From a 4 January 2010 conversation between Mary Flanagan and Nick Montfort:
nick: so, I just have this question about the way you (and someone else) reacted to gender stereotyping in a nightmarish/dystopian/stereotypical game environments
nick: you wrote While there are some glaring stereotypes that take away from its freshness and originality (especially in regard to gender; the character’s wife is in the kitchen with a frying pan in the morning and tells the character he is late for work; the office execs are all male, etc.) about Every Day the Same Dream [previously on Post Position]
nick: it struck me because I was describing a student project to a poet
nick: one which was completed before that game launched
nick: but had a similar stereotyped/nightmare world made of words in 3D space
nick: one of which was “wife”
nick: and my poet friend said “spouse”!
nick: but I don’t understand why these negative-valence spaces that embody stereotypes in all these other ways
nick: are supposed to be equitable when it comes to gender
mary: I am not partial to other stereotypes either
mary: unless they are spoofed in incredibly interesting ways
nick: I read Every Day the Same Dream as having entirely white people, too
mary: for example if I brought them all up all the time, I’m a horrible harpy broken record, and that isn’t my point in life. But not bringing things up = acceptance
mary: yes exactly
mary: I agree and I had that in there and then cut it out.
mary: for reason above.
nick: well, I guess I would point those things out as being consonant with the project rather than as taking away from it
nick: the game (and my student’s project) seems to be saying “here is an even more exaggerated version of the stereotypical world”
mary: well that could be. But everdayness, monotony, boredom could be happening to two people following that routine, two men, women, or one of each if we’d like. Or three for that matter. It just the frying pan and housewife just needs to go.
nick: well, they do, eventually &smiley;
mary: Since there are more women than men, why could not the character be a woman going to a drudge job?
nick: but you’re trying to make the game an image of reality instead of nightmare hegemony
mary: you could make the office workers men and women of different races
mary: it annoys me — I have not collected the numbers, but it annoys me that existentialist moments appear to happen more with male characters. 1984. etc.
nick: then, I’d argue, the game would not become more realistic or effective; it would have this sort of parody of workplace diversity in it
mary: well I did add diversity to the LAYOFF game. Everyone started white, the artist (who was Asian) defaulted to white)
mary: well then perhaps that would speak to me as a player as an effective parody
mary: mock diversity says something else, and is interesting. especially in college ads.
nick: yes, but I see that (LAYOFF) as trying to poke a hole through the abstract, we-don’t-expect-this-to-represent-reality type of game to show something about the real world
nick: which is admirable, but it isn’t the same project as these other games
mary: I guess I am rejecting the repeated aesthetic of abstract commentaries that use a represention of all white men.
nick: I’m asking because I’ve heard the same comment twice about the same type of game, from two people whose perspectives I very much respect, but I don’t understand the problem with this particular context – with a dystopian game exhibiting sexism among other stereotypical ills
mary: ah ok
nick: so it’s not that the sexist portrayal is wrong for the context, but that you could have made a different game which made the same point without it?
mary: and possibly a more interesting game, through reworking or challenging these stereotypes
mary: but that remains to be seen in implementation
nick: Jason Rohrer gets complaints about Passage having only a guy avatar as an option
mary: i can see that.
nick: of course, he also has described Passage as autobiographical (although I argue with his use of that term)
mary: it’s not automagically horrific to include men in a game!
nick: sure, and it’s not automatically good in every way to include a hot chick avatar
mary: it is about intentionality
mary: and I don’t think molleindustria was intentionally critiquing white heterosexuality.
mary: in fact…
nick: do you think if the sexism in Every Day the Same Dream were somehow called out as such (I don’t have any ideas about how), and critiqued, it would be better?
nick: perhaps even better than making a gender-neutral version?
mary: but that isn’t the point right now.
mary: of that game.
nick: I’d say it was being critiqued about as much as the automobile was
mary: and granted, 6 days, its a miracle.
nick: well, it’s worthwhile to think about how to improve on a 6-day project like that, though
mary: Hm. It feels different. The automobile isn’t on the receiving end of dates who have sexist attitudes, or jobs with racial bias. Possibly certain critiques are touchier than others.
nick: I guess my feeling is that a sexist world (treated critically) would be more in keeping with the project, or with a project like that, than a gender-neutral one
nick: maybe it’s easier to critique the automobile
mary: that could be true. Then husband and wife could both go to work, but he brings home twice the salary and she still has to cook
mary: that makes it more interesting to me.
mary: it pays attention to a lived condition.
mary: a detail. see what i mean. could be the same for race and such. but details are hard to put into ‘dreams’ and broad strokes, unless we think about it cleverly
mary: I appreciate your inquisitveness here nick.
nick: I guess the game includes a lot of stereotypes, and from my standpoint I don’t see it buying into any of them. but some do call for more critique and treatment
nick: I appreciate the convo
mary: Bringing this stuff is actually harder than ignoring it and moving on.
mary: but I think we need to tease out these implications
mary: not all stereotypes are created equally
nick: I think we should do a blog post, actually
mary: ok i’m game.
8 Replies to “Every Day the Same Dude”
Hey there, interesting conversation.
The funny thing is that my girlfriend, who’s actually a cubicle worker made a similar remark about the gender choice.
I don’t think the author’s intentions are relevant for the reading of a text in general but I’ll write a couple of lines for the sake of discussion.
