The Visual Politics of Play: On the Signifying Practices of Digital Games


Presentation Title:

  • The Visual Politics of Play: On the Signifying Practices of Digital Games



  • Keywords: Games, representation, signification, Gamergate, identity, social identity, race, gender, sexuality, feminism, cultural studies

    Digital games are so pervasive that they increasingly shape how people ascribe meaning to their world; in short, games are now culture. Similarly to music, literature, television, fashion and film, games as culture constitute “networks of meaningness which individuals and groups use to make sense of and communicate with one another” (Hall). Games expand the ways that we image our own possibilities, create empathetic connection, and seed ethical engagement with lived-world challenges and problems. Recent games ‘culture wars’, notably, Gamergate definitively confirmed that games traffic in the politics of representation, just as any other form of mass media. This panel examines the social functions of playable media as powerful forms of visual culture and ideological world making, especially as they relate to notions of difference. This panel includes contributions in critical games research that model intersectional approaches foregrounding the politics of representation, and signifying practices of video games as new media and visual culture. Brought together are three important voices, who—each in their own field—utilize intersectional approaches foregrounding more nuanced or inclusive forms of representation, and therefore more sophisticated signifying practices of video games as electronic media and visual culture. Each panelist (Everett, Harrell, Jenson) presented their work for twenty minutes, with an informal question and answer session that included the audience, speakers and moderator (Murray).

    Presentation intros:

    1. Anna Everett – Gaming Matters: Playing with Black Womyn MPCs                                                A paradigm shift of sorts has occurred in the procedural rhetorics and gameplay structures of videogames over the last two decades where race and gender in games intersect, though the changes are not nearly enough. Gamers now negotiate and amplify the joy and pain of their videogame fandom quite publicly and enthusiastically as game characters of color are gaining some new visibility as optional play (OP) and must play characters (MPC). As powerful narrative agents in action-adventure, open-world and firstand third-person-shooter genres in mainstream, casual and online gaming spaces (including networked games on Xbox Live), black women as MPCs in successful mainstream gaming franchises and action-adventure game brands are redefining the gaming experience in terms of 21st -century multicultural, multiracial heroic/sheroic character ideals
    2. D. Fox Harrell – Modeling and Expressing Social Identity in Games                                        Avatars and player characters in games offer us new ways to see ourselves. They also impact us in the “real” physical world. Studies show that avatars can have a range of effects on users such as performance and engagement (Kao and Harrell 2015b, a). Avatars can have other impacts on user behaviors, it has been shown that users conform to expected behaviors and attitudes associated with an avatar’s appearance (Yee and Bailenson 2007). Avatars can also trigger stereotype threat (Steele and Aronson 1995), the phenomenon of being at risk of confirming a stereotype about one’s group, and even impact future aspirations (Good, Rattan, and Dweck 2012). Since avatars can impact physical world experiences even including oppression and violence, it is important to look closely at the effects of avatars on users. This section argues for the importance of analyzing identities and how computational modeling can be used to better design expressive identity representations in videogames.
    3. Jennifer Jenson – Fighting Gamehate: A Feminist Project                                                                In mid-August 2014, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, gaming websites and 4chan exploded with allegations of “corruption” in games journalism, naming the phenomenon “Gamergate”. Since that time, nearly every major English news outlet and gamerelated journalistic website has reported on Gamergate. Women (critics, game players, game makers and journalists) are at the center of the controversy, and many have received threats that, as games journalist David Auerbach put it, are “so egregious” that a prominent female journalist (Jenn Frank) publically announced that she would no longer be writing on games. This situation further escalated into a public threat of a “massacre,” forcing games critic Anita Sarkeesian (Executive Director, Feminist Frequency) to cancel a public address at the University of Utah, and even the author of this notation has been targeted.

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