Friday, March 29, 2013

Glitch and Cooperative Play

Glitch was a flash-based browser MMORPG in which harassment was extremely rare. Plagued by financial difficulties, the game ended in December of 2012. However, in light of the ongoing discussion regarding harassment in gaming communities, I think that Glitch provides an example of a game that was successful in fending-off player harassment. Glitch accomplished this in a number of ways, and admittedly perhaps its status as a small indie game didn't harm it either.

Glitch was a relatively unique MMO in that the game itself did not encourage aggressive competition among players. There is no Player vs. Player combat, and there were only rarely instances of Player vs. Environment combat. These rare PvE situations encouraged the cooperation of numerous players for the benefit of the game. A large part of the game was exploring the continuously expanding in-game world and learning new skills. Glitch fostered a cooperative MMO environment using a number of techniques.

Scene from the tutorial

One such technique was the utilization of Quests requiring another player. Quests gave players goals and rewards. A number of these Quests could only be completed through asking the participation of another player who did not get the same benefits of the Quest-holder. However, given the frequency of these cooperative Quests, Glitch encouraged an environment where helping another player for little immediate benefit was the norm (with the assumption that other players will do the same for you in the future).

Another variation on the Quest are those that specifically encourage aiding low-level players. Because Quests are provided to players based upon their level and previous Quests, certain Quests are only revealed at higher levels. One of these is a Quest to give items to brand new players. Often these items are ones that new players would be unable to attain on their own. I find these strategy of the game developers particularly brilliant as it sets up a support system for new players and improved community integration. Instead of the trope of gamers being hostile to newcomers who are perceived as "fake" or "noobs," Glitch encouraged acceptance of newcomers. When I personally completed this Quest, for example, the new player sent me a friend request and we continued to play together until the game's end.

Similarly, Feats were akin to global "Quests." That is, every player had the opportunity to participate in it at the same time. These Feats almost exclusively required generosity or cooperation. Examples include leaving complete strangers gifts at their homes or playing mini-games with other players. At the end, players who participate were rewarded with Feat-specific items.

Casting this rainbow on another player gives them more energy but does nothing for the caster.

A reflection of this cooperative community in-game ethos was evident in the use of community resources. In Glitch, there were a number of areas with community resources, such as gardens for example. It would be easy for players to continuously take from the gardens and never give back, simply selling the harvested items for profit. If this was the attitude in-game, the gardens would simply remain empty. However, it was rare to see a community garden with empty plots. For the most part, players were cautious to only take what they needed and frequently re-planted. Passers-by would sometimes stop to water a dry sprout so it would continue its growth, an action that drained the player's energy with no return. In this way, nice behavior was the norm even outside of Quests and Feats.

While Glitch was unusual in that it was almost completely without combat, it was quite usual in other ways as an MMO: it had a global chat, you could send players private messages, and there could be competition in other ways (levels gained, items gained, etc). The potential for harassment was there. However, by utilizing Quests and Feats that "game-ified niceness," Glitch to a large extent successfully avoiding allowing that type of environment to develop. This game-ification of cooperative play and nice behavior I believe has the potential to decrease harassment in other games, even those with a combat-based style of play.


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Gamer and the Community Gate Keeper

‘Gamer’ is an ambiguous label placed upon those few who... what? The amount of time invested in games to be labeled a ‘gamer’ cannot be quantified. There is no specific list of games that must be played to be given the title. Yet, it is also clearly not just a division of those who have at one point played games and those who have not. The investment of time, the video game knowledge, the amount or variety of games, cannot be regulated to allow use of the ‘gamer’ label.  Some members of the video game community are very adamant about the use of the ‘gamer’ label to incite a sense of community. “You’re a gamer, well, I’m a gamer, too!” The idea of being called a gamer means they have a group of fellows to fall back on and a certain information set they have at their disposal.  For some it is a badge of honor; they love games and to be called a gamer affiliates them to the thing they love and invest time in.

