Stephanie Harkin is a PhD student at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia. Her research examines designs of girlhood and coming-of-age themes across various videogames. She will play almost any game with a fishing mechanic (but not fishing games) and has necessarily dedicated much of 2020 to Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Books and games have been an invaluable source of consolation during my city’s lockdown restrictions. Reading Gamer Trouble: Feminist Confrontations in Digital Culture during this “unprecedented time” was no exception. Gamer Trouble explores videogame texts and events through an intersectional feminist lens, unpacking the 2010 Dickwolves controversy and offering fresh readings of Fallout 3 (Bethesda, 2008), Portal (Valve Corporation, 2007) Bayonetta (Platinum Games, 2009), and Mass Effect (Bioware, 2007-2012). A preview of the contents page had initially drawn my interest: I wrote my Honours thesis on Portal and my favourite series of all time is the Mass Effect trilogy. More importantly, is that my background is in feminist textual analyses of videogames. After reading the introduction’s accessible prose, easy-to-follow road map, open personal accounts, and flourishing The Matrix references, I knew that I was in good hands.
Author Amanda Phillips implements several uses of the word “trouble”. Within Gamer Trouble, troublemaking gamers are not just those who participate in toxic online behaviour. Phillips herself identifies as a gamer and hence also situates troublemaking in the context of feminist resistance. As signalled by the title of the book, this approach is influenced by Judith Butler’s seminal text Gender Trouble, in which “trouble” indicates the performativity of identity and its possibilities for transgressing the social status-quo. Phillips, in turn, locates this possibility within the space of videogames. She also notes US representative John Lewis’ frequent calling to “make good trouble” in the pursuit of racial equality. So while Phillips notes the troubling aspects of gaming culture, “trouble” also conveys her own political aims, which is to precisely “make some trouble for gamers” (p. 1) as the first line of Gamer Trouble so triumphantly declares.
Gamer Trouble achieves this by merging feminist, queer, and woman of colour perspectives to Phillips’ provocative readings of various popular videogames as well as troubling moments in game culture (both the good and the bad). Phillips makes a crucial point in her introduction concerning cultural and representational game studies prior to Gamergate. She notes how such studies have always been present but kept from view due to the early narratology/ludology debates that dominated the field, aptly citing Adrienne Shaw’s brilliant 2017 keynote speech that addresses this issue. Fortunately, the debate has receded from dominance, and cultural approaches to studying games are no longer so obscured. The valuation of intersectional feminist perspectives, in particular, has certainly increased within game studies since Phillips began research for Gamer Trouble well before Gamergate.
While this is of course a meaningful progression for the field, Phillips maintains that we hold our history accountable for this overdue legitimisation of feminist voices:
It is not lost on the feminist gaming and game studies communities that our relevance is now justified by the emergence of a virulent harassment campaign rather than the self-evident value of nuanced conversations about the politics of gamers and video games. The landscape has been irrevocably altered, but the work remains the same (p. 21).
Phillips elaborates upon the gatekeeping methods deployed within early games scholarship in Chapter One, noting how this produced a field that disproportionately cultivated white cis-hetero-patriarchal perspectives. She builds upon Emma Vossen’s (2018) critical analysis of the ludology/narratology debate as a one-sided ‘boys club’ by drawing parallels to the 2010 Dickwolves controversy, when the webcomic, Penny Arcade, created a comic-strip featuring casual jokes about rape. This case study was selected by Phillips for discussion in order to draw attention to the larger trend of online hostilities that have become overshadowed by GamerGate. Phillips states her intention to reframe discussions of GamerGate “to more accurately reflect its position as ordinary rather than extraordinary” (p. 28). Dickwolves represented an early display of terrifying online abuse methods that would repeat in 2014, and so the case study is certainly vital in comprehending the broader scope of gaming’s cultural hostilities.
I’m concerned that situating Gamergate as one component of a larger trend, however, has the potential to undermine its distinct scale and influence, the intensity of which was anything but ordinary. Nevertheless, the anti-feminist politics at the heart of antagonistic gamers and the gatekeepers of early game studies is a powerful comparison. In her attentive retelling of the gamified combative behaviours by self-proclaimed real gamers and real game scholars, Phillips notes the fabrication of the dismissive “angry feminist” and “mean mommy” tropes. These tropes refer respectively to disruptive “killjoys” and to suppressive women who simply “don’t understand” videogames. The chapter is hence a valuable resource for understanding patterns of anti-feminist rhetoric. As a feminist game scholar relatively new to the field, it’s incredibly reassuring to read more critical discussions of the troubled history of videogame studies. Works that confront the field’s troubled history – see also Vossen (2018) and Alisha Karabinus (2017) – help to balance the unwelcome sentiment experienced by countless intersectional feminist game scholars, whose perspectives have long been derided.
Building upon Chapter One’s critical reflection of patriarchal and white supremacist knowledge production, Chapter Two traces the enduring influence of the pseudo-scientific stream of physiognomy — where personalities are determined by physical and ethnic appearance — upon the quantization of faces within contemporary digital animation. Quantization refers to the reduction of a human face to numbers, overlooking the reality of complex individuality. Phillips points to how these practices remain problematically rooted in racial assumptions. This chapter necessarily deploys a considerable amount of technical terminology, although thankfully it remains rather accessible for those less acquainted with computing and game design processes. Phillips here looks at two case studies, Quantic Dreams’ 2012 short film Kara and avatar customisation in Bethesda’s Fallout 3, to address the unseen coding practices concealed beneath the mask of the interface. This chapter exposes and troubles the numerical comprehension of faces, for these practices frame harmful biological essentialisms as “scientific truths” and legitimise oppressive categorisations of identity. Phillips’ methodological approach to analysing Fallout 3’s avatar creation interface was particularly compelling in demonstrating how experimental “deformance” may be both a playful cultural practice while, when utilised for academic enquiry, may be chillingly revealing of a program’s coded prejudices.
