Steven Cherry Hi, this is Steven Cherry for Radio Spectrum.
About ten years ago, I wanted to write an article about why so many rock climbers were scientists and engineers. One person I was eager to talk with was Willie Crowther, who, while employed at BBN in the early 1970s, was one of the founders of the early Internet—there’s even a famous picture of Internet pioneers that includes him—but was also a pioneering rock climber in New England and the Shawangunk mountains of the Hudson Valley. Searching the web for an active email address for him, I kept coming up with a person with the same name who was also a computer programmer and who wrote one of the first—maybe the first—adventure-style computer game. I eventually figured out that there was only one Willie Crowther, who had done all three things—worked on the Arpanet, rock climbed, and wrote a seminal computer game.
November is a big month for the millions of people who devote their time and money to computer games within a two-day period. Sony will be releasing its fifth-generation PlayStation and its main competitor, Microsoft’s newest Xbox, comes out as well.
So it’s a good month to look at the culture of gaming and how it reflects the broader culture; how it reinforces it; and how it could potentially be a force for freeing us from some of the worse angels of our nature—or for trapping us further into them.
I’m not sure I can imagine someone better qualified to talk about this than Megan Condis. She a professor at Texas Tech University and is the author of the 2018 book, Gaming Masculinity: Trolls, Fake Geeks, and the Gendered Battle for Online Culture.
Megan, welcome to the podcast.
Megan Condis Thank you so much for having me.
Steven Cherry The origins of gaming are pretty well represented by rock-climbing Internet-pioneer Willie Crowther, white male engineers of the 1950s and 60s who have leisure time and unique access to the mainframe computers of the era. Megan, you say there are consequences and reverberations of that set of attributes even half a century later.
Megan Condis Yeah. So one of the things to think about with videogames is a lot of times we think about them as these technical objects. But I also like to think about them as stories or as texts. And it maybe is sort of obvious to say this, but people create the types of texts and the types of stories that they would like to see in the world and that appeal to them. And so when you have a medium whose origins are so narrow in terms of who was able to have access to the tools that were needed to create this particular kind of text, then it sets a certain kind of expectation about what type of stories this tool should be used to tell, the type of stories that appeal to, as you said, the straight white male engineers who had access to computer technology in the 70s.
And so even as new generations of gamers start to encounter the pastime and start to get interested in development and start to want to create their own stories within the media, there’s this pressure that exists in terms of what types of genres of story are expected—or what types of communities you imagine yourself to be creating for—that remains in place. Like there’s these pressures that say we expect gamers to be members of these certain demographics. And so, of course, if you want your game to be successful, then you should create for those demographics, at least within [the] triple-A version of the industry where we’re risking millions of dollars on creating a product in hopes that it’s going to recoup its costs.
We can see that even in the early origins of gaming in the 70s and 80s, there were exceptions to these rules. So there were women developers, people of color, queer people who are developing games. But oftentimes the communities in which they were rooted held them up as the exceptions to the rule. Or, these creators were making games for outsiders to the community or they were trying to bring people into the gamer community. All of which are descriptions that take for granted who the gamer community is or who we expect gamers to be.
Steven Cherry I was really surprised to learn that among consumers of videogames, African-Americans are currently overrepresented.
Megan Condis Yeah, I think that’s interesting. If we kind of break down that number, you might ask questions about like, well, what machines are different demographics using in order to game? So who’s gaming on PC versus who’s gaming on console versus who’s gaming on mobile? But yeah, I think if you look at just games as a whole, you’re playing an interactive game on a digital device, it’s a lot more diverse of a population than we might think. And yet when you look at images of gamers in advertisements or in the media, like if you’re watching a movie about gamers like Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. It’s this one particular image of the nerdy white guy who lives in his parent’s basement, who comes to stand in for what we expect gamers to look like. Even though, you know, depending on the context or depending on the type of game or depending on the type of hardware, different groups filter into gaming culture in different ways.
Steven Cherry Yeah, you’ve written and talked a lot about Ready Player One. I need to give a heads up for listeners: There are going to be some spoilers here. The book is about 10 years old and the movie almost three. This is a story that’s set in a gaming universe. A universe in which gaming is both an escape from reality and a way of creating real-life success.
