"You Just Get Down To It and Play:" Sylvanas, Anduin and Trends in Games, Gender and Community
Guest Blogger: Dr. Jonathan Cassie
Despite the often fevered rhetoric surrounding gaming, playing games and participating in game-based communities can and frequently does have a positive correlation between questions of gender and other questions that dominate the minds of young people. Mindful that “terms such as ‘masculine' and ‘feminine’ are notoriously changeable; there are social histories for each term; their meanings change radically depending upon geopolitical boundaries and cultural contrasting on who is imagining whom, and for what purpose…” (Thornham, 2011, p. 20), I contend that games are a productive place to investigate notions of gender and the lives of young people. In my book Level Up Your Classroom, I wrote about eight different ways in which games and game playing can be seen as positive forces that improve the lives of players. When considering questions related to young people, gaming and gender, I want to focus on just three of them:
Games and game-playing promote the formation of communities based on the games themselves that expand the lives of millions of players, often based on questions of gender.
Games and game-playing promote social skills.
So, although this isn’t at its core a question of women and video games, for gamer women, games and online games in particular, are noteworthy in the way they build community.
Games create meritocratic spaces and contexts that reward players for the quality of their gameplay and eliminate hostile and negative social constructs that exist beyond the game’s “magic circle."
An important place to start in this conversation is to acknowledge that the topic “games and gender” is not code for “girls and video games.” Recent studies have demonstrated that participation in all forms of video gaming is more or less at parity. One UK study from 2014 showed women ahead in fact, by 52% to 48%. Where gender does show a disparity between women and men is in self-identification as a “gamer,” with far more men claiming that title, particularly in the 18-29 demographic. So, although this isn’t at its core a question of women and video games, for gamer women, games and online games in particular, are noteworthy in the way they build community. The largest massively-multiplayer online roleplaying community can be found in the game World of Warcraft (WOW). That game, which has been continuously in development for more than 15 years, has an unusually rich depth of characters and backstory, with some of the races available to play featuring stories that center on male characters while other races’ history is more profoundly shaped by the decisions of women. In the present iteration of the game, the leader of one of the primary factions in the game, the Horde, is led by Sylvanas Windrunner, the Forsaken Undead Banshee Queen. Her leadership has stretched now across two expansions of the game and, while her current actions are controversial, there is no disputing that she is a powerful, well-written, determined character with deep internal logic and integrity, just like her counterpart, King Anduin of the Alliance. And that is to say nothing of the Alliance hero Jaina Proudmoore, a woman with as much to gain and lose as Sylvanas. WOW has not been perfect and it isn’t now, but it is a millions-strong community that has allowed for the creation of female-centered communities, like podcasts (Girls Gone WOW), Facebook groups, Twitter communities and guilds. Moreover, WOW has guilds that are explicitly focused on enhancing the experience of GLBTQ players and an enter server (Proudmoore) noted for its LGBTQ-affirming culture and emphasis on roleplaying. A challenge to these communities is the ongoing poor representation in the ranks of women employed in the game industry and in game-based journalism. There have been times when the cultures associated with certain games (League of Legends is especially notorious) have expressed gender-based or sexuality-based toxicity. Female journalists working in the games industry have been targeted for specific, misogynist attack. These realities don’t mean that gaming in general is misogynistic or homophobic. Indeed, one study of games and gaming in a domestic context noted that “there are communities of players making game mods [that] have undermined some of the masculinist narratives for games (for example, there are machinima films premised on subverting the homosocial order of game characters by rewriting hegemonic masculine characters as gay lovers” (Harvey, 2015, p. 50).
Games enhance social skills. A 2007 study demonstrated that “kids who played video games on a regular basis had equal amounts of friends to those who did not. Video game playing actually increased social contact, and heavy gamers met each other more frequently after school than children who were not gaming frequently” (de Kort, Ijsselsteijn & Gajadhar, 2007, p.823). One Counter-Strike player noted, “I’ve picked up on French, not a lot of Italian, I know a little Dutch. I play with people a lot, so I’ve picked up on a lot of their words that they use fluently over the microphone, and I’ll use them with them or if I’m playing so they understand me a bit easier,” (Selfe & Hawisher, 2007, p.25). One study of groups of gamers in domestic settings generated results unanticipated to such a degree that the author felt compelled to recontextualize her definitions of what “social” even meant. She noted that “the social is about bodies and about feelings of familiarity. Indeed, all of the households interviewed commented on how gaming was ‘easy sociability.’ Joe goes even further: ’There’s none of those niceties of dull, normal conversation, you just get down to it and play. It’s a nice routine, and easy,’ (Thornham, 2011, p. 93).
Last of all are notions of meritocracy and democracy. Games create spaces that “offer alternative social systems for participants to inhabit, social systems that are built around social values of meritocracy” (Squire, 2008, p. 9). Games care first and foremost about how well you play the game. Dignan (2011) observes that games are great for offering the hard reality check. He writes, “rather than letting our illusory superiority run rampant, [games] force us to face fact, press on, and earn our way into the standing by completing tasks that match and then challenge our skill level,” (Dignan, 2011, p. 40). Another gamer noted, “I found it exhilarating to be in a space where I couldn’t be judged on anything except how well I did in the game…It’s sort of a pure meritocracy. Nobody cares where you’re from, nobody cares what you look like, nobody cares about anything except how you play the game,” (quoted in Toppo, 2015, p. 17). While none of this excuses the often highly gendered (and gendered male) spaces which many video games create, it does suggest that when games are well designed, they have the unique ability to create social, community and learning spaces that can transform all students, be they male or female.
Cassie, J. (2016). Level Up Your Classroom.
Dignan, A. (2011). Game Frame.
Harvey, A. (2015). Gender, Age and Digital Games in the Domestic Context.
Thornham, H. (2011). Ethnographies of the Videogame.
Toppo, G. (2015). The Game Believes In You.
Jonathan Cassie is Director of Curriculum and Innovation at TVT Community Day School in Irvine, California. An educator and lifelong game player, his book on game-based learning and gamified instruction, “Level Up Your Classroom,” was published in 2016.