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Re Fig 2015

These are my notes about the Re-Figuring Innovation in Games (ReFig) workshop in Toronto. The twitter feed is at

These are my notes and are/were written live so they are full of issues. I sometimes shift to writing in the voice of the person speaking, but these should not be taken as verbatim quotes.

I have gone back over them quickly the day after.

What is ReFig? It is a SSHRC Patnership project led by Jen Jenson at York University. It includes a wealth of partners across Canada and abroad including significant partnerships outside the university. I'm proud that there is an Alberta component led by my colleague Sean Gouglas. An announcement of the SSHRC Partnership grant can be found at

The proposal summary describes the need thus:

This proposal addresses an urgent need for equity and innovation in a videogames industry that has become notoriously exclusionary, and when it comes to the mainstream computer and console games industry, discernibly in decline, both creatively and economically (ESA 2014). In Canada, the digital games industry has emerged as a leading figure in the technology sector, and 'videogames' (the term already sounds old-fashioned) have become deeply structured into our ways of perceiving, thinking, and acting. From education to business to medicine to religion, the tools and idioms of digital games inflect Canada's 'mentalité,' society and economy. An extensive research-driven partnership is here proposed to enable and support a timely re-thinking and 're-configuring' of an industry impeded by persistently gendered inequality of opportunity and outcome, a discrimination historically cultivated and reinforced in the production both of digital games and digital play experiences for their players. The majority of girls and women have simply not been involved in either playing or producing digital games, except as hyper-sexualized bodies, stereotyped 'characters', and action-structures. The sequestration of women from an extensive and significant sector of Canada's technocultural economy is not just unacceptable from an equity standpoint, but is actively impeding innovation and creativity. Supporting full inclusivity in that sector will re-configure the structural conditions of digital games work (and play), and ameliorate its outcomes culturally, creatively and economically.

Dr. Jenson opened the workshop by talking about how videogames can reproduce masculinist technological orders. ReFig is about studying and changing that.

"Feminists are made, not born." bell hooks

"Feminist circle jerk": FiG, 2013 (this was what the first project was accused of being.)

She called on us to start with feminism and start again. Feminism is for everyone.

The project will follow feminist principles and practices:

  • Approaching research with an ethics of care
  • Critique with care vs. attack
  • Interest in social change and the study of conditions in order to change
  • Locate yourself in your research
  • Participants are people, not data points
  • Research interested in the advancement of women
  • Research that practices reciprocity
  • Transparency of expectations and outcomes
  • Respecting people's right of refusal
  • Co-creation of research outcomes and relationships
  • Cultivating surprise in our research

The themes of the project are:

  • Game Culture
  • Games Industry
  • Informal Education
  • Formal Learning Environments

We hope to work toward inclusivity toolkits for companies and other organizations. We also hope to develop an operating manual for supporting inclusive game design programs.

We then started the 5 minute presentations

Here are some of the cool projects proposed:

