Game Studies Research and Critical Blindspots
It was refreshing to be around so many different people from so many different backgrounds at the Games, Learning, and Society (GLS) conference in June, specifically because they were all incredibly excited about games. The conference had just a slight tinge of fangirl/boyism that was endearing and, in some ways, quite productive. After all, in a field such as game studies it is often glaringly obvious in some research that the scholar had not played the game much. But fangirls and boys, they play and play and play and with a media like games, that indulgence can yield some worthwhile and unexpected results.
But I say in some ways because I think it can also lead to narrow research that avoids difficult – many times political – questions which might otherwise mire the researcher’s beloved object of study. I find this, and certainly found this at GLS, to be the case in relation to World of Warcraft (WOW).
WOW was undoubtedly the game at the conference; that is, it was the touchstone of most presentations and the point of reference for many conversations. If nothing else, you could count on the person you were speaking with to, at the least, be familiar with it and, potentially, be a level 80 with a weekly raiding schedule and a costume ready to go for Blizzcon.
Certainly WOW’s popularity at the conference has a lot to do with its unparalleled success in the computer games market. It also was the first game many people had played. And then when you factor in the timesink that WOW becomes once you’re hooked, it is no surprise that so many people are thinking, discussing, and writing about it.
That being the case, WOW is also simply a great research environment for the questions scholars at GLS wanted to ask. Since the conference was focused on learning with, through, and in games and the impact of that learning on society at large, most of the presentations and poster sessions presented research that speculated about how people learn in games or what they are learning or how to design games for learning, and so on. WOW or similar MMORPGs tended to be focus given their sociality and cultural status.
But it seems to me that, in the wake of the violent video games lunacy and media vilification and skepticism about games as useful, game scholars tend to overcompensate by producing research that repeatedly demonstrates that games like WOW have educational potential and are productive learning environments. I am not trying to argue that this research is useless, but that I think it is operating with some fundamental blindspots to political issues, specifically relating to race and gender, caused by:
- The nature of the disciplines that are producing the work, i.e. the pitfalls so-called of scientific objectivity.
- The concern that critique undermines the hard-fought place of games as valid and worthwhile cultural objects.
- A certain wide-eyed fascination/fetishization with/of the game born from a lack of experience with games.
This is particularly troublesome to me because these blindspots are some of the most interesting aspects about the learning that is going on in games.
To illustrate, let me reference a panel discussing gender ethnography in WOW. The speakers offered some solid arguments that debunked the notion of the typical WOW gamer and demonstrated how and why women find the game compelling. And while I respect and consider myself a participant in the growing section of feminist scholarship in games that is deconstructing the monolithic hardcore gamer or problematizing the idea there is a “girl gamer” who likes “girl games” (both categories often being sexist and reductive), I think we should also look at how games like WOW stifle feminist playstyles or feminist politics.
It was my impression that critical views of the politics of a game like WOW were dismissed because they might disrupt the very notion that there are some rather productive feminine spaces opened up by WOW and how women are playing and using the game.
This is not the case at all.
What I recommend, however, is that if we are to try and locate a feminist politics within WOW we can only do so by being mindful of how the structure of the game might be resistant to those politics. I pointed out specifically how WOW and all other MMOs, while including the progressive mechanic of cooperation, is still primarily about accumulation of material items, competition, prestige, and the cultivation of personal capital. This is antithetical to a feminist politics due to the patriarchal basis of that competitive and capitalist framework.
Therefore, if we are to uncover or fashion a feminist politics within MMOs we need to identify both the progressive and oppressive circumstances feminism finds itself in.