Gamer Tag: A Label to be Called or Call Yourself?
Many members of the gaming community though, including some of the community’s well known media outlets, want the use of the ‘gamer’ label to die away.  Game critic Yahtzee posted a very opinionated piece, Don’t Use the Word “Gamer”, where he explains his take:  “The point I'm trying to reach is that playing games, as entertaining and fascinating and beneficial as it might be, is just something people do, not something they should be defined by.”  And while I, and many but not all the community members I know, do identify ourselves as gamers, I can see Yahtzee’s point.  Playing video games is not as intense an identifier as, perhaps, being a mother or being a Marine. Also, other hobbies don’t share such a direct identifier. Train enthusiasts, model builders, moviegoers, they all have an action of work or affection in relation to the desired object of the hobby; none is identified in straight relation to the object itself.

Rounding back, the idea of the ‘gamer’ community may also be a problem. Not having a decisive border to create the ‘gamer’ and ‘not gamer’ lines creates a constant questionable belonging.  And for a certain subset of the community, their label comes with an addendum. This, sadly, is the ‘girl gamer’ or ‘gamer girl’.  As part of the label given to us female video game players by the community, gender is included. Now not only is the gaming community separated from the ‘non-gamers’ but also the community of ‘gamers’ is split by the gender lines. I hear it from both female and male members of community that the ‘girl gamer’ label is not wanted. In short, women don’t want to be defined by their sex and men don’t want women to use their sex as a strategy or crutch.  It is an anomaly that, in a community where everyone wants this segregation gone, it persist so strongly. But there may be some reasons why. As the population of female video game players grows it is slowly encroaching on what has been a man’s world for eight generations of consoles. (It is important to remember that not all male members of the community think this way and may only be passively ignorant of these barriers.) Resentment for the change in the gamer culture causes some male gamers to throw up a wall separating the mass of female newcomers. While some women have been in the community since the beginning, some as very important pieces of game development, the amount of women playing video games has boomed in the last few console generations and with the rise of the casual game market (such a mobile app games).
Why does this Distinction Persist?

The idea of the ‘gamer’ label is both inclusive and exclusive. It labels someone as part of a community, but also creates a separation to those who are not. ‘Gamer’ also brings to mind a stereotype of a young white heterosexual male, and the walls are mostly created around these stereotypes. This leads not only to the exclusion of females, but the exclusion of people of different races, gender identities, and sexualities.  I want to clarify that the word ‘exclusion’ here does not mean the absolute lack of any or complete rejection of any, but that these identities are marginalized within not only the community but also in depictions within the video game media.  The idea of separate markets for ‘girl games’ or even games meant to appeal to minorities has arisen. Adrienne Shaw, of the University of Pittsburg, wrote an engaging article on self-identification as a gamer that examines gender, race, sexuality, and gamer identity (as well the stigma against gaming that affects if someone chooses to identify as a gamer). Within her article she clearly states: “The solution to the invisibility of gender, race, and sexuality in gaming is not the creation of a plurality of video game markets, but instead an insistence on diversity in the construction of the market.”  Inclusion, the breaking down of walls by both the players and the developers, will not only expand the community by taking away the negative stigma or white hetero male stereotype but also make the label of ‘gamer’ more appealing.

To be associated with something you enjoy, to be identified as part of a community of shared interests and shared knowledge, is a very satisfying feeling. But when that association takes on a name that is easily mistaken for an exclusionary, abnormal, and/or stigmatized community, less of those who would fit into the community comfortably and happily will choose to self-identity as a ‘gamer’.  I wear the gamer label with secret pride. I don’t flaunt it, but when I see someone else flashing a subtle gamer tag (a ME Paragon bumper sticker, an Aperture Science polo) I feel I have a conversation starter, a connection.  While the gaming community may not be entirely inclusive to my identity, I want to change that.  By choosing to identify as a gamer I hope to change people’s general idea of what a gamer is. It does not have to by the white hetero male, a gamer can be me, it can be my associates, my friends, most of who do not conform to every stereotypical criteria.  Whether or not someone chooses to identify as a ‘gamer’, they still have the capacity to expand and diversify the gaming community.


