Playing the Humanities
Feminist Game Studies and Public Discourse
Anastasia Salter and Bridget Blodgett
Both game studies and the broader digital humanities value the public scholar: the intersection of games academic spaces with games journalism and online communities offers lots of valuable opportunities for debate and shared knowledge. However, participation within these communities comes at very different potential costs for scholars based on their identities, and the currency of one network becomes fuel for a witch hunt from another. Acting as a public scholar brings with it risk that is inherently tied to a scholar’s identity and position: gender, race, sexual identity, and other elements of identity not only bring intense scrutiny but often invite harassment, trolling, and silencing. Thus, the privileging of public scholarship in the games and digital humanities research communities can come at a high price for already marginalized participants, with important ramifications for whose voices are heard and recognized within the field.
Game studies and the digital humanities are fields with significant overlap: game studies can be found in departments ranging from English, media studies, and American studies to communication, digital media, and computer science. While the field is inherently interdisciplinary, many game studies scholars hold a home department and disciplinary training from a humanities background. The technical nature of both the games under study and the methods required to effectively analyze them connects with some digital humanities methods. It is thus unsurprising that game studies also suffers from some of the challenges facing the digital humanities community, including the privileging of coders and “makers” and a push toward public scholarship that comes with significant risk, as observable in the experience of pushback against feminist scholarship at the Digital Games Research Association documented by Shira Chess and Adrienne Shaw (“We Are All Fishes Now”). By examining the parallel experiences of researchers working on bringing feminist discourse to these two spaces of technical-humanities intersection, we can better understand the larger challenge facing both fields.
Public scholarship in both game studies and the digital humanities is centered on community and practices of sharing and amplification, and one of the most important networked publics (defined by danah boyd as a space constructed as a public through networked technologies and the collective emerging from this construction) for both is Twitter (boyd, “Social Network Sites”). As a social network, Twitter was created in 2006 and provides a platform for sharing content limited to 140 characters (which might include links, videos, and/or images) that has been significantly popular with academics thanks in part to its model of following, rather than friending, which allows for nonmutual connections, unlike the reciprocal model of Facebook. This is particularly helpful for new and emerging scholars, who can follow significant voices in the field while establishing themselves. As sava saheli singh notes, “practices like this are even becoming part of academic professionalization—the things a grad student or early-career scholar must do to develop a reputation as a scholar and academic” (“Tweeting to the Choir”). These expectations are becoming the norm in any technologically related or dependent field, as participation is a sign of both technical literacy and relevance, and may also be key to networking, promoting publications, and finding a job. Lisa Spiro has gone so far as to define digital humanities as a field of public scholarly practices, noting that “how the digital humanities community operates—transparently, collaboratively, through online networks—distinguishes it” (“‘This Is Why’”). Such rhetoric, while compelling, leaves little room for opting out of those networks. It is notable that Spiro’s discussion tackles this head-on, suggesting a need for explicit shared values and codes of conduct within digital humanities, both of which have yet to be truly realized.
Participation in this sort of collaborative online field comes at a cost. Game studies shares similar values: the field’s main journal, Game Studies, is open access, and many of the field’s most noted scholars regularly share and collaborate through Twitter and other networks. Given these similarities, events from 2010–2017 in the game studies community offer a powerful case study for the risks inherent in public acts of scholarship, particularly on Twitter. As a network, Twitter is highly regarded in the digital humanities community: as Matthew Kirschenbaum observes “Twitter, along with blogs and other online outlets, has inscribed the digital humanities as a network topology, that is to say lines drawn by aggregates of affinities, formally and functionally manifest in who follows whom, who friends whom, who tweets whom, and who links to what” (“What Is Digital Humanities”). Digital humanities practices value the public scholar: as Bonnie Stewart notes, “Going online and talking to people you don’t know about areas of shared interest . . . opens up your capacity to build communities of practice” (“What Counts”). However, the consequences of online participation in these communities of practice (with the digital humanities broadly construed as one such community) have been strongly felt by women, persons of color, and other marginalized voices. By putting the experiences of games scholars and digital humanists in dialogue, we can better understand why calls for public scholarship can be marginalizing and silencing even as they seek to strengthen their respective disciplines. Humanist and social science games scholars, particularly those addressing inequities and inclusivity, have in many ways served as the canary in the coal mine for academia at large: the same forces and institutions that have been marshalled in the games culture wars are as of 2017 a dominant part of the academic landscape (Bernstein). The real and immediate dangers (particularly to those from marginalized identities) have never been greater (May).
