articles/417952/ I feel humbled. I am in love with an industry that does everything but condone physical violence and sexual assault against women. And if we take games to be any sort of indicator about how those in the industry believe women should be treated, then this violence is explicitly condoned.
Those in my PhD program and I often discuss the ramifications of having research so closely tied to the physical environment. Am I doing my job as an academic if I help change a systems that condones violence against women but I don’t contribute meaningfully to an academic system of inquiry, thought, or theory? The academy has long stood as the antithesis to industry and business, working as a counterbalance through finding alternative ways to think about things, new viewpoints, and paths that those tied to the physical environment just simply cannot see because they are too close.
While I do believe I am a good teacher and a good scholar, I do have a shortsightedness to my perspective because I answer the above question without hesitation: my work must help influence women’s everyday lives, or I don’t want to do the academic work. I think I can make meaningful contributions to the academy, but meanwhile, women are being abused in the field I care about. I find it impossible to have the target of my research aim to do anything except work to remedy this, let alone to completely divorce this abuse from my research altogether. I hope that trends in research practices, discussed by people like Patricia Sullivan and Gesa Kirsch, have helped pave this path for me to do the work that I see needing to be done.
So what does research based in the physical entail? I just make it up as I go, though there is amazing stuff happening in place-based research, methodologies of the oppressed, and feminist methodologies. What I have absorbed from these areas leads me to the following conclusions: 1) researchers never really separate themselves from their environments anyway, so don’t front that you can (Sullivan) and 2) you can’t ignore the change you will inspire as part of your research. Embrace it, and make sure the change is for the better (Kirsch).
Also, I have from somewhere absorbed the idea that emotions don’t need to be separate from the work we do. As anyone who has seen me during a research cycle knows, reading about the abuse of women in the tech industry affects me emotionally. During the long stretches of research I am miserable, depressed, despondent. Even innocuous comments from an ally rouse a long lecture from me (that’s you Cushman, as you were unfortunate enough to voice a connection between vegetarianism and the treatment of women during one of my research cycles). So, fuck it, I guess. I can’t write about women in the gaming industry as if it doesn’t effect me, as if I don’t dedicate my free time to sites like this that work for the betterment of women, as if I don’t feel a tornado of emotions when I see stories like Jennifer Hepler’s. Sorry, I’m getting preachy again. Moving on.
What does research focused on the physical look like? For me it involves working directly with companies and women, interviewing, anything that gets at the problems with physical abuse and violence against women in the industry. Now, I fully believe that this violence is indicative of larger, more systemic issues, even cultural issues. And I recognize that to create long-lasting change, we need to move beyond that physical—as I will cover in my next two points. But we cannot ignore, on any level, the death threats, fondling, and rape that happens regularly to these women. Their stories are an undeniable part of any game theories we come up with.
Explicit research in gender and gaming focuses on ways women are excluded and abused that don’t involve physical violence. Women at fatuglyorslutty.com do this kind of work, exposing the explicit ways women are attacked and badgered in gaming. Those at The Ada Initiative and Women in Games International also work partly on the explicit level, as they help women connect and share their stories, but also on a physical level as they petition conference organizers and circulate employment information and so on.
Like many women who game, I’ve been called horrible names and hit on incessantly. Been given special treatment in some areas, and completely banned from entering others. We have all faced it and we have all seen it happen. This research does not evoke as much sadness as level 1 research does for me, but rather this research invokes pure rage—perhaps nothing more so than when these attacks are brushed off as “boys being boys” or I am told not to pay attention to it because its just a bunch of pre-pubescent boys. As a commenter on one of my blogs recently wrote, that excuse has been used for far too long as a way to ignore the serious, institutional problems of how women are treated in tech industries.
Work with explicit sexism in games includes work with avatars, examinations of discourse patterns in and around games, looking at forum and other community discussions, and other places language is predominant. This work is by no means easy, but it is more likely to find sympathetic ears as the evidence is typically overwhelming and present (screen shot it and it did happen).
Like physical sexism, implicit sexism is emotional for many people. This is, in my opinion, the most difficult area to investigate. Often the proof of this kind of sexism lies in one person’s perception, and far too often this sexism is committed by those we would normally consider our allies. From someone who has many times experienced this type of sexism, I can say that it accompanies feelings of shame (if I had only been better, more skilled, or smarter that wouldn’t have happened to me), feelings that no one will believe you (it’s my word against his), and gaslighting (it wasn’t really that bad; I imagined it).
Implicit sexism exposes the deep, disturbing roots of sexism in our everyday practices. This is where academics can be the most useful. We are trained in studying insitutions and their discourse, and many of us use our training to expose how things happen, why things mean and matter, and how meaning shows up for us. We have many tools in the toolkit to help expose some of the implicit values and beliefs in a culture. And we can apply that here.
This research is often more nuanced, looking at subtle indicators of beliefs so deeply held that many don’t see them as beliefs, but rather as the way things are.
In sum, I hope people can gain something from reading my thoughts on feminist research in games. I would love if people added their own unique perspectives on anything I’ve discussed.