Thursday, February 13, 2020

All the invisible women - and English as a second language

Recently an interesting article by Amanda Phillips combining PUA rhetoric with game studies history has made some waves in social media, so I decided to have a look at it. Particularly as it was speaking about something I was part of: Gamestudies.org, in year one.

The article is addressing the affective tone of the development of game studies, and as such that is a pretty subjective thing, and agreeing or disagreeing doesn't really matter much. I read it mostly hoping to have fun and get an idea about how people understood what we did.

Imagine my disappointment when we apparently didn't do anything. The article discussed the tone of Espen Aarseth's initial editorial statement, and that was it. It did pretend to include more authors by citing Aarseth, but without letting us know they cited Aarseth: "One author in Game Studies 1, no. 1, even casts new media studies as a 'pseudo-field' invented 'to claim computer-based communication for visual media studies.'"

Once I saw that, I realised that this was a paper that did not engage in historical precision, or even a proper close reading of Aarseth's editorial, but on how a very specific group of people felt about game studies. And if you write about your own feelings and those of your friends, or as the abstract clearly states, a limited affective history, it also explains all the participants who became invisible in this discourse, and the cultural distinctions that are ignored.

Once upon a time we were quite proud of the many very strong women in game studies. Marinka Copier was vital for the first game studies conference, DiGRA. The group that started the Digital Games Research Association had a strong, although not a completely balanced, gender representation, and after the first three years with Frans Mäyrä as president, there were three female presidents: Tanya Krzywinska, Helen Kennedy and Mia Consalvo, until William Huber took over in 2016. The group that started Gamestudies.org had two women and two men among the editors, one women and two men as review editors, and four "collaborators", where one was a man.

In the later discussions of what gamestudies in Europe consists of, these women are to an almost spectacular degree forgotten. Most of them, myself included, had different approaches to games than the more structuralist understanding that articles like Phillips' argue against. Perhaps due to this we were not good enemies in the so-called narratology-ludology debate, and so we were ignored in all positioning papers in literature theory based writing. Perhaps since we are women we were ignored in all discourses about the male-ness of game studies. Emma Vossen, who has written a Ph D Phillips cites actively, has interviewed a group of scholars, but in these interviews the names of most of these original, strong and important women from Gamestudies and DiGRA are not on the radar of neither the interview subjects or the scholars.

Since this is an affective history, the feeling that only the men were important for game studies in Europe is probably entirely correct for an American scholar. But this affective history, that claims to have closely read the writings of Aarseth, forgets one more thing. Aarseth is a Norwegian scholar. English is his second language. And for an American to analyse affective signals in the writings of someone who writes in their second language must be really complicated.

Norwegians are abrupt, direct, and often sharp. Foreigners experience us as rude, inconsiderate and ignorant of common manners. Any scholar who understands about affect (at least the Massumi school) would know that it is based on pre-cognitive experiences, sensations that are hard to analyse, because they rely on experiences which are not quite interpreted. And when your first, affective language is Norwegian and not American English, that matters.

Still, of course, Amanda Phillips feels what she feels when she reads these articles. Emma Vossen has made her own choices when trying to unravel who have power and who have access in game studies. But they are both writing from a very particular position, about a history constructed from a distance about something that was built from a small, diverse (yes, diverse: the group that established DiGRA spoke 9 different languages, the first working group in Gamestudies spoke 6 or 7 different languages), up until that point invisible, community that came together for a series of efforts that has had a huge effect on a field. And it is a level of reflexivity about Phillips', and also Vossen's own position in relation to what they write about, I would have liked to see in their different, otherwise interesting analyses.

And now some of you will claim that I am defending a friend I have worked with for 20 years, and I am annoyed at not being mentioned. Nah, those who know me know I am not blind to Espen's flaws (he knows too), and I am quite happy with not being a tall tree that draws this kind of attention. A little occasional recognition and a job is what I want most of all. :)

But I am really disappointed that Helen, Aphra, Marinka, Susana, Anja, Lisbeth, Jill, Sal, Celia, Mia and all the other women who were part of starting Gamestudies.org and DiGRA have been treated as if they have not had any influence on the history of building a field. There were women at the table. Those who choose to only focus on the men who appear to be great targets for criticism are also complicit in making the women disappear. And these fantastic ladies are a lot more than boring ghosts.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Playing Kingdom

One of the games I have played most frequently recently is Kingdom. I am currently on Kingdom 2 Crowns, which is the third version of it, and I haven't explored all the features yes, but I am still having fun trying to figure out the most efficient way to move through the lands.

Kingdom is a simple sidescrolling strategy/resource management game, where you are a monarch trying to keep your land from falling to the greed in the dark of the night and the depth of the winter. In the two first version you have to flee or fall, while in the third version you have a chance to fight back - even after your fall, as you can spawn at the beginning as a new monarch.

