Games – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Unpacking Rust, Race, and Player Reactions to Change Mon, 15 Jun 2015 14:25:10 +0000 Rust courted controversy by assigning players unchangeable, racialized avatars. Adrienne Shaw unpacks how game design helped produce some of that player outrage.]]> Rust 3

Post by Adrienne Shaw, Temple University

Having recently published a book on representation in video games, several people have asked me about the “Rust controversy” (and a blog post is easier to manage than multiple email threads). One of the more surprising findings from my book and prior audience studies projects is just how little some people (take note internet: some people) say they care about representation in games. The actual core argument of the book, however, is that media scholars (among others) need to be more attentive to when and how people come to care about representation. Looking at when and how people care about representation helps us better interrogate the limits of the kinds of diversity we have seen in games. And fights over representation, moments when people really care or militantly don’t care about representation, illustrate that really well.

So Rust… The original story broke back in March, when the post-apocalyptic massively multiplayer online (MMO) game released an update that assigned a randomly raced avatar to all players, which could not be changed. Prior to this, all the avatars looked the same: a bald white guy. Responses to this change varied. Some welcomed the injection of aesthetic diversity in the game; others were pissed. Some of this anger was expressed as racist language, some felt the change was “social justice” activism through design, and many just wanted to know how to change what the avatar looked like.

A lot of other smart people have already written about these various player reactions: go read these great pieces by Megan Condis, Kishonna Gray, and Tauriq Moosa now! I want to focus on a slightly different issue than they do however: the role the design of Rust played in helping create those negative reactions.

Rust 4

First, I think it’s a mistake to say that Facepunch Studios experimented here. They took an existing game and changed it pretty dramatically and suddenly. There is a long history of gamers (terminology note) reacting poorly to changes in their favorite franchises (example). Most of the coverage of Rust’s change conflates the effect of making people play as a specific avatar with changing an existing game. MMO players, especially, become really attached to their avatars; there are decades of research on this (start here). Certainly, players of Rust before this update didn’t have choices for what their avatar looked like, but now that there are appearance options I suspect players think they should have more choice (bracketing out for a moment the fair critique that they were willing to accept a default white male option, because that’s what many games typically offer). Self-representation — that is having the chance to represent yourself how you wish, whether the thing on the screen looks like you or not — is a longstanding part of MMOs. That people took the Rust change so hard, and manifested those emotions as racist chat and play behavior is unsurprising (which is not to condone the racism expressed in those comments).

Second, in my book, I talk about the distinction between characters and avatars, and in online spaces especially people are known through their avatars. Rust lead developer and owner of Facepunch Studios, Garry Newman’s comments on the matter demonstrate a misunderstanding of the contextuality of how and when what the avatar/play character embodiment affects when and how people care: “People have a strange need to play someone similar to themselves in games,” he said. “That’s not something I understand. I don’t think I’d have enjoyed Half-Life more if Gordon Freeman didn’t have glasses or a beard.” From my own research, certainly those games (narrative-driven, solo player games) are the ones in which players do not always care much about playing as a character “like them” because there are other ways (narrative mostly) for them to connect to those characters (or not). People who feel emboldened to demand things of games, moreover, do wish that on a broad level there was more diversity within those narrative-driven assigned character games. Players do often care about how they are being represented in contexts in which they are being represented to others through an avatar, like an MMO. And they really care in games that imply they have a choice, which is among the many reasons people care strongly about what relationship options are available in games.

Rust 2

Finally, the way the race was introduced in the game actually helped make it feel arbitrary. Indeed, in the announcement of the change they call race arbitrary: “It’s quite pleasing to see different races working together in game, and makes you realise how arbitrary race is.” Race in the game is an aesthetic addition so people can tell each other apart visually. That isn’t what race is, which is why “color-blindness” has never been an actual anti-racist goal. Robert Yang discusses his own approach to this issue in designing Cobra Club. What would be even more interesting than randomized races is if someone created a game where you are born into a body that affects the way you interact with the world. Now that would be an interesting experiment in how people react to being thrust into an identity that may not be like their own. There is a model for this in fact, in Marsha Kinder’s Runaways, and if anyone has info on what happened to that game please leave a comment.

None of this is to say that Facepunch Studios should be condemned for trying something new. New players will come to the game expecting to be assigned a body. And that’s interesting, and might lead to some unique in-game interactions that change how we understand avatar-player relationships (I sense a dissertation being formed in the distance). The danger, though, is that more risk-averse studios will see the negative response as evidence that players aren’t ready for more diversity in games. There are plenty of games out there for those players who aren’t ready for more diversity; I think the rest of us are ready for something new.


#gamergate Thu, 25 Sep 2014 13:30:29 +0000 GamerGateIf you do not follow the gaming press, visit popular videogame blogs, read 4chan, or scan Reddit, you may not have heard about the latest barrage of abuse and harassment targeting, yet again, women in the games industry. Even if you do casually follow the aforementioned online spaces, you still may not be entirely sure what #gamergate represents, although the story has now been picked up by mainstream press outlets like Forbes, Slate, and The New Yorker. This brief Antenna post is not an encouragement to dive down a very ugly rabbit hole. In fact, it would be great if we all could collectively ignore the Internet’s current pitchfork mob for a little while, filtering anything related to #gamergate directly to the junk folder.

In brief: #Gamergate started in late August when an ex-boyfriend of independent game designer Zoe Quinn posted an intimate account of their failed relationship, including accusations that Quinn had several affairs with men who write for videogame news and review sites. This, he implied, explained why her interactive fiction game Depression Quest had become an award-winning success. The ex-boyfriend also explicitly stated that his purpose in posting his interpretation of their relationship was to ruin her career.

