Grown up games, gender & identity

Following up on yesterday’s post, Fast Company has a great article surveying the growing “deep games” movement—a concerted effort by game developers exploring new kinds of aesthetics, procedurality, mechanics and affects made possible through the medium of gaming.

Funomena is part of the emerging “deep games” movement, where players “win” by becoming more enlightened, empathetic people—a radical idea in an industry that has traditionally catered to trigger-happy teenagers. In the past few years, a new crop of mostly small studios has released wildly inventive games that focus on narrative, aesthetics, and the exploration of intimate emotions rather than fast-paced action, competition, and tricky game play.

I love that more and more people are exploring the expressive possibilities of this medium. To make an analogy, it’s as if we’ve been stuck in a world where there are about three kinds of books—say, action/thrillers, kids books, and puzzle books—and suddenly authors realize, “oh, you mean we could actually write about anything we want? We don’t actually have to just write hero stories and make puzzles?”

This movement also recognizes the important fact that “gaming” has largely been associated with young male identity in US, and most games have been made with this target audience in mind. But the article cites an important Entertainment Software Association study that found that the average gamer is now 31 years old, that almost half of gamers are women, and that the number of female gamers over 50 increased by a 1/3 between 2012 and 2013. “Last year, for the first time, adult female gamers outnumbered boys under age 18 as the largest video-game-playing group in the U.S.”

And yet, as I found in my Simulation as Communication course this Fall, many women who play games don’t identify as gamers. In fact, for the first few weeks of class several of my female students adamantly insisted over and over that they “weren’t gamers” and “weren’t comfortable with game technology”– that is was something they left for their brothers. And yet, when we read TL Taylor’s chapter on women gamers and her critique of “pink games” (for example this kind of thing) in Play Between Worlds, these same students suddenly waxed nostalgic about the hours and hours they spend playing Barbie Dress-up Games growin up!

What this gets me thinking is that as we expand the genre of gaming to include more kinds of experiences and appeal to more kinds of players, it will be important to encourage a sense of ownership and identity around gaming. So much of the GamerGate controversy is centered on the argument that only hardcore, competitive, and violent games count as “real” games and only those who play them are real gamers. If we want consumers to be willing to explore the possibilities of the medium, we need to not only make better games, but also create new structures of identification around game-playing as part of cultural identity practices.

Of Jell-o and Modernity

A couple days ago my partner stumbled across the “mid-century congealed salads” part of the internet. I had a few thoughts on this fascinating food technology that I would to share with you:

1) Jell-o salads are an early attempt at modernist cuisine; one that–unlike canned vegetables and boxed breakfast cereals– allowed the housewife to experiment creatively and in so doing, enact an ideal. But the images of salads on recipe cards and in cookbooks of the ear are just beyond her abilities: the objects floating in them are too well-distributed, the glistening surface too even. It’s an unattainable ideal for the modern homemaker. See, for example, this recipe card for Chicken-Aspic Vegetable Salad (1972, Marjon Promotions Inc), which I found in a box of discarded items outside one of my favorite San Diego cafes a few years back:

Chicken-Aspic Vegetable Salad

2) One key aesthetic difference between Jello-salads and contemporary modernist cuisine, I think, is that many of the ingredients remain intact, yet decontextualized. In contrast, when contemporary modernist cuisine uses industrial chemicals to transform foods, it does so in a way that entirely abstracts them: pea broth becomes tiny, green popping balls while gazpacho becomes a red-orange foam. What strikes me as so uncanny in these now-horrifying Jell-o dishes—such as Chicken-Aspic Vegetable Salad—as a contemporary viewer is how the asparagus and corn kernels (or in other iconic, cases sliced pimento-stuffed olives and pork cubes) just hang there, so out of context.

