Penn State Mark

Gaming at the edge

An interview with Adrienne Shaw

On March 19, 2015, Adrienne Shaw delivered a lecture for the DCMI speaker series in Critical Media and Digital Studies titled "Gaming at the Edge: Gender, Race, and Sexuality in Video Games." This follow-up interview was conducted by Brian Lennon, DCMI Director, by email during May 2015. The interview covers topics including questions of intersectionality and representation, audience research and game studies, qualitative research methodologies, ideology critique, and the influence of Stuart Hall.

Portrait of Adrienne Shaw

Real ethical analysis of qualitative data requires taking what people say seriously and really trying to wrap your head around why they say things the way they do.

Brian Lennon, Director, DCMI: In reading Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture I couldn’t help constructing a narrative of intellectual history in which the analytic sophistication of theories of intersectionality, for example, had yet to find their way anywhere near the underdeveloped discourses on political, social, and aesthetic representation that prevail in the game industry itself. Of course your point in the book’s first chapter is that academic game studies has done no better when it comes to integrating the perspectives and insights generated by theories of intersectionality and by related concepts that also have roots in postcolonial studies (strategic essentialism, for example). It’s easier to be disappointed here, because scholars should know better and try harder, and because academic game studies wasn’t born yesterday — and so on (I could go on). But I find your book a very hopeful one, in the end, on these issues and others, and in its imagination of “a future free of dickwolves” in the broadest sense. In the best of all possible worlds, where do you think we’re going when it comes to bringing that kind of analytic sophistication to game studies as a field of academic research, in particular?

Adrienne Shaw: I have actually been quite heartened by the fact that since I first began the book, the amount of games research that is dealing with nuance around questions of intersectionality and representation is increasing exponentially. I think that a lot of early work focused on gender, because it had to. Even if the scholars doing that work knew that gender is more complicated than binary, Western-centric portrayals, and a lot of their work hints at this, but they were speaking to audiences that did not necessarily get that. Based on my conversations with people who have been in game studies longer than I have, they were just trying to get other scholars to take seriously the fact that gender was an issue in games in the first place. I think feminist and progressive scholars take for granted that every one “gets it,” but whether you are in humanities, social sciences, or any of the interdisciplines, there are people out there who don’t know a thing about feminism or anti-racist politics beyond the caricatures they see commonly represented. When a field is new, particularly, sometimes you do have to reinvent the wheel and say those issues people have been talking about for years are issues here too. I am actually quite lucky in the fact that game studies was convalescing as a field when I began grad school, so by the time my book came out I could point back to that early work and say: “so it is clear, gender is a problem here, but now that we know that let’s start talking about it with a bit more complexity.” I feel like people are really taking up that call, some of whom started doing so before my book came out (I think we’ve all recognized that the groundwork had been laid, now we could take the debate elsewhere). I think text, audience, and industry studies are all becoming more nuanced in how they address questions of identity and access. In a perfect world I think the big thing I would like to see game scholars address next is class. So much of how and if and why people engage with games, game production, and game culture is defined by material resources. That doesn’t mean people who are poor do not engage with games, but that their approach to games is different and largely has been invisible in game studies. Class there most assuredly intersects with gender, race, and sexuality, but needs to be addressed with much more nuance.

Brian Lennon, Director, DCMI: The phrase “nice when it happens” emerges from a remark by your interviewee Carol and comes to serve as an epigrammatic condensation of your general argument in Gaming at the Edge (which I’ve tried to paraphrase accurately in the following question, below). You reflect at some length in your Conclusion about how the word “nice” and its concept “niceness” function there. In many ways, the statement as a whole marks a player’s habit of taking the problem of representation on a case-by-case basis, which mirrors your methodological approach in the book. But it also expresses a kind of general (if certainly not final or totalizing) theory about the importance of representation: something like “nice when it happens, and when it doesn’t happen, not a one-dimensional problem.” What would you say is the main challenge in writing disciplined academic prose that reports and reflects on such verbal formulations of interviewees?

Adrienne Shaw: Well, I think the first thing is to be very careful about not putting those words into peoples’ mouths. When I noted in my coding of the interviews that these references to “niceness” were happening again and again, I went back to make sure it wasn’t in the question. Lucky me it wasn’t. Word to wise future interviewers out there: never use phrases from early interviews in later interviews, or you might muddle your data. Second, it is important to look at those kinds of phrases in context. How did they express it? Where did those phrases pop up? It is hard to communicate in academic prose, but “nice when it happens” was usually articulated at the same moment everyone made a face like they were grasping at an idea that was just out of reach and hard to put into words. That moment for me captured the heart of the complexity of representation (and I think you articulate that take away quite well in your question). It always was towards the end of the interview, and it was always clear that they were wrestling between what they thought they were supposed to say and how they actually felt but by the end — it’s not that people were more honest but they were getting closer to how they wanted to say what they thought. I think in staying true to interviewees’ perspectives, you have to be attentive to the process of the interview, and how those verbal formulations evolve and unfold over the course of the interview — that’s probably the biggest challenge too though. Circling back to my first point, interviewees aren’t just there to provide nice illustrative quotes for what the researcher wants to say. Quotes should never simply be for texture. Real ethical analysis of qualitative data requires taking what people say seriously and really trying to wrap your head around why they say things the way they do.

In my book I try to push back against the marketing arguments often given for why representation matters (i.e. that women play games and that’s why women should be in games), but I am also pushing back against a focus on effects arguments as well (i.e. games make people sexist therefore women in games should be represented better). I think both arguments are too deterministic and do not honor decades of audience research.

