Hyperrhiz 19: Reviews
Meat-free dreams & the specter of homosexuality: Dragging the body back to light in online gaming culture
University of Maryland Baltimore County
Condis, Megan. Gaming Masculinity: Trolls, Fake Geeks & the Gendered Battle for Online Culture. University of Iowa Press, 2018.
Four years after Eron Gjoni’s “The Zoe Post” and its subsequent mobilization against the titular Zoë Quinn, GamerGate--as well as its fraternity of pick-up artists, internet trolls, and red pills--lingers in the collective groans of progressive video game enthusiasts and haunts game producers’ forums like some false spectre of journalistic ethics. That spectre, however, whether entangled in ludologist-narratologist debates or simply relegated to that faux-liminal space between popular culture and academia, receives little treatment outside of unique and distant research articles and semiotic analyses; Megan Condis crucially bridges that gap between the academic melange on one hand, and the boundless sea of personal and public outcry concerning the battle for gaming culture on the other.
Condis writes at her best when portraying the graphic and virtual id of the masculine Legion in stark contrast to the clean-cut and tiresome logos of the public manosphere; that is, while Condis’ broader arguments are at times boneless, they certainly aren’t toothless. At the heart of Gaming Masculinity, Condis writes against the technoutopian “meat-free dreams” (Adam, 2002) which see identity, symbolized by the physical self, submerged and obfuscated in a white-washed, phallocentric, heterotextual (Sundén, 2003) space. Condis’ vignettes, whether grotesque or obscure (or both), of gaming culture drag that body kicking and screaming from its electric fleece, triangulating this gamification of masculinity. Torrin Rettig’s “trash talk” at E3 2013 to Microsoft community manager Ashton Williams (“Just let it happen, it’ll be over soon.”) echoes in Condis’ description of Grand Theft Auto Online’s (2013) “rape mod.” The onslaught of rape and death threats against Anita Sarkeesian, game critic and subject of Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian (2012), weighs heavy against PUA Roosh Valizadeh’s (2015) argument for the legalization of rape on private property. This gross buffet of abuses against women highlights the more unique and resounding message of the text--not the gamification of masculinity (and masculinity in gaming) which slowly unfurls at the timid pulls and prods of academics, but the stakes of the game itself: the eternal struggle for diverse representation and the uneven resistance, written on the minority body.
While she situates her argument within foundational academic voices (Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, among others), Condis draws from an array of interdisciplinary and methodological sources: the sociological and ethnographic work of C.J. Pascoe, Lisa Nakamura’s studies of “technoutopian” online culture in Digital Medias, and the public authorship of Bioware forum posts and online gaming mags. Condis therefore opens a contentious field, one torn between a stuffy academic arena that both monopolizes and marginalizes its own subject matter and a popular space, one swollen with public and conflicted commentary. Readers in the social sciences, particularly linguistics, will find a wealth of discourse that could supplement or suffuse or perhaps supplant their own interests across gender studies and digital rhetorics.
Neither Condis’ theoretical foundation nor application of gaming language to gender performativity, however, consistently reverberate through the text. Pascoe’s “fag talk” and work on gendered play and violence figure prominently in “‘Get Raped, F****t‘: Trolling as a Gendered Metagame,” yet disappear in the treatise on language censorship on Star Wars: The Old Republic (2011) message boards as well as sexualized insults in Men’s Rights Activist (MRA) discourse. MRA communities transcend the supposed gender-blind technoutopia of online culture, yet that identity surfeit receives little structure from the meat-free literature. While Condis suggests a useful dichotomy between game mechanics (intended and expected behaviors outlined by a game) and emergent dynamics (unintended and unexpected behaviors learned by a player), neither term consistently structures Condis’ argument throughout the text. Condis suggests that “the porting of stereotypical masculine tropes from the context of the physical world into the context of a virtual world is not and can never be perfect” (p. 9), yet she never details in gaming vernacular what that “porting” process entails. While not described in gaming terms, online trolling figures prominently as one of Condis’ masculinity games. And in the epilogue, the author considers the very real gaming vernacular of pick-up artists (PUAs); a powerful and relevant exemplar of masculinity gamification conceived as an afterthought. Given the shifting focus and wide scope of Condis’ work-- spanning gender gamification, gendered abuse, analysis of gaming vernacular (on- or offline), representations of women within video games and within online culture in general--the diversity of perspectives, frames, and subjects yearns for a more consistent skeleton or shell.
That, however, bespeaks an academic perspective: harsh and demanding, where texts consistently reinforce themselves and pay tribute to theorists overused or arcane. To shift from the insular to the popular, this text better reaches that audience outside of (and perhaps distrustful of) academic circles. “Game Breaks” serve as intermediary chapters that allow the popular reader to sample case studies in gaming, unique bits of semiotic and textual analyses that break from overbearing theoretical and academic jargon; however, these chapters don’t simply press pause on the wide and varied list of abuses entertained by the gamification of masculinity. “Bro’s Law” introduces us to a type of paradoxical pattern of behavior in gaming, game-making, and game-commenting: that is, behaviors which traverse the fluid barrier between the parody of views about gender and the reinforcement or reinstatement of those views. The author’s critique of “bro-downs” in Army of Two (2008) and Kaceytron’s gamer-girl performance serve as a backdrop to a future Game Break detailing Far Cry 3’s (2012) supposed subversion of colonialist fantasies which incidentally reinforce those same fantasies.
Readers outside of academia and members of fan communities may nevertheless encounter spectres of notable gaming controversies, especially perilous for a culture where every hole in a critique is a grave, and every well-meaning social justice warrior or white knight’s intentions, the shovel. Fire Emblem: Fates’ (2015) gay conversion narrative in Soleil (and mechanically dubious gay romances with Niles and Rhajat) haunts “No Homosexuals in Star Wars?,” and Xenoblade Chronicles X’s (2015) (non)localization of the infamous “Boob Slider”--a character customization option that alters breast size for female avatars--echoes in the void of “Meme-ifying Gender in the Gaming Community,” while simultaneously calling back to the muddy waters of fan-service and representation. Gaming Masculinity elides popular games that turn or twist the standard and hegemonic displays of gender and sexuality, which may leave fans in the know wanting more. Shirogane Naoto’s and Tatsumi Kanji’s visceral exploration of repressed sexual desires and gender identity in Persona 4 (2008), as well as the embattled discourse over the interpretation of these characters, are left wanting. Long Live the Queen (2012)’s bisexual Elodie and her high-stakes quest of political intrigue, for one, and Dream Daddy’s (2017) gay twist on the heteronormative dating sim genre, for another, both destabilize the image of a straight-male market (and straight-male ownership) for gaming.
That isn’t to say Gaming Masculinity somehow fails as an academic resource; it is an especially important reference four years post the emergence of GamerGate where an ideal primer on the abuses against women and underrepresented identities online and especially in gaming communities still eludes the university library. On the contrary, students and interested amateurs who find themselves at the lonely yet burgeoning crossroads of rhetoric, gender, language, and other miscellaneous academic buzzwords now behold a fresh roadmap to navigate online backroads and dirt paths that weave through the patchwork wilderness of misogyny and alt-right sentiment, instead of entering some Faustian pact with a single discipline, consigning themselves to the well-tracked highways of household and name-brand subject areas. Condis’ aggressive pioneering of the field rightly plants its stake at that crossroads.