#Gamergate should have ended there. Exploiting the personal life of a woman to call into question her professional success is an all-too familiar tactic to delegitimize women’s work and status. In 2007, Ubisoft producer Jade Raymond endured similar public humiliation when popular gaming blogs accused her of using sex appeal to promote Assassin’s Creed, suggesting as well that she reached her position at Ubisoft only because she is an attractive woman. For Quinn, the accusation that her success is a result of sleeping her way to fame followed months of harassment and negative comments about her game from users on Steam Greenlight, many of whom claimed Depression Question was not a ‘real game’ worthy of development support from Valve.

Unfortunately Kotaku, one of the news outlets named by the jilted ex, responded to accusations that one of their writers had acted unethically. After a brief investigation, Kotaku determined no ethical breach had occurred, but the editor’s statement only brought further attention to the smear campaign. Video “evidence” was produced in the form of rambling monologues, and graphics tracing Quinn’s supposed relationships within the industry were created and shared widely on 4chan, Reddit and Twitter. Shortly after the initial ex-boyfriend post, B-list actor Adam Baldwin (best known for playing Jayne Cobb on Firefly) linked to a “Quinnspiracy” video and tagged the Twitter post #gamergate; Baldwin has remained active in the #gamergate tag.

An insular, cozy relationship between publishers, developers and game journalists has characterized the industry for decades, though complaints from readers have rarely affected any policy changes. Like other sectors of the entertainment press, industry-sponsored media junkets and gadget-leaden swag bags continue to woo journalists and reviewers despite calls for more objective news coverage and more meaningful game criticism. The back pages of Game Informer, Computer Gaming World (before it folded in 2006) and dozens of gaming magazines over the years are filled with photos of journalists and editors hanging out with celebrity game designers and triple-A publishers at industry parties.

While the outrage about Quinn’s connections in the industry seems to raise fair concerns about journalism ethics, the focus of #gamergate has largely not been on journalists or on the well-funded publishers and developers who have courted the press with exclusive access and freebies for years. Instead, Quinn and other independent game developers with far fewer resources were targeted for fostering relationships and building professional networks – an absolute requirement for success in any creative industry.

The #gamergate controversy frothed when a few game journalists and editors were linked to indie developers through the crowdfunding sites Kickstarter and Patreon, and at least one site adopted a policy of “disclosure” for such funding by writers. This sounds fine on the surface, but is a little more insidious when we consider who is usually supported through crowdfunding (i.e. indie developers, often with projects that fall well outside the triple-A mainstream); after all, nobody is asking the same writers to maintain a public list of major releases they’ve paid cash dollars for, even though by the same logic “supporting” development with money in any way should be suspect.

#Gamergate is not about ethics, or about making the industry more transparent. The rhetoric of #gamergate is a co-option of the concerns that women and minorities in the industry have raised for years. The reason #gamergate has struck such a chord now is because, indeed, the industry is changing. Diverse characters in games are more common and more women and minorities are making games. As others have commented, #gamergate signals a culture war within gaming that has been slowly building for decades and, following years on the margins, has finally broken through to the mainstream.

However, the conversation that should occur about inclusivity in games has been hijacked by an extremely conservative discourse that co-opts the language of exclusion in order to argue that the cultural shift occurring is meant to deny gamers their preferred experiences. Transcripts of 4chan conversations and Reddit threads where instigators of #gamergate strategize the online abuse of women and their allies who dare to challenge the status quo read like talking points crafted by conservative political consultant Frank Luntz and right-wing commentator Glenn Beck. It is a world turned upside down, and it would be funnier if it were not alternately scary and tiresome. Even as #gamergate has simultaneously reached mainstream attention and hysterical levels of conspiracy theory paranoia, it remains at heart an object lesson in the harassment that women in and around the game industry are subjected to.

If #gamergate has uncovered anything, it has revealed that some people with shared professional interests know each other, that some people with shared professional interests attend the same professional events, and that some people with shared professional interests are reminded, daily, that those very interests put them at risk. But, hey, we knew that already.


Kollecting Kim K. Skills: Kardashianized Celebrity in Kim Kardashian: Hollywood Fri, 25 Jul 2014 13:30:38 +0000 Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, the celebrity legitimizes her image while also propagating her brand by redefining fame as an accumulation of skills.]]> “In order to win at life, you need some Kim K skills, period.” – Kanye West

In a recent GQ interview, Kanye West attributes new wife Kim Kardashian with teaching him to better manage his celebrity. However, analogous with popular discourses defining the couple as shallow and fame-obsessed, West’s verbiage ultimately doesn’t say anything. West never defines “Kim K. skills” as more than some kind of intangible communication skills, but expects that the interviewer, and subsequently the general public, will know exactly what he means. Though only mentioned peripherally by West, Kim K. skills are, however, delineated in the new mobile game Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. Through the game, Kardashian legitimizes her celebrity while also propagating her brand by redefining fame in her image – as the accumulation of “Kim K. skills.”

Kim’s avatar demonstrates the first Kim K. skill in the game’s initial sequence: charm is the key to everything. She charms you into reopening a boutique so she may outfit herself for an upcoming event. Your only option is to help Kim, which is rewarded when she invites you to the event. As you progress through the game, charm becomes a form of currency. You cannot connect with new people outside your current celebrity rank unless you use your hard-to-come-by K Stars to charm them. Whenever you choose “charm” as an action, your relationship grows stronger, which increases your celebrity.

Charming people to like you underscores another Kim K. skill: perceived relationships are paramount in achieving fame. Charm gets you into Kim’s event, but it’s your association with Kim that makes the paparazzi care. As a result, Kim sets you up with a manager and a publicist to help you work towards A-List stardom. Your relationships with these intermediaries are static, but they give you opportunities to improve your public personae. Other in-game relationships, however, are necessary to level up. Bars and clubs are populated with people of varying celebrity rank who can increase your celebrity. Whether you choose to network with or date new contacts, relationships are only cultivated in professional capacities.