Brian Lennon, Director, DCMI: The main argument in Gaming at the Edge, as I read it, is in many ways deeply counter-intuitive, and that’s one reason it’s so thought-provoking. You argue that the best reason for game designers to develop more diverse games is not that the players on whom you focus in your research identify exclusively, or even often with their player avatars — because they don’t, often not even at all. Rather, the best reason for game designers to develop more diverse games is that, as you put it, “representation does not matter to players in many games” (219, emphasis in original). There is, in other words, nothing really holding designers back, at least at the level of argument and ideas (rather than, for example, hiring and other employment practices in the game industry itself and the structures of identification they transmit to game development). Gaming at the Edge does a great job of elaborating and supporting this argument, but if we (unwisely) abstract it from the qualitative research that led you to this conclusion, it still runs up against the more and more powerful invitations to strict or canalized identification that seem to accompany every new advance in game graphics and networking in particular (I’m thinking particularly of contemporary military-themed first-person shooters that integrate the characteristic features of adventure and multiplayer RPGs). That makes me wonder if there still a role for ideology critique — that is, critique of design choices, in advance of reception — in the analysis of games as cultural forms. Your remarks on Custer’s Revenge, and other remarks in the book, suggest there is — but I suppose I’m wondering where we ought to separate games that can and should be critiqued up front, based on their invitations to inhabit an abhorrent world view, from games whose players deserve the qualitative research attention you’ve given them in Gaming at the Edge.

Adrienne Shaw: This is a question that I think hearkens back to some critiques of early active audience research. On the one hand, we have decades of research discussing the impact of media on promoting particular ideologies. On the other hand, we have a great deal of research, particularly since the 1980s, showing that audiences are not merely passive recipients of ideology. If we look to Stuart Hall’s work though, and Hall is probably the biggest influence on my research, we see that these two perspectives are not mutually exclusive. Media texts do help reinforce ideologies, even as audiences are not mindless dupes obeying the commands of their television. An ideological critique shows us something about how society is structured, audience analysis shows us something about how people live within that structure. In my book I try to push back against the marketing arguments often given for why representation matters (i.e. that women play games and that’s why women should be in games), but I am also pushing back against a focus on effects arguments as well (i.e. games make people sexist therefore women in games should be represented better). I think both arguments are too deterministic and do not honor decades of audience research. Instead, I hope that the book makes the case that games simply should be more diverse and that audiences I think are ready for it. It would be a new project, but I suspect that even hetero, cis, white players are skilled at “making do” with media in the same way marginalized groups have been. At the same time though, there will always be a place for ideological critiques of game content. Those are in fact crucial to unpacking what forms of diversity have or have not been included in games. I just think that the ideological critiques can be made in a way that does not presume effects, and that be the reason they matter. If anything the replication of ideology in games is an effect of hierarchical social structures. It shows us what dominant values are, and in turn provides us new entry points towards changing that structure.

I think that it is important, that whatever the pressures to do bigger, faster projects, we scholars always remember to take the time to think through what we are trying to do, how we are going to do it, and take the time to figure out if we’ve really found what we think we’ve found.

Brian Lennon, Director, DCMI: You describe Gaming at the Edge as a book that focuses on “solitary gaming” (49), though from my own point of view there’s a great deal in your qualitative research approach, and in other aspects of your project, that compensates up front for the possible limitations of such a focus, as you describe them in that passage of the book. It’s clear, for example, that “solitary” doesn’t necessarily mean only chosen solitude, and that study of the “game play that often takes place behind closed doors” is also the study of a social space in relation to other social spaces. Still, at a historical moment when we hear over and over that the unprecedented scale of available research data (of all kinds) requires modes of analysis that both meet data with computation and scale analysis up to a new precedent, your interview-based research preserves a vital tension between the social context of gaming and the computational form of a video game. I think that tension is valuable, but I wanted to ask you about what kinds of pressure, if any, our historical moment (or merely our research funding climate?) now exerts on game studies scholars to abandon that tension and return to the neo-formalism of some of the earliest studies in the field — perhaps now scaled up using software packages for data analysis and visualization, for example.

Adrienne Shaw: Well, even in qualitative research there is fetishization of size and duration. Decades in the field or tens of thousands or respondents are not necessary nor sufficient for good research findings, but they always do sound impressive when you report your findings. As I tell my methods students, it always comes back to what question do you want to answer and how much data do you need to make the claims you do. Sometimes those questions do take decades of field work and tens of thousands of survey respondents, but sometimes they don’t. I hope it is clear in the book, that this was a modestly sized project and if anything should serve as a call to investigate all of these issues more deeply. It was meant to dig into personal experiences in a way that showed the multiplicity of game experiences rather than search for any universals. I approached category saturation pretty quickly, even with a relatively small number of interviewees, which in qualitative research is a good way to let you know that there is a there, there. There are people who have used larger surveys to get at similar findings that I detail in the book and other work (e.g. connections to avatars or gamer identity), and for the field it is actually really valuable that both at the micro scale and the macro scale some of these things are consistent. I think more than the pressure to scale up studies, is the pressure to move through these studies quickly. The thoughtfulness of the design process gets lost when people are just churning out grant proposals to get money to study the utility of new analytic tools. The thoughtfulness of the analysis process gets lost in the rhetoric that data is old if it is not published as soon as the study is over. I think that it is important, that whatever the pressures to do bigger, faster projects, we scholars always remember to take the time to think through what we are trying to do, how we are going to do it, and take the time to figure out if we’ve really found what we think we’ve found.