The game is beautiful, with soothing music, and the gameplay is extremely simple - at the beginning you just run back and forth. It is so soothing and simple, I have at times lost because I have fallen asleep and run into danger.

Kids don't immediately catch it, but when they have been interested, it has been as groups. Since it can be played - at least version 2 - on a tablet, it's one I have when I visit the grandchildren. They like to play it if they can play with friends who talk about problem solving, dangers and solutions. It was a huge hit in a recent 7th year birthday, with a group of adorable kids who displayed excellent turn-taking, careful consideration of each other, and a few problems with the strategy. I died once I had the game back, as my bags were empty and the walls too weak, but I had observed some sophisticated reasoning for a pack of sugar-hyped kids running on extra helpings of chocolate pizza.

I play the game to calm myself, or while I am watching television and can't knit. I need something in my hands while focusing on other things. I only focus on this game alone while I am exploring new content. Once I am through, I know how it works, and it becomes more about the right rhythm than about focus, but I have to admit, that has taken me down a few times. Got to keep an eye on those seasons! And yes, I adore a game with seasons.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Comparing privilege - or lack of

Once upon a time, I wrote an article for an American collection, and I used class as an example of inequality. The response was that this would not be understandable to an American public, so I was asked to use ethnicity instead. That was however not something I felt confident with, so I used gender, which was accepted.

Since then, I have tried to understand why being asked to use ethnicity or, to be frank about it, race, as an example of inequality troubled me so much.

There are a couple of simple and obvious explanations, of course. Growing up in a very homogenous Norway, where the family had defined their ethnicity away by deciding we were all Norwegian, I did not have a language to explain some of the lived experience, and so when I tried to see what was happening my tools were all those of an analysis of social class. I quickly found that these were exceptionally functional and flexible, and did embrace a lot of those other differences, which today are spoken about and analysed as intersectionality:
“All of us live complex lives that require a great deal of juggling for survival,” Carty and Mohanty said in an email. “What that means is that we are actually living at the intersections of overlapping systems of privilege and oppression.”
When later class, a common topic in education, public discourse and political activism in the sixties and seventies in Norway was combined with gender, an increasingly debated topic, it offered a type of intersectionality that was easy to understand and deal with. Why then, the problem with ethnicity?

First, the problems with systemic ethnic bias in Norway were very well hidden. After WW2 large portions of the Sami population had redefined themselves as Norwegian when they reregistered and moved back to their home areas after they had been evacuated and Finnmark scorched. Many of them had already been using Norwegian names. My father's fathers had been Morten Mortensen for several generations at this point. At this point they registered as Norwegian speaking, a vital marker for ethnicity.

Second, even within these communities, there was bias. The settled, combined fishing and farming sea sami of the coast resented the nomadic reindeer herders who came with their flocks through carefully nurtured, sparse fields and farms. The nomadic herders resented the settled farmers for closing off their traditional paths. And so being Sami became something backwards, exotic and different, alien to the lives of contemporary Norwegians, apparently a lifestyle choice rather than a culture.

It took years to understand that my own ethnicity blinded me from understanding that of others. Experienced and internalised racism blocked the understanding of other expressions of it. After all, we had just left it all behind and moved on, why couldn't others?

But had we?

Trying to understand what I experienced as a child and how it has designed the understanding of intersectionality I am struggling with today is not a simple task, but we clearly had not moved on. The ethnicity of the past kept rearing its head, for instance in the way my father's dyslexia was treated as a result of him being sami, and so my sisters' dyslexia was never acknowledged, and that meant recognising the same problems in our childrens' generation was that much harder. Reading was a waste of time anyway, right?

Which brings me to the comparisons of privilege. My understanding of the struggles of other ethnicities are still just theoretical, they are learned, not lived. But I have learned that privilege is not simple and one-sided, and so I have a problem when this is not accepted. Being told that I am too white to understand racism when I have my entire life lived in a society where racism is not based on colour, but on language, education, naming and geography, is confusing. I don't quite believe that privilege is that simple. Instead we benefit from something, but are stopped by something else, and the mathematics of privilege becomes as complex as the mathematics of hedons and dolors in Bentham's Felicific Calculus.

While being aware of privilege is extremely important, we need to acknowledge that like the struggle of complex lives, privilege is also relative and varied, and should not be a simple and automatic stamp. And that is what bothered me with the demand to leave class behind when discussing inequality, because class is as important as ethnicity or gender in this arithmetic of privilege. And this is what makes call-out culture and the emphasis on being "woke" such a problem to translate, because both practices focus on relatively narrow understandings of privilege and inequality.

But until we all have an intersectional understanding of privilege, we can make a stab at memorising Bentham's nonsense verse to aid the calculation of hedons and dolors to guide our moral actions:
Intense, long, certain, speedy, fruitful, pure—
Such marks in pleasures and in pains endure.
Such pleasures seek if private be thy end:
If it be public, wide let them extend
Such pains avoid, whichever be thy view:
If pains must come, let them extend to few.