Coming out of the Gaming Closet: Engaged Cultural Analysis and the Life-Line as Interview Method and Consciousness-Raiser.

Author:Enevold, Jessica


This article is based on interviews performed in the project Gaming Moms. Juggling Time, Play and Everyday Life (Enevold & Hagstrom 2008a), in which we combined our disciplinary backgrounds in Feminist Cultural Studies and Scandinavian Ethnology to deal with Game Studies. The project was conducted as a cultural analysis focused on adult women's everyday playing practices, specifically digital games. It aimed at nuancing the stereotype of the gamer, traditionally a male adolescent, and take a measure of gender equality in terms of who gets to spend time on what in families (Enevold & Hagstrom 2008b, 2009, Enevold 2014, Hagstrom 2013). Since women and girls traditionally have been viewed, and view themselves, as non-gamers, a stated research goal was consciousness-raising and empowerment of adult female gamers. This article describes in detail how we developed the research tool the Life-Line method, which was collected from Sociologist Karen Davie's studies of the inter-dependence of women, time and work life (1990; 1996). We have capitalized Life-Line to specify that we have developed this method further. We wanted to use the Life-Line in order to understand the interrelations of time, play, and women's everyday lives, and to get a visual overview of our informants' gaming lives. Our methodological development became both a new research tool and a research result. It led both researchers and informants to new discoveries about gamer identities; most importantly, it led to a realization among the informants that they too were gamers.

In this article, we have coined the term "engaged cultural analysis" to emphasize that ours is not yet another cultural analytical investigation of a phenomenon, but an engagement with one. We add this qualification to our feminist focus, because in our view, naming a study "feminist" does not automatically mean it is "engaged", that is, it does not necessarily contribute to, or reach the participants during or after the project. Nor does a feminist study always require collaboration from its informants in any other way than their answering of questions. We return to the concept of "engaged" below where we situate our study as related to feminist action research and again towards the end of the article, engaged and public anthropology.

Equality, Gender and Gaming

The research project combined ethnology (ethnographic methods and the everyday perspective) with game studies (concepts and content from game-specific research) and feminist cultural studies (impetus to reveal and remove inequality, language and representation). It was guided by a cultural analytical perspective, focusing on practices and power relations, as we investigated the everyday gaming of mothers particularly in relation to time and leisure management in family life. As mentioned, looking at the gendered practices of gameplay the ultimate aim of the research project was to take measure of gender equality in everyday life and if possible, highlight inequalities and nuance gamer stereotypes. We wanted to study how gaming restructured human lives and roles, and how roles and lives were restructured according to gaming, in everyday family life.

The project, which was initiated in 2008 and concluded in 2012, included roughly 80 informants who were all gaming mothers. An explicit goal was to investigate an aspect of the considerably gendered practice of gaming, a phenomenon with major economic and socio-cultural impact. An important aim was to look beyond gamer stereotypes, at non-traditional gamers. Back when we first started, little research had been done on female gamers or families and gaming; most concerned girls (Cassell & Jenkins 1998; Schott & Horrell 2000, Jenson & de Castell 2008) or women under 25 (Kerr 2003). Since then, new research has emerged (e.g. Thornham 2011, Eklund 2012, Quandt & Kroger 2014, Boudreau & Consalvo 2014, Shaw 2014), but research on adult women was at the time very sparse (see e.g. Royse et al. 2007; Thornham 2008,) and there was none centering on mothers. We chose to focus on mothers because they were culturally, socially and symbolically situated as "traditional" figures and, in popular culture, perceived as non-gamers (Enevold & Hagstrom 2008b).

Nevertheless, there were indications when the project was launched that the player demographic was considerably more diverse in age and gender than was evident in the media. For example, a study made by the Pew Internet & American Life Project showed that 99% of boys and 94% of girls play video games (Lenhart et al. 2008). Svenskarna och internet 2008 (Findahl 2008), a yearly report produced by World Internet Institute in collaboration with SE [foundation for internet infrastructure], reported that 30% of the Swedish population play online games; 40% were men and 34% were women. However, in the player segment aged 45 and over women outnumbered men (Findahl 2008, 35-36). These numbers did not seem to be reflected in media where the young male player still dominated the scene as the "normal" gamer. Other gamers tended to either disappear from public discourse, appear as anomalies (Enevold & Hagstrom 2008b, 2009), or present as averse to gaming in general.