Kim K. - Dating Level Up

Your network can join you at personal appearances, and dates happen in public to be seen and subsequently tweeted about. The game allows players to integrate their real-life networks, as you can interact with your friends’ avatars.  Even negative relationships gain fame. When a celebutant expresses jealousy over your relationship with Kim, she sparks a feud that establishes your Twitter following.

In addition to social currencies, the way to celebrity is through accumulating stuff. Kardashian herself comes from wealth, and the association between money and fame is integral to game play. Though the game itself is free to download and play, it becomes quickly apparent that advancing is easier by investing real money. Various reviews have reported how easy it is to spend real money on the game. The types of currency are in-game dollars, energy points, and K Stars. You earn money from constant modeling gigs and paid appearances. Energy is needed to do anything, and is easily expended causing you to wait until it’s replenished or trade precious K Stars for more. K Stars only come from leveling up or from in-app purchases.

Kim K - K Star Store

The dollars one earns are inadequate to keep up with Kim. Players increase their celebrity status with new outfits, homes, cars, and buying gifts to improve relationships, but most lifestyle enhancers can only be purchased with K Stars.

Kim K - Kim K. Clothes Store

Although many items have high price tags, acquiring them creates momentary relief before anxiety sets in again about what else you need to augment your celebrity lifestyle. And, as mentioned, K Stars also act as social currency.

The most ubiquitous Kim K. skill throughout the game is the power of personal branding. Kardashian’s brand is everywhere: the revamped Hollywood sign; each Kardash boutique interior mimics its DASH counterpart; the K Stars.


Kim herself is the most important brand and celebrity signifier. She is your entry point into the celebrity game/game-play and her approval makes you worthy of attention. The game reinforces the celebrity system and Kim’s position in it, both of which depend on hierarchies to establish their value. Likewise, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood addresses the specific dichotomy informing reality TV celebrity personae: that stars need to be approachable and authentic to attract viewers, but ultimately need to remain separate to be special. Celebrity reinforces capitalism because celebrities constantly remind regular people of what they don’t have and should want. In the game, you need virtual and real money for the Tribeca loft and new Louboutins to project a celebrity lifestyle despite whether or not you can afford it.

Even when you get to the A-list, you still need to accumulate fans to increase your ranking. Curiously enough, Kim Kardashian is not a rankable celebrity. Players don’t compete with her, as she is above the celebrity system because her celebrity is established. Kardashian is the definitive arbiter of Kim K. skills, and ultimately unreachable in her version of celebrity.


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Following the Instructions Mon, 17 Mar 2014 18:00:16 +0000 trioMuch of the commentary surrounding The LEGO Movie recognized the contradiction between narrative critique of conformity to social “instructions” and promotion of mass-produced, build-by-instruction toys.  The most astute recognized how the film’s many narrative pleasures nevertheless celebrated a particularly white, masculinized creative individualism.  Sure, most of the LEGO minifigure characters have the same yellow skin-color; still, the noticeably darker Vetruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman) plays the “magical negro” whose spiritual wisdom empowers normative protagonist Emmet as “the special.”  Female characters like Wyldstyle too see their strength operate in support of the mundane, but ultimately more special, creative power of the male hero.  While I only rehearse these particular arguments a month later, I do think they provide an excellent platform for continuing to think about LEGO, the idea of “creativity,” and the unequal extension of that idea to different consumer groups.

friendsClaims about “creativity” anchor LEGO marketing strategies and the meanings ascribed to LEGO products.  The company pledges parent- and educator-friendly engagement “in the development of children’s creativity through play and learning.”  Countless press releases tout this support of creativity; even the embrace of media licenses like Star Wars was framed as a boon to (rather than limit upon) creative imagination.  The ideological frame of creativity also underpinned LEGO’s most recent gender-differentiated appeals to girl builders.  While the 2012 LEGO Friends theme commendably corrected the exclusive focus on boys, would-be inclusiveness manifested predictably as market segregation.  Girls and boys were not imagined as playing together, but instead as two classes of builders with different creative desires and needs.  Girls, according to LEGO, needed more role-playing and even different kinds of human representations (“minidolls” instead of minifigures).  Notions of inherent creative difference legitimated narrowly gendered marketing appeals.

StarfighterDefenders of Friends nevertheless pitched the modular creativity of LEGO as a get-out-of-gender-free card.  Kids “don’t have to follow” the included instructions, this thinking went.  Gender normative bakeries and beauty salons could become pink and purple starfighters.  Though packaging and instructions offer what Ellen van Oost and Mary Kearney term “gender scripts,” the reconfigurable nature of LEGO product promised such scripts could also be “backdoors,” enticing already gendered subjects to creative experimentation.  The ideological utility of creativity for LEGO came in both demanding gender conformity and offering ways out of it.

The LEGO Movie ruminates endlessly on this idea of following instructions.  “Masterbuilders” like Vetruvius and Wyldstyle initially devalue Emmet’s interest in building and living by the instructions of mass culture.  And yet, the film does not completely disarticulate creativity from such instructions.  As Emmet takes on leadership, he explains the virtues of instructions as a platform for creative teamwork.  And while the film culminates (spoiler alert) in a live-action meta-conflict over proper use of LEGO toys between an instruction-minded father and free-building son, the compromise reached suggests the father will continue building by instructions, just with newfound support for his son’s reconfiguration of them.  The climactic action sequence in the animated world too turns on the idea of LEGO people rebuilding a prefabricated world, turning ice cream trucks into winged attack vehicles.  In line with LEGO’s marketing of instruction-based building sets as “creative,” the film locates creativity somewhere beyond the instructions, but still figures those scripts as a key first step toward creativity.  Meanwhile, the Ice Cream Machine can be sold in stores with instructions for building both on-screen configurations.