For the Shaw article:

Shaw, Andrienne

2012    Do you identify as a gamer? Gender, race, sexuality, and gamer identity.  New Media & Society. February (14): 28-44.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

League of Legends and the Gamification of Politeness

League of Legends, an online action real-time strategy game, has a lackluster player community known for its harassment and bullying. I was hesitant to start playing for this reason. It didn’t help that II was unfamiliar with team-based strategy games. Once I got started, however, I found myself having a lot of fun defending team towers and reading up on the best strategies for my favorite characters. Even though I was having fun and trying my best, I was not good at the game. I was bullied for my poor skills and even reported by another player for “feeding”, intentionally dying to throw the game and spite your teammates. People called me a “noob”, people told me “u suck”, and people told me to “stop playing.” So I did.

Two players defend their team's tower against enemy minions.
That was two years ago and since then Riot Games, the developers behind LoL, have implemented strategies to reduce harassment and bullying. To foster a friendlier gaming community, Riot Games encourages players to abide by the "Summoner’s Code":

I. Support Your Team
II. Drive Constructive Feedback
III. Facilitate Civil Discussion
IV. Enjoy Yourself, But Not At Anyone Else’s Expense
V. Build Relationships
VI. Show Humility in Victory, and Grace in Defeat
VII. Be Resolute, Not Indignant
VIII. Leave No Newbie Behind!
IX. Lead By Example

To promote the tenants of the Summoner’s Code, Riot introduced the The Tribunal System. It enables the wider community to determine what kind of behavior is and isn’t appropriate. It “...identifies players who have been consistently reported by the community over a large number of games and builds a Tribunal case for them. These cases are presented to random community members who use the Tribunal who then review the case files and render a judgment—pardon or punish. Player Support then uses this information to help assign the right penalties to the right players.” The Summoner’s Code is suggested as a guideline to use when deciding cases.I recently tossed around the idea of playing LoL again but still worried about the player community. Voicing these concerns to my brother, a frequent player, he stated “Oh, the community is much better now. It’s like they gamified being polite.” In addition to reporting abusive players, people can now rank others for being a good team player, being helpful, and a variety of other positive characteristics. Players receive in-game awards for having a positive reputation. At the end of the game season all players with a certain reputation level receive a limited edition item, further incentivizing good behavior.

Riot is also not afraid to punish abusive high-profile, professional players. Recently, two pro players were temporarily banned from competing in competitions. When two people on a professional team are banned from competitions, this means the rest of their team can't compete because their down teammates. It shows that when one person misbehaves, multiple people are negatively impacted. This also serves as a public example to players that harassment and bullying is not tolerated. Hopefully, good sportsmanship amongst pro players will have a trickle down effect on the more casual ones.

While their the system Riot has implemented has its flaws, their efforts demonstrate that even the worst gaming communities can change if developers (and players) take the initiative to build a positive community.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Accommodation, Resistance, and Ranged Roles in Games

In our discussion last Thursday, we talked some about the stereotype that women always play "background" roles, like healers, spellcasters and other ranged positions. There is also a stereotype that these roles are not as strong or important, which is probably linked to how gendered "female" they tend to be. Being a healer in particular is often a thankless job.

In many major games there are essentially three different roles for players. First, there are the heavily armored, slash and shoot frontpeople who can take more damage than others-- often called "melee". Second, there are the "ranged" folks who do damage, like often lightly-armored spellcasters. Lastly there are the healers, who do the least damage and focus on keeping the group healed and prepared.

These sorts of delineations in roles are common in games with team play, like the massively multiplayer World of Warcraft and the single-player but squad-driven Mass Effect. The roles are often inspired by table-top RPG's, like Dungeons and Dragons.

In Mass Effect, Adepts are biotics specialists. They wear light armor and use abilities like telekinesis and spatial distortion, harming enemies from afar. Liara, pictured here, specializes in biotics. Players can choose to be an adept.

When discussing women playing the ranged and healing roles, I was constantly reminded of my own experiences. While playing both a mage and a healer in World of Warcraft, I am often confronted with sexist comments like "oh, of course you play a healer, you're a girl". I don't think there is actually any truth in the statement that more women heal than men, but I think that there is an important gender dynamic occurring with ranged roles and the women who play them.

