Digital Games

Race, Gender and Gamification: The Political Ecologies of Virtual Play

This project is a collaboration with my colleagues Brandon Ogbunugafor (Biology and Complex Systems), Randall Harp (Philosophy and Complex Systems) Ingrid Nelson (Geography and Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies), Jonah Steinberg (Anthropology and Global Studies), Harlan Morehouse (Geography), and Hyon Joo Yoo (English and Film and Television Studies)

This project focuses on the design, cultural politics, and societal impacts of digital games including but not limited to dominant narratives, representations and constructions of race, gender, and sexuality, integration and competition with other creative industries. Digital games – including console, pc, and mobile or tablet platforms – constitute a major cultural and economic force in the contemporary world. The gaming industry is estimated today to generate nearly $100 billion in revenues worldwide (ESRB, 2015; Shaw, 2012; Williams, Consalvo and Ivory, 2009) and is increasingly linked with many other forms of cultural production and daily life, from television and film to print and online publications to sports and celebrity marketing and even to urban planning and military recruitment amongst many others (Massanari, 2015; Chess and Shaw, 2014; Rowsell, Pedersen and Trueman, 2014). While the issue of the impact of digital games – on youth behaviors, education patterns, violence, physical and mental development, and health and fitness – has been a subject of study for decades especially in fields such as psychology, sociology, and communications studies (Fox and Tang, 2014; Shaw, 2012; Dietz, 1998; Rutherford and Bose, 2014) the content and structure of games as well as the environment of game design and creation itself have received less notice. Questions regarding narratives and identities – of both stories and storytellers – is what lies at the heart of our inquiry.

Guiding Questions

We seek to examine the kinds of narratives that dominate the world of digital games in the contemporary era, as well as the working lives and ideologies of those who produce them. Several issues we are particularly interested in have come to the fore in multiple ways in recent years including:

  • The ‘Gamergate’ incident in which a female video game developer has been subjected to a relentless campaign of harassment and brutalization by male developers and players based on their perceptions of her feminist politics both within game design and her personal life. This controversy has continued on with the targeting of other women developers and critics of misogynistic themes, characters and narratives
  • Violent, misogynistic, trivialized and highly sexualized representations of women in popular titles such as Tomb Raider and Grand Theft Auto, both by developers and as a result of user modifications
  • Islamophobic and racialized depictions of non-white characters in a wide variety of games such as Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and Metal Gear
  • The heteronormative tradition in gaming versus depictions of same-sex, interracial, and inter-species relationships as well as of LGBT and transgender characters in games including The Last of Us, Mass Effect, Baldur’s Gate, and Dragon Age
  • The portrayal of historically subversive, revolutionary, and marginalized groups including the Hashishim, Roma, courtesans, and indigenous populations in Assassins Creed
  • A focus on biopolitics and control over the natural environment both in real time strategy and dystopic titles such as BioShock and Spore
  • The promotion of particular linear ideologies of political, social and economic development in real time strategy games like Civilization and Age of Empires
  • Attempts to create alternative narratives and modes of storytelling through examples such as the Cook Inlet Tribal Council’s Kisima Innjitchunja (Never Alone) which marries indigenous folktales with modern narration
  • Attempts to conduct online ethnographies in platforms such as Second Life and World of Warcraft
  • Innovative open-world titles such as No Man’s Sky