ice cream machine

And despite the mélange of LEGO product in the film, including a visit to Cloud Cuckoo Palace that offers far more queer combinations of bricks than ever offered in prior instruction-based sets, the gender-specified creativity of LEGO Friends remains absent.  The minidoll does not exist in this world.  In the film’s concluding joke, meanwhile, the live-action father insists that a toddler sister join in the family play—a moment some take to task for suggesting that girls would disrupt the masculine creativity being celebrated.  But that critique may give LEGO too much credit.  As imagined by LEGO marketing, this toddler would be a user of larger DUPLO bricks, a product LEGO is still willing to market (in part) via gender-neutral appeals, in significant contrast to gendered segregation for older markets. The LEGO Movie does not acknowledge the possibility of girls aged four-and-up (or mothers) sharing in this creative LEGO play, more easily recognizing the creative commonality of privileged male consumers with DUPLO toddlers than with feminized Friends builders.  Rather than entertaining disruption of LEGO’s creative ideologies, this narrative extension of LEGO play to a less fully gendered toddler market affirms their boundaries.

Ultimately, this film helps positions creativity as something that unfolds in relation, but not strict opposition, to clearly defined scripts (gendered or otherwise).  Obviously, that serves the instruction-based product LEGO markets, but it also has implications for how we understand the “creativity” of those who make use of it.


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Fort McMoney: Media for the Age of Oil Mon, 03 Feb 2014 21:51:31 +0000 604The scene: The black-gold boom town of Fort McMurray, Alberta. It’s winter. Average temperatures in this northern Canadian city hover around -17 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit); but today it’s much colder, -30 degrees. A desolate wind whistles across the wide, slushy highway. You just watched two raggedy men pick empty cans and bottles out of the dumpster behind a squat apartment building. Now you have a choice: to follow them into the city, then veer off into City Hall to attend a City Council meeting, where an agitator disrupts the proceedings to call for better traffic conditions in the congested city; or hang out a little longer by the side of the road with some questionable characters as they drink themselves warm. Or you could consult your dashboard, where you can check your influence levels and debate whether you think these men should have been warned about the job prospects in the oil patch, declining steadily as foreign laborers arrive ready to work for union-busting wages.

Welcome to Fort McMoney, an interactive web documentary designed to raise awareness of the conflicts among industrial, political and environmental interests in the development of oil. The film slash video game, which debuted in late 2013 and takes place over multiple weeks, is coproduced by Canada’s National Film Board, Montreal’s Toxa and the French/German TV Network Arte. The film’s unsubtle title indicates the stakes: visit the town, gather your evidence, and take a stand on whether Fort McMurray, the canary in the oil mines, should be allowed to develop unbridled. Your success at navigating the game is measured in terms of influence: every person you meet, every place you visit, and each survey you answer in the game raises your influence levels, giving you more leverage in the game’s regular “referenda” on oil politics. This round’s debate topic — Should Oil Be Nationalized? – currently has over 18,000 votes for and 6,645 votes against.

The docu-game is an intelligent and well timed intervention into the North American oil debate. Canada’s headlines pit the “ethics” of Canadian oil against the environmental activism of its deterrents. President Obama’s decision over whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline (which would transport oil from Alberta to the U.S.) looms.


The combination of documentary and video game attracts diverse media audiences (for instance, I don’t play video games, but I love documentaries) and the choose-your-own-adventure aspect demonstrates more directly differing points of view and the effects of various decisions. From a distribution perspective, the game is genius: Fort McMoney’s tri-national media partners Le Monde (France), The Globe and Mail (English Canada) and Radio Canada (French Canada), and Süddeutsche (Germany) are not just mouthpieces but interactive participants, as journalists from each media outlet play the game and report on their experiences. These media also pledge to publish substantive features on the politics of oil. Connective media platforms are in on the act: players get about 10 minutes of free viewing/play and then are asked to register, either through their Facebook accounts (bye-bye, personal information) or via email addresses; and the “help desk” is essentially the director David Dufresne’s Twitter feed.

If Fort McMoney’s innovation and intelligence is clear, the ultimate intention of the game remains an open question. Writing about his creation via The Huffington Post in November 2013, film director Dufresne is confident that the viewer/player’s experience will be transformative. “The world’s future is being shaped by energy issues. And gaming is a lever for raising awareness,” he asserts. “The Fort McMoney experience will be a kind of web-era platform for direct democracy.”

We need not rehearse here the problems inherent in the celebratory rhetoric of interactive media as a panacea for social and political blights. Regardless, whether intended as promotional hype or sincere evaluation, Dufresne’s claim to direct democracy deserves careful scrutiny. Matthew Hindman’s The Myth of Digital Democracy (Princeton UP, 2008) makes a compelling case for the failure of the Internet to develop the idealized public sphere. Hindman redefines the digital divide from a hierarchy of access to a hierarchy of voice, where even the most compelling ideas can be ignored, hamstrung by economic, social or algorithmic barriers to information. One hopes that Fort McMoney’s creative approach can be sufficiently amplified by its media partners and players to cut through the noise.

Perhaps a more dire problem lies not with Fort McMoney’s medium but with its message. Fort McMoney presents a vision of a sad city stretched to its limits by the ebbs and flows of oil. While the game’s players debate whether taxes should be higher, workers better treated, and environmental concerns alleviated, there is no space to say, “Stop. This shouldn’t be happening at all.” The film does not (cannot?) challenge the political, economic or cultural conditions that gave rise to this carbon democracy in the first place. Nor does it offer alternatives, asking what political possibilities might exist, what other arrangements of people, money and energy might be assembled, that could help foster less destructive situations.

This line of argument is not intended as critique. Fort McMoney presents a more radical scenario and more compelling overtures to debate than our dominant political parties and institutions have managed. The docu-game is not meant as policy prescription but as a stimulant to attention and reflection. In this sense it is a welcome intervention into the bread-and-circus routine in North American oil politics. But if democracy is understood merely as a set of conversations and referenda over already existing arrangements, this falls short. One hopes that Fort McMoney will inspire us to do more than vote for a slightly less dystopic vision of Canada’s canary.