As a healer, I feel a large sense of power and control. The role is always varied and exciting. I get to literally have the lives of my team in my hands. This is a challenging and sometimes nerve-wracking experience, particularly with new encounters, but I think that I handle it very well. While healers often cannot do much damage, they are very important to a team.

I think that healing allows me to enter into the gamer space as a women and play a role that is powerful without being relegated to the heavily-armored, "slash and burn" roles that are often associated with men. In a way, the stereotype of "women as healers" or "women as ranged" makes me feel confident and strong in my healing role. Playing healers or ranged characters may allow women to carve out their own space in gaming communities, where they are strong, necessary components of the game and retain some sort of femininity.

The Priest crest in World of Warcraft. 
Priests are primarily a healing class.

K noted in our last meeting that often times when she plays with a team of women, they are more interested in communicating and strategy than men. I would agree with that based on my experiences as well. I think that because women are often socialized to value relationships and communication, they work well on teams in video games. Communication, strategy, and ranged ability are valuable components of gaming and women may find these skills to be gender affirming in the gamer space. Rather than becoming "just like the men" and taking on traditionally male roles and strategies, women may carve out their own space through an interplay of accommodation (choosing roles that are seen as more feminine) and resistance (making these roles their own, taking control of important team functions).

While women can and certainly do play both ranged and melee roles, the women who are playing ranged roles are not simply accommodating the stereotypes. In many cases these women are actively creating a space for themselves in an often women-hostile environment. These roles may allow women to become powerful and important members of a team without the insistance that traditionally masculine roles and strategies are the only way to be valuable or strong.


Friday, March 8, 2013

Many & None: Gender for the Asari

An interesting discussion brought to mind the concept of Sex versus Gender. In this way, I mean to say the line between biological sex and societal gender. The people over at Penny Arcade touch on this lightly in their Extra Credits: True Female Characters video, explaining that biological sex may determine the physical construction of a female (or male) character, but it is the constant assumption of feminine gender social constructions that continues to allow the creation of cookie-cutter princesses and token girlfriend characters.

So, if the World Health Organization puts forth these definitions:

"Sex" refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women.


"Gender" refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.

Then how can we observe these in a well know video-game species such as the asari? How can gender and species play into a fictional alien species with only one ‘sex’, but many (or by some ways of thinking, no) ‘gender’ expressions.

The Codex within Mass Effect describes the asari as an all-female race, but on the updated online official information site for the game the asari are considered a “mono-gender race—distinctly feminine in appearance and having maternal instincts”. By this they mean that the outward appearance of the asari would be considered very female by human biological sex standards. While the asari do appear female, they are non-gender specific with no concept of gender differences. The primary asari in the game, a teammate and talented biotic fighter, Liara, identifies her species as “mono-gendered” (which refers to mono-sexed in the terms laid out here) and that “male and female have no real meaning for us [the asari]”.

Due to the mono-sex of the asari, they are meant to have no concept of social gender pressures. The ‘women’ of the asari are everything anyone can be; fighter, politician, assassin, engineer, stripper, broker, chef, everything. There is no stigma, no idea that an asari must dislike the idea of being a soldier because some asari must be soldiers, some asari must be anything a species, a civilization, needs to have reached the whole of the galaxy, to become the most powerful species currently on the Citadel (a place of power for the galaxy).  They have no exclusionary bi-sex or poly-sex distinctions. (They also appear to have no internal asari ‘racial’ distinctions based of their varying blue to purple complexions.)

Although they are the most common species to be seen as consorts and strippers, this falls into the created world in a rational way, not just as a joke for the sake of sexy strippers.  The asari are physically attractive to the humans (for body shape), the turians (for cranial extensions), and for the salarians (for skin color). The asari are a populace species, with a home planet and many colonies throughout the galaxy, as well as asari dispersed throughout other populations. They have had the long-term exposure needed to become identifiable as ‘attractive’ to other species. They were first of all the species to reach space and reach the Citadel. In fact, on the Citadel (at least in ME3), advertisements feature asari as the means of ‘sex sells’ sales attempts. The asari are many, and just as in the diversity of humans (or turians or any other species), an asari can choose to be a consort, a stripper, a thug, or a crime lord.

