It came to me back in 2001 during a Halo marathon with a friend.
The friend in question, who had never played an Xbox game before but was familiar with Playstation games like Spyro and Crash Bandicoot, had decided it was worth a shot. One hour in, she paused the game, face twisted in frustration. Xbox controllers (which were at the time fondly known as “The Fatty” for the bulky design), she said, were inherently sexist.
“Look at it,” she said. “This thing is massive! Whose hand is it meant for?” Not, the controller said to my friend, for women, who on average have smaller hand spans than men. “It’s ridiculous,” she continued. “I shouldn’t have to fight to have the character do what I want it to do.”
Fifteen minutes later, she was back to playing but that momentary comment stuck with me—has stuck with me. Since then, it has amassed into a kind of fascination with game systems and the relation they have to the real-life and digital worlds we inhabit. In particular, game controllers have become a curious puzzle that I find myself returning to with every new iteration of a game console, with every game that tries to use the controller in an innovative way (take, for example, InFamous: Second Son and holding the controller sideways and rattling it in order to spray-paint walls).
What became explicit to me then, and what has only become even clearer as the years have continued, were three things: first, the idea that technology is somehow outside the realm of the pervasive and persistent social issues non-dominant groups face everyday—from sexism to racism—and, therefore, incapable of replicating these systems of oppression was entirely incorrect. Technology was and is only as good as the people who make it and use it, and people are indoctrinated into certain social constructs in insidious and often unapparent ways.
Second: that it’s often impossible for a person to become aware of the ways in which (s)he adheres to and encourages certain damaging structures, unless (s)he is able to remove her or himself from the “first-person” and instead view her or himself as in the “third-person”. I happen to have particularly large hands; in fact, my hands are often larger than most of my friends and colleagues. I had objectively understood that the controller my friend held was large but I had never thought about the ways that its form and structure served to alienate others until I stepped back. Even beyond the action of playing, think of the over-proliferation of video game characters—in fact, individuals in any sort of media—that are white males. Any individual behind the game controller who does not fit the mold of “white male” is made to, in essence, experience “white male” hood.
And, third: that video game consoles–in particular, video game controllers–are liminal spaces. They inhabit and embody a space between two experiences, two imaginings. What does it mean to hold what can be considered a translation tool in our hands and translate ourselves into a digital space? How do we think of the console as a critical tool, a piece of technology that enacts certain social spaces and ideas? How can the tensions created in a liminal space translate into the “real world” and vice-versa?
Think of the violent outpouring of death threats against women in the gaming industry. For example, those of you who have been following gaming news will immediately recognize names like Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, and Zoe Quinn and the fervor that their criticism of the gaming industry brought about during #GamerGate. Women who dare to voice opinions in the gaming industry are often viciously shut down and are the recipients of intense scorn and hatred for daring to stick their noses in this “man’s world.”
Why is it that such a strong reaction can be engendered from a woman isolating and deconstructing the ways in the patriarchy is replicated in media? Why do we see this barrier appearing around video games, as if it were some sort of Holy Grail that needs to be shielded from hunters? Perhaps it might have something to do with the game controller, the idea of trans-humanism and what I like to call the “Myth of Godliness.”
Sure, you think me crazy now. But stick with me. I’ll get you through this.
Point the First: The Age of Englightenment
It seem a bit strange to begin my argument—or exploration, as it were—with an era that seems to have nothing much to do with the way we experience media today (which is to say, the Age of Enlightenment didn’t have televisions, nor did it have technology remotely close to the level of technology we use in our daily lives today.) But we need to return to the then to understand the ideas propelling the now, especially since the Enlightenment was an era that has everything to do with how we produce technology today.
The fervor, not just the gaming industry, but in so many science and technology fields, surrounding the role of women that we see today is nothing new. The patriarchal paradigms that have structured and defined our society, at its best, differentiates between the sexes; at its worst (which is to say, always) it defines one sex as “human” and the other as “less than.” Such a ideology has shown itself to be most virulent when you least expect it, a recrudescent virus that appears just when you think you’ve finally eradicated it. Even worse, it bolsters itself with language that oftentimes hides its true purpose.
Such a statement sounds like the premise for a comic book villain, doesn’t it? But what’s more terrifying: that a statement such as the one above is ridiculed or that a statement such as that needs to be said?
The Age of Enlightenment was cultural movement of intellectuals that in theory did all the right things, for all the right reasons. The emphasis on reason and individualism, rather than tradition and emotion, that its most staunch supporters practiced helped to create the foundation of Western society. The Age has been hailed as a shining beacon in human history and in some ways it really was, as the benefits the West reaped from the free circulation of ideas were enumerable.
But, like everything, there was one (of many) major flaw during this period. I’ll give you a hint: go check out the Wikipedia page for The Age of Enlightenment. Read the names that appear in the summary at the top of the page.
Read them again.
Notice the problem yet?
