reading the politics of admittance in games

by ibull

Dear Daniel,

Thanks for your thoughts on the article that I passed along last week. In hindsight, I apologize for sending what was a dense piece of work. I had honestly not read it in a few months, so spending this weekend to re-read it was both a joy and a regret—this is how academia tends to spoil people’s social minds.

For other people who may not know what we’re talking about, I sent you an article penned by Rey Chow, a Chinese-American cultural critic, specializing in 20th-century Chinese fiction and film and postcolonial theory. This post makes reference to Chapter 5: The Politics of Admittance in The Rey Chow Reader, edited by Paul Bowman. The article offers a reading and critique of how Freud and Fanon articulate the relationships between community formation, race, and sexuality. It was first published in 1995.

Now, why did I send it? I suppose because I read postcolonialism as a project that (in part) grapples with the practice of equality and inclusivity. I find Chow’s article helpful in thinking about the ways in which communities are formed in and around videogames.

Chow claims that communities are inherently exclusive in nature, and she articulates 3 senses that describe the ways a person may be admitted into a community:

  1. a physical sense, the ability to enter certain spaces;
  2. a sense of validation, permission by someone or something else that allows one to enter into the community;
  3. a sense of confession, insofar that a person surrenders oneself in reconciliation with the rules of the community.

You might be asking yourself: assuming this is true of all communities, then, how does one design an inclusive and emergent virtual community? How is it that we can observe these kinds of communities in existence, if the very nature of “community” would render their existence impossible from the beginning?

Chow explores two variations of this question: how is community articulated in relation to race and to sexuality? What kinds of admittance do these articulations entail, with what implications? She also attacks the logistical framework that Freud and Fanon (separately, at different times and in different places) use to articulate the subject position(s) of women of color. The article concludes with a cautionary warning to postcolonial scholars who work to imagine utopian, “decolonized” communities: rendering women as equal in patriarchal communities is taboo when communities are policed along the lines of categorical purity (patriarchal communities, then, are only categorically pure if the gender binary is fully embraced by men and women).

I want to extend Chow’s deconstruction of white supremacist and patriarchal communities to better understand videogames and videogame communities. For the purposes of discussion, the following applies the juicy bits of Chow’s article in a reading of games and videogame communities.

How are game communities formed? In this post I discuss 2 models.

Model 1: Designed Player Communities

All players enter a game homogeneously—despite the multitude of differences that distinguish individuals from each other outside a game space, all people who play a game are assumed to have categorically similar abilities, motivations, and desires.

Designers sometimes homogenize their players in ways that reflect expectations and assumptions about a player’s perceived gender, race, sexuality, ability, etc. This is often rationalized by audience demographic data and market logics that incentivize the “knowing” of one’s “target” market in order to sell more product. Players may homogenize themselves in order to participate in a perceived meritocracy; the erasure of categorical differences allows for players with privilege(s) outside a game to marginalize the reasons or circumstances that don’t allow for other people to enjoy the game or be able to participate within a game equally.

A player is deaf, but the game does not provide subtitles.

A player is unable to devote time into leveling up a character (job, kids, life reasons), but the game does not allow for them alternative ways of playing or marking themselves as part of the game community.

A player has phenotypically dark skin, but the game only allows the player to chose a phenotypically white-skinned avatar. The game design assumes all players desire white skinned avatars. 

The perceived homogenization of a player base is revealed when that perception is disrupted—Fat, Ugly, or Slutty demonstrates how perceived homogenization affects a player’s game experience when they are not seen/heard as a man/male.

Many videogames mark a player’s involvement in a game by way of high scores, kill counts, badges, tokens/coins, special abilities, special avatars, alliances, and other privileges that reward participation. The metrics that a game adopts are tools for players to paradoxically distinguish themselves from the game community and mark their ownership or buy-in to the game community. Metrics and markers establish hierarchies and categorically establish certain permissions for players. Generally, they police a player’s place and access within the larger community that encompasses all players of a game.