What Are You Missing? Apr 28 – May 11 Sun, 12 May 2013 13:05:45 +0000 WAYM-Iron Man 3Ten (or more) media industry news items you might have missed recently:

1) This installment starts with news that that I’m sure no one missed. Iron Man 3 made its worldwide debut, but all eyes were on China, which put up a respectable $21.5 million on opening day. In North America, our $68.3 million opening day brought IR3 within striking distance of a half-billion dollar box office after less than two weeks of release. Keeping all of that in mind, can you really blame RDJ?  But life’s not all about the Benjamins, friends. Apparently, Tony Stark is doing good business (“business”?) among pirates, who elevated IR3 to #3 on TorrentFreak’s list of the most illegally downloaded films. Haven’t seen the movie yet? Here are some other ways to enjoy the atmosphere: becoming Iron Man, keeping up with Robert Downey, Jr., on Sina Weibo, or basking in RDJ’s charisma.

2) Speculation about NeXtBox – can we make this a thing? – is picking up ahead of a launch event set for May 21. Exact details about the release date, price, and specs are yet to be revealed, but as I get on in years, I find what matters most is that I be allowed — encouraged even — to play alone. What do we know about NeXtBox? Well, apparently it supports a projector system capable of making you wish that you didn’t have so much furniture. Don’t invest in a blank wall yet, however; Illumiroom may not be ready for Microsoft’s next-gen rollout. If you’re not on Team Microsoft, there’s always the PS4 to look forward to.

3) The future is arriving at the speed of time, and next-gen gaming systems are just the start. San Francisco played host last week to the first NeuroGaming Conference and Expo, where “ineluctable modality” was just a string of cool-sounding syllables. Commercial potential for games that track player heart rate, brain waves, pupil dilation, and a host of other physiological data is still slight, but Google Glass may help start-ups find a direction. We all saw Strange Days, right? Less pie-in-the-sky are developments in controller design. Thalmic Labs’ Myo promises “effortless interaction,” bringing us all one step closer to living out our childhood fantasies or five steps closer to saying, “Remember when…?” Also, this exists.

4) Let’s pretend this is a surprise. Google Glass is coming, presumably for people more interesting than myself, and some of the source code has been released, so developers have been put on notice. What are the possibilities? Where to start: wink-based photography, making Vine videos, making and uploading YouTube videos, ARG gaming (a covert valorization of early adoption?), Facebooking, and updating your software. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows; get a head start on worrying about surveillance, privacy, basic social interactions, keeping expectations realistic, and not looking like a jerk. And you don’t have to be excited about the tech itself to enjoy the ad campaign. White Men Wearing Google Glass has made a game of tracking down the instrument’s target demographic. So far, though, I’m most concerned about a different set of would-be users. Finally, I’m going on record. Google Glass is still only playing second-fiddle. The Large Hadron Collider (or any particle accelerator) exists; for the rest of us, there’s Google Glass.

5) First, some context: The Syrian Electronic Army has been around the digital block a few times, becoming something of a nuisance for high-profile critics of the Assad regime. The group’s latest target was The Onion Twitter account, where it posted a number of pro-Assad and anti-Semitic tweets just because they couldn’t take a joke. The Onion responded as you’d expect: one news story poking humor at the hack and another announcing tighter security. (When connectivity is a weapon, I feel compelled to point out that feelings of levity should be brief. See the end of the WaPo story for evidence.)

6) How are things at DreamWorks? Awesomeness abounds.  It’s overflowing even, so they’ve sent some to China. But is ‘awesome’ for DreamWorks ‘awesome’ for everyone? It may be for a selection of YouTube content providers. Subscription channels are coming. Big Bird may be involved, but WWE isn’t biting (for now?).  As much as things change, other things remain the same…unless this happens. That would be a fairly significant development.

7) Netflix’s streaming service lost almost 1,000 titles on May 1. Users and the media took to calling the event Streamageddon, but I was partial to Apocaflix. Netflix (see, it’s right there in the name!) has begun testing new layouts, which makes me wonder if Facebook has conditioned us to complain. Then again, Netflix has its competitors to think about, and they do seem to be cropping up. If the market gets tight, there’s always money in the banana stand.

8) A smattering of stories about trademarks and copyrights… Instagram has the dubious honor of having its name informally tacked to recent British copyright legislation. Do you think Warner Bros. performed a “diligent search” before being sued for its unauthorized use of Keyboard Cat and Nyan Cat? Barry Diller is calling broadcasters’ bluffs over Aereo, and Fox is doing its best Shredder impression, claiming the court battles are just beginning. For what it’s worth, Aereo is taking steps to keep that from being the case. Also, who has the heart to argue with Harper Lee? If Gregory Peck were still around, I bet he’d get involved.

9) What’s killing cinema? Steven Soderbergh has the answer. “[F]ive and a half hours of mayhem,” you say? It sounds so Shakespearean, but I expect it signifies more than nothing. Don’t worry about Soderbergh, though, he’s got a Plan B, available for your enjoyment here.

10) What else is there to talk about? Rest in peace, George Jones, Deanna Durbin, and Ray Harryhausen. In case you’re unfamiliar with any of them, here’s the greatest country song of all time (by some accounts), an appreciation and analysis of fan appreciation for Durbin, and a primer on Harryhausen’s work. (The pay wall won’t block the videos, so click on through!) Ender’s Game is on the way. To my father’s great shame, I’ve never read it. As for Mr. Card, he depresses me too much to make a joke. Star Wars day happened. Nielsen says welcome to the family. And get ready for some AIP remakes!

