gender and minecraft: console-ing passions 2014
Full disclosure, this presentation is an abbreviated analysis of a forthcoming book chapter on conventions of gender in Minecraft. This is also work that I am more comprehensively developing for my master’s thesis, provided the process of writing it doesn’t kill me over the next few weeks.
By way of some introduction to this paper, I’ll first describe how Minecraft presents itself and rhetorically defines gender and sexuality. I will then talk about how this this framework differs from sociological understandings of gender and the lived experiences of people who play the game. I’ll then walk through the ways in which labor facilitates the gendering of players and vice versa. To make sense of this epistemological framework I’m then going to explore the limitations of ontological possibility in the game. In many ways this conference presentation is about Minecraft, and in others it’s not. It’s about almost every game I have ever played in which I was forced to adopt a digital representation of myself.
In constructing gender and sexuality, designers often rely on the way humans look and act, but this really contrasts with the lived experiences of gender and sexuality that demand a framing of these terms outside of an object-oriented, categorical model. It is often the case that the design of a videogame privileges ideas of “active/acting,” “masculine/men” over any preference for being “passive/acted upon,” and “feminine/woman.” Without an alternative framework, game designers risk reproducing systems in which gender and labor—or “doing,” more simply—privileges a colonial, masculinist fantasy.
Minecraft was initially developed by a Swedish man, Markus “Notch” Persson, and released in 2011 by his production company, Mojang. At the time, the game did not include feminized or feminine models for either playable or non-playable characters.
Instead, Minecraft provided players with the freedom to aesthetically design their own player characters within the confines of a pixelated schema (cf. Jansz and Martis, 2007; Miller and Summers, 2007; Williams, Martins, Consalvo, and Ivory, 2009). Sexuality and gender were rendered as inert characteristics in the design of a human figure, and Notch refused to change this despite several requests from the Minecraft player community. In lieu of token diversification, he offered these sentiments about gender on his development blog for the game:
The human model is intended to represent a Human Being. Not a male Human Being or a female Human Being, but simply a Human Being. The blocky shape gives it a bit of a traditional masculine look, but adding a separate female mesh would just make it worse by having one specific model for female Human Beings and male ones. That would force players to make a decisions [sic] about gender in a game where gender doesn’t even exist. (Persson, 2012a).
To the end of this claim—that gender doesn’t exist in Minecraft—Notch designed character models and game mechanics that convolute heteronormative notions of sexuality and gender.
On his blog Notch refers to gender as a “gameplay element,” and frames it as both aesthetically optional, and separate from other elements that influence player behavior. This philosophy is reflected in the game’s code, which is written in Java, an object-oriented programming language. This means that everything in the game is discretely organized into marked categories, and—to be clear—is certainly not unique to this game. This organization allows for homogeneous conventions of sex and gender between entities of the same class. In Minecraft, there are three classes of artificially intelligent entities (also known as mobs) that simulate the mechanics of biological reproduction (via spawning and having babies): animals, villagers, and monsters. Players don’t need to discriminate between distinct reproductive organs because mobs that the player can breed are unisexual. Put simply, this system decouples the process of reproduction from biological limitations of a material body, and it elides the process altogether by not animating sex acts.
The unisexual default makes it more difficult for players to negotiate heteronormativity as the dominant, cultural orientation between players. It also suggests that power relations predicated on gender and sexuality are not constituted as playable in the game space (for more on “doing” heteronormativity, cf. Schilt and Westbrook, 2009). Whatever players may think of gender and sexuality, they are encouraged to assume that those aesthetics play no role in determining what they can do on the virtual frontier.
Liberating the player character in Minecraft from the false biological dichotomy of two sexes is laudable, but locating gender within the player character obfuscates the ways in which social and material structures construct gender in digital spaces (cf. Fausto-Sterling, 1993). From a cultural studies perspective, gender is a social construction, “conceived of differently in different cultures, historical periods, and contexts” (Cassell & Jenkins, 1998, p. 4). This definition best informs the player behavior of “gender-swapping,” a well-documented phenomenon wherein players adopt gendered characters that do not correspond to their cis-gender (Turkle, 1995; Cherney & Wise, 1996; Kolo & Baur, 2004; DiGiuseppe & Nardi, 2007). The cultural studies approach also allows for articulations of gender that are divorced from the material body, and it allows for broader understandings of how people might experience and practice gender in Minecraft. This basic framework is supported by research conducted on gender in other virtual world environments.