Megan Condis I think Ready Player One is interesting because it’s this fantasy version of our world today. Our world today is extremely game of offside in the sense that, if you go to school, a lot of times kids are learning via digital gaming apps. If you get a job, a lot of times the training that you go through, it takes the form of gaming apps. But also, you know, even things that aren’t expressly presented to us in gaming contexts often are based in the same architecture of surveillance and measurement. And in order to succeed within this particular context, you have to assemble enough points or enough reputation or likes on social media or whatever. So there’s so many different ways in which we engage with these digital gamified contexts. And being good at strategically engaging with those systems, being a gamer who is able to kind of hack those systems is how you achieve success today. And so Ready Player One takes what our world already is, this world in which we’re surrounded by these overlapping contexts of digital surveillance and gamification and says, “But what if the games in which we were embroiled were fun games? What if they were games that let us engage with pop culture or games that let us express our skill at manipulating a controller, as opposed to the kinds of reputation management systems where you’re just curating your online presence or you’re maximizing the efficiency of your CV or whatever it happens to be.
And so it’s this fantasy of we’re all gamers in a sense, by which I mean we all have to play the games that corporations and governments and institutions have set up for us. And navigating those games is how we make it in the world. But Ready Player One offers us the fantasy of what if those games were actually fun and what if we could, by participating in those games, be praised for the kinds of knowledge of the kinds of skill that we would enjoy cultivating, as opposed to the types of knowledge or skill that institutions require of us.
Steven Cherry In Ready Player One there’s a bunch of ways in which the real lives of the gamers become game-like. For example, the ways in which the hero Wade pursues the woman he loves—he reenacts scenes from rom-com movies such as the classic Cameron Crowe teen movie Say Anything—in a way very similar to the way the game at the center of the novel requires the competitors to reenact scenes from movies like the 1983 classic teen adventure story, War Games. Maybe nothing represents the fluidity between real life and gaming and the fluidity across meta-levels for gamers than Gamergate. I mean, you can just remind us what Gamergate was about.
Megan Condis Ah, man, that’s that’s hard. So I say that’s difficult because Gamergate means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And so to summarize it is necessarily to take a perspective on it. And I’m sure there will be people who will object to the perspective that I take on it. And that’s ... I’m OK with that. But to me, what Gamergate was about ... It started off as a kind of interpersonal conflict between a guy who felt like he had been slighted by his girlfriend and who kind of wanted to recruit the Internet onto his cause and get them to take his side in their interpersonal conflict. But then it ended up spiraling out from there into becoming a story about how women are treated within gaming culture and particularly within the press that covers gaming culture.
So there was this feeling that gamers were getting denigrated in the press or looked down upon by the press. They were being dismissed as these geeky guys who were unsuccessful at getting the girl or who were unsuccessful according to the traditional measures of masculinity. And so it became this cause of fighting back against these people in the media who are giving gamers a bad name and who are trashing what it means to be a gamer. And I think because the origins of this squabble began in this interpersonal conflict—and because a lot of the journalists who were being targeted as people who are saying bad stuff about gamers were women—it ended up becoming this battle of “feminism is the thing that is giving gamers a bad name.” “Feminists are calling gamer culture sexist.” “They’re saying that if you are a gamer, you are by necessity hating women. And so we want to push back against that.”.
And ironically, unfortunately, the manner in which a lot of the participants in Gamergate pushed back against that was to attack female journalists using the fact that they are women as their mode of attack. So gendered attacks, sexual harassment online, doxing people, threatening people and just using a lot of hatred towards the idea that women would have something to say about this culture that they considered to be a safe space to be a guy, and to do masculine things that—like Donald Trump’s proverbial locker room—like the locker room talk that they felt like now their locker room was being invaded and they were being told, you’re not allowed to have this kind of discourse exist in this space.
Steven Cherry It’s funny, I was going to ask you if you thought Gamergate in any way presaged the broader culture wars that we’re seeing in real life, especially in politics.
Megan Condis I do think Gamergate was a preview of some of the issues that were to come. So from 2014 to today, we see a lot of different venues in which this figure of the male who feels like their place in the world has been taken away from them, that they don’t have the same opportunities as they used to have. But also, I think Gamergate was a precursor to the rise of the alt-right in the culture wars, in the sense that there were outlets such as Breitbart.com or various alt-right affiliated writers that very intentionally waded in to the Gamergate debate and tried to stoke those fires, spread the hashtag, spread the kind of terminology or ideology that they wanted to spread within those circles as—I’m going to use the word recruitment, or at least as an onboarding mechanism—to try to introduce a group of people who probably before 2014 didn’t think of themselves as particularly political, but could be introduced to the political implications of what their hobby could mean or what their feelings of being erased; how that might be useful to be recruited into a particular ... not a political party, per se, but a political ideology.
