“You Ever Have That Feeling Where You’re Not Sure If You’re Awake or Still Dreaming?”

A Review of Woke Gaming: Digital Challenges to Oppression and Social Injustice

Samuel Poirier-Poulin is a master’s student at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. He is an editorial board member of the game studies student journal Press Start, and the director and creator of Pika-Pi!, a reading circle that works toward decentering game studies. He is a big fan of the first Resident Evil games and is still traumatized by the number of characters who died in Until Dawn because of his poor decisions.

Born from the ashes of Gamergate and the 2016 US election, Woke Gaming: Digital Challenges to Oppression and Social Injustice (2018) investigates video games from the lens of social justice, discrimination, and domination. Edited by Kishonna Gray and David Leonard and published by the University of Washington Press, Woke Gaming includes the work of scholars from a wide range of disciplines—game design, sociology, and criminal justice among others. Most essays in the collection examine video games from a communication studies perspective and investigate players, game designers, and communities of play. The chapters all build on the central idea that:

games provide a training ground for the consumption of narratives and stereotypes as well as opportunities to become instruments of hegemony; they offer spaces of white male play and pleasures, and create a virtual and lived reality where white maleness is empowered to police and criminalize the Other (p. 6).

On several occasions, Woke Gaming draws parallels between Gamergate, the rise of the alt-right movement, and Donald Trump’s election, and is thus a timely publication intimately related to the current socio-political context of the United States. The book wishes to move “beyond the critical examination of the virtual pedagogies of racism, sexism, and homophobia” (p. 13) to explore video games as spaces where violence and domination are normalized, “as sites for the consumption of worlds that privilege the American empire, militarism, and white male heroes” (p. 14). This perspective is particularly focused on a US context, building upon a US history of video games, game design, and game cultures. This US-centric approach somewhat limits the book’s applicability, though it does provide two chapters that explore gaming in Asia and a critical reflection on Western imperialism.

Woke Gaming contains fourteen essays and is divided into five main sections: (1) ethics, violence, and oppositional gaming; (2) the political economy of gaming; (3) feminist gaming; (4) gaming and resistance; and (5) inclusive gaming and empathy—a lot of sections considering the total number of chapters. At times it was difficult to draw connections between the pieces and it sometimes felt like certain chapters would be better suited for other sections of the book. A division of the book into fewer sections might have allowed the reader to better understand the dialogues between authors in each section. For example, the section on feminist gaming contains a chapter on religious extremism, Islamophobia, and Western imperialism in Rise of the Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics, 2015), but I felt that this chapter would have been better suited in the section on ethics, violence, and oppositional gaming.

Chapter Breakdowns

To begin with, the feminist gaming section contains some strong chapters in terms of content and writing style. In “Nancy Drew and the Case of Girl Games” (chapter 7), Andrea Braithwaite analyzes the Nancy Drew video game series, inspired by the 1930s novels. She examines how the game studio Her Interactive empowered female players by creating an advisory panel that was involved in the creation of the early Nancy Drew games. Some members of this panel were already avid gamers playing DOOM (id Software, 1993), Myst (Cyan Worlds, 1993), and The Need for Speed (Electronic Arts Canada, 1994), and the panel in general challenged the gender stereotypes of girl games of the late 1990s—namely that girls wanted games with more social interactions. Braithwaite rightfully points out that part of the appeal for Nancy Drew was that she “was unfettered by gender roles that kept girls away from the action. She not ‘only demand[ed] equal rights, she demand[ed] equal danger’” (pp. 140–141; with a quote from Zacharias, 1976, p. 1036).

Another chapter worth mentioning is Stephanie Jennings’ “The Horror of Transcendent Knowledge” (chapter 8). In this essay, Jennings uses a feminist-epistemological approach and the concept of situated play to examine her gaming experience with Bloodborne (FromSoftware, 2015). Through the analysis of her game diary, Jennings argues that Bloodborne, in which she plays as a female character, allows her to use the language of violence—a language not usually afforded to women—and the “power fantasy of being able to tear down an oppressive system that has objectified, excluded, and victimized [her]” (p. 167), i.e., patriarchy. She concludes her essay by highlighting that even though video game mechanics and representation may appear “masculine” and exclusionary, their meaning is not static; the player can attribute meaning to them based on their own identity, and this is deeply empowering.