Yup, that’s right: every single one of those names are male.
If you go on to read the rest of the page, there are very, very, very few female names amidst the swath of male ones.
Now, I don’t at all view Wikipedia as the know-all-end-all of knowledge. And I’d be the first to admit that the androcentric summary is undeniably a result of a number of factors, including the fact that history is in fact his-story and that, no matter how much they might have accomplished, changed, and/or created, women have little to no part in it.
Nonetheless, this androcentric summary actually has a lot to do with the ideas that were encouraged during this time.
Feminism has been critical of an Enlightenment mode of thinking that understands being human as intimately associated with the qualities of reason, rationality, and maleness.
Throughout her keynote text, The Bane of Reason: ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Western Philosophy (1984), feminist philosopher Genevieve Lloyd confronts and unpacks the gendered assumptions lining Enlightenment values of reason to the construction of the human as an implicitly male subject…As woman is aligned with nature, irrationality and the body, in direct opposition to culture, reason and the mind, she cannot occupy the position of the human subject. Woman is never ‘fully’ human.
–Cyborg and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture, and the Postman Body. Toffoletti, 21
Succinctly put, the dark specter of the patriarchy still overshadowed in the ideas born out of this era. Even as man became more “logical”, even as he gained the language needed to define his human existence, what also came to fruition was language of the non-human. This language of “absence” and of the “Other” further relegated woman to a status of “less than”, of “sub-human.” Not only that, women were seen as incapable of ever achieving the same “human” status as men.
Of course, with the help of men, women could come close.
As long as they were vetted and repeatedly given the third degree by their colleagues.
Oh, and as long as it was a man who brought the woman into the fold; it wouldn’t do to have a woman suggesting how to do things. And God forbid they try to be in positions of power. They’d just ruin everything with their emotions leaking everywhere.
Point the Second: Post- and Trans-humanism
Narrator: Steve Austin. An astronaut. A man barely alive.
Oscar Goldman: Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology . We have capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better…stronger…faster.
Fast-forward a couple hundred years to the late 20th century and the premier of the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man. One of the biggest shows of the 70’s, it featured a main character who, after being servely injured in an accident, becomes the world’s first bionic man. Imbued with the ability to run faster, see better, and punch harder, he became a live-action example of what could be offered if one became “more than human”. If one became “post-human”. The six million dollar trans-human.
The literal definition of post-humanism is “after humanism” or “beyond humanism”. It’s a definition that’s short enough to get you through a dinner party or two when you’re asked to explain what the term means; worse case scenario, you’ll be able to talk about something during Thanksgiving dinner as your family frantically searches for a topic that isn’t politics/gender/sexuality/economy/sport team related.
But, in all actuality, post-humanism is much ore nuanced than such a simple definition. What most people think of as post-humanism is in fact trans-humanism. Trans-humanism has often been criticized for its fetishization and single-minded celebration of the man and technology as one.
In popular imaginings, the trans-human = technology + man. He is greater than the sum of his parts and usually a hero (and if he can’t be a hero, then he’s usually the most fearsome bad guy ever).
And yes. If you’ve picked up on the fact that I used “his” instead of “his/her” then I assure you, the use of the male gender pronoun is entirely intentional.
“…the traditional conception of technology is heavily weighted against women. We tend to think about technology in terms of industrial machinery and cars, for example, ignoring other technologies that affect most aspects of everyday life. The very definition of technology, in other words, has a male bias. This emphasis on technologies dominated by men conspires in turn to diminish the significance of women’s technologies, such as horticulture, cooking, and childcare, and so reproduces the stereotype of women as technologically ignorant and incapable. The enduring force of this identification between technology and manliness, therefore, is not inherent in biological sex difference. It is rather the result of the historical and cultural construction of gender. (Wajcman 1991: 137)
This idea of the trans-human as being male has everything to do technology being male. Because such high tech toys stem from logic and anything logical belongs under the purview of men: they control it, they use it, they absorb it. Which suggests that to envision the trans-human using androcentric lenses is to envision man being the only sex brought into the fold of “better than human”. Step back to the Enlightenment period: if men are beings of logic, and logic and reason are the highest standard to be held to, what happens when there is something that is even greater than that? In the paradigm where there is something beyond, something greater than human, it follows that it must be male. Man is automatically elevated to the highest living order.
Which means women, once relegated to the level of nature, will have been elevated to the level of human, right? Right?
Point the Third: Prosthetics and Godliness
So, technology exists only for men, to be used by men, and absorbed by men. Okay, fine—now we’re back to my friend’s earlier point about controllers being made to be used by men and not women. But let’s take step back and instead look at controllers as a prosthetic and as the most ubiquitous form of trans-humanism.
