Our New Article: Self-Saving Princess: Feminism and Post-Play Narrative Modding
Sam and I just had an article released in ADA: Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology. You should definitely check it out, but in the mean time, here are a few choice excerpts to keep you excited. Essentially, what we were trying to do is name a feminist practice that happens on the web that we call post-play narrative modding. This act is an attempt by women to push against the traditional, phallologocentric, and sexist discourse in the gaming community. We hope that by naming this practices, others can continue to positively influence the environment. What’s most interesting about PPNM, imho, is that is puts the gamer and the story and the community in a deep level of interaction. From this interaction stories emerge. These stories do not just change the way a single player experiences the game or the narrative, but rather how anyone who comes into contact with the new resistive discourse is able to play the game. We believe that we here at NYMG are engaged in this critical process of post-play narrative modding. We hope that you can read and interact with our blog and podcast, and then that your views of the games you play or the gaming environment is altered (preferably in a positive way, even if it is a more critical engagement). So, without further explanation, below are some teasers to get you to check it out!
Since Donkey Kong tossed his first barrel in 1981, princesses in video games have served one purpose: to be saved. Successful completion of Donkey Kong (Nintendo 1981) sees Kong defeated and Jumpman and Lady lovingly reunited. Lady had found her hero and Jumpman had won his prize. Women were cast as damsels in distress and have predominantly been trapped in this role. More than three decades later little has changed. Female protagonists in video games are still almost non-existent. When we do encounter the elusive heroine, she is typically either portrayed as a sexual object to be gazed upon and controlled, or she is simply a female “skinned” version of the male protagonist. Cast into these roles, it is hardly surprising that women and games have long had a troubled relationship, ranging from who is creating the games to who is playing them to who is talking about them.
Recently, two important (and controversial) figures have changed the way that players experience games: Anita Sarkeesian, a cultural critic responsible for the site Feminist Frequency, and Jennifer Hepler, a narrative developer for Bioware Corp, a video game company. Anita Sarkeesian came into the spotlight while trying to raise funds through a Kickstarter campaign for a project that uncovers the tropes that she argues dominate the portrayal of women in video games. Her call for funding for a series of videos on this topic was met with outrage, disgust, threats, anger, and resentment from some sectors of the gaming community online. Memes started to sweep across the Internet that showed Sarkeesian’s face with photoshopped bruises and black eyes. While threats and representations of physical violence were particularly prominent in this case, there were also articles published claiming that Sarkeesian is just trying to scam people out of money because “she just wants to use the fact that she was born with a vagina to get free money and sympathy from everyone who crosses her path” (Lewis 2012). One group made a “beat up Anita Sarkeesian” Flash video game which featured a close-up of Sarkeesian’s face that the gamer could punch (with his or her mouse) to make it look bruised and swollen (Sterling 2012).
The thread that ties the online attacks against Sarkeesian and Hepler together is that both are engaging in a type of post-play narrative modding that exposes some very ingrained, and very powerful, narratives that are present in the gaming community’s history. For example, in some cases it seems that the presence and focus of the narrative elements of a game is seen as feminized. For some, this focus on the narrative is something that hardcore (also heterosexual, white, male) gamers see as something feminine and as having no part in “their” games for any reason other than to string together the interactive battle sequences. The idea that games should not only include but celebrate and expand the narrative elements implicitly suggests that interactive battle is not the only way to play–something that deeply offends some players. Similarly, Sarkeesian is exposing some of the extremely sexist, racist, and misogynistic natures of much-beloved video game heroines. Players who are entrenched in the traditional narratives surrounding these avatars (players who have always securely been the audience for video games) are threatened by the possibility of narratives on which they have built part of their identities being drastically altered.
Feminist research strategies enacted in an environment as complex as video game studies/research/community show up in a myriad of ways. In this article, we have mapped one way that post-play narrative modding can work for those inside the environment to create positive change. The change is not linear, or painless, but as we can see in the increase of feminist communities, it can be effective. To conclude, we would like to sketch a few ways that post-play narrative modding can be used or analyzed in other ways for feminist purposes.
One of the primary features of PPNM is that it creates choice. In an environment that is so entrenched in code, choice is a tricky thing. While we have the perception of choice in games, our choices are actually limited and pre-decided by the game’s developers. I may choose to be one of several races or classes in World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria (Blizzard Entertainment 2012), but I cannot choose to be a dragon (at least not yet). PPNM supports and creates choice. One thing that Jennifer Hepler’s work in the industry is doing is creating a new type of choice, the choice to play the narrative of the game without much combat. Creating alternatives can be a controversial one for those who are used to things being one way. In the gaming community, players who are white, heterosexual, and male have traditionally been both the ones creating the games and the audience for the games. By making room for choice in games, designers — like Jennifer Hepler — are implicitly making room for the inclusion of Others, thus disrupting the norm.
For a long time in the gaming community, little support has existed for traditionally marginalized Others, and more specifically women, who have attempted to modify the norm. As the online gaming community continues to grow and flourish, there are a number of sub-communities that exist for the sole purpose of creating a safe environment for women who are looking for an ingress into the larger video gaming community. While cathartic and violent reactions to the impending r/evolution will likely continue for the foreseeable future, we believe it is encouraging to see just how many ways women are enacting change and just how members (of various and varying ilks) of the larger gaming community are positively responding to the disruption of the traditional notion of narratives — narratives in the games themselves and narratives surrounding the games. We hope that with the rich body of scholarship presented in this journal issue, feminists will continue to see video games as a rich and important venue to explore feminist ideas and enact creative resistance.