Today I intend to share a little bit of the basic plot I’m sketching for my gamified dissertation chapter.
It’s working title is Night of the Living Memes, which is terrible. But I have to call it something so, for now, that is it! (Suggestions would be welcome, feel free to leave one in the comments)
I want to illustrate how female gamers come to be compartmentalized in the eyes of their fellow game players as well as by game developers when they are described according to persistent gendered memes.
By “memes” I mean both the traditional sense of the word as coined by Richard Dawkins (an idea or unit of culture that replicates by spreading from mind to mind like a virus) as well as the colloquial sense of the word as it is currently use (easily reproducible digital content that people alter and tweak to serve their own purposes).
I have identified three “types” of women who have been invented by and are continually cited in memetic discourse in gamer culture: the first is the “sexy sidekick,” the fantasy of what a gamer girl “should” be like. She is a fantasy archetype, the subject of many wishful discussions and the romantic interest in many popular texts featuring straight male gamers as protagonists. Her image is put on a pedestal by the gaming community as the perfect romantic partner for a gamer guy, the feminine standard against which all real women in the gaming community are measured and found wanting in some way. In fact, she is typically described as being into gaming only because she has a boyfriend who was into it first. She is designed to prop up the masculinity of her partner, and her purpose is to support him in-game (as a supportive character class) and in real life (as a talisman that proves his virility and sexual accomplishments).
Second is the “casual” girl gamer, the dabbler who is too inexperienced and ignorant about gamer culture to understand its depths. She might play some digital games, but she stays out of the ultra-masculine spaces populated by hardcore gamers, so she can easily be dismissed as not a “true” gamer.
And finally there is the “fake geek girl” who isn’t truly into gaming at all but is practicing a deception to get something (money, time, attention) out of a gamer guy. She is a villainess, someone who is looking to exploit the gender system to victimize others.
These diagnostic archetypes (which appear everywhere from fictional narratives about gamer culture to industry press releases to forum posts and blog comment threads created by gamers) are a means to police women and girls who participate in a “masculine” activity like gaming, to re-classify them and to narrate their actions in such a way as to render them more comfortably recognizable as performers of traditionally recognized feminine roles: the object of heterosexual desire, the inept, childlike dilettante, and the duplicitous whore.
These three memes are endemic to the gamer community, so I decided to make my game about a pandemic: specifically, a “zombie” pandemic in which these memes take over the brains of the attendees of a gaming convention attended by our heroines/player characters. The player must guide these women as they escape the convention and search for the source of this memetic plague: first in a den of trolls (who opportunistically seize upon the outbreak, but didn’t create it) to the headquarters of a game development studio (who, it turns out, has been infected and is thus helping to propagate the memes, but was not the original source).
I’ll leave the solution to the mystery out for now (I want you to all actually play the game when it comes out!), however I do want to address why I chose a zombified setting for my game. First, zombies are a bit of a meme themselves in gaming culture. It seems like every other game that is released has a zombie scenario or a zombie add-on piece of downloadable content. I contend that the obsession with zombies in gaming culture is partially a reflection of the kind of consumerist fable that pervades our culture generally (as illustrated by fantastic movies like Dawn of the Dead, wherein our heroes try to ride out the zombie apocalypse in a shopping mall) However, the appeal of the zombie story is apparently so great within the gamer community that I don’t think this reading adequately explains its widespread (some would say overly so) use as a gaming trope.
Games, at their core, are a medium that fancies itself to be about choices. Players want to feel in control as they guide a story to its completion, as they achieve accomplishments that confer status within the community. They want to feel as though they are able to affect change within the world of a game through their own skills and resourcefulness (this is why the original ending of the Mass Effect series was so poorly received: many gamers felt that there were no good endings, no matter what choices they made over the course of their play).
However, games are also, fundamentally, preprogrammed, scripted entertainments. All of the choices that it is possible for the player to make have already been anticipated and accounted for by the game’s programmers. The choices that are presented are something of an illusion in that all games, by necessity, must offer a limited palette of options to choose from. Games advertise themselves as vehicles of freedom, but they are only made possible through constraint.
This truth about what digital games fundamentally are creates a great deal of anxiety in those who identify as members of the gaming subculture. They often like to think of themselves as free agents, counter-cultural figures and rebels against authority, trolls and pranksters who revel in the freedom to do anything and be anything, as they were promised they could by those who sell games and virtual worlds. Of course, they cannot do anything in a game. And they cannot truly be anything either, as membership within the gaming community comes with its own disciplinary demands on the way one presents oneself (ways that, I argue in my dissertation, are distinctly gendered but are also raced, classed, and marked according to sexual preference, age, and able-bodiedness). In order to participate in a subculture that thinks of itself as wild and free, one must conform, to a certain extent, with a set of cultural codes and mores or risk alienation and stigmatization.
The figure of the zombie is one in which these anxieties about choice and conformity, about free will and agency, can come to rest. The zombie is terrifying because, or so the story goes, he was once a unique individual capable of making his own choices who has been reduced to a shell of his former self, one with no control over his actions or, perhaps more terrifyingly, one who is now a puppet of some other, more dominant will. It is satisfying to blow them away by the thousands because doing so provides reassurance that the player is not like them, that he retains his own agency and freedom of choice, that he remains a unique individual and is not simply one interchangeable face in a crowd of thousands. The fact that the player, in fact, often can’t choose any action except to kill zombies, that he is playing in a preprogrammed and scripted way, that he is submitting to follow the path laid out by the game’s programmers, is forgotten (must be forgotten) in the rush of emotion that the violent horror game provides.
Don’t get me wrong: I love shooting me some zombies. I just think its important to think about why we love it so much!
Secondly, I think the zombie theme will do a good job of introducing the concept of memes to those who might by unfamiliar with the concept. Gamers are familiar with zombies, but they might not be familiar with the academic origins of the word “meme” or of how memes function in the broader culture beyond forums like 4chan and reddit. Thinking of persistent and pervasive ideas as “mind viruses” that implant themselves in a brain and nestle into one’s concept of the world is a bit simplistic from an academic perspective as it seemingly divests individual cultural participants of any opportunity to shape memes and thus to affect the course of culture in return. However, I think that casting memes as a zombie virus will help to communicate to players the diffuse nature of memetic communication. It’s easy to cast about for some “final boss,” some cultural scapegoat that we can bring down and thus win an ultimate victory over violent ideologies like racism and sexism for ever and always. But ideologies don’t work like that. They don’t exist somewhere outside of us, oppressing us from above and forcing us to do their will. They work from the inside, whispering in our ears and altering our mental maps of the world, teaching us to see things their way.
That is why they can be so scary.
And yet, it is possible to inoculate ourselves against these mind viruses sometimes. If we are educated enough in media literacy and in our own history to recognize them when we see them, if we introduce new memes of our own rooted in justice and egalitarianism, we might just be able to develop a “vaccine” for sexism in gaming culture.
This is what players of my game will be asked to do. And I hope that playing through the game will help to uncover the existence of such memes and better enable us to fight back against them when they rear their ugly heads.