As I wrote in the oneliner description, EDTSD is a variation on a theme that has been tackled uncountable times in movies, literature or music (see two of my favorite songs: Disaffected by Piano Magic and Ghost of corporate future by Regina Spektor) but not in games as far as I know. The game is actually an adaptation of a short comic I made almost 10 years ago (links below) and it’s more like an exercise in “expressive” game design.
In this sense the guy with tie and case is nothing but a stock character that everybody (in the West) associate to a bundle of values: the productive imperative, the dead-end suburban dream, the Norm etc. The nuclear/patriarchal family is definitely a part of it and it’s indirectly object of the critique.
All the other white guys in the office are instances of the same prototypical character and the player can see it as projections of the main guy, that’s left intentionally open to interpretation.
About the gender choice. I could get it away simply saying that the time limit of 7 days for the Experimental Gameplay Project didn’t allow me to make interchangeable characters and, being XY myself, I tend to default to XY. That’s actually true but there’s another simple reason that deals with the conceptual economy of the game. A female white collar, substantial deviation from the trope, would have been interpreted as some kind of statement about gender, which was not the goal of the game. I’ve been addressing that kind of issue in past works as “queer power”, “orgasm simulator” and more laterally in “Ergon/Logos”, so that wouldn’t have been an unlikely interpretation. It’s simply about keeping the meaning distilled in compliance with the minimalist approach of the whole game.
In more general terms, male dominance in game representations is an old, well-known and extremely strategic issue, but it can’t just be addressed by including a gender/race choice everywhere. The Sims does that and it looks as rather cheap politically correct move because the choice doesn’t affect the gameplay in any way and reinforces the overarching narrative of the middle class dream accessible to everybody.
We have to look at how gender is procedurally implemented in the game. Passage didn’t bothered me for the missing gender option (as I don’t generally question movies or books for their character choices) but it did annoyed me because of how the girl is located in the gameplay: a passive, decorative burden that prevents you from getting the hidden “treasures”. Now I’m sure that Roher doesn’t see his partner this way and the design choice can be justified with the aforementioned economy in the the message, but it’s not a stretch to see that aspect of the game as “procedurally sexist”.
Links to the comic (an ordinary day):
Paolo, thanks for your comments. Sometimes it is empowering to be able to come to a work on its own terms, without concern for authorial intention, which can hinder one’s ability to interpret independently. It seems to me to be much better, in this case, to have you as part of the discussion.
Your comments about Passage are particularly interesting – it would be quite a different game if your partner got to lead you around half the time, or if you got to “play” as the woman and end up dragged around by the guy.
In my own Book and Volume, I tried to toy with the matter of the PC’s gender a bit. The game “detects” the PC’s gender based on the first name that the player enters – maybe getting it wrong. There are then a few very subtle differences in descriptive text which probably no one has noticed. But for the most part the game follows the tradition of the PC being “genderless,” at least as far as explicit references to gender are concerned. I’m not sure it improves on that or the “choose-your-own-(irrelevant)-gender” model.
Procedural bias is something I’ve been engaged with for some time…Thanks for bringing it up in this discussion Paolo. It stretches beyond representation, and this makes it tricky to define (yet one of the central ideas behind the critical play approach and the values at play project).
I do think though that the “stock character that everybody (in the West) associate to a bundle of values” *can* be replaced without a wishy washy sense of neutrality… existentialist critique can happen in other ways…
Most folks have seen this research in the values arena, but thinking about stock or stereotypical representations (and procedures) is a vast, important, and necessary area of reflection.
After the above conversation, I think it might be nice to take a look at the psychology research about stereotypes… for example, research has shown that stereotypes actually reinforce the status quo, http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/news/research/ob_stereotypes.shtml. ‘Stereotype threat’ is a phenomenon that occurs when someone grouped into a particular negative stereotype is demonstrably, negatively affected in performance, esteem, and social status, even at unconscious levels. http://www.reducingstereotypethreat.org/
Getting at *what our stereotypes are* is another related topic. There is an experimental method called the Implicit Association Test (IAT) within social psychology designed to measure the strength of automatic associations between images, concepts, and words. In short, it unpacks unconscious responses by participant (players, in fact) of this game like test.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to make a game framed on this set of literature?
Paolo and Mary, it’s also possible to read the “procedurally sexist” dynamic of Passage as a completely un-gendered representation of commitment. The player does not control a man dragging a spouse by the hair, but a couple who can access some things and not access others in their coupled state. I think Jason’s decision to place the spouse in front of the initial character very much supports this reading.
As for EDTSD, the whole *point* of the game is to depict a black and white world of absurd, unfair, arbitrary, and artificial social constraints. Isn’t it fair to say that AMONG THESE is precisely the gender role that Mary wants to critique? Everyone is miserable in this game. And on that topic, what of the ACTUAL role of the woman in the game, which ought to invite some sort of an interpretation, beyond what it is not?
That’s a good point, I forgot about the detail of the spouse in front of the guy.
Mary, can I ask you a question that I have been wondering about from our discussions about what video games mean.
Do you have an opinion on whether video games should:
1) Represent the world as it is.
2) Represent the world as it should be.
3) Present dystopian versions of the world.
4) Call out undesirable aspect of the world as it is.
5) Satire existing prejudices and representations.