Steven Cherry Getting back to the movies for a moment, you say that gaming and the broader mindsets of, and about, computer programmers spill over into other aspects of our culture made me think of the operating system in the 2013 Spike Jones movie, Her which is given an active mind and personality and which (or who) the protagonist Theodore inevitably falls in love with. (Sorry, another spoiler.) Are checkbots becoming another overlap between virtual life and real life?
Megan Condis Hmm. So when I think about a chatbot, at least in the current iteration of a chatbot, I’m thinking about a machine that’s designed to provide the esthetic of a conversation. And a lot of times I think the way that we like to engage with chatbots is to try to find the limits of what they can understand. Some thinking about, like Microsoft’s chatbot Tay that was introduced on Twitter and the kind of big selling point of Tay was that the more that you talked with her, the more that she would learn and the better that she would be able to respond. And so people decided to turn engagement with Tay into a game that was designed to see how far they could push the limits of this chatbot to see if there were any boundaries that had been built into her software. And unfortunately, what they discovered was that the programmers who created Tay had not installed any protections for her to get her to filter out any content. And so she was taught by the Internet—people who were playing this game with her—to use a lot of racist and sexist language. And so the game was ... I don’t think the game was we’re going to turn a robot into a racist or sexist. I think the game was what are the limits of the system that has been presented to me? And do those limits—like the linguistic limits that were programmed into this robot—do they match the kind of social limits that are generally agreed upon in society? Was this robot built with the social contract already installed into it? Or could we create a new version of the social contract by teaching this robot that this language that usually would be considered unacceptable or rude is okay? And what they discovered is that actually, they could do it.
Steven Cherry So the game was to get the chat up to acquire characteristics that Microsoft hadn’t intended. But that’s a wide universe of potential characteristics. Do you think there’s any significance to the fact that these people went straight for racism and sexism?
Megan Condis I’m not sure. It also could be Tay—the chatbot—was personified, was given this ... You know, she was given a gender, she was given a face, she was turned into a human person. And so rather than being just the disembodied Alexa or the chatbot that pops up that says, can I help you with your purchase when you’re on a Web site. Because it was this bot that was personified as a teenage girl, maybe it becomes more interesting or more provocative to have the, quote-unquote face of this racist, sexist language be this teenage girl’s face. So, yeah, I’m not really sure about that. But that’s something interesting to think about.
Steven Cherry In a 2018 talk you said that gamers are ready to take over the world. Is that more true today or less?
Megan Condis I think it is more true in the sense that, as I kind of alluded to earlier, I think game developers took over the world 10 years ago. I think, you know, even people who whose job doesn’t say in their job description “I am a game developer” are often creating systems that we use to manage the world that are at root games or at least, you know, gamified. They have a set of rules. You act within a structured system according to those rules. Your success or loss-condition is governed by those rules. And I think what is happening more and more is that gamers—so game players who have been living within these gamified systems for the last decade—are starting to realize the power that they might be able to wield within those systems and the ways in which they’ve been trained now for a long time to think about navigating these systems in terms of efficiency and in terms of strategy. And they’re now starting to think, okay, rather than getting really good at navigating these systems and the intended ways, what if we were able to find some of the unintended, unexpected ways to navigate that system? And what if we were able to take our skills at breaking a system down and finding the most efficient pathways through that system—what if we could turn that to our own advantage or to the collective advantage of the users.
And the Tay example then, the Tay chatbot example, is an example of people doing just that, not necessarily towards a productive end or towards like a revolutionary end, but just for fun. Let’s see if they haven’t thought of all the ways in which we could break the system. But more and more, I think gamers are starting to come together and think about the ways in which rather than just playing for the sake of play, what if we were to play for our own purposes? And what if we were able to have some say in the way in which these gamified systems were developed rather than just existing within those systems and trying our best to succeed within those systems?
Steven Cherry We’re currently living in something of an alternative reality with new rules for day-to-day life. I’m referring, of course, to the Coronavirus pandemic. Has it directly affected the gaming world and gamers?
Megan Condis So I think it’s really interesting. A couple of years ago, the World Health Organization had put out this notice that they were going to be investigating addictive gaming behavior. And there was this big outcry within the gaming community that the World Health Organization was pathologies and gaming, and they were stigmatizing gaming and saying that it was like an unhealthy thing to engage with.