3) I associate this early modernist cuisine with a more feminine, home-maker, craft culture and identity than the geeky-masculine sous vide-machine advocating software-millionaire foodies of the current phase of the modernist cuisine moment. Alongside increasing abstraction has come an increased need for kitchen appliances that must be technologically mastered. This modernist, masculine chef identity implies that the prior generations of kitchen appliance–up to and perhaps even including the Kitchen-Aid–old-fashioned, and giving way to progress.

4) Looking at congealed salad images on recipe cards, I’ve long wondered, What freaking flavor is that Jell-o?? Chicken-Aspic Vegetable Salad calls for “2 tbps unflavored gelatin.” Flavorless sounds like a horrible non-food experience in my mouth. And yet, any flavor I can imagine fails to make sense. Could it be savory? Well, according to Wikipedia: “By the 1950s, salads would become so popular that Jell-O responded with savory and vegetable flavors such as celery, Italian, mixed vegetable and seasoned tomato. These savory flavors have since been discontinued.”

5) I have successfully located at a couple academic articles on the cultural history of Jello-in America:

S.G. Hall (2008) “The Protean Character of Jell-o, Icon of Food and Identity.” J of Popular Culture 31.1: pp. 69-80 (which is a little dry) and the nicely researched “The Jell-O Mold: Gelatin and Gender Imaginaries” by then-Yale freshmen Sarah Giovanniello, Broad Recognition. Feb 18, 2013.

Giovaniello writes of the key innovation in communication that helped Jell-O get a solid hold in American culinary culture at the turn of the century: the recipe card.

[W]hen [patent-medicine salesman Pearle] Wait attempted to sell his creation door-to-door, he did not receive the enthusiastic response he had hoped for, and he ended up selling his business to one of his competitors, Frank Woodward. Woodward experienced the same problem as Wait, but one day he stumbled upon a solution: recipes. Rather than peddling the product directly door-to-door, Woodward sent salesmen door-to-door with free samples and recipe books and then persuaded local grocery stores to begin stocking the product. Jell-O had not been selling well because at the end of the nineteenth century, people were not accustomed to buying and consuming prepared foods.[9] Jell-O was one of the first mass-produced prepared foods, and Woodward’s recipes helped households make the shift from food production to food consumption. Companies like Heinz and Campbell’s began selling prepared foods, and canned goods were soon routinely required in recipes. Prepared foods like Jell-O would become more common as the 20th century progressed.[10]

Fascinating evidence that Jell-O really is the quintessential early modernist foodstuff.

6) Bonus: When I was in college, I thought that this website–a catalog of Weight Watchers recipes from the 1970s–was the funniest thing on the internet. I think it still holds up. Check out the page titles.

Stephanie Kwolek, Inventor of Kevlar

Kevlar was invented by a woman named Stephanie Kwolek, who died earlier this week. Kevlar has saved countless lives. Kwolek spent 15 years in the lab without a promotion before her breakthrough invention. Forgive the rhetorical question, but I gotta put this out there: Could better resourcing earlier in her career have brought this innovation about sooner and saved more lives?

Not entirely surprisingly, Kwolek’s work provided great wealth to her employer, DuPont, but not to her. From the New York Times article announcing her death:

“Its popularity has proved a windfall for DuPont. Kevlar has generated several billion dollars in revenue for the company. Ms. Kwolek did not directly benefit from it financially, however; she signed over patent royalties to DuPont.”

It would be interesting to know what factors led her to sign over the patent royalties, which seems to be a decision not her in best interest. Fortunately, she had been recognized as a great scientist at many points in her career, including the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award, induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995, the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2003,  and now-closed Plastics Hall of Fame in 2004.

“In 1996, Ms. Kwolek was awarded the National Medal of Technology for her work on synthetic fibers. On Wednesday, the day she died, DuPont announced that the one-millionth vest made with Kevlar technology had been sold.”

Children (and other aficionados of illustrated text) can read about her achievements in the short book “The Woman Who Invented the Thread That Stops the Bullets: The Genius of Stephanie Kwolek” (2013) by Edwin Brit Wyckoff.