I really enjoyed the methodology from chapter 4, “Smart Play.” In this chapter, Zixue Tai and Fengbin Hu investigate gold farming (i.e., the practice of playing massively multiplayer online games to harvest in-game currency and sell it for real money) in China from a social science perspective, informed by in-depth field interviews with gold farmers. More than two years of interviews show how gold farming has evolved into a highly organized enterprise complete with the presence of gold farming studios. Tai and Hu examine how studio managers/employers and players/employees negotiate their desire to earn a living through a job they like with a government that still does not recognize gold farming as a profession and a society that despises game players. The use of a social science perspective favours an emic point of view and gives a lot of agency to gold farmers while looking at how they themselves understand their profession. This chapter also provides a unique point of view in this book as one of the only chapters focused outside the United States and working toward decentering game studies from North America and Western Europe.

While the feminist gaming section contains my favourite chapters of the book, the section on gaming and resistance features a number of noteworthy essays. Karen Skardzius’ “Playing with Pride” (chapter 9) analyzes Proudmoore, the LGBT+ friendly server of World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004-present), from the angle of communities of play and citizenship and as a response to the heterosexist and homophobic culture of WoW. Amanda Cote’s “Curate Your Culture” (chapter 10) completes Skardzius’ essay, highlighting the challenges of online community management. Of special interest to me was her analysis—though a little short—of League of Legends’ (Riot Games, 2009-present) Tribunal system, where from 2011 to 2014, players were encouraged to collectively decide which behaviours were acceptable in the LoL community and which ones were not. Kathryn Hemmann’s “The Legends of Zelda” (chapter 11) explores fans’ rewriting of stories from the Zelda franchise that rejects “damselling” (Sarkeesian, 2013) and gives agency and interiority to female characters. Although Hemmann’s chapter fits fairly well in this section, I found myself wondering why it was not included instead in the section on feminist gaming, or at least at the beginning of the section on gaming and resistance to create a smoother transition from the feminist gaming section to the gaming and resistance section.

Moreover, two chapters from section 5 on inclusive gaming and empathy caught my attention. Robbie Fordyce, Timothy Neale, and Thomas Apperley’s “Avatars” (chapter 12) focuses on the Australian mobile app Everyday Racism (All Together Now, 2015), in which the player is invited to play for one week as an Aboriginal man, a Muslim woman, or an Indian student (or as themselves) and experience racism, mostly through daily microaggressions. As Fordyce et al. argue: “Whereas many games make avatars of color available to white people, Everyday Racism also makes the experience of racism available to white people” (p. 241; emphasis in the original). The game wishes to create social change by pushing the player to reflect on their own position within a racist society. The authors also address the notion of identity tourism (Nakamura, 2002) and the limits of a game in which white players play at being racialized. They conclude on a nuanced note:

If Everyday Racism presents one possibility, where avatars of color enable socially progressive acts of empathy, the other is the socially regressive perpetuation of conditions in which whites feel they have a right to racialized bodies; in which race remains, for them, available, fluid, and disposable. (p. 246)

Finally, the last chapter of Woke Gaming, “DiscrimiNation” (chapter 14), presents a persuasive board game conceived and designed by the authors of the chapter, Maresa Bertolo, Ilaria Mariani, and Eleonora Alberello Conti. The board game is reminiscent of Everyday Racism in that it makes the player experience oppression and social injustice. DiscrimiNation wishes to make the player aware of the “3 Ns” used to justify discrimination against specific groups people (i.e., it is something Normal, Natural, and Necessary) and how discriminatory discourses often use science or religion to support their claims. Although this chapter is the only one that focuses on a board game, it is still coherent with the rest of the book and reminds us that game studies are more about the concept of play than about video games specifically.

Despite this mostly positive review, I found that a couple of chapters did not go into as much detail as the topic deserves. I am thinking here of the essay “Power, Violence, and the Mask” (chapter 2) by Rowlands et al., which aims to present the authors’ project of designing alternative game scenarios for Grand Theft Auto Online (Rockstar North, 2013-present). To me, this essay was strongly reminiscent of Augusto Boal’s (1979) and Gonzalo Frasca’s (2004) respective works on theatre and video games of the oppressed, and I was hoping the authors would dig deeper into each of their game design projects. I am also thinking of the essay “Activism in Video Games” (chapter 13) by Taylor Anderson-Barkley and Kira Foglesong, which focuses on serious games and the Games for Change movement. The chapter covers a wide range of topics, from video games as pedagogical tools, to the use of video games to raise awareness and fund-raise, to principles of game design for generating empathy, to issues related to representation in video games. This holistic approach is taken at the expense of a potentially more in-depth analysis that would distinguish everyday activism through video games from epic gameplaying (i.e., video games that tackle large scale social problems like climate change and poverty [Brice, 2017]).

