Masculinity, play and games. This talk was a welcome sock in the jaw and outstanding in the way it made me think and react. It was a very academical talk and I absolutely devoured every word that Derek Burrill said. This is what I think we’re missing in games at the moment, a long, good look at masculinity and how masculinity is created and upheld.

Derek Burrill – Watch Your Ass!

Burrill opens up by telling us that he is about to talk about masculinity and gender and that the talk is largely academic.

He starts out by using daft punk as an example and a provocation. According to their origin story, they were blown to bits and then put back together again, half man, half robot. They still look like men, but are they still men if they miss organs? What if they are missing their penises? Do they need a penis to be men?

This presentation is meant as a provocation.

So why watch your ass? It’s a line in the Lethal Weapon movie, which alludes to a homoerotic relationship between Gibson and Glover. The same thing goes for adventure games – you actually spend a lot of time looking at the player character’s butt.

Theories of masculinity
Nature vs Nurture
Masculinity stems from male biology – SRY gene and Y chromosome

Sociology and acculturation – aspect that are considered natural to a gender, which is also culturally driven.

Masculinity doesn’t have a central “cause” or source – masculinity is built from media, institutions, family and ethnicity.

Hegemonic masculinity
The concept of this are a set of rules that men must adopt and women eschew or face violence or a penalty.

Hegemonic masculinity can be defined as the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees the dominant position of men and the subordination of women.

– R. Connell

The Rules of Masculinity
There are a set of rules for men, where you constantly have to prove yourself. There is not a context where you don’t have to prove that you are a man. You are supposed to be strong and silent, never show stress, never let them see you sweat and separate yourself from the pack. Disavow any real relationships towards men. As a man you are expected to keep other men at a distance.

The triad of men’s violence:
* against women
* against men
* against themselves

These are always at work, they are never silent. They overlap, change, dissipate and increase depending on various forces at work in culture.

How is masculinity thought?
* Essentialist: Men are men because of sex/ gender – the “one feature” theory.
* Positivist: Men are men because they are men – “what men actually are”
* Normative: Men should act like men – “masculinity is what men ought to be”
* Semiotic: Men are defined by what they are not – “men are men because they are not women”
– R. Connell

Masculinity as technology
Masculinity can also be technology, always be smarter stronger and level up. Heidegger’s notion of poiesis and techne.

Poieses is more about crafting objects and can be seen as constructive. Techne is more about the resources in the world that we are expected to change and use for our own use.

Burrell’s approach to gender in relationship to games research:
Gender is largely socially constructed. Gender is performative and dramaturgical.
Masculinity is largely performative, it can be confusing and exhausting. There is a potential space to try different things, but it can also be very restrictive. Gender is a series of masks or costumes.

Boyhood is a regressive masculinity that is conditioned by gameplay, free from responsibility. This is ethically and morally questionable.

We tend to perform our gender by choosing to mimic a role and trying to fit into it, imitating a privileged text or body that we want to perform. Iteration and maintenance.

Current research on gender and gaming
Boys tend to prefer rules that are inflexible, while girls prefer flexible rules, there is an inherent sense of justice in allowing everyone to continue playing which tends to be more fair.

He brings up homosexuality and the history of homosexuality – consider that this word comes from a negative history.

He talks about a transgendered student that is building a game where the pC constantly changes gender and is policed by surrounding people if he/ she doesn’t pass.

Also queer. The word “queer” has been reclaimed as a positive term to describe a wide range of behaviors, attitudes and identities. It’s positivity lies in an umbrella effect that questions notions of heteronormativity and straightness/ narrowness.

3 radical models of gender
Judith Butler is critical of how we impose normativity on our bodies, she looks at the body as political and how we do liberate ourselves from the norm. Body drift is a place for exploration.

Katherine Hale talks about technologies and bodies, we have been transformed by technology and the borders of the human body is remade when we enter the technological space. Hayle believes that we will – at some point – move post gender.

Rejecting the perspective of technological determinism as much as the celebration of technologuy as a (religious) singularity. Hayle’s cultural achievement lies in suggesting a critical perspective on technology, in which the human species limits itself to that of a “co-evolving” partner in the relationship, and against the technical will to disembodiment and immateriality, that human subjectivity recover the possibility of embodied consciousness”

– A. Kroker

Donna Haraway – Cyborg manifesto – she was pursuing ways to mix the body with technology. We need to degrade our hierarchical status to survive, break up the status of the human

The perfection of the full defended “victorious” self is a chilling fantasy, linking phagocytic amoeba and moon-voyaging man cannibalizing the earth in an evolutionary teleology of post-apocalypse extra-terrestrialism. It is a chilling fantasy, whether located in the abstract space of national discource or in the equally abstract spaces of our interior bodies.

