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Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

Kishonna Gray on race, gender, and deviance in Xbox Live

Nickie Phillips

Crimcast welcomes Dr. Kishonna Gray, assistant professor at Eastern Kentucky University. Dr. Gray’s work focuses on race, class, gender, and criminal justice. Her book Race, Gender, and Deviance in Xbox Live explores how the gaming culture reproduces hegemonic masculinities that serve to marginalize the “other.” While much attention has focused on how (white) women are oppressed within the gaming community, Dr. Gray sheds light on the importance of understanding how intersectionality—the interlocking identities of race, gender, and class—impacts the experience of gaming.

Gaming is generally considered a young, white, male environment, although recent ESA research shows that 46% of gamers are women, and the average age of gamers is 31 years old. What do you think is the impact of the changing demographics on gamers’ experiences? Do you agree, as Leigh Alexander proposed, that “gamers are over?”

OMG when I read that article I was like “absolute power to the truth.” Sadly, we get it. Marginalized bodies recognize that they have always been a part of the conversation. I think there is just more recognition of this fact. As was mentioned in the article, it’s hard for someone to let go of what they once owned. They aren’t that special anymore. They have to share. This entitlement culture is over. The pie that they once had is now cut into more slices for other people to share.

Now does that mean that everyone is opening doors and welcoming women, people of color, and other marginalized individuals within gaming culture? Absolutely not. These folks who have always had and have always been privileged will fight hard to hang on. But as the article indicated, they can be ignored. I don’t have to deal with them. We don’t have to listen to them. They don’t have control over access anymore. And that’s the beauty of it. They must begin to expand their definition of what it means to be a gamer. Because their game is over.

I also love how social media and fandom have allowed those who’ve previously been excluded access to be a part of gaming culture now. So if I don’t like a story line in a game, FanFic allows me to just create my own story line. And I can have a following around my stories. That’s powerful. That empowering. We don’t have to rely on what’s been created.

The struggle is still real for minority game developers, gamers, etc. But with male allies, White allies, and other privileged bodies who are down with coalition building, this does not have to dominate the reality within gaming culture.

In your book, you discuss how racism and sexism in the Xbox Live experience is common and condoned. Can you explain why racist and sexist remarks and behavior should be distinguished from other forms of “flaming?”

Critical race and critical feminist scholars contend that in order to talk about a problem, you have to name that problem. We can’t talk about if we don’t name it. So we can talk about flaming all day. But is that really talking about racism? Is that really addressing sexism, or heterosexism? No.
When something is named, we draw our attention to it. Flaming is a general vague term that encompasses all sorts of virtual ills. People have negative associations with words like racism and sexism. There is no negative association with flaming. People who engage in these kinds of activities relish in being called a troll. It’s cool in many segments of toxic gamer culture. This is why we have to call the problems what they really are. Another reason people don’t like using the real terms to describe these real problems is because one would then have to check their own behavior and their own actions within the space. You have to ask yourself, am I engaging in this behavior? Am I a racist? Am I sexist? Etc. People don’t want to be complicit in these systems. We also have to examine these behaviors as an extension of real life. Real world problems are manifesting in virtuality. By using the concept of flaming, one can situate themselves in digital spaces. You can leave that on the internet. Racism follows you. Sexism follows you. It exists not just in virtual spaces, it is exists in the real world.

And it’s ok if people become uncomfortable. Marginalized bodies are uncomfortable all the time.

You describe Xbox Live as a type of virtual community where identities are constructed and expressed through avatars and voices. Can you describe the importance of voice and linguistic profiling in understanding gamers’ experiences?

Comparing old and new games, they are so much different. If you recall old MUD’s and MOO’s, they were mostly text based. We had no idea who people were. But with the diffusion of digital technology in games, such as audio, video, image capture, use of avatars, etc, it’s hard to hide who you are.

Xbox Live is a voice based community. Gamers chat with each other. When people hear a person that deviates from the norm, meaning they don’t sound like a White dude, people start flaming out. So, women experience a host of sexism and misogynistic language. People of color experience racism.

Even aside from actual verbal cues, non-verbal cues are telling about identity. Gamertags are a huge point of contention. Many women choose to gender their gamertags by incorporating Miss or something like that. Many people of color racialize their gamertags too incorporating PR for Puerto Rican, or using alternative spellings for the n-word. So even if a person doesn’t speak, there are still ways to gauge a sense of what that person’s identity may be. And avatars are important but they aren’t as important as computer games like WOW.

But modern games rely on interacting with others within the space so when people hear you talk, your voice is automatically emitted into virtuality. Back in the day the New Yorker had a caption saying that on the internet, nobody has to know you’re a dog. That’s not true anymore. You can’t escape who you are.

