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In-Game Representations and the Limits of Games Platforms

The second PerthDAC session for today starts with Adrienne Shaw, who focusses especially on the in-game representation of gay, lesbian, and transgender communities in online games. There is already a complicated history of the presence of such communities in games, which are often ignored, ostracised, or poorly represented. Adrienne has engaged in a programme of research working with such communities to develop a greater understanding of their interests and needs. Such research also links back to questions of representation in other media forms - the discussion of such representation in those forms is repeated here, similarly shifting from invisibility through stereotyping to more intelligent representations.

What is interesting in Adrienne's findings is that the 'gaymers' themselves did not necessarily seek 'gay' games per se - mostly, direct representation in games is seen as a plus for the game, but the quality of gameplay itself remains a major determining factor in the first place. That said, overtly negative representation or the expression of homophobia by other gamers does put gaymers off. Bigotry, especially, remains a major problem in online gamespaces; another, mirror problem is a sense of geek-phobia in gay communities which also leads to the underrepresentation of gay themes and characters in mainstream games. There is an economic dimension here, too - mainstream games continue to contain a limited amount of such representation as the gaymer community remains as yet largely invisible (more female-oriented games also only arose once the presence of female gamers became more visible, for example).

At the same time, there is also a sense amongst the community that more gay-friendly games content may constitute a hollow victory, as such commercial representations are often narrow and stereotypical; the community therefore remains ambivalent about pursuing such aims. On the other hand, the embedding of gay sensibilities in computer games more widely would appear to attract a wider range of gamers - not only those who identify as gay, but also those who share attitudes which similarly diverge from mainstream game stereotypes.

Up next are Tracy Fullerton, Jacki Morie, and Celia Pearce, whose interest is in the gendering of gamespace; the paper they're presenting here is an outcome of the Ludica women's gaming collective. Celia starts by highlighting the role of the game space as setting the context for the game and delimiting the possibilities of action and being within it. Space, of course, is socially constructed; it reveals priorities and perceptions of prevailing culture and time. Video games today are largely a spatial medium, having moved on from the earlier 2D era, and gamespace is now predominantly western, Cartesian, and male. The difference between spatial representations and real space is what makes game rules possible, and space in games is therefore allegorical, commenting on the impossibility of representing real space. At the same time, the unreality of game landscapes also makes them inherently useful for certain types of gameplay.

Female and male conceptions of space may well be different, however. Most gamespaces as they exist today are dangerous or contested spaces, positing space as a colonial domain to be conquered, as a tactical domain for combat, as divided into levels and embedded with secrets - and such representations may well speak largely to male sensibilities. Against this, researchers including Henry Jenkins have called for developers to open up more game spaces for girls, to regender gamespace, and Celia suggests that a return to literary examples may provide some useful impulses here. This might include images of secret interior places, enchanted spaces (as they exist for example in Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Narnia, and other stories), and domestic spaces, for example.

Some game examples for such spaces do exist, for example in The Sims or Animal Crossing which are guided by altruistic notions; Second Life and others where constructing community is central; World of Warcraft and others which can act as social spaces (but here often against the core purpose of the space); and narrative spaces like Myst and Zelda where exploration unlocks new narrative developments. Some artistic projects are also interesting in this context, and may provide further impulses to games development. This might create a more egalitarian approach to play space that engages girls and women as well as expanding the richness of the gamespace for men and boys.

Finally we move on to Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost (but the paper is presented here by Fox Harrell), who shift our focus to the role of games platforms - the hardware and software frameworks that support our applications. Platforms simplify as well as constrain games development by providing a unified framework for it; they introduce specific choices about physical aspects, hardware capabilities, as well as programming environments (and the presentation here focusses especially on the Atari VCS platform). As an early market leader, the VCS was influential in setting many generic and technological conventions for video and computer games which still persist to this day.

There are various levels of digital media studies: reception, interface, form/function, code, and platform. Reception studies deal with aesthetics and reader response, interface studies with human-computer interaction and visual studies; form/function with narratology, cybertext, unit analysis, and procedural rhetoric; code with software studies, code aesthetics, software engineering, and programming language research; the platform with the abstraction level beneath the code which has yet to be studied comprehensively.

The VCS navigated between competitors which relied on more expensive and powerful hardware and those which hard-coded each game onto a unique cartridge circuit; it was competitively priced and managed to generate revenue not from sales of the console, but from sales of games cartridges. It contained a 6502 processor and had only 128 bytes of RAM and a 2kB ROM, but included an advanced graphics chip specially developed for the console which provided for sprites as player-controllable characters - and the capabilities of these chipsets of course influenced the games able to be developed for the console. The example of the VCS is instructive for platform studies more generally, then - and Nick and Ian are now editing a new series of books on platform studies for MIT Press.

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