Gamic Race: Logics of Difference in Videogame Culture makes race central to the study of videogames and videogame cultures. The project emphasizes the need for critical race theory in game studies to understand how race is informed and reshaped by the logics of gameplay resulting in the multi-layered, politically complex, and agile concept of gamic race. Displaced racialization, the project’s other key concept, revises former studies of race in digital media that focus predominantly on representation, shifting interest to racialization occurring alongside or beyond bodies within game code and player experience. Moving along this trajectory, the first three chapters of Gamic Race explore different layers of gamic race and its formulation through displaced racialization: spatial, technologic, and discursive. The final chapter attempts to put theory into practice via an analysis of racially inflammatory raids of virtual worlds by users of the popular message board 4chan. These raids serve as a compelling but flawed model for future progressive performative interventions in gamespace. The conclusion considers how to progressively transform videogame design by placing African American expressive traditions, indie games, ethics, philosophy, and the interaction design of Erik Loyer in conversation. It’s within this nexus that the project ends, gesturing toward a future paradigm of interaction and aesthetics within videogames that handles difference productively, and does not rely solely on strategies of visual inclusion.
It’s an exciting time for those of us who study games. While scholars have written about videogames since the 1970s, it is only within the last decade that they have received significant public and academic attention. It is clear now that videogames will be one of the dominant media forms of 21st century; however, our critical understanding of videogames is still limited. My dissertation Gamic Race: Logics of Difference in Videogame Culture, which develops a new type of literacy attentive to the unique ways race functions in videogame culture, is a timely contribution to the study of how meaning is made in videogames and what is done ultimately with that meaning by its players.
As Ian Bogost has argued in Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, it is crucial that we acknowledge games are not mere diversions or toys, but sites of profound cultural communication and negotiation facilitated by a different kind of rhetoric. This rhetoric is not purely linguistic or visual but procedural. When someone plays a videogame, the meaning of the game is generated through the manipulation of processes rather than solely through more familiar textual semiotics. Since a game is a computational object that is enacted by the player, scholars must work to understand how games formulate arguments through the algorithmically defined act of play and its packaging in narrative and visuals.
My project extends this basic premise and applies it to the phenomenon of race, focusing often on blackness. It serves as one of the first book length efforts to provide a descriptive and theoretical foundation for how race operates in gamespace. As opposed to the predominant theoretical studies of games which seek to define games as technical objects. My work is interested in how games affect and engage with culture as artifacts rich with interpretable meanings from textual to experiential to processual. In this way, I am influenced by scholars such as Evelynn Hammonds and Wendy Chun who have demonstrated how race is a technology, and how technologies produce and inscribe race. Key to my method is the notion that to effectively describe videogames as technologies of race, we must politicize gamespace and move beyond simple critiques of representation or stereotype. Stuart Hall calls this a move to concern over the “politics of representation,” or an interest in politicizing representation through de-essentialization and marginality.
To move the discourse about games away from representation, I offer my own concept called displaced racialization. As I theorize throughout the project, games, in opposition to popular and academic understanding, do not locate race primarily at the level of explicit visualization; rather, games often manage difference and its attendant radical potential in relatively hidden ways. Therefore, if we’re to critique how race and ethnicity are presented in games, we must devise analytics that uncover these displacements wherever they reside. Some examples I explore in this project include interfaces, music and sound, architecture, and player discourses including machinima and performance. Gamic race is the concept I use to describe the product of this analytical perspective: a multi-layered and complex perspective on race intersecting with the visual, spatial, discursive, and affective.
Perhaps some of the most unique and distinguishable aspects of the dissertation are the first-person vignettes that lead into the introduction and each chapter. These vignettes narrate a moment of my own gameplay which I see as deeply connected to the concerns of that chapter. The narratives attempt to create a performative text that takes player reception and historical circumstances seriously. I see writing about games from a first person autobiographical perspective as more effectively describing what a game does rather than describing what it is. This methodology motivates the project; affective, situated play is critical to understanding how displaced racialization functions, and yet affect is rarely addressed within academic discourse about videogames. Matters of race in games, while generally conflated with the visual, are often better understood as more feelings and impressions of difference sitting underneath the surface, executing as algorithms or inhabiting space.
To describe these forms of displaced racialization the body of the project is divided into three chapters, each providing a different analytical lens. The first chapter, “Spatial,” exposes how race videogames can understood as an effect of space. Focusing on zombie and western genre games, “Spatial” demonstrates how the player’s position in space relative to other objects can reveal connections to racialized metaphors of contagions and threats operative both in historical and contemporary colonial/post-colonial contexts.
The second chapter, “Technologic,” moves beyond a representational model of race analysis and examines how gamic interfaces, in particular character creation engines, have coded within them assumptions about race. This chapter engages intently with contemporary media theory and art, thinking through how code shapes our understandings of the world, as well as historical materials, such as racist caricature in WWII, charting a lineage of stereotypical logics underlying character creation design in videogames and social networks.
The third chapter, “Discursive,” builds on my published essay “Blackless Fantasy” and examines how blackness is coded predominantly through its discursive absence within virtual fantasy worlds such as World of Warcraft (WOW). Key to this argument is a critical evaluation of whiteness and its valorization in virtual worlds particularly evident in the minstrelsy of the Leeroy Jenkins machinima production which has now become WOW canon.
The final section of the dissertation moves away from a concern with theories of content to evaluating methods of praxis. The first chapter of this section, “Performative Play,” thinks through a method of progressive political subversion of white privilege and supremacism in gamespace. Drawing on theories of the performative put forth by J.L. Austin, Erving Goffman, and Judith Butler, this chapter analyzes “raids” in virtual worlds organized by the underground message board community 4chan. These raids serve as examples of a kind of highly political play that calls attention to the underrepresentation of blackness in virtual worlds. The catch: the raids are just as racially inflammatory and highly offensive as they are potentially subversive.During these raids members of 4chan create black avatars and stage slave auctions or sit ins that disturb the natural flow of gameplay and introduce blackness into the space. While deeply problematic, they are nonetheless extraordinarily compelling in their ability to confront the simultaneous significance, and systematic occlusion of, real world racial differences in virtual worlds.
The conclusion of Gamic Race, building on the player initiated performances of 4chan and drawing on studies of Black Film and African American vernacular tradition, considers how game design can handle race more productively. Using Erik Loyer’s experimental interactive experiences on the iOS platform as inspirational and foundational, I conclude my project by arguing for a shift in focus from progressive content to progressive interaction paradigms. Rather than attempting to solve contentious issues of race, gender, and sexuality solely through representational equity (and thus appealing to troublesome multicultural ideological models), we need to design games that deal with difference in astute and ethical ways through play mechanics. Loyer’s Ruben & Lullaby becomes a particularly useful touchstone in this argument, given its allegorical confrontation with cultural politics through a relatively simple player-guided gestural negotiation of a lover’s quarrel. Rather than solve race through representational equity, Loyer has us participate in negotiation through gestural control and attention. The game becomes an allegory for social understanding.
Gamic Race is my attempt at making race central to the study of videogames. While ambitious in scope, it’s meant to be a necessary first step in theorizing precisely how videogames are involved in the production of difference, and how player and developers are involved in this process. By focusing the project on a prismatic approach to textual scholarship that sees game-based racial representation as a multi-layered and equally technological and cultural negotiation, I intend to accomplish two related goals: first, to create a body of critical race theory for videogames and second, to reshape the dominant discourse within game studies which too often ignores the status of games as cultural artifacts caught in networks of power.