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what really happened….

2009 April 13
by Anne Dalke

…in class on Monday afternoon:
(here are Laura’s notes for what she planned….)
Laura gave an overview of the requirements for the remainder of the course, and then reviewed her summary of our last conversation, emphasizing our shared sense of uncomfortable “otherworldliness” on-line, our difficulties drawing boundaries around the self, and also of devising laws to manage our on-line interactions.

We turned then to our experiences of gaming. How do virtual worlds and gaming overlap? Did we feel as uncomfortable in gaming environments as we did in virtual worlds? Stories included those of grandparents who can play games on-line they can no longer play in the real world; our own sense of being more outgoing on-line, because there are fewer ramifications; a contrasting sense of being much shyer–because the social mores are less clear, and it’s also harder to tell what others mean; a sense that everyone else knows what is going on except us–that we don’t belong, are new and feel lonely.

Are there contexts in real life where those same experiences occur, on the same spectrum from freedom to constraint? Some of us dissociate from the avatars we create; this may be similar to real life, where we may also “dissociate from our packaging” (i.e. our names may not accurately indicate who we are). People who are new to the scene generally feel more awkward; this is true both on-line and in real life. The spectrum also varies depending how comfortable we are with reality, as well as how much our avatar resembles ourselves. The rules of the game can also affect how free we feel: the structure might actually enable freedom, by offering us a place to begin.

What are the differences among games, in terms of the effects they have on our experiences? Every world has rules; they are all constraining in different ways. How comfortable are we with how the technical aspects intersect with the social norms? Some of us really need to know what the objectives are. Games have rules, while there are none in Second Life–it’s much more open-ended.

This is discussed often in the gaming industry (particularly in “sandbox games,” which permit you to tread outside the clear objectives): how much freedom is liberating? It takes a long time to figure out what we want in life; being dropped into a virtual life as a new avatar is overwhelming: you don’t know what you want. We are dealing here with a parallel universe: why bother? Why wander around creating things? Some of us actually spend a lot of time in real life pretending, visualizing our experiences as if they were games; for some of us, life @ Bryn Mawr is a “second life.” Coming to college may have been for many of us the first time we had two different real worlds to operate within.

Thinking some more about the parallels between virtual and real worlds: Games reward us for different things than life does; the virtual world may “favor” us in a way the real world doesn’t. There is also always an element of escapism. How we navigate our social interactions–being a student, a daughter, a friend–these are all avatars that we select to use in different situations. We are given these avatars; we don’t choose them.

Some of us feel more uncomfortable in virtual worlds, not knowing who we are interacting with; in real life, we can better make some passing judgment about who others are. Alternatively: in the real world, we are in danger of making snap judgments based on racial, classed or gendered stereotypes. You can’t know what you are dealing with in the virtual world–not only the people, but also the environment itself (which could damage your computer, etc.). It could be a good thing, that we can represent ourselves as someone different than we are in real life. We are also free to walk away from our attachment to our avatar, or to on-line interactions which make us uncomfortable. The vast majority of us are less invested in our avatars than in our real selves. Should we worry, if we can’t dissociate from our avatars?

It can also be extremely empowering, to create any identity we want on-line. People usually assume new identities out of curiosity, not malicious intent. It can open a whole new world of possibilities. Friendship can be real, even if the identity we assume is not. What we say can be real, even if “who we say it as” is not. We can learn to “read the text,” to decide what is true, to value what is there.

For some of us, on-line relationships can be shallower than those in real life; for others of us, our closest friends may be on-line. Why is it okay to change your identity on-line, but not off? Did we change our identity when we came to college, dropped here into a “second life,” a “bubble”? For some of us, because it’s a different environment, so we act differently; others have a clear sense of the continuity between who we were in highschool and who we are here.

Some of us feel conflicted about changing ourselves in college. Our parents may take pleasure in “watching us become who we are”; others may fear that we are losing parts of ourselves, as we emphasize new aspects of our personality.

Do virtual worlds offer a way to explore some of those changes–to craft a new identity? to delete it?–without having to try it out in the real world, where there may be more substantial consequences?

The spectra:
Freedom ——————————————————————————————- Constraint
Experienced ———————————————————————————– Inexperienced
Doesn’t Resemble Self ———————————————————————– Resembles Self
Fantasy ———————————————————————————————– Reality
Lack of Rules ——————————————————————– Unfamiliar Rules, Controls
Knowing the Objectives ——————————————————– Not Knowing the Objectives
Knowledge ——————————————————————————- Lack of Knowledge

Switching gears to talk about the article on gender in gaming:
What surprised us in the article?

  • The discrepancy between reported and actual time spent gaming–> suggests that other reports (on gender identity, for example) might not be accurate?
  • Older women are more often gamers than young guys. Are they empty nesters? Unhappy in their relationships?
  • What about interacting on-line with those with whom we have real-life relationships? Are these ways to build on/up our relationships (for example: couples with one another, or parents with their children).

This study differs from earlier reports because it was able to compare what people reported with what they actually played; people tend not to self-report accurately. (Consider: how many hours you report spending on your classes…). The study argued that women who identified as bisexual felt freer to report their actual times, because they were used not to fitting stereotypes. But how constrained was the study by conventional understandings of gender categories? Does the practice of gaming actually put us into those binaries? (Consider reports that gay women assume male roles, in order to avoid harrassment; or heterosexual couples playing on-line as homosexual.)

Was our experience, gaming, one of being strongly gendered? In one game, all the characters look more or less the same; they are basically selling a body type. In other games, characters don’t have a physical manifestation; we are supposed to be immersed in a game as ourselves (consider Myst, requiring elaborate, painful cognitive work). In others, we can’t pick our gender–we might be gods, or paper dolls.

Some games are insistently gendered in terms of the environment created, while the characters themselves are not. You don’t have to have an avatar in order to feel gendered. How little it takes for a game to be gendered: consider a text-based game, in which women get harrassed); people are very aware of gender, even when it is only a line of text. Would more men, women or transgenders be inclined to play on-line games? What is the gender breakdown of different kinds of games? How are games gendered in terms of their marketing, or their appeal to different sorts of people?

There were many unappealing gender aspects in the games we played. If we think about gender in terms of a continuum, instead of binary “boxes,” could these game altered? A game aimed predominately @ young boys may tell them quite a bit about girls. Several of us reported on several generations of games, which had been modified over the course of time.

The study also reported that couples who played together reinforced traditional gender roles. How much do the settings of such games encourage typical interactions? What proportion of women gamers fall into this category? What do we think about this finding? Many women report being drawn into a game by boyfriend; few seem to want to admit that they came to it themselves (is this another example of inaccurate self-reporting, due to the violation of gender stereotypes?). There are guides available for young women, who might want to connect with gaming boyfriends…why is the reverse not available?

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