The asari are also a wonderful study of sexuality. They have no distinction between male and female in those species that have them. Due to this there is no stigma against an asari choosing to be with a male or female of another species. (The asari have the ability to ‘meld’ and thus reproduce with any species, but the child is always asari and comes from the asari mother.) No stigma means that an asari has no social restrictions as to sexuality and may choose whom to hold a relationship or intimate encounter with based purely on attraction, emotion, and/or love.

Aria T'Lok: Crime Lord, Omega

The only social restriction placed on the reproduction of an asari is inbreeding. This means that societal pressures are placed upon asari to reproduce with members of other species (such as human or turian).  Asari-asari offspring are considered ‘purebloods’ which is considered to hinder the advancing variation of the asari species. The story’s main asari, Liara T’Lok, is a ‘pureblood’ and this is given as a reason for her social outcast. Also, the creators of the asari also created a type of asari called an Ardat-Yakshi. The genetically mutated Ardat-Yakshi are dangerous, highly sexual, ‘purebloods’ which are thought to be the result of excessive inbreeding. Thus, they have created both a social and biological reason to place one restriction on the sexual lives and choices of asari.

There are others who see the asari in a different light. Mass Effect and all that it includes is open to several strains of interpretation. For a different take, check out this Gamerism.


Thursday, March 7, 2013

MMORPGs and Sexuality

In "Doing gender in cyberspace" by Lina Eklund, women who are players of World of Warcraft were interviewed and Eklund discusses gender and sexuality performance in game. She (2011: 339) says, “women who play World of Warcraft bring with them their offline gender identity and social contexts when they go online.” Although I do not play World of Warcraft, this got me thinking about the MMORPG that I do currently play, The Secret World, and how the topics Eklund raises are reflected in the game.

Eklund points out that not only do players bring their offline gender and social contexts with them online, but also that “the game itself limits and restrains; it is not a neutral space” (2011: 339). In the case of World of Warcraft, this is reflected in part by the character designs and the heterosexual presupposition. A good example she provided to illustrate her point was in-game flirtation and dancing.

While The Secret World does not have the mechanic of flirting, and the game itself does not leave much space for inter-player sexual interactions, sexuality is pulled into the game in other ways, such as in cutscenes and NPC dialogue. An example of this could be the “Dragon” faction initiation cutscene. This scene continues the exoticizing and eroticizing of Asian women, however I think that some elements have some potential for challenging in-game heteronormativity.

In this scene, a member of the Dragon faction, a young Asian woman, aggressively pursues the player’s avatar, bringing the avatar to climax (a moment when your mind is “open to the truth,” allegedly), which transports the player/avatar to what is effectively the game’s tutorial, where as you play as unknown characters stuck in a Tokyo subway fighting something supernaturally evil. It is worth noting that the initiation scenes for the other factions (Templars and Illuminati) are not sexual in nature. What I find interesting about this scene is that it is exactly the same, regardless of the selected sex of the avatar. While the clip is voyeuristic, I found it gratifying as a queer player that the creators did not swap in a man for players with a female avatar, thus leaving open the door for (some) queer expression, albeit under a presumably (heterosexual) male gaze.

Perhaps a more convincing example of The Secret World crafting a cyberspace that challenges heteronormative assumptions can be found in the example of “Moose.”

“That man saved my life, selflessly, and I love him for it. I’d go to the ends of the world and back for Andy…I don’t think I’ll ever win him over though.”

Moose is a NPC in one of the first areas a player begins the game, which is a town overrun by the living dead. Moose is portrayed as a tough, explosives-making, lone-wolf biker. However, as the player pursues dialogue options with Moose, it becomes clear that he is in love with another NPC in the area, Deputy Andy. This character is an example of everything media usually does wrong done right. Moose is not “the gay character.” He is not a gay caricature. He is a character that happens to be gay, which is never turned into a cheap plot device. This signals to me, and probably other queer players, that this is a cyberspace heterosexuality is not assumed, either on the part of the NPCs or the players themselves.

