Ga(y)ming studies: The importance of sexuality in video gaming
Back in May 2014, hundreds of news outlets reported on Nintendo’s decision not to allow gamers to play as gay characters and form same-sex relationships in the life-simulation game Tomodachi Life. Understandably, there was disquiet and outrage from a number of quarters despite Nintendo’s statement that “Tomodachi Life was intended to be a whimsical and quirky game [and] not trying to provide social commentary”. Their statement at the time appeared to fan the flames rather than silence the critics.
I have been researching video game play for almost three decades and I’ve always found issues surrounding character formation, sexuality, and gender in gaming of great psychological interest. In one of our studies we found that a majority of gamers (57%) had gender-swapped their game character with female gamers (68%) being more likely to gender swap than male gamers (54%). We argued that gender swapping enabled gamers to play around and experiment with various aspects of their in-game character that are not so easy to do in real life. For others it was just fun to see if they felt any different playing a different gendered character. What makes our findings interesting is that in most instances, the gamers had the opportunity to choose the gender of their character and to develop other aspects of their character before they began to play. Choosing to gender swap may have had an effect on the gamers’ styles of play and interaction with other gamers. Whatever the reasons, it was clear from our research that the development of gamers’ online characters and avatars was important to them.
One of the reasons for the importance of online gaming identities may be because it subverts traditional parasocial interaction (PI). PI is a concept used by psychologists that has traditionally described one-sided, parasocial interpersonal relationships in situations where one individual knows a great deal about someone else, but where the other person knows little about the other (the most common being the relationship between celebrities and their fans).
A study led by Nicholas Bowman (and published in a 2012 issue of the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking [CPBSN]) argued that the playing of video games challenges this concept “as the distance between game players and characters is greatly reduced, if not completely removed, in virtual environments.” The study claimed that online gaming encourages the “psychological merging of a player’s and a character’s mind” and is critical in the development of character attachment. In this context, the sexuality of a character for a player may be of fundamental psychological importance.
This appears to be confirmed in a paper by Melissa Lewis and colleagues (also published in CPBSN) who developed a scale to assess ‘character attachment’ (“the connection felt by a video game player toward a video game character”). They found that character attachment had a significant relationship with self-esteem, addiction, game enjoyment, and time spent playing games.
American researcher Dr. Adrienne Shaw has carried out a number of studies into lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) representation in video games from a cultural production perspective. She was one of the first academics in the gaming studies field to note that there was a relative lack of LGBT representation in video games. Other areas of the entertainment media (e.g., music, film, and television) appear to have much greater LGBT representation than in video games so it does beg the question of why the gaming industry appears to be behind in this respect. I recall writing a paper back in 1993 (in The Psychologist) where I argued that most video games at the time were designed by males for other males. This arguably alienated female gamers but eventually led to developers introducing strong female characters into video games (the most notable being Lara Croft in Tomb Raider). Maybe the appearance of LGBT characters and role models within games will increase over time but I’m not holding my breath.
In a more recent paper in a 2012 paper in the journal New Media and Society, Dr. Shaw claimed that the demand for minority representation in video games “often focuses on proving that members of marginalized groups are gamers” and that the gaming industry should focus on appealing to such players via targeted content. However, she argues that an individual’s identity as a gamer will intersect with “other identities like gender, race, and sexuality.” She then goes on to say that the negative connotations about being an online gamer may lead to such marginalized groups not wanting to engage in gaming. She concluded that “those invested in diversity in video games must focus their attention on the construction of the medium, and not the construction of the audience…[This] is necessary to develop arguments for representation in games that do not rely on marking groups as specific kinds of gaming markets via identifiers like gender, race, and sexuality.”
Nintendo’s decision not to allow gay relationships to form within Tomodachi Life was ill-judged, ill-informed, and outdated. Games in which identity content can be generated by its users needs to reflect the world in which the gamers’ live. In short, there should be no compromise when it comes to allowing gamers to choose their sexuality within the game.
