Last week blogging was a little light as I attended the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association 2008 conference (PDF schedule here). The word “geek” came up way more than I expected, considering that I was presenting on my games research and wasn’t even bringing up geeks there myself.
I thought I’d share some thoughts on a few of the panels and presentations I saw, including the panel I chaired in the Digital Games division. It’s not representative of everything I saw, and sadly, I had to miss several things I wanted to catch, but that’s the way things are at a big conference with lots of interesting stuff going on.
Gender Studies I: Performing Gender. I met Heather A. Beasley at an earlier panel, and I’m glad I did; my ears perked up when she said something about geek identity. “Witches, Warlocks, Vampires, and Damsels in Distress: Gender Performance in Live-Action Roleplaying” presents an interesting and challenging question: Does pretending to take on certain traditional (even hegemonic) gender roles actually boost geeks’ self-esteem?
As I’ve written about here before, geek identity is marked for many by an active and vocal rejection of certain cultural norms, including “appropriate” behavior based on gender and maturity. Why, then, do we consume so much entertainment media that seems to affirm traditional gender roles, including the ideals of the heroic man rescuing the damsel in distress? Heather’s specifically studying LARPing, but when you think about it, the same question could be applied to any number of geeky “power fantasy” entertainment media. Come to think of it, I think some geeks get a kick out of seeing the normative gender relations thrown out of whack in such media (e.g., playing a game or seeing a movie with a powerful woman who’s not just a sex symbol), but that makes LARPs and RPGs that much more interesting to consider: Why settle on normative gender roles when you make up the story and characters yourself? The answer, according to Heather, may be that it boosts self-esteem outside the game, remaining separate enough from life to encourage reflection on real-world gender relations (though she acknowledges the flip side, the potential danger of reifying stereotypes). This project is just getting started, so I’ll be interested to keep up with it.
Television I: Gender and Identity. Amber Botts gave a presentation titled “Nerds and Geeks and Slackers … Oh My? Chuck, The Big Bang Theory, and Reaper’s Geek Chic Romantic Heroes.” It was nice to hear someone outside of blogs and Wired magazine acknowledging the slew of recent shows targeting a geek demographic. I especially enjoyed the examples of how such shows cast men in the traditionally “female” role of heterosexual relationships, such as when Chuck (I think?) dances a tango with a woman but needs her to lead (and gets dipped at the end).
Ultimately, Amber suggests that the geeky guys from these shows are being groomed not to keep challenging gender norms, but to show that they can graduate to more traditionally acceptable male rolesâ€”if not aggressive “alpha” males, then at least to caring and courageous “beta” males. Is there even a way of depicting a “gamma” male such that audiences know they should feel proud of such a character?
Communications and Digital Culture II: The Mainstream/Data Stream. In “‘We Win at the Internet’: The Definition of Digital Mainstream,” Mirian Greenfield reviewed a successful attempt at Google-bombing a politician’s name to be associated with something vile (something we might call “the santorum model”). Ultimately, though, Miriam rejected this as an example of an idea going “mainstream,” as the success of the Google-bomb didn’t necessarily reflect a broader public consciousness of the issue online (if I understood that right).
This led to an extended exchange among audience members about what “the mainstream” really is on the web. Some suggested that for such an item to be “mainstream” in our culture, it would have to be picked up by other media outlets like newspapers and television. This still leaves the question, however, of whether the web has its own mainstream (recognized among the most dedicated users) much in the same way that “mainstream” comics are much more fantasy-genre-focused than mainstream entertainment in other media. If that’s the case, even this Google-bombing may not qualify: It’s just gaming the system, not necessarily representing web-public opinion. I thought it was an interesting conversation, anyway.
Digital Games V: Drugs and Violence. I also got to chair a panel with Jason Farman and Cynthia Nichols. Cynthia (a co-author with Amy Rask and Ian Turnipseed) presented “Video Games: A Potential Influence on Steroid Use Attitudes and Behaviors.” The study found a positive relation between playing Blitz: The League, which allows you to medicate players on the fly, and a positive attitude toward steroid use. This sounds more like correlation than causation to me, but what I found particularly interesting was in the broader scope of the survey the authors conducted, which found that college students who spend a lot of time playing games (that aren’t Blitz) tend to be pretty anti-drug. Given all the negative hype around the effects of games, that seems like a result reporters might find story-worthy. There’s arguably some displacement effectâ€”people who are home playing games aren’t out doing drugsâ€”but what I find even more interesting personally is the possibility that this reflects some value or ideal in gamer/geek cultures.
Next, Jason Farman presented “Hypermediating the Game Interface: Grand Theft Auto and the Alienation Effect.” He discussed how Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas could potentially act as a critique on gangster imagery and violent content when the protagonist is dressed up clownishly, forcing the player to reflect on what’s happening on-screen. I wonder if the argument could be taken even furtherâ€”are all games experienced this way by virtue of the various displays and instructions on screen, breaking the sense of immersion you might get in film? As one audience member pointed out, however, it may be a little too hopeful to suggest that every example of such hypermediation is designed to (or successful at) getting people to reflect on narrative content. Personally, I wonder how common such reflection is beyond folks like Jason and myself, who can’t help but think really hard about the games we play because that’s part of the fun for us.
And as for me, I presented “Getting 1UP on Death: Failure and Consequences in Narrative Video Games” (which I’m soon submitting to a journal, following some revisions and a new title). It’s actually less about violence than about storytelling, suggesting that having to die and retry scenes in narrative games breaks a sense of fictional coherence (building off the ideas of rules, fiction, and coherence proposed by Jesper Juul in Half-Real). I didn’t actually show any slidesâ€”I forgot the adapter to my Macbook, didn’t feel like loading things off a thumb drive onto somebody else’s computer, and didn’t really need pictures anywayâ€”but the notes indicate that there are slides, and I tend to post both my presentation notes and slides here, so there you go.
Thanks… And finally, I just wanted to close by offering a few specific notes of thanks. Thanks to Heather Beasley and Jessica “J.M.” Frey (whose presentation on cosplay I missed, unfortunately) for some interesting conversation over Irish pub music. Thanks to Matt Byrnie for meeting up to chat about geek research. Thanks to Jason Farman, Cynthia Nichols, and everyone who asked questions in the audience for making our panel so fun to be at. And thanks especially to Tony Avruch, co-chair of the Digital Games division, for taking the time to give me a lot of practical input.