A 4-Front War…

Written by: Casey O'Donnell

Primary Source: Culture Digitally

[Cross Posted: CASTAC, Gamasutra and #CultD]

I was going to write about the butterfly effect, ethnography and a key informant’s book on the development of the game Jagged Alliance 2.

But then the portion of the Internet surrounding videogames and game development exploded.

I’ve started posts previously with the line, “I teach game design…” I’ll do that again. I teach game design. One of the lectures I give is titled, “A 3-Front War.” Today I’ve decided that it will now be titled, “A 4-Front War.” Why so many wars? Why even call it a war? I don’t know. Mostly because lives will be caught in the cross-fire and many will be the lives of friends. Not the same as those playing out in other places, like Missouri or the Middle East, but important none the less.

The original wars I referenced in the class were wars of attention, technology and platforms. I’m not here to lecture. I’m here to reflect on the fourth front. Culture. A cultural war is coming and videogames, like so many other sites of cultural production, will be where they are waged. I recently published something on the videogames in/as/of/through culture. Thomas Malaby wrote something more eloquent back in 2009.

I won’t begin to try and index all of the important conversations happening around “gamer” or its rejection in favor of terms that indicate the no-longer ostracized position of games in broader culture. Or, perhaps more importantly Adrienne Shaw’s critique of the term on the grounds of critical identity theory. Yes, all of these. But I’m not interested in the word gamer. I’m interested in culture.

Renewed attacks on predominantly female critics and game journalists, and perhaps most notably renewed verbal attacks and now death threats against Anita Sarkeesian [warning: disturbing content]. Numerous others who have entered into the #gamergate conversation have been attacked, often with misogynistic, homophobic and hate-filled speech. This has prompted several writers to declare the “end of gamers” or the end of that cultural category.

But I don’t think this is specifically about games. Games may only be the battle ground de jour. Rather, this is about culture and hegemony. Calls for greater diversity, cultural awareness and sensitivity are gaining ground. In the words of Omi and Winant, this is a counter-hegemonic process. It is creating waves and will generate change (that’s how hegemony works), however I can’t stress enough that this is about culture and cultural identity more than about games.

Games, like so many other realms of cultural production, are increasingly fronts for battles over culture. It is difficult to watch/listen to the words of some of the individuals [warning: disturbing content] participating in these battles and not see a kind of Fox News, “this isn’t about race, this is discrimination,” double-speak playing out around videogames. “Social Justice Warrior” as a derogatory term has become the dismissive for some kind of culturally-liberal-conspiracy [warning: disturbing content]. But this plays out on numerous realms of cultural production.

As I note in my essay above, that’s just part of games in/as/of/through culture. There are definitely cultural identity issues that are playing out in this, which needs to also be explored and care taken. There are undoubtedly people who are in it simply as another front to fight the war against women and diversity of all kinds. The difficulty is that the two are now entangled with one another in ways that will ultimately only damage those in it for reasons of care (cultural identity) and those who want to fight (cultural war).

The emergence of this fourth front in the context of games and game development, perhaps more than anything signals videogames in/as/of/through culture. But the thing that worries me now, is the intersection of this with death threats and misogyny in the name of preserving an imagined culture [warning: disturbing content]. It is parallel to counter-protesters verbally encouraging armed police to shoot other protestors.

I doubt that my students come into class expecting me to prepare them to enter this fray, but increasingly it is tantamount. Without the knowledge that this is a new aspect of participating in cultural production, I would be willfully sending my students out into these new battle-zones unaware of the danger and the last few days have demonstrated, I can simply no longer do that.

What I think needs to be stressed is that this isn’t about just games. Games and cultural identity are part of it, but the culture wars are broad and wide. The fact that games are involved demonstrates the relevance of and importance of games. Hence why they need to be explored critically, not the other way around. The strangest part is that now game academics are being “identified” as part of the “problem” in this culture war. That isn’t surprising, but these are the same people that offered games legitimacy. All cultural wars are ultimately Ouroboros.

References

Malaby, T. M. (2009). Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience. New Literary History, 40, 205-218.

O’Donnell, C. (2014). On Balinese Cockfights: Deeply Extending Play. Games and Culture, Online First.

Omi, M., & Winant, H. (1994). Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Shaw, A. (2013) On Not Becoming Gamers: Moving Beyond the Constructed Audience. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.2. doi:10.7264/N33N21B3

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Casey O'Donnell
Casey O’Donnell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media at Michigan State University. His research examines the creative collaborative work of videogame design and development. This research examines the cultural and collaborative dynamics that occur in both professional “AAA” organizations and formal and informal “independent” game development communities. His research has spanned game development companies from the United States to India. His research examines issues of work, production, copyright, as well as third world and postcolonial aspects of the videogame development workplace. Casey is also an active game developer, releasing his first independent game, “Osy,” in February of 2011.
Casey O'Donnell

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