All Work and No Play

October 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

T.L. Taylor, “Does WoW Change Everything?: How a PvP Server, Multinational Player Base, and Surveillance Mod Scene Caused Me Pause” (2006)

Online behaviors don’t exist in a vacuum, especially in the context of games; researchers can’t and shouldn’t make generalizations about gameplay or game players, since how groups and individual players behave depends not just on the particular game (and particular rules) but on the server and even the guild itself. Systems of stratification and forms of social control vary greatly depending on where a person is playing and with whom and why, and those details –including native language, nationality and age of players– need to be taken into account in ethnographic analyses, as do the ways in which game functionality/mods overlay and influence (and are influenced by) whatever set of social circumstances.

T.L. Taylor, “Beyond Fun: Instrumental Play and Power Games,” Play Between Worlds (2006)

Shifting focus to EverQuest, it makes no sense to talk about a “generic” MMO player! There are categories that break it down –achievers, socialized, explorers, killers– but even these are too broad to capture the heterogeneity of player styles, proclivities and personalities, both online and off. Nor do they adequately capture the tensions between gamers, real super serious us v them shit, the “us” of course depending on where and how the player happens to be playing, and consequently, what a particular player regards as the “correct” way to play (see rift between “power gamer” and “casual gamer”) as well as his/her notions of “fun.”

T.L. Taylor, “Where the Women Are,” Play Between Worlds (2006)

Games are more diverse than people assume, and yes for chirssakes there are girls on the internet. In order to legitimize their experiences –thus in turn legitimizing their existence– we need to think more about the kinds of pleasure women and girls derive from games, particularly MMOs. Why do women enjoy spaces that haven’t been designed for them? Relying on knee-jerk assumptions about what women naturally do/want/think (community, friendship, a place to explore one’s identity) is a problem, because it flattens women’s experiences and doesn’t account for the complex ways women experience the game-space. And don’t even get me started on the pink-games movement ffs.

On the internet no one knows you’re a troll

Last night I was engaging in my own version of massively multiplayer online gameplay when I –well, my alt– invoked the wrath of a fellow let’s say player. “Hey [alt name], why don’t you stop being such a self righteous cunt?” the gentleman asked, reacting to my female name and profile picture. “Actually the more important question is, why is there a computer in the kitchen?” “Hey [alt name],” my alt responded. “Why don’t you stop being such an impotent misogynist?” –then proceeded to mock the group for their predictability and stale image choices. Needless to say my friends from Yahoo News didn’t much like this.

If this had been real life, such an interaction might have turned real ugly real fast — the “players” in this particular game all presented as male, and my alt was the only female present. Not a situation I’d necessarily choose, on a Saturday night. But this wasn’t real life, this was a thread on Facebook. No matter how brazen my alt got, the I behind that she was safe — not unlike the experience of female players in EverQuest and WoW (how ya like them transitions). A player might get her ass soundly kicked, but at the end of the battle not a single stitch of harm will have befallen the actual ass. That’s part of the fun, and as Taylor explains, is why these sorts of spaces can be highly engaging and even empowering for female players, who are able to go and do as they please without fear of any (real life) repercussions. The trollspace isn’t a traditional game space, not exactly, but the idea holds. Again, with some major caveats having to do with that all-too-fuzzy line between the computer screen and living room, but that’s a topic for a different post.

Which is not to say –and in marches yet another caveat– that name-calling and (ostensible) misogyny is awesome, or is something we should encourage, or any of the knee-jerk moral responses these sorts of situations tend to generate. Not everyone knows how to respond to trolling situations; many women would (and do) feel threatened by the kinds of language trolls routinely use. I’m not saying this response is wrong, and am not denying the real world side of online behavior. But I am saying that in many cases there’s something…I don’t know, politically problematic? frustrating? maybe a bit regressive? about the assumption that the only role women (and GLBTQ people, and people of color, though suddenly my scope is spinning wildly out of control) can occupy online is that of the helpless victim. Yes, in real life, women (and GLBTQ people, and people of color, and oh man this post is far too small for all there is to say here so let’s pretend it’s possible to focus on one category at a time) are disproportionally victimized. But the internet provides a space where fighting back isn’t just an option, it’s easy. And, frankly, lots of fun. I understand the need to protect people, and I get that words (can) do all kinds of terrible things. But when these protections –and proposed prohibitions– are at the expense of female agency, I can’t help but rankle. Because sometimes, the best response to “hey cunt” is an impotence joke. Dudes who think a woman’s reproductive system is inherently offensive tend to hate that sort of thing. So it’s perfect.

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