This is a guest post, which isn’t a normal thing for this blog, but I read Samantha’s piece and immediately offered to put it here. So here it is. – CK
Samantha Allen is a transgender woman, ex-Mormon and a PhD student in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University writing a dissertation on sexual fetishism. She has contributed to The Border House and is also an erstwhile singer-songwriter. You can find her on the web or on Twitter.
[Author's Note: After I wrote this essay, I sent it to Mattie Brice and we had a long e-mail exchange about it. Mattie and I had a careful conversation about its relevance and its representation of the “Would You Kindly” / “Would You Kindly Not” back-and-forth, an exchange which Mattie has not participated in officially since the publication of her original piece. Because several differences of opinion emerged in this e-mail conversation, I should note that, while I take issue with Jonas Kyratzes' piece in my essay, I'm not therefore claiming any position on behalf of Mattie. I hope that both Mattie and Jonas can read this piece in a spirit of generosity and open dialogue.]
Can We Kindly?
As measured in Internet time, I’m entering this conversation late enough to risk complete irrelevance. I’m told that the Twitter firestorm that followed Mattie Brice and Jonas Kyratzes‘ recent exchange has come and gone. When I asked Cameron Kunzelman to summarize that Twitter conversation for me, he replied, a little sardonically: “There was a great big fight and now everyone has forgotten about it because that is the nature of the video game community.” This essay is, in part, an appeal for a nuanced, thoughtful and sustained conversation about the role of experience and identity in games writing that can move beyond the 140-character lines we draw in the sand. If I’m entering this debate late, it’s because I’ve spent a week ruminating on it, trying to sort out my thoughts and deciding how to formulate them as diplomatically as possible.
I was, unwittingly, a part of this debate when it first erupted. When I saw a recent weekly roundup on Critical Distance, I discovered that my own essay on The Border House about my gender expression in Bioware’s role-playing games was cited as an example of precisely the sort of “games blogging through a personal lens” that had come under fire from Kyratzes and Joel Goodwin. I’ve been waiting to weigh in because I needed time to move beyond my knee-jerk response to being told, however indirectly, that my own style of games writing is a questionable one. And, to be honest, some of Kyratzes’ and Goodwin’s concerns with identity politics and confessional writing do resonate with scholarly conversations in my field of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Another excuse for my tardiness, then, is that I needed to re-read large portions of the feminist canon.
Because I believe in the importance of making one’s standpoint explicit in any piece that touches on personal experience and privilege—and also because I don’t have a large body of games writing that precedes me—an introduction is in order. I’m Samantha and I’m a white, transgender woman in her mid-20s. I come from money but, thanks to some of the initial costs of my gender transition, my bank account balance often dips perilously close to $0 as I wait for next month’s stipend. That stipend comes from Emory University where I’m currently enrolled as a doctoral student in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program. The week that I read Mattie Brice and Jonas Kyratzes’ exchange, I was waist-deep in reading for my comprehensive exams and was, coincidentally, mulling over a classic feminist essay about the dubious status of “experience” as a rhetorical tool. More on that soon.
My format here is simple: I’ll assess both Brice’s and Kyratzes’ essays, outlining my points of (dis)agreement. Then, I’ll make my own simple argument about the role of experience in games writing. I invite critique, feedback and disagreement whether that happens on Twitter (@CousinDangereux) or in long-form writing.
In “Would You Kindly,” Mattie Brice draws much-needed attention to the hollowness of video games’ recent attempts to produce critical commentary on real-world and video game violence. Games like Spec Ops: The Line and Bioshock attempt to critique violence at a thematic and narrative level but, as Brice points out, these violent games are still “fun” on a mechanical level. While films can arguably mount a critique of violence through a hyper-realist portrayal of that violence, games are uniquely interactive experiences and, as such, any social commentary needs to adapt to the specific contours of the medium. When the developers of Spec Ops try to position the game as subversive commentary despite the fact that, mechanically speaking, the game plays just like any other hyper-violent video game, I can’t help but feel like they’re trying to have their cake and eat it too. This combination of serious tone with same-old mechanics allows the developers and the mainstream games press to posture as if blockbuster games are finally tackling the serious issues of our day when, in fact, they are simply re-packaging mechanically stagnant genres along with some sloppy commentary about the player’s complicity in the violence of the game.
