It’s been quite a while since I updated here. I’ve been exceedingly busy working on a research project in my sociology department and with some of my other commitments as well as a few personal problems I had to overcome. But, I’m back, and I thought that in the wake of Anita Sarkeesian’s struggle with a cavalcade of trolls over her proposed webseries it’s worth digging up a recent piece of writing I submitted as a final paper in one of my classes (Gender and Geography). This paper sought to chart out the geographic dimensions of cyberspace, particularly gamer subculture, through the lens of “the space of exception”.
I’ve excerpted a part of the paper that I think is quite relevant to what had just transpired with Feminist Frequency. In a section entitled “It’s Just a Game” I describe how the “unreal” nature often imputed to gaming space gives licence to abuse that would be intolerable outside of it. This “unreality,” I argue, is on the flip-side of a pleasurable “reality” that also manifests in gaming culture. It feels like the real world, and yet isn’t; because of this, many gamers feel able to express themselves in a deeply violent and prejudicial way. It feels like reality, and thus being a bigot provides all the perverse pleasure that asserting dominance over another person often provides, but the “unreal”/”fake” virtuality of the space provides moral and ideological cover for this behaviour. What follows is my attempt to draw together various sociological, geographic, and philosophical ideas to provide a thumbnail sketch of how all that works.
Gaming cyberspace provides a virtual refuge for a certain kind of masculinity, and one that is consciously constructed in defensive opposition to a rapidly changing world. Sociologist Michael Kimmel argues that for modern young heterosexual men “the fantasy world of media is both an escape from reality and an escape to reality,” capturing the dualism that defines a space of exception. He goes on to point out that this “reality” is one that “many of these guys secretly would like to inhabit” and that video games “provide a way for guys to feel empowered,” (Kimmel 2008: 150). His analysis of men’s relationship to virtual space concludes that these men feel “it’s nice to turn back the clock and return to a time when men ruled—and no one questioned it” (156).
It is hardly surprising that some men wish to perceive this as a “virtual men’s locker room” threatened by the presence of women. It is often constructed as a refuge for hegemonic masculinity, particularly as expressed through technological mastery. Connell identifies two hegemonic masculinities that she argues have diverged and are sometimes in tension with one another: dominance-based masculinity, and expertise-based masculinity (Connell 2000: 194-195). It can be theorised that gaming in cyberspace folds these two back together with a violent world of hierarchical rankings, which allows for the virtual embodiment of conquistador-style masculinity through the mastery of technology, thus reuniting two patriarchal symbolic universes. The conflict between these two masculinities may play out more widely in the physical world, but in the space of exception furnished by cyberspace they combine to form a unique but also familiar expression of gender
But it is here that we come to a very critical distinction between the space of exception constituted by, say, the [internment or prison] camp, and the space of exception the virtual world represents. The marked difference between “exception” and “normal” is important for all such spaces, but only in the virtual world is there an equally clear, aggressively policed, distinction between “real” and “unreal” that constitutes both cyberspace and its social practises. This is a nontrivial distinction, but also a connection between the two– cyberspace and social practise therein. The purported exceptionality of time and place surrounding the internet as a whole gives licence to the abuses within, and the ostensible unreality of gaming, more specifically, licences abuse within its boundaries.
When we’re children we’re often taught that great ideas are the product of great minds; blessed ideas that spring forth from the creator’s cranium like Athena from Zeus, fully formed and miraculous. But the truth is that ideas of the most compelling sort have no one source, and can come from the most intriguing of places assembled from seemingly dissociated bits and pieces. Recently in my writing about theory I’ve tried to convince you to look at it as something that grows from daily life and is itself a kind of practise as a result. What this way of looking at things enables you to do is see ‘theory’ as being more ubiquitous than it may first seem when you, say, look at a college textbook.