Both games and digital humanities suffer from a similar challenge of being adjacent to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), but not part of the discourse of STEM. This challenge was particularly crystallized in a highly circulated op-ed in the New York Times in November 2017 by Cathy O’Neil with the provocative title “The Ivory Tower Can’t Keep Ignoring Tech.” This idea that academia was “ignoring” tech was particularly exhausting thanks to a line that drew the immediate ire of researchers in both the digital humanities and game studies: “There is essentially no distinct field of academic study that takes seriously the responsibility of understanding and critiquing the role of technology—and specifically, the algorithms that are responsible for so many decisions—in our lives” (“Ivory Tower”). One researcher, Victoria Massie, responded aptly on Twitter with the observation that “the ivory tower isn’t ignoring tech. Rather academia, like tech, suffers from the same structural inequalities. And if tech, like academia, didn’t ignore the folks at the margins who have been about this work, we wouldn’t be in this mess” (“@vmmassie”). Massie’s comment is particularly insightful, as it serves as a reminder that scholars fundamentally driven by understanding and critiquing the inequities emerging from technology through the lens of gender and race are also frequently those whose voices are least likely to be amplified.
While many expressed understandable frustrations that O’Neil’s op-ed appeared to ignore the rich history of entire fields of academia, the oversight is neither new nor unexpected. A hierarchy of fields is inevitable, and STEM research has traditionally been far more visible. Both game studies and digital humanities are STEM adjacent, but participants in those fields contributing outside the technical center are frequently marginalized. Even scholars with significant personal capital note the challenges facing scholars outside these central disciplines. In his “Year Fifteen” report on the field of game studies, Ian Bogost noted, “The truth is, as a critical and pedagogical concern, game studies is hardly a powerful actor. Games are, I’m sorry to report, a joke that have managed nevertheless to eke out a place in the study of arts and culture” (“Game Studies”). The centering of these debates over identity and cultural value on code and public contributions is itself inherently gendered. Within the games industry, there are defined tiers of participation, and while game design is interdisciplinary by nature, the procedural aspects of game design are often most recognized as being the primary work. These mirror the common discursive constructions of the fields of science and technology where the more technical and mathematically based focuses are seen as the higher-status positions, which likewise echo debates in the digital humanities over the technical barriers to entry and participation. We will examine the parallel threads of academic representation and community silencing within games studies and digital humanities discourses, with particular attention to how these self-selected gatekeepers determine who participates and who is heard in forming scholarly publics.
The co-location of these outbreaks on a primary medium of digital humanities discourse, Twitter, brought with it a huge intersection with academic speech and debate. The overlap between academia and fandom (a concept Henry Jenkins refers to as “aca/fan” brings with it huge overlaps in discourse communities between academics who study and develop games and the larger games industry and gamer communities. Defining the space of game studies is difficult: games programs and courses have emerged as part of computer science and engineering departments, English and literature programs, art and design schools, and interdisciplinary studies. While games can be identified as part of STEM disciplines, the study of games has often been more closely aligned with media studies, and games are often found occupying the same spaces as the digital humanities.