At the beginning of the project in 2008, and during the gradual mainstreaming of gaming over the next few years (Enevold 2014), the advent of Wii consoles, the Nintendo DS, several musical games (to name a few important game developments), appeared to change the cultural landscape of gaming and make it more heterogeneous, in terms of age and gender. But the media image of the male gamer as norm still seemed to prevail. In 2011, three years into the project, a striking example of the representation of the mother as a non-player averse to gaming, was found in the promotional campaign launching Dead Space 2, a game characterized as a science fiction survival horror video game (Electronic Arts 2011a). Short videos of middle-aged women horrified by scenes from the game were published on YouTube and Electronic Arts' website and with the words "Critics love it but your mom will hate Dead Space 2. See real moms' reactions to watching clips to the upcoming game" (Electronic Arts 2011b).

Another three years down the road and the gaming landscape still appeared in need of role models and rights for female players to be represented and to be active agents in game culture. The outrage in 2014 against Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic and blogger, and her Kickstarter project to fund a series of videos about female stereotypes and misogyny in videogames (Kickstarter 2012), demonstrated that much remained to be done in order to make game culture a more equally accessible domain. If that was not enough, the ensuing #gamergate and renewed harassment campaign, including rape and death threats, against Sarkeesian and other females in the game industry (Rawlinson & Kelion 2014, Frank 2014) was convincing evidence that more gender equality was, and still is, needed. In light of the invisibility of women, on the one hand, and the chastising of women in game cultures, on the other, we have always felt that it was imperative that our project be an engaged cultural analysis into game culture, to serve the greater goal of creating a more equal gaming landscape in practice and in contemporary popular culture. Our study was also marked as feminist, because of its focus; it was necessary to do more research on the relation specifically between games and gender. Moreover, as Dana-Ain Davis and Christa Craven assert, it is critical that feminist ethnographers "in the wake of neoliberalism, where human rights and social justice have increasingly been subordinated to proliferating 'consumer choices' and ideals of market justice, reassert the central feminist connections among theory, method and practice" (Davis & Craven, 2011, 190).

Feminist Methodology, Game Studies and the Life-Line

As a project with a declared feminist focus, contributing to equality work, the choices of method needed to reflect this intention. A feminist methodology, as Colleen Reid points out, commonly "include focusing on gender and inequality and using qualitative methods to analyze women's experience" (Reid 2004, 4). Referring to Francesca Cancian (1992), Reid also comments on how "few studies [however] adopt the more radical methods of including an action component" (Reid 2004, 4). Action research is a "family of related approaches that integrate theory and action with a goal of addressing important organizational, community, and social issues together with those who experience them" (Reid & Gilberg, 2014). We incorporated an element of action research in our project as we translated this as increasing in practice the engagement among, and raising the consciousness of, our informants. To address this goal methodologically, we decided to organize so called "Pizza parties", that is, focus groups inspired by Sherry Turkle's research into digital cultures (1995), to create a forum for exchange between female gamers.

The project mixed several different methods and, as Jennifer Greene states, this can be done to allow for the "mind-set" of several research traditions to enrich the approach and interpretations (2007). Method development was also declared a central tenet in the initial project plan. The project's ambition to use a "multi-method approach and the significance of self-reflexive ethnography are described further in the article, "Mothers, Play and Everyday Life. Ethnology Meets Game Studies" (Enevold & Hagstrom, 2009). Methods listed were interviews; blog feedback; participant observation in two forms: a) observation during play and b) playing together with informants, in game-studies terms called "a gaming interview" (Schott and Horrell 2000); self-documentation in the form of a written or filmed diary; discourse analysis of on-line forums, news media and game magazines. In addition, the need for so called...

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