11) What?! That’s right. ELEVEN! One extra for the art and science that caught my eye. Here’s a stop-motion movie using atoms as pixels, meaning there’s at least one digital format with resolution superior to 35mm film. Roger probably would have stood his ground on this one. I know people who actively change the typeface of their handwriting every few years. Earth driving is easy. The mysteries of the cosmos are out there to be discovered, but don’t forget that people can be pretty gosh darn cool, too.


#1ReasonToBe and Many Reasons To Still Worry Tue, 09 Apr 2013 13:45:21 +0000 GDC-1ReasonToBeThe 26th annual Game Developer’s Conference recently met from March 25 through March 29, 2013. As it has in the past several years, the GDC met in San Francisco’s Moscone Center, spilling out into surrounding events, parties, and satellite unconferences (such as this year’s Lost Levels). As the industry’s largest event, GDC brought together over 23,000 developers, journalists, marketers, academics, and fans. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend this year’s GDC, but as I viewed the events from afar, a number of major themes seemed to develop through the blog coverage and ongoing Twitter conversations.

One of this year’s key stories seems to be regarding how the industry deals with difference and inclusivity, both for developers and for the industry as a whole. The games industry has rightly been accused of failing to accommodate perspectives beyond those of the young men that have stereotypically been seen as the industry’s primary consumers. A potential watershed moment during this year’s conference was the #1ReasonToBe panel, featuring developers including Brenda Romero (Wizardry, Jagged Alliance), Robin Hunicke (Journey, Glitch, Funomena), Kim McCaullife (Microsoft Studios), Leigh Alexander (journalist for Gamasutra, Kotaku, and others), Elizabeth Sampat (Storm8), and Mattie Brice (independent game critic/journalist).

The panel cleverly pushed the devastasting #1ReasonWhy hashtag into new territory, incorporating both problems facing women in the games industry and “reasons for women to be” in the games industry. Presenters recounted horror stories of both casual and explicit sexism within the industry, while aspiring to start a larger conversation in the industry on issues of gender. The #1ReasonToBe hashtag on Twitter is still ongoing, albeit with less of the vigor that typified the #1ReasonWhy hashtag.

How much of this represents a real and significant shift in the culture of game design? For some, it seems clear that the industry is undergoing significant change on several fronts — The New York Times summarized GDC 2013 as the year the indies “grabbed the controls.” As quoted in the Times piece, game designer Eric Zimmerman has decided to end his annual, provocative Game Design Challenge (won this year by Jason Rohrer, for the second time in three years), explaining that “The idea of doing strange, bizarre, experimental games is no longer strange, bizarre or experimental.” Perhaps, in this context and in this particular moment, panels such as #1ReasonToBe may gain significant traction in the industry.

Unfortunately, even while there was a concerted effort by attendees and regular GDC organizers to reframe who the “games industry” is, some of the events surrounding GDC were still problematic. The International Game Developer’s Association came under widespread criticism for scantily-clad women dancers at their professional conference party. This drew the attention of the aforementioned Brenda Romero, who on the same day she was awarded a Women In Games lifetime achievement award very quickly resigned as co-chair of IGDA’s Women in Games special interest group (along with other IGDA resignations, including outgoing board member Darius Kazemi). On top of this, the creators of Minecraft, Mojang Specifications, threw a party that several developers alleged included women who were paid by the company to socialize with (predominantly male) game developers. Mojang has denied these accusations.

So, how do we come to some sense of where the industry is going? Was 2013 a breakthrough or just a case of an industry that’s moving to address its problematic gender culture while thousands of other attending developers were fine with business as usual? The discussion of gender and inclusivity at GDC2013 included very little from the Nintendos, Microsofts, Sonys, Capcoms, Activision Blizzards, Valves, and so on. In this regard, perhaps Zimmerman’s statement about the shift toward experimentation and change was correct; though the era of the AAA studio has not necessarily passed, AAA products and AAA studios were certainly not the story at this year’s conference. Rather than feature rollouts of new gaming consoles or prodcuts, the industry focused on deep discussions regarding its own culture and ways forward.

In-conference discussions of inclusivity and difference are just the tip of the iceberg, however, as the struggles with these very issues in the male-dominated, party-centric culture around the conference may indicate. How do we bridge this gap?


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Changing the conversation, not just the games Tue, 12 Mar 2013 13:00:12 +0000 Shaw1Last week I attended the EA/HRC Full Spectrum mini-conference (more details here). As games journalist Leigh Alexander points out, the conference feels like a start. Having spent several years studying, thinking, and teaching about queer media representations and games, however, I spent most of the conference with a furrowed brow, torn between feelings of “progress” and frustration that even as things change things tend to stay the same.

In 2007, I conducted research on gay gamers (article here). Having gotten a sense of the audience side of the LGBT in game representation question, I decided to tackle the industry side. I complied a list of all the games I could find that had gay characters, queer themes, gender-bending, etc. (56 in all). I then went through and emailed all the publishers and developers still in operation. Most never responded. EA did respond to my email, nicely even, but essentially said “no, we don’t have any one you can talk to. Busy busy, etc.” I ultimately used back channels, forums, and snowballing to conduct interviews. Knowing from research on LGBT representation in other media that activist groups play a huge role in portrayals of marginalized groups, I also emailed GLAAD asking about their perspective. I was told that they just didn’t have the time or resources to address games pro-actively. The article from that research is available here.

Given how hard it was to get anyone in the games industry or major mainstream LGBT organizations to talk to me about gay content in games in 2007, the event last week demonstrated a huge shift to me in terms of who can and will have these conversations. That EA was willing to extend an invitation to me and many other researchers, journalists, activists, and designers to their invite-only conference was a nice change. Further, the HRC’s and the Ford Foundation’s co-sponsorship of the event indicates that mainstream political organizations see games as mattering in a way that I don’t think they did five years ago.

That said, having done research on issues of representation in games for the past eight years I was disappointed to hear the same problematic arguments being made over and over again.