Such programs also frequently align themselves with media creation and procedural knowledge as a means toward greater relevance within the institution and in relationship to the games industry, as Austin C. Howe criticized: “scholars, who struggled to establish game studies as a discipline within academia, chose to focus on procedural styles of play as a strategy for establishing an independent and legitimate field of study, but it was still a hard sell. . . . By combining play studies with programming and animation, a games curricula emerged that focused on games that are designed around both ludocentric and tech-fetishistic rhetorics” (“On the Ghost”). This debate has allegories in the digital humanities, as Miriam Posner writes: “As digital humanities winds its way into academic departments, it seems reasonable to predict that the work that will get people jobs—the work that marks a real digital humanist—will be work that shows that you can code. And that work is overwhelmingly by men” (Some Things).This criticism holds echoes of the code-obsession that often surrounds digital humanities programs and conferences, with the expectation that procedural (rather than humanities) literacies are the saving grace offered by the introduction of the digital. As existing trends already continually reaffirm the systemic challenges that women and other marginalized communities face in STEM-based institutions, programs with a code-centered curriculum risk reproducing the same trends in representation and student bodies.
Similar risks accompany the privileging of crowdsourced, “open source,” and public scholarship movements. The inherent challenges of meaningful discourse in such spaces are increasingly being recognized. Confronted with a wealth of meaningless debates and misinformation in its own comments section, Popular Science made the decision to give up on moderation and shut the whole forum down (LaBarre). The availability and public nature of discussion on the web raises questions about who may participate in discussions of academic topics and how different voices should be valuable as providing insight or feedback to the academic community. Even in more academic venues, the idea of crowdsourcing knowledge rarely leads to an amplification of women’s voices, as Elizabeth Losh points out in an article addressing explicitly what digital humanities can learn from feminist game studies: “Collaborative authorship in the digital humanities cannot be similarly strongly correlated with feminism. Only one of the ten authors of the critical code studies book 10 PRINT was female, and women made up only a fraction of the multiple authors of the “crowdsourced” book from the University of Michigan Press Hacking the Academy. Perhaps this is not surprising given the machismo sometimes associated with multiple authorship in other forms of digital textual collaboration, such as when hackers generate code or Wikipedia editors produce pages or computer scientists rack up publications with the multiple authorship that defines their scholarly networks” (“What Can the Digital Humanities”). As Losh observes, in game studies collaboration between women authors is more common, perhaps in part thanks to the challenges inherent to feminist discourse within game studies as a space.
Contextualizing Gendertrolling through GamerGate
Both digital humanists and games scholars, and indeed many tech-savvy academics in the community at large, rely on corporate-run media networks as platforms for collaboration and discourse. Among those, Twitter has been dominant for nearly a decade, and has thus had a dramatic impact on the networks and discourse of both fields. The same aspects that make Twitter so inviting to scholars make it dangerous to marginalized participants. Twitter’s use of asymmetric friendships and public-facing content make the tweets of scholars available for use and critique by anyone, and those people in turn can easily reply, amplify, or harass the writer. Twitter as a platform has proven to be particularly suited for what Karla Mantilla calls “gendertrolling,” or misogynist harassment with a focus on silencing and driving women away from participation in public social media platforms (“Gendertrolling”). The games and game studies communities have proven particularly volatile to this type of harassment, with a series of major incidents on Twitter drawing attention to the dangers of participating in public space and discourse. This tension within games studies (and now, academia at large) place scholars in a no-win scenario: participation on networks such as Twitter is valued as academic currency, but participation is also an invitation to overt gender-based harassment. These incidents have been fueled by questions of identity: Who gets to claim the title of gamer? Whose voices will be heard (and, importantly, silenced) in conversations surrounding games and games culture?
