Play Journal #6

This week’s readings dealt with particularly dark material, primarily involving misogyny, racism, homophobia, and other problematic behavior in gaming/ ‘gamer’ communities. In looking at the normalization of (or turning about of) this culture and these patterns of behavior, I came to reflect on my own personal journey through gaming communities. Since this is the final play journal of the cycle, I want to explore a little of my own narrative through the lens of these readings.

Image from the author’s social media account, 2011.

Image from the author’s social media account, 2011.

When I got an Xbox 360 in early 2009, it was almost entirely because all of the boys on my swim team didn’t talk about anything except for playing Call of Duty 4 with each other. Since I grew up on Nintendo games with my two siblings and close family nearby, I had never really played online games before. I quickly began to play with my friends every Friday and Saturday night, even sometimes sneaking in a quick session on Saturday between morning and evening swim practices. Since I had never had a microphone to communicate before, I would usually stay in the open game chat so I could hear what my teammates and friends were talking about and hear about gaming strategy. It sounds a little silly, but I will freely admit that I have never been ‘good’ at video games, and for a time in my life that fact was upsetting. Staying in the game chat and hearing how my teammates interacted with each other was a way for me to learn about the game and thereby build the “merit” Paul puts such emphasis on, increasing my social capital with my group of friends (68).

However, the side effect of this all-out exposure (especially with my mediocre skills) was I usually heard someone yelling about the game in some way or another. Though I do not by any stretch of the imagination mean to equate my experience as an objectively unskilled white male player with the “hostile environment for many women and people of color” Gray documents in her book (xxiv), I can say that my frustrated teammates would create that same space filled with the same slurs. That is to say, though the deviant language was not directed toward a player of color, the ‘locker room talk’ was normalized and viewed as “just a part of the virtual gaming community” through their constant usage (40). Whenever I talked to my friends about this language they were using in person, they would say that they never said that kind of thing in real life- perhaps a sign of Gray’s “dissociative anonymity”, perhaps not (40). I still think often about how distressing these multiplayer experiences were from even my own privileged position, and whether I could have invested even more time in showing my friends that there was a “negative valuation” (36) on this language instead of just getting upset and playing by myself. Whatever the case, by the time I went to college I was ready to leave games and the gaming gamers who play them behind.

Throughout most of my college life, I did not play video games at all. This changed when I began living by myself while working for Anheuser-Busch. For the first time since high school, I had disposable income and lots of time alone to fill. Having played single-player games extensively in high school due to my mainly negative relationship with online gaming, I thought that a gaming console could be a good way to fill the time. However, many of the games that I played tied a single player experience to hegemonic masculinity in problematic ways (for instance, Gears of War per Gray, or other games that involved police or military heroics.) Inevitably, I found myself drawn back to a whimsical parody in the Borderlands series, which is at once crude and nonsensical- the violence in this text is so blatant as to resemble parody, and by portraying aliens and monsters instead of naming any country or community in particular it is somewhat less problematic. (Not perfect, just less blatant.)

 For this final journal, I made the decision to move back into the realm of online play just to give it another chance. Borderlands 3 features online cooperative matchmaking, meaning that I was able to easily jump into a game (after purchasing the ability to play with others online, which is a can of worms I will not open at this junction.) Though there is a directly adversarial mode available, I decided to jump into cooperative play with a similar level character in the campaign mode. Immediately, I saw the advantage of this play, as we were able to revive each other often and eventually get through the difficult boss fight that had ended my session last week. Neither of us had a microphone, so all of our communication came from jumping, movement, and dropping items; for instance, I picked up a high-tier pistol that was actually worse than the one I was using, so I threw it on the ground next to him during an elevator ride. In the next mode I played, I joined a party of three higher-level characters to complete a ‘raid,’ wherein we fought our way through a long corridor filled with monsters I had never encountered before. Though we had the same communication methods (jumping, dropping weapons, etc.) we also used a sort of ‘tagging’ mechanic, where whoever was struggling with a bigger enemy was able to point directly and notify us via in-game graphic and sound which creature to concentrate our fire on. It seems, without a microphone, the online disinhibition may have swung in this case toward the benign (Gray, 39). 

I actually quite enjoyed both of these sessions, perhaps because of the lack of voice chat. Am I aware that deviant behavior does not rely on voice chat to exist, only for amplification? Yes. Do I know that narratives in games, especially in AAA games in the fighting or shooting genres, continue to be potentially (and usually) problematic? Definitely. However, these many years later, I realize that while I am technically able to avoid the problematic by distancing myself from it, this is not necessarily the most productive or ethical path. Gray ends her book calling for more specific recognition of black women in the scholastic community (79-80). Though it is neither my place nor my passion to shift the entire focus of my research to online communities of color, I do intend to reinvolve myself personally. I am ready to go back online and to do what I can by holding deviance to account whenever possible.  This may not be the best path forward either, but positioning myself as an ally rather than an outsider is what I can do right now.