Software Pornography and How Computers Lost their Innocence

As part of its on-going series on digital culture in collaboration with scholars from the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing, the Atlantic has a fascinating piece on the first adult-themed computer software program. Softporn, for the Apple IIe was a text-based adventure story where you play a protagonist who is trying again and again to get laid. The game is a precursor to the Leisure Suit Larry series and the often bizarre and quite popular Japanese dating simulation genre.

The part of Laine Nooney’s article I found the most intriguing from the perspective of technoculture is the controversy over ads for the software title appearing in mainstream computer enthusiast magazines. After the ad featuring three topless women in a hottub (all affiliated with the software production company, incidentally) appeared in Softalk magazine, one letter-to-the-editor writer complained that now she would not be able to use the magazine’s tutorials in the computer courses she teaches, lest her students come across this inappropriate ad. “Women will never get out of the bedroom if this type of advertising is continued,” she contended in 1981, a time when the computer field was still not deeply culturally gendered as a masculine profession and the number of women pursuing degrees in computer science was still on the rise.

Nooney writes,

Under Softalk‘s pen, “the pure science of computer programming” was exposed for what it had always been: socially embedded, politically fraught, brittle in its appeal to scientific objectivity. The dialogue around Softporn was perhaps the first time a cultural debate happened within a microcomputing and gaming community itself. Unlike the moral panics that shadowed Custer’s Revenge or Death Race, Softalk’s letter-writers were both consumers and producers of the fledging microcomputer industry, advertisers who were also always its subscribers. In written responses to the ad, readers were sorting through just what they thought their industry should look like, but also questions that were far bigger than microcomputers or games: What is this technology for? What is its potential? How will such images affect the people who see them? What is our responsibility to public good versus individual freedom?

Ultimately, the game’s advertising was dropped, but what the legacy of Softporn reveals is the critical moment when computers became recognized as not just a neutral, scientific tool, but a medium for cultural expression and meaning-making that could offer their users a new, procedural mode of both expression and the experience of getting inside of stories. As a window into microworlds, the computer was not only a new frontier for science but a potentially threatening space that could disrupt the social order.

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.

Required Reading: Feminism and Gaming Syllabus

I’m really excited that this summer I get to teach Gender and Information Technology through the Critical Gender Studies program at UC San Diego. I’m especially excited because I had proposed to teach the course with a specific focus on the #GamerGate controversy. We’ll be exploring various aspects of gender and race in relation to video games and simulation technology.

I’m really looking forward to putting the readings together for this course and selecting games for my students to play. Though seems to be a sudden explosion in popular responses to issues of gender and gaming, feminist approaches to gaming didn’t start with #GamerGate: folks like Mary Flanagan, Celia Pearce, Justine Cassell, Jacki Morie, Tracy Fullerton, Mia Consalvo, Lisa Nakamura, Elizabeth Losh, and many others have been exploring these issues for many years. One great resource I recently came across is The New Inquiry’s Feminism and Gaming Syllabus. TNI’s syllabus draws on the work of both senior and up-and-coming feminist games studies scholars, game makers, and artists.

I actually found the syllabus via young artist Angela Washko’s insightful piece on her experience trying to create a place for open discussions about feminism and gender in online game spaces, The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft.

Let me know if you have any suggestions for particular games/games-related pieces that would be interesting to share with my students.

Misogynist Gamers Gang Up on Feminists

In the world of misogynist gamers, apparently the funnest thing in the whole world is to try to destroy the life of feminists in the gaming world. Recently, there were the death threats against Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian after she dared to post videos making very rigorous and grounded analysis of the content of video games. But it turns out for a year and half, independent game designer Zoe Quinn has been the the subject of an internet witch hunt of such scale and it was reported in The New Yorker. The story is that a jilted ex decided to write some revenge porn about her and posted it on every forum he could find. A bunch of morons bit the bait and ran with it, because to them, Quinn represented a jezebel who had apparently ruined the whole of gaming by slutting her way to getting attention for her games and amassing a HUGE WEALTH (ha!) for things like her free text-based game about depression (which is now going on my simulation course syllabus).

Here, Quinn tells Cracked about the lessons she learned from this experience, the saddest of which is how easily all this game happen to feminists who work in gaming. I love video games. There is nothing inherently masculine about interactive multimedia, and yet there is a strong, angry contingent of players who seem to want to treat it as if gaming was they own private boys only club house. I want to see more games, diverse games that explore the potential of the medium, that simulate modes of interaction other than shooting your friends (as feminist game developer Celia Pearce has described it) and I think diversity among developers is much needed. Consider it the feminist standpoint theory of game development. This was goal of Pearce, Jacki Morie, Tracy Fullerton and Janine Fron’s Ludica Collective.  If we want to open up this field, we need not only to include more women and other underrepresented groups and encourage them to create brave work that speaks to their own experiences and sensibilities, we also need to support them in through this bullshit and make clear, as Quinn points out, that a small group of bullies can’t fool us.