The most widely recognized and publicly noted incident of gendertrolling and campaigns of harassment and silencing within the games community on Twitter is GamerGate, a hashtag started in August 2014 by the ex-partner of a game designer (Zoe Quinn, as chronicled in her powerful memoir Crash Override) that was marketed as a fight against what members of the movement perceived as a lack of ethics in games journalism and a move toward “political correctness” that they saw as threatening their gaming culture. This was far from the first outbreak of misogyny-driven conflict within the games community on Twitter: several previous events had forewarned of the coming storm. In 2010, the publication of a comic featuring rape as punchline by industry convention leader Penny Arcade spurred a dispute over the appropriateness of rape as a subject, which escalated as Twitter accounts with names like “Dickwolvington” and “TeamRAPE” threatened rape and violence against any woman who criticized the comic (Salter and Blodgett). In 2012, a pivotal hashtag #1ReasonWhy begun with women answering a male designer’s tweeted question, “Why are there so few lady game creators?,” with frank discussions of the experience of being a woman in the games industry and community. We previously examined this Twitter conversation through analyzing a number of tweets and found that they revealed a number of trends among the problems experienced by women: “Rape and Sexual Harassment, Overt Sexualization, Harassment, Silencing, and Gendered Assumptions” (Blodgett and Salter). This tension has escalated in both visibility and impact over time, as Leigh Alexander captures in her examination of gamer as an identity: “‘Games culture’ is a petri dish of people who know so little about how human social interaction and professional life works that they can concoct online ‘wars’ about social justice or ‘game journalism ethics,’ straight-faced, and cause genuine human consequences. Because of video games” (“‘Gamers’ Don’t Have to Be”). These themes offer insight into the experiences of women and marginalized members of the community, and the problem of silencing holds particularly problematic implications for both the gaming community and those who study games.
The GamerGate movement has much more explicitly engaged game studies and particularly women academics as targets for silencing, gendertrolling, and other threats. One of the most powerful tools of silencing is doxing, a practice of outing someone’s real information (including address, names of partners and children, telephone numbers, employers, etc.) for the explicit purpose of harassment. Doxing is a powerful weapon in the hands of internet trolls and particularly when used against women, as it can quickly be amplified to include threats of rape and death. Several women subjected to campaigns of harassment have left the games industry completely, while others have had to take extreme measures invoking the FBI and at times fleeing their homes. The public attacks against such figureheads serve as a warning to others who would risk inflaming the anger of the movement. Other tactics simply shut down free speech, such as the threats of a massacre if Anita Sarkeesian (media critic and creator of a series of videos examining the depiction of women in video games) followed through with an invited speaking engagement at Utah State. Informed that security could not prohibit firearms at the event or provide any assurances of safety for herself or the students, Sarkeesian canceled the talk.
For academics working on GamerGate, the public visibility and attacks on scholarship became quickly personal. Adrienne Shaw chronicled the challenges she faced when her work unexpectedly was caught in the spotlight: at first, she wasn’t expecting the problem, as “although feminist game scholars follow, research, and sympathize with the targets of this kind of coordinated hate campaign, it is rare that academic work becomes a target itself” (Chess and Shaw, “Conspiracy of Fishes”). Yet the intersections between academia and the games industry have brought academic work into the battlefield. Many scholars found their personal information, blogs, Twitter comments, and the like being taken out alongside their professional writing for analysis. This was not the analytic discourse of peer review; it was often accompanied with intensely personal and gendered attacks, often with attempts to professionally discredit academics by destroying their reputations or sense of security. As Katherine Cross explains the maelstrom: “Almost immediately we—and I must include myself in this, for as a feminist academic and writer, I was quickly targeted as well—were all, as a class, deemed guilty by association: guilty until proven innocent, with no proof ever seeming to satisfy the braying mobs. Suddenly our names began to appear in spider charts, sinful stars in senseless constellations of conspiracy” (“‘We Will Force Gaming’”). The implications of being included on such lists could be frightening, from harassment on Twitter to the ever-present threat of the escalation or fulfillment of tweeted threats.