Shaw2First among these is the way LGBT representation is treated as a distinct issue from representations of race, gender, class, age, etc.. This is inherently problematic. When panelists said things like “women have come so far,” “racial minorities have come so far,” and now we can address “gay issues” it presumes that women and racial minorities are somehow never a part of “gay issues.” Discussions of representation also wind up presuming a static notion of how LGBT characters can and should be represented, and that inevitably is exclusionary. The LGBT umbrella was used in a way that assumes trans and bisexual politics have an easy relationship to mainstream gay politics. Indeed that same-sex relationships were almost always given as the example for how the industry has tried to be inclusive of the LGBT community (sic) indicates that trans politics are barely on their radar.

Second, throughout the conversation there was an assumption that the industry can only include representations of diversity “when it matters.” This discourse further marginalizes already marginalized groups. The industry implies that it matters only when the marginalized players make it matter themselves. The video played by EA of their attempts to include representation of same-sex relationships in games, were all examples of places where homosexuality is an option. I would argue, however, that sexuality is relevant in every FPS’s use of sexual banter or “bro” humor. The glimmers of backstory you get in Left 4 Dead could integrate “LGBT issues.” Heck even Portal makes references to the protagonist’s past and communicates narrative environmentally. It is not just in RPGs that diversity of sexuality and gender identity can be mentioned or explored.

Moreover, if there are places where representation “doesn’t matter” then why not include marginalized groups more often? This is not a demand that designers make a game specifically about and for a marginalized group. Indeed, Liz Bird’s Audience in Everyday Life demonstrates the dangers of such approaches (specifically chapter four). Rather, it requires designers be reflective of their own default choices (ex. male, while, hetero) and challenge themselves to think outside those norms. The comic book industry has worked hard to do this, and often in an (arguably) “authentic way” that game industry reps often claim is difficult for them. There are also many examples of integration of queer content into games on the part of indie game designers like Anna Anthrophy and Robert Yang. Todd Harper and MIT’s Closed World project is yet another example. If the industry wants to rethink representation, perhaps they should start by looking at work by people that have done so already. More than that, they should be more supportive of indie development and rethink the very structure of the industry, as Robert Yang argues in his impressions from the event.

Finally, while targeting the LGBT “market” (a problematic construction itself) may seem easier by including same-sex pairing options in games that already have big audiences like Sims, Fable, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age, optional content does not address the social goals of representation. Luis A. Ubinas, president of the Ford Foundation, began the conference by making links between the popularity of Will and Grace and changing public opinion about gay marriage. Beyond the problems with both examples, it is worth pointing out that optional representation will never be the Will and Grace of gaming. If the industry is concerned about hate speech in online gaming, which dominated much of the conference discussion, inserting representation into games in a way that is integral to the game text is one avenue for change for which I think they should be held accountable.

Luckily, the Different Games conference is happening in April in NYC. The conversations there should work in moving the discussion started last week forward.


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More Lively Than Life is Our Motto: Better Living Through Gamification Fri, 01 Feb 2013 14:45:33 +0000

Way of Life, "The Ultimate Habit Building App"

On New Year’s Day, instead of signing up for a gym or joining a writing group, I binge downloaded apps on my iPad. Perhaps it was the grease hangover from a night of eating only chicken wings in a comedy club upstairs from a Chinese restaurant, or perhaps it was the usual grad student anxiety made worse by habitual procrastination to Academic Coach Taylor memes. Whatever the cause of my guilt, my answer was in the App Store. So, I downloaded a bunch of apps: one to count calories, another to create ambient music in order work better, harder, and faster, and another to figure out what mental roadblocks weigh me down, in order to – as the app urges – “live better every day.” To top it off, I bought a habit building app that reminds me to record whether I counted my calories, whether I worked harder, better, and faster, and whether I overcame those mental roadblocks. The app charts my progress over time and shares it with my social networks.

This remedy is one part Lifehacker’s cult of productivity, half part Anthony Robbin’s self-help-ism, and two parts Kevin Kelly’s Quantified Self. And like eating fried chicken in the dark, this remedy instantly gratifies but never quite satisfies. Like other purported technological cure-alls today, this one is identified through a neologism, is criticized as a buzzword, and is hailed by proponents as a movement. “Gamification” is this process of using game logics such as points, badges, levels, challenges, and rewards to enhance traditionally non-game experiences. This experience might be uploading your fitness milestones onto Nike+  and syncing it with your workout on the Xbox 360 Kinect; it may be boosting productivity at a call center by using leaderboards and badges; it may be competing with your roommate for tangible rewards using a sophisticated system of rules to more pleasantly accomplish household chores. It is the carrot and the stick; it is putting more life into your life.

Nike+ Kinect Training

In all these examples, there is a representational structure linking reward to achievement, cause to effect – a structure that gamification enthusiasts claim produces unprecedented behavior change. Gamification allows you to incentivize anything in your (or your employees’) life to make it more fun, more efficient, more effective. In the words of Jane McGonigal – the movement’s high priestess who galvanized a legion of marketers and game designers in that TED talk – games can make a better world and make us “SuperBetter”™ – incidentally, also the name of her latest game.

At MIT’s Futures of Entertainment Conference, a panel of gaming experts playfully refused to respond to a persistent question rising to the top of a crowdsourced backchannel – “What is the future of Gamification?” Dismissed by these experts as a a fancy name for customer loyalty programs that are a perversion of game mechanics, and disdained as “marketing bullshit,” it is easy to write off gamification as the latest marketing buzzword. However, as media scholars have witnessed in half a decade of critical deconstruction of what was known as “Web 2.0,” technological buzzwords are never empty – they are ciphers for configurations of cultural values that iteratively shape relations between people, systems, and institutions.