  1. Focus on female gamers - provide space for sharing and critiquing experience. Exploring scenarios to expose limiting structures. Method includes interviews with female game creators.
  2. tmdb - a project to map the transmedia landscape. In particular looking at the scope of female representation at the intersection of the games industry, film industry, music. Quesitons include, Is the transmedia industry more inclusive or is that an illusion? They are conducting in depth interviews.
  3. Games, Gendered Representation and Subjectivity. Draws on structural analysis of games, text analysis of games, and inter-textual analysis. She looks at the formation of meaning by readers. What theory of embodiment applies then?
  4. Not a Feminist? In playful pursuit of interventions and counternarratives. This project comes from a longer history of having to protect ourselves and to create safe spaces. They are
  5. How do we identify games for women? We know there are games for women, but how do we know and how is identity managed in these games. How are games designed for women audiences? Talking to designers to find out how the companies think of design is important.
  6. Streaming at the margins of play - studying Twitch and forthright political gamers. Looking at steamers who fall outside the targeted demographic. We need to understand the human and technical elements that surround live streamers. We also need to learn more about who is streaming on Twitch. Why do some stream with no one watching them? How are people talking about games? People fall into a broadcast mode. How are communities being formed?
  7. Community Development Kit - Dames Making Games is member funded feminist game space. Lots of events and lots of projects. They want to articulate the magic of DMG so that others can develop truly inclusive communities.
  8. Game jams have helped women start on games that they want to make. How can we study and improve on game jams. How can the projects started at jams be finished? The idea is a post-jam jam.
  9. Engendering game design talent - diversity in UK game design higher ed. How can we create a skill pipeline from universities to industry. How can we build pathways that are inclusive and shaped by students, among others.
  10. Recasting player two. Co-op gaming beyond mansplaining in motion. Can we create more interesting asymmetric co-op experiences? We don't want "girlfriend modes". How can we break the practice of casting women in secondary roles? We need to be careful to not cast women gamers in the image of men. We need design research. Do we really have to make it about gender? Yes, we do. We need to find ways to create positive change.
  11. Game curious was an outreach program to improve game literacy skills for those who don't identify as gamers. They introduce games and open discussions about games. They are trying to create a low-pressure, supportive learning environment. Is there a "critical defamiliarization" that happens when people enmeshed in games discuss games with people new to them? What do people outside the gaming community think of them.
  12. Feminist close readings of interactive texts. How can we develop materials that will guide and scaffold a reflective analysis of gameplay that interrogates structures? How can the materials be combined? They are building a wiki, Twine, and textual analyses that go back up to the wiki.
  13. NetworkInPlay: crafting diversity in games. How can the academy engage with on the ground initiatives? How can we build bridges? There are a number of links between indie industry and academy. We need to think about intervening in the larger industry agenda that draws heavily from computer science. In Ireland there are already a number of initiatives coming from industry and the community.
  14. The Periodic Spectacle is imagined as an event for those between the academy and industry. It can be intimidating to first engage in game development for people in related media.
  15. Rhetorical criticism asks what is going here and so what? How can we study the rhetorical positioning of games like free-to-play games. How are emergent genres like clickers (Bitcoin Billionaire) treated? We judge games differently when they are free or "traditional".
  16. How do we do diversity in technology and games industry? Why do some initiatives get funded by big companies? What are the politics of getting women into technology? Some focus on mentoring, some on sharing? Some target forms of sexual identity. They want to map political choices through collaborative ethnography and textual analysis.
  17. The gamergate project that I am involved in is gathering and studying discourse around gamergate. We are creating an archive.
  18. Charis books is an Atlanta feminist bookstore that is home to projects of all sorts.
  19. Often transgender men get left out of conversations. LGBTQ game archive is a web site that gathers information and content. It is interesting to gather both explicitly queer content and content people thought to be queer at the time. Queer game content gets treated as new, but it isn't. The site will be made public in January.
  20. Re-figuring e-sports are important and we need to make "mid-level" play more inclusive. There are various initiatives to cultivate talent. Can we imagine competitive spaces that are more inclusive. Feminist streamers and other forms of labor need to be acknowledged. Is the e-sport audience really so male? They imagine a living archive of their field notes and community materials. They imagine something less research driven and more community driven.
  21. There is a "great man" tradition in the history of gaming. The published histories need to be challenged. There are other ways of thinking-through history like cultural history, memory studies, social history.
  22. Games misrepresent and trivialize women, but where is the evidence? We need to map the best-selling games and the gender identities represented. What rhetorical figures (stereotypes, archetypes and new formations) of gender identity are deployed in the top games? Waht is the valence of each figures? This project will document top games for 2015. They will do a qualitative content analysis. They want to map a grid of intelligibility - what gender identities are possible?
  23. What characterizes certain approaches to game design as feminist? Can we look at art practices or art-led game research? Who gets to say what a game is? We need a persistent archive of feminist game form. People are more comfortable now with feminism - lets build on that.


We then had a discussion about gaps in the project.