Compare the portrayal of violence in Spec Ops, for instance, with the violence in a game like Condemned: Criminal Origins. Monolith didn’t tout Condemned as a subversive commentary on game violence but, nevertheless, I would argue that five minutes of Condemned can have a more palpable effect on the player than the entirety of Spec Ops’ campaign. Condemned casts the player as a detective in a city teeming with mysterious, violent characters who attack the player senselessly and ruthlessly. Guns are rare and so the player must use improvised environmental weaponry—a fire axe, a wooden plank, a shovel—to survive. The melee combat of the game is finely-tuned mechanically speaking, but I would hesitate to describe it as “fun.” Swinging a weapon requires a long wind-up but, when a hit connects, the visual feedback is sudden and brutal. This is a game that does not trivialize the brute force of a blunt object, whichever end of that object you find yourself on. The developers of Condemned position the player uncomfortably close to violence, then, but only by trying to make the game’s mechanics as weighty as its subject matter. I wince when I hit someone in the head in Condemned. When I get a head shot in Spec Ops, the game celebrates my achievement with slow-motion.
While I think Brice’s essay is one of the best tools we can use to point out just how trite this sub-genre of “violent games that are critiquing violent games by being violent games” is becoming, I would caution against easy generalizations and reductive divisions between the oppressed and the oppressors. Feminist theories of intersectionality were designed to attend precisely to this problem by pointing out both the many vectors along which people are oppressed (e.g. race, ethnicity, class, sex, age, ability) and that these “major systems of oppression are interlocking” (“The Combahee River Collective Statement”). There is room in intersectional analysis for both Mattie Brice (and myself for that matter) to talk about our experiences of oppression as transgender women and for Jonas Kyratzes to articulate the difficulties he faces as a Greek man.
An all-too-easy split between the white, cisgender heterosexual men and everyone else can risk obscuring other ways in which people experience violence as a result of their life circumstances. Don’t get me wrong! I’m just as sick as any feminist of the “What about the men?” complaint. And these white, cisgender heterosexual men do exist and they do, in fact, control the world’s political and economic systems. But consider that there are at least some straight, white male players of Spec Ops: The Line—by no means a majority of the player base, though—who have experienced the violence of war in Iraq or Afghanistan. Like Brice, I don’t think the violence portrayed in Spec Ops has anything to do with my experiences as a transwoman, but I do want to note that war may be a part of the real-world experiences of other gamers.
Jonas Kyratzes, on the other hand, might be surprised to learn that many feminist and queer academics have also critiqued identity politics as well as the role of the confessional and the experiential in knowledge production. In his landmark book The History of Sexuality, French philosopher Michel Foucault warns that the confessional mode produces the very identities that come to circumscribe us. Foucault counters a prevailing historical narrative in which institutions (like Catholicism) repress sexuality by arguing that, in fact, institutions produce the very concept of sexuality by asking us to endlessly confess our thoughts and behaviors (Foucault 1978). Judith Butler applies Foucault’s discomfort with identity categories to contemporary feminism, arguing that feminists should not practice their politics in the name of “women” but rather should regard identity categories as “sites of necessary trouble” (Butler 1993, 308). And feminist historian Joan Scott has argued that feminists should be more careful when wielding “experience” as it frequently functions as an ahistorical and unquestionable foundation for an argument (Scott 1990). Kyratzes is approximating Scott’s position when he observes that work based on experience is “very hard to criticize.”