And why should people escape who they are? Why don’t we value identity and difference? Having to acknowledge difference means that a person has to deal with that person holistically. You have to challenge your assumptions or generalizations especially if you aren’t used to dealing with a particular group within a space that has long be controlled and dominated by privileged bodies.

In your book you talk about various forms of resistance to oppression such as gaming strategies that use friendly fire to kill teammates. How do official Xbox Terms of Service actually serve to perpetuate racism and sexism while simultaneously cracking down on resistance strategies?

When individuals who engage in forms of resistance within the space, most of them are violating Xbox Terms of Use. Under section 1.9, there are a list of things that a person can’t do. One of those things is to use the xbox live services to harm, threaten, or harass another person. Although marginalized gamers who engage in these resistance strategies are responding to harassment they experienced, they were the ones being punished.

Now I will tell you how this happens. Most marginalized gamers, specifically gamers of color don’t file complaints within Xbox. They didn’t feel the reports generated any meaningful results. When they began their own forms of resistance in Xbox live, the gamers they were targeting (mostly White male sounding gamers) actually started filing complaints on them. And there would be dozens of complaints filed so two females actually had their accounts banned for a period of time for violating Xbox Terms of Use. Pretty messed up.

So does Xbox through their terms of use perpetuate racism and sexism? Not directly. But the system is not set up to report these kinds of issues. And who wants to take the time to find the category to file the complaint? You have to find the person’s gamertag. You have to interrupt your gameplay. It takes time and didn’t result in much, so minority gamers stopped doing it. Sadly, this is why Xbox Live doesn’t think there is a problem with racism within the space. They proudly declared this a few months back. They are looking solely at numbers and if the complaints aren’t there, what do you do? I contend that the architecture of the space allows it to happen. It’s a structural issue.

Over the past few months, mainstream media has focused attention on #GamerGate, revealing the extent of misogyny and oppression of women within the gamer community. While initially #GamerGate supporters attempted to frame the issue as one of “ethics in gamer journalism,” the rape and death threats toward those critical of the movement made clear that the motives were misogynist in nature. As someone who has written at length about intersectionality and oppression in the gamer community, can you give us your reaction to #GamerGate and  your take on #NotYourShield?

I don’t think anybody really wants my opinion on this. I will end up making a lot of folks mad. But here it goes!

The article you referenced talked about how GamerGate hurt the reputation of the gaming community. No. The gaming community is complicit in GamerGate.

Gaming culture created GamerGate. By accepting a culture that diminishes the status of women as full members of the gaming community, this toxic environment has been able to fester and take shape and lead to harassment and threats of violence against women in our community. Since video games have existed, women have been marginalized and have had to accept second class citizenship within gaming culture. Devaluing a culture renders it powerless, unable to define itself or articulate on its own behalf. As Iris Marion Young suggests, powerlessness leads to the exposure of disparate treatment because of diminished status. Powerlessness is one of the strongest forms of oppression and this is apparent given Anita Sarkeesian’s inability to speak at Utah State or Brianna Wu and other women in the gaming industry now fearing for their lives.

I appreciate the mobilization of the gaming community against GamerGate but it has come too late. Our response needs to be more than just condemning an anonymous group. We need sweeping changes to our culture to ensure future cowards know that punishment will be quick and swift. Of course, this requires a complete change in ideology and operating. One I’m not sure we’re, the gaming community, is entirely ready for.

Can we expect more work in this area from you in the future? Do you have any upcoming work that you would like to tell our readers about?

Oh absolutely. Privileging the experiences of marginalized gamers is my bread and butter! I can’t wait to go back and interview participants from my original study. The online environment was just so toxic and it’s much less so now. But many of the women in that study left Xbox Live forever. I might try to get them to come back! As far as other work, yes I am currently working on a book manuscript that I hope MIT Press will love! But it’s tentatively titled, Beyond the Box: Mediated Console Multiplayer Environments. It will provide a much needed conceptual framework to situate contemporary console video games. By providing gaming, entertainment, socialization, and other forms of interaction, we must rethink the limited narrative of ‘console game’ and position them within our convergent culture providing an all-in-one experience for users (I use the term user because research has shown that a segment of owners of consoles aren’t even gamers). So I will provide a brief overview of the process leading to the convergence of all these mediums into the consoles, PlayStation, Xbox, and even Nintendo Wii! Another recent project I am working on with a colleague explores the use of non-verbal cues within Xbox Live as I previously discussed. So specifically, we want to examine the use of Gamertag’s as an aspect of identity and representation in the Xbox Live virtual gaming community. Now the gamertag is interesting because you’re limited by the programming code to 15 characters in length, and you must adhere to Xbox Live’s Terms of Service and not contain any graphic or offensive language. But, Xbox Live users actively bypass this restriction and generate Gamertag’s that are representative of one’s physical identity.