And when the coronavirus hit, the WTO ended up releasing a statement that talked about how when people were in quarantine and when they were isolated, gaming could be a crucial means of self-care, a really important way for people to be able to have social interaction besides just watching TV or like passively consuming media. It would be a way for people to be able to reach out and talk and engage with others even though they were stuck at home.
And so I think what the Coronavirus has done is it has forced a lot of institutions that maybe were wanting to dismiss gaming as frivolous or as escapism—as not real—and getting those institutions to recognize that the social interactions that you have in a virtual world are real, they can be productive and supportive and they can be useful in keeping people’s mental health up and can be great as self-care.
But then the flip side of that, of course, becomes ... that also means that the negative social interactions that you have in the virtual worlds are also real. And so that, you know, that raises some questions about moderation practices and safety online, especially for young kids. You know, if young kids are going online and they’re having negative social interactions with trolls or people who are acting abusive to them online, then is that the same as being bullied in their classroom face to face? Is that something that we do have to worry about in addition to the sort of productive, positive relationships and friendships that they could be forming online?
Steven Cherry So that’s twice it’s come up that people used to—and maybe still do—look down on games and gamers, the first was the question of whether the press looked down on them in Gamergate. Do people in academia, look down on professors who focus on games and gaming culture?
Megan Condis Whoa. Okay. So I’m not tenured yet. So, as an object of study, I think academia is very welcoming towards looking at games as this object that’s worthy of study, if only because it’s so omnipresent. Most articles and books about gaming open with this paragraph that says there are so many millions of gaming consoles and households across America and the gaming industry makes so many millions of dollars or whatever. So, you know, I think academia is very open towards looking at games as an object of study.
Over the past 15 years, academia has gotten a lot better about being willing to entertain different methodologies of looking at games. So 15, 20 years ago, yes, let’s study video games. We’re gonna study them in terms of media psychology and are going to study them in terms of the effects of video games on the development of brains and stuff like that. But over the course of time, as people got more familiar with video games and more comfortable with video games, academia started to become more open to, well, maybe we could apply humanities-oriented methodologies, maybe we could close-read video games in the same way we would give a novel or a painting or statue close attention as an art object. Or maybe video game cultures—and fan cultures generally—might be worthy of study in the same way that other types of communities or other types of relationships or organizations are considered worthy of study.
Steven Cherry Ironically, Willie Crowther wrote his adventure game for his young daughters as something they could play while visiting him after he and his wife divorced. He’s quoted as saying that his adventure game was deliberately written in a way that would not be intimidating to non-computer people—using natural language commands, for example. You write your own games, I gather mainly as teaching tools. Do you think if you wrote a commercial game, it would be hard to navigate your way through the stereotypes of gaming and the expectations of gamers?
Megan Condis Oftentimes, it’s not necessarily in the writing of a game. That process becomes difficult. It’s more in terms of the marketing of the game, because in the indie gaming scene, there’s tons of people who are writing extremely personal stories, who are writing games that engage with political topics and culturally specific topics and that are narrowcasting towards this really specific audience. And that’s OK when you’re directly marketing your game to people through Kickstarter or Patreon or what have you and you’re able to directly communicate with your audience. I think that one of the problems with commercial games is there’s this expectation in the video game industry, just like the film industry, television industry, that you’re going to need to target your game towards an audience that’s considered safe, that can be relied upon not just to purchase the first game in this series, but the 10th game in the series down the line. And up until extremely recently, the videogame industry had placed its bet on the young teenage male and said, this is going to be the audience that we’re gonna develop as our most reliable audience.
And so we don’t want to take risks in marketing games towards other people, even though we know in our own studies that other types of people are playing this game. We just don’t want to risk reaching out and marketing to those other people because we don’t want to alienate our core. And I think in the last five years, the video game industry has realized that that audience is pretty saturated. They are extremely reliable, but they’ve kind of kept out—in terms of how many people that are in that target demographic that they haven’t already reached yet.
Steven Cherry The movie industry is risk-averse in many of the same ways, especially with respect audience... And so there are the equivalents of independent movies in the game world?
Megan Condis Absolutely. So it’s kind of this loose, just like the film industry, where ... What makes you an indie film? Lots of debates around that. But I think a kind of quick and easy definition would be unaffiliated developers who either as individuals or small teams create game projects that aren’t released through the studio system or that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to buy as a physical disk at your local GameStop, but rather are distributed on the Internet.