Other feminist and queer scholars have, of course, talked back to Foucault, Butler and Scott, arguing that their positions threaten to de-politicize the feminist movement; I don’t have the space here to outline these debates nor to detail my own position. Given the shape of these scholarly conversations, though, I have to confess (ha!) that Kyratzes is touching on some interesting theoretical conversations that feminist and queer scholars have been having for the last twenty years. While I admire Kyratzes’ attempt at taking a nuanced position and his honesty in admitting that his feelings are “not easy to untangle,” it’s also clear that he needs to do a bit more untangling around questions of epistemological privilege.
I take issue, for example, with the way in which he sets up “intellectual relevance” as an implicit litmus test for whether or not “personal” or “emotional” elements belong in games writing proper. One of the key insights of feminist scholarship and political activism deserves repeating here: “The personal is political.” In the face of those who dismiss women’s experiences of oppression as purely personal, emotional, idiosyncratic and isolated incidents, we have to insist, as feminists, that our personal experiences do reflect the workings of broader social systems. Feminists have long advocated for forms of knowledge production that build theory from the experiences of the oppressed, rather than throwing theory down imperiously from the comfort of an armchair.
While I agree with Kyratzes, then, that there is a careful conversation to be had about the role that experience plays in games writing, the dividing “line between personal experience and logical argument” is a line that I fundamentally reject. Women’s writing and particularly feminist writing have too frequently been dismissed as “illogical” and overly “personal.” And in the long shadow of Enlightenment era philosophy, “logic” and “intellect” are terms that men in positions of power tend to wield in order to control political discourse. To be clear, I’m not accusing Kyratzes of being a flagrant oppressor. Although his title “Would You Kindly Not” feels a little policing to me, he does admit that there’s “room for all kinds of autobiographical elements in game writing.” I would kindly ask Kyratzes, though, that he be more explicit about the rubric he uses to divide the “logical” from the “personal” and that he be a little more sensitive to the ways in which that very division has been used to silence marginalized voices. In other words: How do we separate the “logical” from the “personal” and who benefits from that separation?
I’m hesitant to disclose my final position on the Brice / Kyratzes exchange because it’s almost embarrassingly simple: I support pluralism in games writing. We’re lucky to have a medium that can support pluralism. Because most games writing takes online, we have virtually limitless space for as many voices as possible. Our debates can move at a bracing, invigorating pace. The fact that this essay might seem like old news by now is evidence of that! And almost everyone can contribute to gaming conversations in comments sections or on Twitter.
Here’s some perspective: In academia, I fight for extremely limited space in academic journals. There are just a handful of Women’s Studies journals and, as such, a small number of editors control the shape of our disciplinary conversation. Our conversations progress glacially. I worked on my first scholarly publication for a year, submitting it in 2011. After an extensive revision and resubmission process in 2012, the journal accepted the article but won’t have the space to publish it until 2014. By the time it comes out, even I won’t agree with it anymore!
In contrast, think about the profusion of online spaces where we can talk about every aspect of games and gaming culture. We can talk about the technical aspects of games (like Shawn McGrath’s piece on Doom 3‘s source code) and we can also value our irreducibly personal experiences with games (as Liz Ryerson so eloquently argues).
For my part, I would like to see more games writing that tries to bridge the gap between the technical and the experiential, writing that explores the ways in which our life experiences become intertwined with the systemic, mechanical features of games themselves. Why is this my favorite direction for games writing? What makes a person unique are her life experiences. What makes games distinct from other forms of media are their interactive elements. Writing that explores the connections of concrete experiences to seemingly abstract interactive systems cannot happen anywhere else.
I’m excited to see more writing that fulfills on this promise but, in the meantime, I’m happy to keep reading both technical and autobiographical reflections on games. Can we kindly realize how lucky we are to have so much room for our strange, sprawling, messy but always exciting conversation on games?
Butler, Judith. 1993. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” In Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale and David M. Halperin, eds. The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, New York: Routledge, 307-320.
Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. New York: Random House.
Scott, Joan W. 1991. Critical Inquiry 17(4): 773-797.