Conferences with a tradition of public scholarship were confronted with the challenge of unexpected public scrutiny and hostile outside attention: in the case of one communications conference, this escalated rapidly. Several scholars in the community had turned their gaze to GamerGate, but rather than evoke the name in public reference, they opted to use the term “Death Eaters” in reference to Harry Potter’s villainous and bigoted enemies. However, a mistaken tweet revealed the game, drawing attention to the conference and the work of one woman PhD, Natalie Walschots, whose dissertation focuses on the movement. As she explains, “There have been calls to attend future conference panels that I am presenting on, to contact the dean of graduate studies at Concordia in an attempt to get me expelled, to buy up all the domain names associated with my name and handle to ruin my SEO for future employers” (Goodyear). In the current academic job market, such threats can be lasting attempts to silence a feminist voice.
Katherine Cross captured the difficulty these constant attacks pose for gamers researching in the space in a roundtable on GamerGate: “As a researcher, you are in the midst of this maelstrom, implicated in it, and it is almost impossible not to be directly emotionally involved . . . because as the researcher you are directly under attack. So many of GamerGate’s conspiracy theories and its general weltanschauung about the gaming space positions academics as being part of the problem, especially if you study gender. So any attempt to theorize about them or write about them is to make yourself a target, and some might argue that biases you” (Veen). This problem is not unlike that of any public scholars whose identity makes them a target, from black academics handling the criticism of movements such as Black Lives Matter alongside the rest of their Twitter feed to transgender scholars caught by arbitrary encoded rules such as Facebook’s “real” name policy (Steele et al.). In each of these cases, the idea of academic distance and the avoidance of bias can make it impossible for those who are by their identity and research participants in a happening to be taken seriously when they stand to address it.
The International Communication Association was one of many academic organizations to publish a statement on GamerGate, and in doing so the association captured some of the greatest challenges it presents for not just this field but for all of academia and particularly humanities discourse: “You might feel that these events do not relate to your research area, your position, or your students. You are wrong. The harassment members of our community have experienced is a problem that can have chilling effects on academia—both in and out of the communication field. Already, graduate students (and even some colleagues) have conveyed to us that they are frightened to speak up or study video games. When fear enters academia it is the research that suffers as all of our research becomes suspect and ‘under investigation’” (Chess, Consalvo, et al.). This observation is essential to understanding the harm that GamerGate and similar forces can deal to academic discourse, and particularly the digital humanities idea of the public scholar, which demands continual participation in spaces of scrutiny and against forces that demand silence or submission.
Digital humanities and game studies scholars are an overlapping group: while digital humanities is traditionally defined as examining humanities works through digital methods, game studies scholars are often examining digital works with toolsets drawn from humanities and other disciplines. The two disciplines are now facing similar challenges thanks to this grounding in technical culture, which itself has been undergoing increasing scrutiny for reinforcing a “brogrammer” culture that silences diverse voices and reinforces an insular way of thinking. Both digital humanities and game studies communities have continually demonstrated a tendency to privilege the procedural and the public, a mindset that can ignore the very real differences in risks and privilege faced by women and other marginalized groups in seeking to be heard.
The attacks on women academics in particular seeking to broaden definitions of games and advocate for greater inclusion serve as a warning for the digital humanities at large. It is impossible to guess at what scholarship has been silenced thanks to the looming threats on those who participate: the self-censoring of the term “GamerGate” at conferences and in public discourse is just one obvious example of a complex network of decision making and risk analysis for public participation. The reliance of the digital humanities (and “public scholarship” as constructed within this and other disciplines) on networks such as Twitter becomes particularly questionable when viewed through this lens, as such networks are also home to some of the most aggressive trolling and forces demanding silence. When identity gate-keeping and evaluation of influence are conducted in part on metrics such as a presence on these networks, the results must skew in favor of those whose presence in public spaces is more accepted, and whose mere visibility does not immediately make them a target for harassment.
1. This type of claim is advanced in many advice columns to graduate students, such as Bekker, “Why You Should Use Twitter.”
2. Described on Henry Jenkins’s online bio: Jenkins, “Who the &%&#.”
3. See Blodgett and Salter, “Hearing.”
4. See Lobo, “Silicon Valley’s Sexist Brogrammer Culture.”
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