In an ethnographic study of Internet cafés in China, Lindtner et. al. demonstrate how social contexts in real life (IRL) shape experiences of computer-mediated sociality and collaboration (2008). These findings compliment an understanding of identity as both performative and structurally contingent. Building on the theoretical work of Hollander (2012) and West and Fenstermaker (2002) who develop a sociological understanding of performing—“doing”—gender, Stabile’s research on World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004) players also articulates how gender is shaped by cooperative interaction with other players (2013, 5-6). Stabile’s work shows how dominant ideologies of gender become transparent and reproduced through socialized accountability and self-referential identification (2013, 5-6). In Minecraft, players may routinely ask each other about personal aspects of their lives IRL, or make assumptions about gender and sexuality based on a username, the appearance of the player character skin, or the sound of a person’s voice.
Evidence of this phenomenon on Minecraft servers is scattered online across community forums, personal blogs and Tumblrs.
One such example can be found on PlanetMinecraft.com, where users DerpyKat and Daisy Rose co-authored a community blog post to share their experiences as perceived “guys” and “girls.” As though talking to each other, they note the different ways others police their gender within a masculine/feminine binary. Here is choice excerpt:
I’m pretty good with a bow, so when I when I joined a RP server, I joined a town that needed a bowman. I joined as Ethan (I didn’t have my account yet.) I started out a newbie of the Bow squad, and pretty soon I bumped the General out of his place and became General of Bows. I [sic] when I got my own account, I was so excited because I could finally play as a girl. I joined the town, and said I’m pretty good with a bow like I did last time. Then, he put me as town princess. I wanted to say that I was Ethan, but I didn’t because they have a no multi-accounting rule…so I couldn’t say “I’m Ethan.” or I was banned (Derpycat and Daisy Rose, 2013).
Moments when players discriminate along the lines of assumed identities are highly contingent on how players communicate with each other and what they can sense in their interactions—not all presenting women, girls, or otherwise feminized bodies experience gendered discrimination, but some do and in different ways depending on the social makeup and historical background of the space in question (cf. Mohanty, 1988).
In any cultural context, the role of the genderless human being, then, is one of a blank canvas. A customized avatar invites interpretation of difference, and what others interpret depends on the literacy of the reader and their conditioned, judgmental response. Mojang does not provide players with any means for policing player behavior, so players and server administrators are burdened with facilitating their own codes of conduct.
As Daisy Rose’s account illustrates, these codes can extend beyond protecting players from harassment and more formally establish expectations between players of different cultural backgrounds. Whether codes are implicit or explicit, there are consequences to playing or acting in ways that disorient or disrupt the expectations of other players (cf. Sundén and Sveningsson, 2012). Expectations are shaped in many cultural, historical, practiced, and rhetorical ways of being; they refract the practice of everyday configurations that constitute social behavior and stabilize multiplicitous categories of femininity and masculinity (Butler, 1988; Haraway, 1991; Connell, 1996; Ahmed, 2006). If players are want to reproduce those ways of being in Minecraft, it may be because they don’t know how to feel and behave like a genderless human being. Their expectations are also in dialogue with the design of any given virtual world, so the social gendering of a player’s avatar or play style can ideologically compliment the way a game rewards the completion of a particular task.
Videogames cannot be reduced to a set of rules and abstracted algorithms, but the structure of a videogame does legitimate contingent ways of being and doing that is architected with particular values and assumptions in mind (Malaby 2009, p. 13). It would be equally reductive to suggest that gender and various activities are separable from the histories that shape a person’s experience with doing in and around the game space. In virtual worlds, where narrative and setting are frequently inspired by mainstream cultures and sites, the virtue of work is an intensely value-laden, contingent category. Valued activities that are framed as leisure and relaxation contrast other activities or experiences as distinctly “not fun” or not “part of the game.” As Squire points out: “games focus our attention and mold our experience of what is important in a world and what is to be ignored” (2006, p. 21-22). The patterned distinctions of “fun” as congruent with acting and “not fun” as congruent with being acted upon, “hardcore” games as masculine and “casual” games as feminine, highlight the ways in which “play” can engender gendered ideals of masculinity and femininity in particular cultural contexts (Anable, 2013; Vanderhoef, 2013). The design of Minecraft inherently consequences and rewards some ways of playing over others (e.g., dying is undesirable, therefore all players who want to avoid death harvest and eat food)—this design may not take into account the gender of a player, but these patterned ways of doing may resonate with histories of gendered work and play in the real world. Compared to the range of motion people have in the real world, the limitations of the game structure reflect a relatively narrow spectrum of acceptable player behaviors.
