Re Fig 2015
These are my notes about the Re-Figuring Innovation in Games (ReFig) workshop in Toronto. The twitter feed is at https://twitter.com/refiggames
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 http://news.yorku.ca/2015/09/22/york-researchers-receive-more-than-8-9-million-in-sshrc-funding/
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:
The themes of the project are:
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:
We then had a discussion about gaps in the project.
We had breakout conversations about methods:
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 http://www.onbeing.org/blog/the-spiritual-art-of-saying-no/6718
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.
More 5 minute presentations
Games and Culture
I was put in the game and culture theme. We had a great conversation about issues like:
I left before the end to catch a flight.
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