Games as Change Agents: Becoming Woke Gamers and Woke Game Designers

Despite their criticism of the current state of the medium, Gray and Leonard’s Woke Gaming argues that video games can be used to propose alternative narratives and histories and to generate empathy from the player. Such a perspective is reminiscent of the work of Anna Anthropy (2012) on games as exploratory systems. Anthropy argues that games are good at exploring systems and dynamics, and at communicating the relationship between the actions of the player and their consequences. Along the same lines, Mattie Brice (2017) argues that play can be used for everyday activism and for creating change on a local scale, “to activate grassroots efforts of ordinary people.” As she says:

Rather than trying to get everyone to pay attention to the same general social issues and rally as a united worldwide movement, I propose we all turn to the people next to us and work on our relationships. Can we even conceive of solving something so pervasive like racism when we haven’t creatively explored the topic with those close to us?

Anthropy (2012) and Brice (2017) both show us that video games have the potential to bridge the gap between the Self and the Other and to allow the player to better understand the lived realities of characters with different backgrounds. This potential is definitely explored throughout Woke Gaming, demonstrating that “games can be change agents at multiple levels” (pp. 15–16).

With that in mind, Woke Gaming functions very well as an introduction to various social justice issues in gaming communities. Gray and Leonard do an excellent job in their introduction at situating the volume as a response to the Gamergate harassment campaign and the rise of the alt-right movement. Many chapters of the volume also provide some background information on Gamergate, and while this is good for those who are not familiar with Gamergate or for those who will only read a few chapters, for those already familiar with it or who lived through it, these sections may belabour the point. Lastly, I wish there had been a more intersectional approach in the book. Woke Gaming definitely engages with different forms of oppression (mostly racism, sexism, and heterosexism), but never really creates a dialogue between different kinds of oppression. All the chapters are about social injustice, so in a certain way, there is a form of dialogue between the chapters; it is just that this dialogue is not really about the different forms of oppression (one chapter focuses on gender-based harassment, whereas another focuses on homophobia). This might have been hard to do considering the relatively short length of each chapter, but it is a little unfortunate considering Gray’s (2014) influential work on intersectional oppression online.

Still, Woke Gaming is the first book on video games and social justice and provides game scholars, students, and other folks with an accessible language to talk about social justice and about their own experiences with oppression. The book is mostly addressed to people with an interest in game studies and communication studies and is a good introduction to power dynamics and political economy of communication. It could be used in courses on new media and digital cultures, feminism, video games and social justice, and inclusive gaming. Woke Gaming remains the first book of its kind in many ways and appears as a call for future research and future collections on social justice in gaming.



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Boal, A. (1979). Theatre of the oppressed. C. A. McBride & M.-O. Leal McBride (Trans.). New York: Urizen Books.

Brice, M. (2017, January 25). TED talk: Using play for everyday activism [Blog post].

Frasca, G. (2004). Videogames of the oppressed: Critical thinking, education, tolerance, and other trivial issues. In N. Wardrip-Fruin & P. Harrigan (Eds.), First person: New media as story, performance, and game (pp. 85–94). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Gray, K. L. (2014). Race, gender, and deviance in Xbox Live: Theoretical perspectives from the virtual margins. Waltham, MA: Anderson Publishing.

Gray K. L. & Leonard D. J. (Eds.). (2018). Woke gaming: Digital challenges to oppression and social injustice. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Nakamura, L. (2002). After/images of identity: Gender, technology, and identity politics. In M. Flanagan & A. Booth (Eds.), Reload: Rethinking women and cyberculture (pp. 321–331). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sarkeesian, A. (2013, March 7). Damsel in distress: Part 1. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6p5AZp7r_Q&list=PLn4ob_5_ttEaA_vc8F3fjzE62esf9yP61&index=1

Zacharias, L. (1976). Nancy Drew, ballbuster. Journal of Popular Culture, 9(4), 1027–1038.

The quote in the title is from:

The Wachowskis (Directors), & Silver, J. (Producer). (1999). The Matrix [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Bros.