– D. Haraway; Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature

Some of Burrell’s work includes America’s army, he was interested in finding out if the game was viable as a tool to recruit people. Out of ten, four ended up enlisting. Two have committed suicide due to PTSD. What’s fascinated is that it’s very branded. There is a traveling roadshow, you can sit in a HumVee, you can go online and play and you can talk to vets while playing.

He brings up rape within the military and talks about how very few rapes are processed or even reported.

The U.S. Department of Defense estimates that 26.000 sexual assaults occured in the military in 2012.

These are overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against women.

In 2012 only 1,108 have filed for an investigation

575 of those cases were processed

96 went to court-martial

The more deluded a person is the more likely he/she is to see patterns where they don’t exist – provocation.

In the “Cyborg Manifesto” I tried to write a surrogacy agreement, a trope, a figure for living within and honoring the skills and practices of contemporary technoculture without losing touch with the permanent war apparatus of the non-optional, post-nuclear world and its transcendent, very materialist lies. Cyborgs can be figures for living within contradictions, attentive to the naturecultures of mundane practices, attentive to the dire myths of self-birthing, embracing mortality as the condition for life, and alert to the emergent historical hybridities actually populating the world at all its contingent scales.

However, cyborg figurations hardly exhaust the tropic work required for ontological choreography in technoscience. I have come to see cyborgs as junior siblings in the much bigger, queer family of companion species, in which reproductive biotechnopolitics are generally a surprise, sometimes a nice surprise.

– D. Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto

There are a million ways to break up gender roles and play around with those roles, which is a positive thing.

Signification only works if there is a speaker and a listener or a viewer and a viewed.

In the same way that performance (and the performance of gender) signifies as a complex field of interconnected signs and symbols, so too does interactive software within its own representational field and within the media matrix that includes it in the machines of capital. This is perhaps why it is so important to carefully critique and study this medium. Like other digital technologies, interactive software forms a particularly seamless unification with other modes of production in support of dominant ideologies and the forces that seek to cover up and/ or exploit the marginalized and underrepresented.

– D. Burrill, Die Tryin’

State sanctioned violence is the product of a culture where domestic violence is normalized against a backdrop of representational violence. In overwhelming numbers, women are the victims of domestic violence, and therefore, ideological violence. But games are just for fun. Boys will be boys.

Central assertion:
Game structure and haptic architecture emphasizes and interpolates certain behaviors in the player – these mimic subject formation within the cycles of media signification, commodity capitalism and postmodern culture.

Games are an ideological machine that manufactures an ideal subject position – the transcendent male. This reflects heteronormativity. This is an implied rejection of other forms of masculinity and sexuality. This situation is inherently performative and self-reflexive. The positionality is inherently domination and subjugation.

Assignment: Read Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greg de Peuter

As bodies in the world, and bodies who work with technology: We have a shared responsibility to create shared, intermediated, equitable worlds that don’t just replicate or uphold the laws of heteronormativity or patriarchy, but reflect, represent and promote contingency and complexity so that virtual worlds are compelling and productive for all.

5 challenges:
1) Expand the definition of narrative
2) Create characters that don’t just confound stereotypes but obliterate them
3) Stop making violence concomintant with progress in the game
4) Don’t just speak for yourself, or for your employer, speak for the global community
5) Actively seek gender parity in all labor and creation

In order to break out of the prison house of misogyny and masculine dominance, we have to rethink how to move in and share space, to build worlds for different kinds of movement(s), to make room for every kind of body and position.

It is entirely reasonable to be a bit reticent to engage in the discussion. Just be compassionate and open, the way we all are about games and gaming. Gender and sexual equality like games, are made by people who struggle toward a common goal.

If you build games, you are responsible for “cultural vision” – what a fantastic gift!


My comments

This was an awesome talk as Burrill talked about many of the things that I myself have tried to point out – even though I did it less eloquently and with less academic flourish. I think that it is imperative that we as a culture carrier take our responsibility and actually start creating games that do not propagate negative views of everything that is other from the heteronormative.

I deeply admire Burrell’s attempt at waking the audience up and provoking thought.

However – I would have wanted a clearer red thread through the talk, because on occasion I lost my way in the labyrinthine reasoning, only to come out the other end slightly more enlightened. I re-read my notes and now I get it, but it did take some initial thinking on my part to follow in all the twists and turns.

By far the best talk at the conference.