Players punch, place, and destroy both blocks and mobs in the service of comfortably dominating their environment. By hunting, mining, pioneering, railroading, crafting, and farming, players find individualized solutions for the problems all must inevitably solve—feeding, protecting, and arming oneself. The player character is designed to always be capable of killing mob enemies, but it must scavenge for and harvest resources from the land and underground in order to protect itself—functionally, there are no other ways to survive in Minecraft. From a colonizer’s perspective, the design of vanilla Minecraft distinctly privileges ways of doing and being that compliment the Western Frontier Myth.
This resonance is significant for its ubiquity in American culture; Americans, whether they are formally aware of the Myth are not, are conditioned by symbols that evoke it.
The Myth suggests and signifies a “formative experience” on an ever-fluid landscape that constitutes an imaginary “wilderness” (Stoeltje, 1987, p. 250; Slotkin, 1998, p. 11). It is a self-legitimizing logic that frames the wilderness as a frontier that the individual is charged with colonizing. In Minecraft, the player character literally spawns on the grounds of an imaginary and abstract wilderness that has been designed for colonization and exploration—there is no one else to care for and there is little else to do. The constantly evolving nature of the game design and development process privileges players who are comfortable with a nomadic play style or who have a detached relationship with their colonies and homesteads. This play space doesn’t explicitly reward players who form an emotional attachment with the landscape or the mobs on it. Mobs in Minecraft are not designed to be your friends; instead, other players are supposed to offer friendship, for they are the ones who are detached from the landscape and who are never in danger of being accidentally deleted. This isn’t to say that players do not form unique relationships with mobs—certainly, some have pets and pen monsters—but, these civil acts are tenuous. Minecraft doesn’t evolve with players as they construct frameworks for civilization. Rather, it provides a limbic space where the individual can act and think in ways that would otherwise threaten the stability of a society (Slotkin, 1998, p. 12).
On the frontier, the myth empowers the individual to care for and prioritize their needs over the needs of others. In caring for oneself, the Myth suggests that—by design—killing and colonizing are mechanisms that regenerate the spirit of the individual. This process of regeneration through violence necessitates the “othering” of subjects and the extermination of the unequal (Slotkin, 1998, p. 12). In Minecraft, the only one who can starve is the player character. Players can easily exploit the lives of other entities by farming them as resources (villagers, sheep, pigs, cows, chickens); killing or scaring enemies (dogs, cats); or, as a means of transportation (horses, mules, donkeys, and pigs).
Playing Minecraft as a pacifist vegetarian is technically possible, but the game design generally rewards those players who murder animals for meat (e.g., meat staves off starvation longer than vegetables and bread)—put another way, players are rewarded for treating the landscape and everything on it as a resource ripe for harvesting by way of punching, stabbing, shooting, etc. Players are not encouraged to think negatively about their behavior; the animation for death is particularly benign—the virtual body simply vanishes into the digital.
Nor are players conditioned to feel particularly threatened on the frontier that they spawn, the Overworld. In order to encounter entities that might overwhelm the player character in combat, that player needs to travel to the Nether—an alternate, fiery dimension made to resemble a hellish landscape.
In the process of overcoming enemies and colonizing the land, the player character is elevated in their heroic status on the frontier. The land and trophy items that a player collects—diamond armor, Ghast tears, enchanted weapons, etc.—further serve to symbolize power, progress, and accomplishment. The relevance of these objects varies from server to server; on some servers players are encouraged to purchase equipment (e.g., armor, weapons, hats, capes) and special permissions (e.g., flying, community membership, property, improved text chat, etc.). On other servers, where players privilege a meritocracy, accomplishments may carry more social capital. Still, in both spaces and without regard for the value of the items in a purse, there exists in Minecraft player communities economies of power informed by game mechanics and assets that distinguish noobs from seasoned veterans. In Western culture, constitutions of citizenship are Eurocentric and privilege white, heterosexual, property-owning males (Escobar, 2008; Castro-Gòmez, 2002). In Minecraft, players can self-identify as part of the larger player collective by simply playing the game—subjectivity is predicated on doing more than anything else.