So while The Secret World does limit and restrain players, for example by offering only two (cis-)sexes to choose from and by effectively limiting body models to the “conventionally attractive,” I think the MMO opens up in-game sexuality in a way that perhaps World of Warcraft does not.

- A.

Eklund, Lina.
2011    Doing gender in cyberspace: The performance of gender by female World of Warcraft players. Convergence. 16: 323-342.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Representation Matters

In “Doing Gender in Cyberspace: The Performance of Gender by Female World of Warcraft Players” (2011), Lina Eklund examines how gender and sexuality are constructed within the MMORPG World of Warcraft. She found that while female players have agency to explore their gender and sexual identities, they are limited by societal gender expectations and the constraints of the game itself. “The heterosexual matrix sets norms that limit possible sexual expressions and firmly positions gender into the binary system of the heterosexual” (2011:336). World of Warcraft was not made in a cultural vacuum. The developers imposed their gender ideals upon the game world. Heterosexuality is assumed, males are masculine, and females are feminine. But what if there was a game that did not make these assumptions?
Arkh prominently features people of color.
Enter Arkh, a planned single player action-RPG designed around subverting the usually unquestioned character assumptions made in games. Tired of seeing the same white, male, hyper masculine characters, the developers of Arkh set out to create a game where the main cast primarily consists of queer people and people of color. As much as I’d like to say that this isn’t revolutionary, it is. Few games have characters of color, let alone characters that openly identify as anything other than heterosexual.

In Arkh you take on the role of a deity who has become bored with life amongst the gods. Your character, Aina, leaves paradise to find purpose in life and find their lost love. Gameplay focuses on the idea of reincarnation. As you are reincarnated into different worlds your deity changes appearance and you, the player, experience what its like to live through the lives of a variety of people. Aina’s gender identity is not set in stone and changes as you progress through different worlds. One of the developers explained, “In the story, what Ain will be called depends on who is talking to them, much like real life.” This change in identity is indicated by pronoun usage. Various non-player characters will refer to Aina as “he”, “she”, or “they” depending on Aina’s physical presentation. When talking about the character in general, however, the developers go with “they”.

While the game is still in the works and rumors are floating around that it will never be completed, the initial response to the game’s concept was positively received. Here are a few comments:

“I'm extremely glad that there is a game in development that defies the gaming norms. As an avid gamer myself (mostly of jrpgs because I like getting involved in the story), I'm very excited for this game to come out. As a queer person, I'm glad that I'm finally getting some representation in games!”

“Okay so I am pretty sure you get asks like this all the time. But I wanted to let you know that your project really puts a smile on my face and makes me excited for the future of videogames. As a supernerd an African American woman and a member of the LGBT community, I get so excited when I see characters like me in comics and videogames. I can't wait to see more from this project, and I really hope to support you in every way that I can.”

“Whooaaa This is like the best thing ever really can't wait for this to come out I'll anticipate every single update you have.”

“As someone who's genderqueer and pansexual, I have nearly cried in joy several times while reading through this story. Anytime you get a queer character in a game, they're always the same, token character. So thank you, so much, for this game. I want to hug each and every person working on this! :')”

“Putting aside how awesome it is that you're making a game for POC and the GLBT community, I think it's great that your female characters wear real armor.”
Aina and Haruka, two character concepts from Arkh.
Many non-gamers who identify as persons of color or queer who have never played a videogame in their life, were ecstatic about Arkh. Even though they aren’t familiar with the medium, they were excited by the mere plans to have a diverse group of people represented in the game. They were excited about having character they could relate to on a personal level and who looked like them. Once again, it seems like a small thing. But the fact remains

that videogames are dominated by the same white, male types. These games are a reflection of the mostly white, male industry they were created by. An entire population of people who were never interested in games before reconsidered once Arkh was announced. This illustrates the power of representation. I think that this instance could be applied to games in general. For example, if women were better represented in mainstream, big budget games perhaps they would be more likely to play them. If you’re more of the pragmatic type, the untapped market potential is huge.

- J.