  • There are some important issues around archives. Do we have expertise?
  • We need to look at our ethics - are we using creators as subjects?
  • What are the pragmatics of care?
  • How can we avoid hierarchies or minimize their impact? How can scholars at different levels help each other?
  • How can we work with embedded communities?
  • How can we make our work accessible outside the academy.
  • We should think about issues based work, not identity based work.
  • Are we afraid of big institutions?

We had breakout conversations about methods:

  • What does it mean to take care in research? How can we think in terms of reciprocity? How can we respect the right of refusal?
  • What methods do we share? Do methods follow the questions?
  • What is a text in this case? The game, the discourse around the game?
  • How can we do good? Are there methods that are more likely to have an impact?
  • How important are quantitative methods?
  • What is a player? Should we complicate this? Is attention turning away from gameplay towards the context of play?

I was struck by an issue that resonated with many - the issue of whether you have to have played a game all the way through to talk about it? We have issues of authority.

It struck us that we have to develop some common tools and share methods. We need to work out protocols for sharing data. We also have to gather and curate some of the numeric and economic data. We returned to issues about the quantitative evidence that can justify what we do.

How is game studies related to internet studies? How can we think of gaming as part of larger ecologies of online activity.

An interesting point was made about whether we argue for the exceptionalism of games. Are they different from novels, cinema and other arts? On the one hand it feels that studying games is different than studying other media because it still doesn't have the "high art" status, on the other hand it intuitively feels wrong to claim that games are exceptional?

Anita Sarkeesian and Jen Jenson: Dialogue

For the last event, Anita Sarkeesian and Jen Jenson held a conversation and took questions. They talked about Anita's time at York and how she took interesting classes on gender and technology. Anita's MA work (thesis) looked at the way we understand strong female characters in sci-fi TV shows. We often value female characters that are like men and we don't value other qualities like empathy and vulnerability. She explored tropes in sci-fi.

She mentioned how she hated writing. At the time (at grad school) she started Feminist Frequency. She came to grad school concerned about all sorts of social justice issues. She felt alienated by the texts, except bell hooks. That's when she learned about using the media to talk about issues. She wanted to find ways to explain important issues outside the academy.

She started with a bunch of videos that never came out. You can see the progress of her work over the videos. She did the Bechtel test and then a series on Lego. Then tropes videos happened and everything changed.

The Bechtel test gave people a way into looking at representations in the media.

Jenson asked about how Anita thinks through her subjects.

Harassment changed everything about how she does things. Now she has to think about everything. She can't make a mistake. She can't do anything wrong or she will be crucified. The harassers help shape the conversations around her work. For example, there is a video about how she lied about Hitman. This led to all sorts of people starting with how she lied.

She talked about the Damsel in Distress video and how they had to cut stuff. To shorten the video they need to cut examples which then means that there is tension between analysis and examples. She has to weave in counter arguments and that still doesn't matter.

Anita has a crazy critical audience. No matter what she does, she can't get it right given the hostility. She is aiming for the fence sitters who are savy and who will actually pay attention. It gives those who are interested the arguments to counteract the status quo.

Now she talks to a lot of game studios. What are the common questions she is asked? She and others have been talking about pop culture for some time, so why is

She tries to make sure that developers can walk away with ideas about what they can do. Game developers are interesting creatures. She gets lots of status quo questions like "all our audience is male, why bother with female characters?" She gets that there is a tension between market forces (even if imaginary) and what should be done, but it is still a choice.

Developers get to determine what is in the world. Why do they feel they have to do stupid things.

You are either challenging the status quote or reinforcing it. It is your choice.

Jen Jenson asks where Anita Sarkeesian wants to go? S runs a non-profit now. She wants to see what she can do with Feminist Frequency.

She/they are developing an online safety guide and a curriculum around Feminist Frequency.

There is confusion about what to do. It isn't just a matter of putting female characters into games. She sees a shift in public discussion around these issues. Now we need to talk about race in games.