Video games are a type of technology that requires at great deal of not only emotional and psychological but also physical investment. The game does not begin and cannot continue on unless you are physically, mentally and emotionally present; the characters are not real unless you enact their actions. The controller we hold in our hands is a type of prosthetic—one that has might not have real-world consequences but certainly has real world consequences. The controller—and the system itself— unlimits the body by placing our actions into a fantasy context and allowing us to accomplish things that the human body would otherwise be incapable of. It brings us, through first- and third-person gameplay, the closest we can get to being better than human than any other medium.
A game like Watchdogs serves as the perfect example of this. You play as Aiden, a man on a mission to avenge his niece’s murder (because that’s how male characters develop–the women in their lives die) . Aiden is established from the get-go as a superior hacker through the use of a cellphone, which as his primary mode of accessing knowledge. Like the game controller does for the player, the cellphone offers Aiden (and, in extension the player) ultimate control of his environment. Furthermore, it gives him almost God-like abilities—near omnipresence and omnipotence.
It’s a game where we see the “Myth of Godliness” come into play. Both the character and the player are aware of their mortality; however, though to use of some sort of device that augments and elevates their human-ness to a higher level, they can achieve extraordinary things. This, in of itself, is not a bad thing. The problem arises when the self–both the digital character we play as, and our real-life self–comes into contact with damaging and insidious cultural and historical traditions.
Which explains why only men are “allowed” to become trans-human.
Women are only allowed in this fantasy world if they are an object brought in by men. Want to know why there are so many video games that portray women at best as titillating wallpaper and at worst a prostitute stabbed repeatedly by the protagonist in order for him to level-up? Because women are still “ sub-human and ostensibly need to be tamed by the male hand—especially in this world where “logic” and “maleness” are supreme. Furthermore, what better way to affirm and reaffirm one’s masculinity than by 1) physically (and the physicality is so important because hey! What better way to be male than to punch your way through things?) beating down anything non-masculine and 2) playing the “White Man’s Burden” trope and saving the backwards, hopeless, “native” (because, after all, women are a part of nature and, therefore, irrational beings incapable of any civility).
It’s tied up in the whole “chivalry” trope. Men are supposed to open doors for women because then he controls her access to everything. He can lock her out of rooms. Or worse, he can lock her in. Either way, he’s saving her.
But, here’s the reality of the situation: a huge chunk of game consumers are actually female. And women use game consoles just as men do. So what to do with with all these women who aren’t objects but are instead elevating themselves to the same level as men in a world “meant” to be inhabited solely by men, using technology that is “inherently” male?
Because, to intrude upon, deconstruct or play any part in the formation of this space of logic is to intrudes in the space that has been “established” as inherently masculine. It is the same thing as telling men that every truth they hold on to about the sanctity of maleness is in fact not a misconception but a gruesome and debilitating falsehood that they have gullibly bought—hook, line and sinker.
You are in fact telling him that the prosthetic that makes him greater than human, that makes him a god, is nothing more than a tool and lies in the same category of item as a pot spoon. The presence of real woman shatters the myth of godliness.
Their prostethic is no more special than a door handle: it gets you into and out of worlds you can’t see, but doesn’t give you the powers of a god. The presence of the female “delimits” the abilities of their bodies to have any real consequence on any world. The insult grows even further when the fantasy world that he has invested in—emotionally and psychological—does not hold up.
I’m writing this on the premise that no video game is logical; in fact, it’s impossible to have a video game that’s logical (one word: bugs). And let’s not even get started with the fact that reality itself is not logical. But for the gamers who have such visceral reactions to women in the gaming industry, the fantasy worlds that have been built around them are absolutely logical–to them. The presence of a real woman not only shatters the fantasy world of the game but also shattering the fantasy world that has been his life up until now. And no one likes being told no.
Let me take a moment and be real with you.
I am writing this essay in an attempt to merge three seemingly disparate ideas that, increasingly in the past few weeks, have been consuming my consciousness. So the connections I make may be pure speculation; I don’t claim to be a psychoanalyst (if I counted the three courses I took as an undergraduate on the topic as enough to count as a psychoanalyst, then there’d be a heck more psychoanalysts out there.) Nor do I claim to be an expert on what goes on in the mind of male gamers who subscribe to the belief that women have no place in the gaming world.
And for that matter, nor do I claim to be an expert on the minds of “ nice” male gamers who recognize that the discrimination against and vicious treatment of females both in and without the game world is despicable and yet do nothing about it.
But what I am familiar with and am trying to highlight is the way in which the problems we see in the gaming industry and world does not exist in a vacuum. They exist in gaming culture because they exist in the broader culture that so many of us live in. And while there are so many theories (like post-humanism) and eras (like the Age of Enlightenment) that have connections, both obvious and more subtle, the truth is that without exploring these connections, it’s going to be near impossible to discontinue the spread of these ideas. And if we want to create safe spaces of communication—which video games have the potential to be, given the emphasis on community building, etc—we have to first solve the problem. Because otherwise, all we’ve engendered is yet another generation of six billion dollar problems.