Enter Eclipse Phase, a pen and paper RPG set several hundred years in the future with a post-apocalyptic setting. The action, however, need not take place on the despoiled Earth. Our Solar System is home to countless colonies, some independent, some confederated, that express the gamut of human ideologies. One of the game’s overarching themes is transhumanism which the book itself defines as: “an international cultural and intellectual movement that endorses the use of science and technology to enhance the human condition, both mentally and physically.” Now, there is certainly no question that such an ideology has innumerable pratfalls. It could potentially become a 21st century expression of eugenicism, for example. People with disabilities in particular are right to be wary of such and the cultural genocide it can entail in the wrong hands.
But the funny thing about ideas is that they are multifaceted and thus easily repurposed, and Eclipse Phase’s presentation of its interpretation of transhumanism is quite compelling. Loving a good ‘trans’ pun myself, I decided to explore the concept a little bit, and sure enough, I was rewarded:
To many transhumans, gender has become an outdated social construct with no basis in biology. After all, it’s hard to give credence to gender roles when an ego can easily modify their sex, switch skins, or experience the lives of others via XP. Though most transhumans still adhere to the gender associated with their original biological sex, many others switch gender identities as soon as they reach adulthood or avidly pursue repeated transgender switching. Still others examine and adopt untraditional sex-gender identities such as neuters (believing a lack of sex allows greater focus in their pursuits) or dual gender (the best of both worlds). In many bioconservative habitats and cultures, however, more traditional gender roles persevere. (Eclipse Phase Sourcebook, p. 35)
You see, in this distant future, humanity has discovered technological means of changing bodies at will, preserving consciousness in a handy, downloadable file format, and in the process taking “my body, my choice” to a whole new level. The game explores economic inequality in depth as well, and thus the limitations of one’s bodily autonomy imposed in a world where economic injustice has simply evolved in certain crucial ways. But nevertheless, this section on gender elucidates something rather fascinating that RPGs can do for us: allow us to imagine and actually play around in a future that we might do well to fight for (at least in part- I could do without the rampaging out of control military AI that destroyed Earth in Eclipse Phase’s canon, thank you very much).
What is fascinating, in part, is twofold. One, trans people of all sorts (myself included) are already living that paragraph in various ways, and two, that the future it posits is one in which being transgender is not only accepted, it’s an experience virtually the whole of transhumanity (transhumanity!) shares. Biological essentialism has been well and truly shattered, and right along with it, patriarchy.
Picture it: a World of Warcraft RPPvP server, 2006. A good friend of mine takes up a wager with a female friend of his to test a “theory”- at least it was nothing but a theory to him, at that time. She had often sparred with him about the idea that women were treated differently in online gaming and he was more than a little sceptical. If this were about treatment in, say, the workplace or the home environment or out in the street, this back and forth might have gone on forever. But this woman had a solution that only a game like WoW made available to her. She made a bit of a wager with my friend: roll up a female character, play her, roleplay (RP) her if you like, and don’t tell anyone you’re a man in real life.
My friend agreed, being the adventurous sort and an avid RPer to boot, and went forward. To this day he still tells me how his experiences over the course of the next month completely changed how he understood the treatment of women in games like this. He found himself flirted with, harassed, the target of other unwanted advances, as well as finding out why chivalrous acts could be construed as condescending or suspicious. He even discovered that in an RP guild he was fought over by some of the male officers in a way that culminated in theatrics that eventually sundered the guild.
In his own words:
“Guys used to hit on you randomly asking for ERP [cybersex] and then if you actually interact on an equal level they think you like them, and if you turn down their advances it’s rage quit time.”
Certainly not every person will have the same experiences or reactions, but what always fascinated me was how easy it was for him to suddenly see through the eyes of a woman in society because of WoW. This is but one of many possibilities offered by roleplaying that could represent revolutionary breakthroughs in how we all understand society and the lives of our fellow human beings.