The gamified website for NBC's The Office

On The Office’s gamified website, users signed up as employees of the fictional Dunder Mifflin paper company and earned “Schrute Bucks” for making comments, posting photos and performing tasks that built engagement and buzz for the show. It didn’t take long for the site to be populated with user-generated content. In an interview with Mashable, the gamification startup Bunchball raved that “NBC loved it because they were paying all these users fake money to do real work.” Unlike the conception of pure waste that game scholars such as Roger Caillois have used to define play, the playfulness of gamification is consummately productive.

According to the Pew center’s survey of experts, gamification may retreat as a fad, but only because its mechanisms will become more entrenched and quotidian – a trajectory that Web 2.0 took in becoming simply “social media.” Therefore, despite the fatigue from yet another marketing revolution, media scholars must map the contours of Gamification’s discourses as they erect and legitimate motivational structures for narrowly predetermined behaviors in our work, leisure, and psychic lives. These are structures that capture our playfulness, our guilt, our desires, our energies, and convert them into quantifiable outcomes such as engagement in platforms, loyalty to brands, user-generated data, and user-generated content. In Blade Runner (1982), the visionary doctor proclaimed that “commerce is our goal here at Tyrell; more human than human is our motto.” And as the film has taught three decades of moviegoers, we have to ask ourselves what it means to be human. Similarly, as we reinvent our lives through gamification, we have to ask ourselves what it means to be alive.


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Booth Babe Backlash Thu, 17 Jan 2013 16:50:51 +0000

Booth babe or cosplayer? Gamer Jessica Nigri dresses up for E3.

What a year it was for female gamers, geeks and nerds. The Internet was ablaze, especially during the summer months, over ill-considered tweets, Facebook rants, opinion columns, and harassing flash games that policed women and girls’ participation in traditionally male popular culture. In case you missed it, I’m referring to controversies in game and comic book communities that marked 2012 as the year of misogyny in geek culture. Critical attention to this issue is coming from game and media studies scholars, as well as courageous members of these fan communities. In this post, I add my take on all this misogyny by considering how “the booth babe” contributed to a backlash against female fandom.

It all started long ago, though no one is sure exactly when and where. The brief history of booth babes appearing in The Atlantic, notes the first appearance of spokesmodels at the inaugural Consumer Electronics Show in 1967. However, the use of female promotional models to sell technology is linked to the mid-20th century automobile show and became an international phenomenon, repeated at trade shows around the world. Promotional models are common at expositions for construction tools, audio equipment, guns, cycling paraphernalia, cell phones, cameras, video games, computers, and much more.

The stereotypical booth babe is a temporary employee, hired for event-specific work, which requires standing for hours handing out promotional material and encouraging attendees to approach the product booth. The promotional model is most often, though not exclusively, a woman, and she tends to wear revealing clothing. Or, as demonstrated at the HyperMac booth last week at CES, body paint.

Booth babes may also don costumes worn by characters from the fictional worlds of games, anime, and comics. And thus, like so many female characters from these worlds, often wears Spandex, plate-metal bikinis, or ripped shorts and torn tanks. Photos of booth babes are among the most popular images that emerge from trade show and convention coverage, particularly on fan sites and industry blogs.

During CES 2012, the BBC posted a video about booth babes, which brought the first wave of attention to the phenomenon last year. The video moved swiftly through the Internet, due, in part, to dismissive comments from the president of the Consumer Electronic Association.

In June, game designer and 30-year industry veteran, Brenda Braithwaite, called out Senior Vice President of the Electronic Software Association, Rich Taylor, when she tweeted her dismay at the continued presence of booth babes at the Electronic Entertainment Expo:

“I dread heading off to work at E3 today….It is as if I walked into a strip club w/o intending to. These are the policies of @e3expo and @RichatESA. I feel uncomfortable in an industry I helped found.”

Short-lived attempts to ban booth babes have been made before. The women tech writers appearing in the BBC video and Braithwaite’s tweets provided a much-needed critique of an industrial practice that perpetuates a “boys-only” culture in gaming and technology, and does little to assuage gendered employment and wage discrimination. These moments, and others from last year, reenergized a conversation that deserves sustained attention, organized response, and formal policy changes. However, as summer heated up, the conversation suffered a melt down.

Late one night in June, Destructiod writer Ryan Perez questioned Felicia “Queen Geek” Day’s credibility in a (supposedly alcohol-fueled) tweet: “Does Felicia Day matter at all? I mean does she actually contribute anything useful to this industry, besides retaining a geek persona?” Adding, “Could you [Day] be considered nothing more than a glorified booth babe? You don’t seem to add anything creative to the medium.”

Perez’s Twitter feed was flooded by furious Day supporters, including Wil “King Geek” Wheton, who called Perez an “ignorant misogynist” and demanded Destructiod fire him. They did.

A month after Perez lost his job, Joe Peacock wrote an opinion piece for, titled “Booth Babes Need Not Apply,” in which he conflated hired promotional models with female cosplayers. Peacock was apparently disgusted by these “poachers,” claiming “they’re a pox on our culture.”

In November, comic book illustrator Tony Harris ranted on Facebook about “COSPLAY-Chicks” who, in his analysis, are only “quasi-pretty-NOT-hot” and know nothing about comic books. Central to Peacock and Harris’ comments, is the assumption that they have a super power to discern the real female fan from the fake female fan, and the booth babe from the cosplayer.

What these three moments (and many others from last year) reveal is a palatable anxiety from certain dark corners of geek culture. The increased presence of women at cons and expos has sparked a misogynistic backlash. Female cosplayers experience sexual harassment at cons, and are accused of being “attention whores” whose fan knowledge is questioned. Women working in games, comics, and technology attending trade shows are often presumed to be promotional models, and find their creative contributions to the industry dismissed. Standing in the center of this backlash is the booth babe, a misunderstood and misrepresented chimera. She has become a convenient amalgamation and target of many parts of geek culture’s gender problem. It is time to figure her out.