Within this framework, metrics of success operate as conduits for players to gift power and privileges to one another. Gifts operate to secure a bond between players who participate in a ritual exchange of time and effort. In other words, the ascension to “Level 80” comes at the expense of time, money, and effort; when two players reach that same level, they are able to establish a bond based upon some notion of equality. This formation of a metacommunity reinforces and legitimates the larger social and technical structure of the game. Players within that metacommunity are living proof that upward social/technical mobility is possible and that the game provides players with a means to reach the goals it sets for players.

The people who comprise a metacommunity are sometimes used to make assumptions about the categorical differences between players that were previously erased by the perceived homogeneity of the game community. For example, if a metacommunity of high-achieving players primarily consists of phenotypically white men, the absence of phenotypically white women or people of color is sometimes used to indicate that people who are categorically women or categorically colored are also categorically inferior in some way to those players in the metacommunity—after all, the game space is a perceived meritocracy. All a player has to do is “try hard” to receive the reward of equal treatment amongst high-achieving community members.

This model of community formation predicates admittance on a person’s ability to meet arbitrary standards through performances that seek to erase categorical differences between players and assume categorically similar desires, abilities, and goals. Put in other words, admittance into these kinds of communities is predicated on a person’s ability and willingness to acculturate to a homogenous system. Sometimes player communities challenge the admittance of a person who’s material body doesn’t reify or validate the perceived homogeneity of the high-achieving player community—itself a special metric that players may be highly invested in for personal or socio-political reasons.

Model 2: Emergent Player Communities

All players enter a game heterogeneously—a game’s designers assume that players have different play styles, and while player behavior is reasonably predictable, player experiences are not. Games such as Journey (2012), Minecraft (2012), Pokemon (take your pick of any of the handhelds), and others may offer a player token rewards that provide some metric for progress through a game, but these metrics do not significantly stratify player communities. Players are not necessarily working towards a universal goal; instead, shared player experiences provide a context for players to commune with each other (experience of beating the Elite 4 vs. experience of catching all the Pokemon).

One of things that distinguishes emergent player communities from designed player communities is the presence of fan fiction and other transmedia.

Example: Journey

Example: Minecraft

Example: Pokemon

Emergent player communities are not necessarily inclusive player communities. Internet communities such as Reddit and Youtube, where emergent communities may appear publicly, are designed community spaces that privilege ways of playing, ways of storytelling, and ways of self-identifying. In that same vein, when Mojang discriminates between player mods when incorporating fan content into the game, Mojang creates a metric by which an exclusive community of players can count themselves as contributors to the game. MineCon was used recently to mark the exclusive membership of attendees, for example. In this way, visual distinctions are one of the ways in which players draw lines around their communities. With this in mind, are visual distinctions alone what determines the inclusive nature of a player community? I argue they are not. Instead, it is more important to consider how visual distinctions are policed by players who want to make a game of visual distinctions, which may or may not be inherent within a game’s design. There are various risks that a game designer must take if she wants to encourage emergent and inclusive videogame communities, but—perhaps—the most significant risk is that the game’s design will fail to discourage exclusive communities from forming.

Puzzle games like Candy Crush are interesting to consider in the context of emergent game communities. Save for the obvious way in which Facebook games manufacture designed player communities for a Candy Crusher, the game itself serves as a platform for which people can use to build a social bond with strangers in the real world.

When I see a person playing the game, I may introduce myself for the first time. I will ask them how they play the game—do they connect to Facebook? Do they purchase in-game tokens that help them complete the levels? What level are you on and what stories can you tell me about what I may expect from some of the tougher maps? People tell stories around the difficulty they have with particular levels, and that struggle is something that strangers can commune over. I definitely judge people as “not my type” when their play styles differ from my own. Are these social bonds as strong as any other one would find or make in other emergent game communities? Probably not.

I am still critical of Candy Crush, don’t get me wrong. I still don’t like the game’s graphics. But, a couple weeks ago I was flying from PDX to LAX. On the plane I was sitting next to a stranger, and I don’t like flying in silence. Talking about Candy Crush was one of the things that helped me get to know this stranger better, and it served to relax what would have otherwise been an unsettling two-and-a-half hours. The game can’t be all that bad.