For me personally, as I have alluded to many times, being able to roleplay as a woman gave me an education similar to my friend’s but also enabled me to simply be myself. Unlike my friend, I expected to be treated differently and sometimes unpleasantly, but I also took in the joy of simply affirming one’s womanhood. In those days I would publicly lie and say that I roleplayed as women to simply express my “feminine side” and what not. I didn’t want to admit to others what I increasingly knew in the most guarded recesses of my mind: that I roleplayed as a woman in part because I was one and had no other way to express my gender. Being a woman was and is awesome to me because being myself is awesome.
Roleplaying means many things to many people. For some, simply playing a single player game as a fictional character constitutes RP. For others, it means consciously and directly acting out that character’s fantasy existence through constructing backstory and plot around them, and engaging in actions and dialogue that would be “in-character” for them. In either case, though, I have come to discover that roleplaying allows an incredible amount of agency to be invested in the player and provides a gilded road that can bypass the often problematic stories and imagery that adorn many games. You may find yourself surrounded by images of women who seem to exist to only cater to hetero male fantasy, but your female character does not have to be that. Indeed she can actively rebel against it, or any number of other ideas that predominate in the game’s setting. In that lies the power of RP.
Indeed, for a long time my women characters were explicitly designed to be strong and confident, never defined in terms of the men around them, but as their equal partners in the game world. When I played Neverwinter Nights I played a Cleric of a sensual goddess. But I did not do so explicitly for sexual reasons. Most of the time she wore conservative robes, but her revealing outfits were reserved for religious festivals and rituals where the sex had a meaning beyond eye candy, as rituals that honoured the sacred act of lovemaking. Whether matronly or overtly sexual she was not simply an archetype but a complex woman who owned her body, her sexuality, and her entire self. I even RPed her journey from worshipping a more conservative god of healing to worshiping this goddess of love as one of self discovery and assertion of herself.
There was more to her still, of course. She was a wise woman (Wisdom score of 30!) who came to the aid of many characters who were having one problem or another and quickly developed a reputation as a kindhearted counsellor. Her crises of faith were born of deep introspection on her part, and as she was middle aged they were part of a “mid life crisis” of sorts. The compelling interactions she had with other RP characters made her reassess who she really was. On the flip side she also loved hard liquor and was never afraid of having a good time with the people she shared her village with, unafraid of partying after a hard day’s battle.
I could go on, but the essence of this is that in the midst of this Dungeons & Dragons environment I wove an interesting female character who could articulate sexual struggles, religion, and the social location of womanhood and still be fun to play. Some of the people I played with were not exactly radically-minded. Some were quite conservative in real life. Yet the character was loved. Strong, complex women are not “political”- they’re just damn fun and interesting.
On the subject of religion I should relate more personal insights. I often play as characters with some religious grounding, which is ironic considering my history (and I’ll get to that in a moment); Priests or Clerics, Paladins and Druids are often my primary roleplaying characters. On my shelf right now, side by side (perhaps very appropriately) with my gender studies and sociology textbook collection are my many hardbound D&D manuals, a good chunk of which are about the fantasy religions of various settings.
When I was young I grew up with a conservative Catholic father who took “God the Father” a little too seriously. Through his faith he buttressed unchecked patriarchal authority, the subordination of women, and even quite a bit of racism (particularly Islamophobia). It’s no surprise homophobia and transphobia also came to him through his idea of God, and when I came out I faced a fusillade of assaults from him that included saying I was violating God’s will by transitioning and that my “devil reading” had made this happen. I’ll not belabour these descriptions any longer as this should paint a sufficient picture of why, for a long time, I hated religion and looked down my nose at people of faith.
That hatred existed in the midst of my RP life, of course, which began in 2005. But I figured my characters were just fiction, as were their goddesses and gods, and it was all “just a game.” Yet over time, especially as I got into playing my Cleric and reading the more in-depth compendiums about pantheons in D&D I began to realise that faith as a central organising principle in one’s life was something that could be very positive. I was very much blinkered by my self-centered perspective and yet, almost as if against my will, my own characters pulled me out of it. My Cleric was a woman whose faith taught her that love was love, no matter what form it came in, to name an example. Her goddess was a symbol of that conviction in openness, love, and the idea that pleasure in moderation was utterly sacred rather than profane. I came to understand that my father’s Catholicism was not the only form faith had to take.