And so there’s a lot of indie games that get released through steam for P.c or that even get distributed via crowdfunding. So they will go out and find their audience before they even begin the process of developing in order to ensure that they have a sufficient wellspring of people to draw from in order to fund their game. But yeah, I think that the indie scene is a really exciting place for looking at the diversity being improved within gaming culture.
And it’s also a great—I don’t know if this is the right word—like a great stable that the AAA industry can now pull from. So you see someone who created a really successful indie game that addresses some of these questions of diversity and inclusion, and then you have a big company like an EA or Ubisoft who says, you know, we really want to reach out to that demographic. We can look to the indie scene and see here are some developers who have already made relationships with these demographics that we’re hoping to court. We can pull this person up and hire them into our system in order to try to pursue those same demographics with our AAA games.
Steven Cherry We’ve seen that in the movie world, too, where people go from independent director to Star Wars director.
Megan Condis For sure.
Steven Cherry Final question. Are there cultural differences between the PlayStation and the Xbox and in any event, which device’s release are you more looking forward to?
Megan Condis Ooh. It’s one of those things where there are definitely fans of the PlayStation versus the Xbox, and they would say, “it’s totally different and we have this totally different culture.” But I think someone looking in from the outside was, hey, they’re very similar. If you have—I don’t know, any fan culture, right—fans of Star Wars might say we like Empire Strikes Back better than Return of the Jedi. But if you’re not already in that conversation, it just all looks the same to you. So for myself, I mean, I’ve gone back and forth. I ... back when the PlayStation 1 and 2 were out, I was definitely diehard PlayStation.
And then I ended up switching over to the Xbox for the previous generation. But right now, I’ve been playing a lot of PlayStation exclusive titles, Horizon Zero Dawn was a big favorite of mine. It’s just now finally starting to migrate over to other consoles. Based on the last couple of years, I would say probably immediately following release, I would be excited about the PlayStation 5. But, you know, it just always depends on which ecosystem is able to land the games that you’re interested in. And the nice thing about being an adult. So when I was a kid, it was Nintendo versus Sega. And when you’re a kid, your parents are like, I’m only going to buy you one. So you have to pick one. And then you have to make sure and always argue for yourself. Like, I picked the right one. It’s got all the best games because you’re a kid, you can’t go by both. But the nice thing about being an adult is, well, if the X box does come out with something that I really want to go after, I don’t have to go call my mom and beg her to get me the other console. I can actually get both of them if I really want. Now that I’m saying that out loud, that’s very privileged, too, right? So I’m very grateful for that.
Steven Cherry So it seems, though, that there isn’t the same sort of lock into a platform where we’re seeing what we’ve always seen with personal computers, Mac versus Windows, phones, iPhone versus Android. Even in the car world, people are starting to be locked into a platform—somebody who has driven a Prius for 10 years is so used to the Prius interface, they’re going to get another one. But that doesn’t seem to be the case in the game.
Megan Condis Well, I would say console exclusives or, yeah, that idea that if you want to play Final Fantasy, it’s PlayStation or nothing, right, that idea is still kicking around in gamer culture. I think it meets a lot more resistance from gamers today than it used to. And it seems to me like usually what happens is if a game is going to be exclusive to one console or another, it often stays exclusive the first year or two after release and then after that it will migrate to other consoles. So usually if you wait long enough, you can get a chance to play some of these games that maybe initially were kept away from you, but still a lot of times that means you missed the critical discourse around a game, like you didn’t get to participate in the initial moment of reaction. The same, like we’ve talked about spoilers earlier, like you mentioned, spoilers for films. You can get spoiled for games, too. And if you don’t get to play it right when the game comes out, sometimes you feel like you missed out on being a part of that critical mass.
Steven Cherry Well, Megan, games provide a refuge from a fractious world, even as they reflect and even reinforce it. And maybe this episode can provide some refuge from a confusing world, even as we try to understand it better. Thank you for your research and thanks for joining us today.
Megan Condis Thank you so much. It was really fun. I hope I was able to be helpful.
Steven Cherry We’ve been speaking with Megan Condis, a professor of game studies at Texas Tech University and the author of Gaming Masculinity, published by the University of Iowa Press in 2018, about the manifold ways gaming culture influences our broader culture.
This interview was recorded October 12th, 2020.
Our thanks to Miles of Gotham Podcast Studio for audio engineering; our music is by Chad Crouch. Radio Spectrum is brought to you by IEEE Spectrum, the member magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.
For Radio Spectrum, I’m Steven Cherry.
Note: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.
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