Jane McGonigal’s TED talk: some blindspots in an argument about how game play could save the world

My friend Jason posted video game designer and Institute for the Future researcher Jane McGonigal’s TED talk on my Facebook page.

Below is our conversation:
So I watched this video. I’m kind of intrigued by the idea of having half the population of the world working every week on wandering through virtual worlds as a kind of parallel to having colonists go off in search of a new land to live on…. (Surplus labor to the max! At least it might be more entertaining for those involved than much of the current service and IT economies.) It’s a very compelling metaphor.

But while the people of Lydia were searching for a real, material land–and therefore the evidence that they’d found a “solution” to the problem of insufficient resources to feed the population was uncontestable, the kinds of solutions people might find by playing games are not so clear cut. How do we know if the games people are playing in order to “solve problems” are good ones? Should we place so much faith in designers like McGonigal to model all the necessary complexities of the problems at hand? Also, how do her games “solve” problems?

It seems like what they do, at least now, is teach people new behaviors in order to get them to adapt to or at least understand new situations–like the end of oil. While some games allow the possibility of emergent behaviors–such as people creating guilds in WoW and other social innovations within the virtual world that were not actually intended by the designers–others merely allow users to choose between a range of options. In such games, I would think that the outcome would be more instructional than innovative: you know, if you do X then Y, etc, rather than getting people to think really creatively, outside the rules of formal game play. I’m not really sure how to encourage those kinds of emergent (innovative) behaviors other than allowing users to either form social networks, or to allow them to tinker with the design of the game itself.

Jason brought up a good point: “Except there’s nothing new to learn because risk is managed by other people and so is every potential “discovery”. All this shows is that people with no ambition get their rocks off on cheap thrills.”

I replied: By people with no ambition are you talking about the gamers? That’s an interesting proposal because McGonigal says that actually gamers are super-ambitious, the problem is just that “real life” doesn’t give them enough opportunities to exercise their ambition. My critique of this would be that, yeah, in life you have to have dreams and be self motivated, you have to discipline yourself and not rely on clear constant positive and negative feedback (like leveling up and “dying” in videogames) because, hell, that’s the way the world works, cosmically etc. To try to construct the world as otherwise is to create a (utopian? dystopian) fantasy around what are perhaps the most base aspects of human psychology: our basic reward system. Or as you put it, cheap thrills.

I’ve also been thinking: dear Ms. McGonigal, what if many of the world’s problems are actually created by the fact that so many of us are spending so much time on computers–using energy, creating markets for rare metals that must be mined and potentially conflicts over those mines, being ignorant of the toxic byproducts of production and slave factories in China, creating e-waste when when want upgrades, but also sitting on our asses and getting repetitive stress injury, diabetes and obesity and whatever else might comes from sitting in front of a glowing box all day? What if encouraging 21 billion hours of gaming per week will actually cause our downfall? The people of Lydia played dice and games that allowed them NOT to use resources: in the virtual world, we might deny our bodies, but we’re still sucking on the planet through our cyborg appendages ;) But of course, I doubt she would ever design a game that would explore that scenario as a problem.

Jason: “Can someone be considered “super ambitious” when their only ambition is for self-gratification, for known destinations(literal and metaphorical) and for goals that are designed to be achievable?

The more I examine it, the more it sounds like… a drug addict grappling with addiction than ambition.”

Me: “It’s appropriate you mention that because when I took neurochemistry in college the professor told us that one of the few things that can cause neurochemical responses as addictive as cocaine is video games.”

In short, I think Ms. McGonigal, like many of her colleagues at the supposed nonprofit research Institute for the Future, is a bit more interested in figuring out how to promote widespread adoption technologies they love (and, I wonder, have more than an emotional investment in?) than in thinking critically about the complex role that technology itself plays in constructing our societies. When we see technologies primarily in terms of the solutions they seem to promise rather than the also considering the role that they may play in producing the problems we face, we lose sight of the complexity of the world. This was one of the biggest insights in the second wave of cybernetics: we can’t simply make and observe models of the world in order to understand it, because the observer herself is also always part of the system, and the act of observing changes the world. If half of us play video games for the living, we’re going to have to adjust our model of the world in those games to take that fact into account, even if it means revealing that we’ve actually made our problems worse. At the very least, if our models are accurate in this way, we might learn something more valuable than how to attain an entirely virtual epic win.