Faith could evoke metaphors for beauty rather than self-abnegation.
I do not credit RP with all of these realisations, of course. A Christian woman I know and love in Canada, and who happens to be married to another woman, was a huge support in my life as I was coming out and indeed a second mother to me. She’s just been ordained in the United Church of Canada. She and her pagan priestess daughter above all deserve credit for showing me what faith can be.
And yet I also know that roleplaying was what initially opened my mind to what they would eventually teach me. As I looked through the guidebooks and found gods and goddesses for all sorts of things, and vastly different descriptions of all manner of churches, temples, lyceums, and groves for worship I came to realise that what faith was, what it could be, was not limited to bitter, closeminded evil. The Richard Dawkins style of white atheism that I had flirted with up to that point withered under that slowly blossoming realisation. The characters that I would so lovingly roleplay, from my NWN Cleric to my WoW Priest, would chart lives of faith that were not built on hate, or on othering, but on self-empowerment and a sense of social justice that infused their many actions in the game world, whether it was cleansing a den of undead or battling the Lich King or healing the wounded behind enemy lines their faith gave them the power to do what was right and resist oppression or the temptation to oppress.
Had I never been given the opportunity to roleplay religious characters I might’ve gone right on keeping my privileged assumptions about how people of faith were “irrational” and “weak minded.”
The title of my piece is a reference to the Marion Zimmer Bradley book I’m reading at the moment, Lady of Avalon, where one of the protagonists is known as the “Son of a Hundred Kings,” a messianic figure in the classic fantasy tradition, the chosen one whose coming was foretold by prophecy, et cetera et cetera. My characters on the other hand are not built on that notion of exaltation above all others. They are the daughters of no queens or goddesses, but ordinary women called on to both do exciting things and simply muddle their way through life. They, like quite a few good RP characters I’ve come across in my time, don’t require a legacy or a prophecy to make them interesting.
Roleplaying is not just about slaying dragons or annihilating evil old gods who threaten the world, it’s about capturing the aspects of ordinary life that can make us all who we are. I love those little details. The first Paladin I ever made, Zoe, was a notoriously messy eater . My Priestess, Quinnae, is a brilliant artist and still plays with stuffed animals. My WoW Paladin, Sera, carries wine and fine cheese with her everywhere. Some come from backgrounds of privilege, like Sera, others like Zoe never knew anything but nomadic lives. But all of these little flourishes help them come to life and they evoke depth that is sometimes, or even oftentimes, lacking in the bigger characters written into the canon of all of these games.
When I RP I have no overtly political goal in mind. I never did, I never will. Certainly when I RPed as women I never expected to undergo a transgender transition in real life, or for my views about religion to change. But the effects were there all the same. Even in this fictional space I could be truer to myself than I was, at the time, allowed to be in the “real world.” Despite it all being “just a game” my knowledge of the experience of many women in society was deepened long before I came out (and it was deepened and widened much further). I had often held a traditionally liberal view that women sometimes had a rougher time of things but it was an academic knowledge held from a distance. Playing WoW, even three years before I came into my own as a woman in the real world, made that knowledge experiential, rather than abstract.
When Gary Gygax first worked with his partners and wrote up what would become the first edition of the Dungeonmaster’s Guide I am certain he never dreamed that his game could promise salvation and comfort to transgender people who could afford to play, and yet there it is as a very positive unintended consequence. The great benefit of roleplaying worlds is that they allow people to transcend boundaries and move in social realms as someone completely different. I haven’t even talked about how one can come to a better understanding of racism or classism through RP.
But above all it allows you to take control in the face of a gaming world that is sometimes or even oftentimes hostile to women, people with disabilities, LGBT people, or people of colour. It allows you to dare to be the character that many developers don’t write, to be the character you want to see in a fantasy realm. It’s a fascinating realisation of Gandhi’s old aphorism: “be the change you want to see in the world.”