Phillips’ third chapter moves on to provide a nuanced application of Laura Mulvey’s (1975) male gaze that ventures beyond the aesthetics of representation. She offers two counter readings of Portal and Bayonetta, troubling recurring appraisals of Portal’s female and racial empowerment and condemnations of Bayonetta’s participation in obliging male fantasy. The application of Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” to game studies is certainly not ground-breaking, and Phillips clearly conveys her awareness of this. She does, however, offer a refreshing interpretation concerning the complexities of avatar identification that merges the games’ diegetic themes of surveillance, the female voice, queer and feminine excess, and masturbatory user engagement with the game controller. One could perhaps make a claim against the relevance of these earlier case studies in 2020, yet their classroom application when discussing gender and representation remains both beneficial and timely. When teaching games and gender earlier this year, many students brought up Bayonetta specifically as a paradoxical figure for feminist identification. I would have loved to have been able to direct them to this chapter at the time, as Phillips astutely articulates the conflicts that were repeatedly raised, reinforcing the students’ productive reading of the character without shying away from recognising her misogynistic qualities.
The next character case-study analysis further examines the troubling politics hidden within game systems that become masked by exterior signifiers of diversity. Phillips troubles appraisals of Mass Effect’s female Commander Sheppard protagonist – colloquially dubbed FemShep – that laud the character as “diversity personified” (p. 138). Instead, she identifies an alternative avenue of the character’s liberatory potential within collective fandom critique. Phillips prefaces her fourth chapter with a delightfully relatable discussion of the challenges academics face when critically engaging with personally beloved texts. I’d love to see more of this transparency in games scholarship as it contributes to exposing the fallacy of clean academic objectivity. So many of us study games because we hold personal attachment to the medium.
This fourth and final body chapter continues Gamer Trouble’s proven ability to introduce innovative approaches of representational analysis to well-known, widely discussed texts. Phillips spends some time elaborating on the Mass Effect trilogy’s methods of binding FemShep’s subjectivity to white, heterosexual masculinity regardless of players’ customisation choices, and how this is further reinforced by Bioware’s marketing strategies. FemShep’s secondary status has long been noted by fans and critics, yet it is precisely these fan communities whom Phillips looks towards as evidence of productive troublemaking and political solidarity centred upon their affectionate critique upon the character. Phillips situates particular FemShep fan productions – like the wonderful “The Many Faces of FemShep” video – as an intersectional expression of “unity in difference.” This difference is premised upon the shared disillusionment between playing a non-normative customised character and that character’s hegemonic technical structure. Phillip’s incorporation of fan practices (as sites of critical solidarity in Chapter Four or as a methodological strategy in Chapter Two) effectively trouble traditional forms of representational analysis. This is indeed an appreciated valuation within feminist game studies, where accounts of gaming fandoms tend to dedicate their focus on the (just as necessary) analysis of hostile activities.
Perhaps a glance at Gamer Trouble’s older case studies may prompt an assumption that the work is dated. The analyses demonstrate, however, that it is just as important to flesh out our past as it is to look forward. To chase the past troubles of game studies and gaming culture is to better understand the present troubles within these spaces. Phillips is actively participating in what Shaw’s keynote calls for: resisting the “new and exciting” and re-examining (what some would say) the “old and mundane” (2017, n.p.). Phillips also does so by integrating feminist and women of colour perspectives that are less frequently seen in game studies, from Audre Lorde (1984), Barbara Tomlinson (2010) and Gloria Anzaldúa (1990) (to list only a few).
Some of the content may strike familiar for those already working within feminist game studies, but that is not to imply that there isn’t much to learn. Gamer Trouble would, however, serve as a foundational resource for students, particularly in introducing feminist, queer and women of colour perspectives to the interpretation of videogames. The use of widely familiar case studies additionally contributes to the book’s broader accessibility. It is an academic book, but it is not so theoretically dense to confine its ideas within the walls of academia. Troubling traditions of academic inaccessibility is indeed all the more important for communicating intersectional feminist ideas to a wide breadth of readers (see Joeres, 1992).
The organisation of Gamer Trouble also positions the book as a beneficial template for academic writing. The introduction and conclusion clearly introduce, map out and summarise the aims and contents, while the chapters each speak to one another, frequently revisiting and building upon previous theoretical themes rather than reading as a series of isolated essays. In short, I learnt a lot from Gamer Trouble, from its feminist citational multiplicity, alternative methods of textual analysis, and inspirational structural flow. All of these will have a lasting influence towards my own approaches to studying and writing about videogames.
Making trouble can be an intimidating endeavour with varying degrees of personal and professional repercussions. As Phillip contends in Chapter Four, collective action fosters greater resilience when intersectional differences are acknowledged. Us troublemakers need to assess our privilege and ask ourselves in what ways we are able to make good trouble, be it the way we write, cite, or design. It is crucial to acknowledge that it is not safe for all to make trouble. Perhaps we must now question what steps can be taken in order to establish a field that emboldens and protects our brilliant troublemakers.
Anzaldúa, G. (Ed.). (1990). Making Face, Making Soul / Haciendo Caras: Creative and
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Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
Joeres, R. (1992). On Writing Feminist Academic Prose. Signs, 17(4), 701-704.
Karabinus, A. (2017, August 1). We Are Building Histories: On the Need for Feminist Game Studies. NYMG: Not Your Mama’s Gamer. Retrieved from www.nymgamer.com/.
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Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen, 16(3), 6–18.
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