Sarkeesian is critical of indie games that often do the same stuff as mainstream games, but some indie games experiment. When they get it right, then it legitimizes large publishers to try different things.

Sarkeesian does feel that games are different. All media are male dominated, but games are much more of a boys club. Game companies are a sea of dudes. How do we get though to these dudes that have all sorts of priviledge. She also feels interactives (like games) are different. When you play, you do the "killing" not Bruce Willis. That means that players have a different level of investment. I'm guessing that this explains some of the virulent investment many have in their games and game culture. Critique of games is critique of fans.

A great questions asked of Sarkeesian is what she would ask of us? She wants to see us do stuff that is more accessible. We do this to see a better world. She talked about there a lot of limitations to academic studies, but she sees a need for data. When dealing with a capitalist industry they want data before changing.

For Jenson game studies hasn't drawn on a long history/literature of feminists doing neat work. We need to learn from Sarkeesian who has adapted critical approaches to games. Why can't the academy do this?

There was a question about intersectional analysis. Sarkeesian talked about the tension of between addressing an audience that is not familiar with feminist thought and opening important issues.

Sarkeesian talked about the increasing toxicity online. People make mistakes - how do you call people out so they are interested in change and don't drive them out. It is part of the structure of the internet that doesn't have room for care. We need to find ways to call people out that help them just as we have to learn from others calling us out.

S talked about feminist thought that works for film and how it applies to games. How does the gaze work in a game? What happens when a game allows you to kill women, but you don't have to. S doesn't talk about agency in game characters - they don't have it. People do. Tropes as reward is an example of something that applies to game.

There was an interesting talk about how theory becomes canon. Is there a communal sense of common theory? Who gets to make theory?

S was asked if she wanted her life back. S said "yes" and it sucks. No one wants to be harassed. S is told that she is only known because she is harassed - which demeans her work. She is learning to be a human again who has a life outside her work. She has had to deal with celebrity and to use it and to say no. She point us to

When developing her videos she aims at the fence sitters. She doesn't talk to those who don't listen or those on her side. That is what the counter arguments are for - to answer the questions of the fence sitters. She thinks about what words will she use. She also has to deal with what the majority of interpreters will think about a scene.

She was asked about her favourite talks. She talked about the Stephen Colbert show. It was one of the first interviews she did that was face to face. She really preferred that format. She also has a favourite one for XOXO partly because the audience.

My notes don't convey the humour of the conversation.

Day 2

More 5 minute presentations

  1. We need to think more about trans representation in games. In particular we should think about character representation - how the player can choose/create their character. The choices say a lot. The power of the gender binary needs to be questioned.
  2. The sound of environments of games - how can we look at sound environments and gendered sonic archetypes. In media studies there is talk about gendered sound, but little work on game sounds. Most sound tropes in games can be traced back to other media.
  3. Queerness in games conference has been going on for three years. They have been able to keep conversations going in this conference by keeping it free and accessible. They curate an arcade and solicit games about queerness.
  4. How does the industry measure and curate diversity. The Indie MEGABOOTH? is a group that negotiate space at conferences for indies. They are now studying whether IM replicates issues and the answer is not good. (Research coming.) They are charting a way forward. How is indie work being gendered. What can we learn about affective labour and the hidden human scaffold of community support networks. There are also tensions surrounding "curating" diversity while remaining marketable.
  5. The mystery slot at the end was about Execution Labs. They have funds to invest in indies with commercial intent. The idea is to create in a context of economic sustainability. They had an embedded ethnographer who helped them learn about what they were doing. It forced them to rethink their support and ideas about indie artists. They don't make an explicit effort to have diverse teams, but they are getting more women represented. He wants to put a woman's team through their process.

Games and Culture

I was put in the game and culture theme. We had a great conversation about issues like:

  • Ethics - what are the ethics of grabbing and analyzing social media? How can we avoid revictimizing the people harassed.
  • Tools - can we adapt tools to be used by others
  • Methods - can we share information on methods and how to fill out research ethics

I left before the end to catch a flight.



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