In this way, the design of Minecraft does not draw relationships between gender and power; the game is not designed to privilege or restrict the bodily freedom of players based on a gendered class they may wear or adopt. However, the limitations of what all players can do in Minecraft—what designers choose to code—does reflect a bias that privileges a masculine constitution of subjectivity. For some time, feminists have drawn similarities between the symbolic characteristics of the “genderless” legal person—“rationality, autonomy, self-interest, objectivity, assertiveness, self-sufficiency, self-possession”—and masculinity (Hunter, 2013). It is no coincidence, they argue, that representations of the “reasonable” liberal citizen are men, and not wives or pregnant women (Hunter, 2013). The conflation of “reasonable” with “masculine” in the constitution of a legal person elides any consideration that social differences constitute different articulations of rational thought and behavior. In Minecraft, the game design assumes that all players want to engage actively and assume a dominant role at all times on the frontier—the design is not inclusive to play that requires the player to assume a passive or subjugated role. This creates an environment where there are “right” kinds of labor and work that have social and material value. In privileging Minecraft players who assimilate with the player character—as a weapon-wielding, diamond-mining, meat-eating machine—game designers at Mojang marginalize players who want to find other ways of surviving, community building, and playing with mobs that don’t align with a colonial paradigm.
This value-laden, homonormative framework of labor sets up the game as a stage for performances of gender that essentialize masculinity with activity and femininity with passivity; it is a virtual world where men are not encouraged to volunteer themselves as princesses. In Minecraft, empowerment is possible, but at the expense of degrading some other doing; some other way of playing or being that falls outside of what Notch’s Steve would do.
Players who come out as women or girls in Minecraft must also contend with what it means, at present, to assume the feminine gender. In terms of constructing gender, the relatively few mods that do exist reproduce heteronormative, misogynistic, and/or essentialist notions of what gender is or can be. Some mods allow users to modify the appearance of the player character’s age and body type, enter marital relationships with non-playable characters, and “tame” “girlfriends.” Some YouTubers have published videos of mods in development that allow the player to spawn fair-skinned, feminized character mobs that either role-play sex acts or submit to being killed with weaponized pink dildos. It is also worth mentioning that others have published videos of themselves role-playing sex acts with improvised assets provided by vanilla Minecraft. These improvisations overwhelmingly represent feminine character models with long, colorful hair styles and elongated eyes (where “men” have two horizontal pixels, “women” have two vertical pixels). The patterned location of gender is distinct; modders assume that the player is either interested in feminizing their avatar, or adding “girls” as a non-playable mob in the game. Instances where players record video of role-playing sex acts present the perspective of the assumed male, who performs “thrusting” (moving forward and backward) behind a crouched, stationary female.
In a Western context, mods that only add breasts to the player character seem to reinforce the insignificant role of embodied gender on the frontier, while mods that add feminized non-playable mobs seem to rely on essentialist notions of gendered performances. Essentialism reduces the role of femininity to a persistent state of subservience to the player character, wherein the non-playable character follows the player around like a pet. In both cases the player character doesn’t fundamentally change the way they move through or play the game. New values and goals aren’t added in such a way that the player character changes the game of survival, and the “dressing” of femininity only serves to underscore the homogeneous nature of what constitutes as valued labor in the game. This isn’t to say that there aren’t any mods that change the way players survive or evaluate particular resources and ways of playing. However, no one has yet crafted a mod that assumes playing as a gendered character should change the goals, objectives, and modes of play. In this way, players don’t develop for themselves rhetorically different ways of being that disrupt a domain that has long privileged white, heterosexual men.
Edit: I earlier made mention of the release date as 2012—this is true for the X-Box version, but the PC version was released in Nov. 2011. I have changed the date to reflect 2011 as the release date.
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