(N.B. A version of this article first appeared in The Conversation)
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Bowman, N. D., Schultheiss, D., & Schumann, C. (2012). “I’m attached, and I’m a good guy/gal!”: how character attachment influences pro-and anti-social motivations to play massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15(3), 169-174
Griffiths, M.D. (1993). Are computer games bad for children? The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 6, 401-407.
Griffiths, M.D., Arcelus, J. & Bouman, W.P. (2016). Video gaming and gender dysphoria: Some case study evidence. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 34(2), 59-66.
Hussain, Z., & Griffiths, M. D. (2008). Gender swapping and socializing in cyberspace: An exploratory study. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 11(1), 47-53.
Lewis, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Confronting gender representation: A qualitative study of the experiences and motivations of female casual-gamers. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 28, 245-272.
Lewis, M. L., Weber, R., & Bowman, N. D. (2008). “They may be pixels, but they’re MY pixels:” Developing a metric of character attachment in role-playing video games. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 11(4), 515-518.
McLean, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Female gamers: A thematic analysis of their gaming experience. International Journal of Games-Based Learning, 3(3), 54-71.
Shaw, A. (2009). Putting the gay in games cultural production and GLBT content in video games. Games and Culture, 4(3), 228-253.
Shaw, A. (2012). Do you identify as a gamer? Gender, race, sexuality, and gamer identity. New Media and Society, 14(1), 28-44.
Shaw, A. (2015). Gaming at the edge: Sexuality and gender at the margins of gamer culture. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
A gender setting: Inside the world of pandrogyny
In a previous blog I briefly examined the extreme art and music of Genesis P-Orridge and Throbbing Gristle. In the last decade P-Orridge began a performance art series called “Breaking Sex” with his partner and second wife Lady Jaye (who died in 2007 of heart failure complications arising from stomach cancer). The culmination of this art project can be seen in the documentary film The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (directed by Marie Losier).
Most of you reading this will be well aware of ‘androgyny’ (i.e., the condition of having both male and female characteristics in either bodily appearance, attitudes and/or behaviour). Those who describe themselves as androgynes often claim they don’t fit into society’s gender roles. Genesis P-Orridge has taken this one stage further and developed the concept of ‘pandrogyny’. According to a posting on the CrossDressers.com website:
“Pandrogyny is the conscious embracing of gender roles, sexual orientations, or cultural traditions so as to render the person’s original identity completely indecipherable. It is the ‘third gender’…a type of gender-neutral living being more akin to the OTHER…a pandrogyne is [about] making one’s life (a brief existence) into an art form. Is [pandrogyny] transvestism, transgendered behavior, or transsexuality? None of the above, as it turns out”
Along with Lady Jaye, Genesis P-Orridge decided to create a third being as both an artistic expression and statement (i.e., life – quite literally – as “a work of art”). They fused their psychological identities and underwent radical and irreversible plastic surgery to look more like each other (including reconstructive facial surgery [cheek impants, rhinoplasty, lip pumping], liposuction, and breast augmentation). In an interview with Tamara Palmer about Lady Jaye and the Pandrogyne project, Genesis said:
“We started out, because we were so crazy in love, just wanting to eat each other up, to become each other and become one. And as we did that, we started to see that it was affecting us in ways that we didn’t expect. Really, we were just two parts of one whole; the pandrogyne was the whole and we were each other’s other half. DNA is really the new battleground for evolution. If we want to survive as a species, if we want to hopefully colonize space and do incredible things, we have to completely reassess how the human body works and realize that it’s not sacred, it’s just stuff”.
The underlying philosophy of pandrogyny is about creating similarity, unification and resolution, rather than difference and separation. Genesis explained the concept further:
“When you consider transexuality, cross-dressing, cosmetic surgery, piercing and tattooing, they are all calculated impulses—a symptomatic groping toward the next phase. One of the great things about human beings is that they impulsively and intuitively express what is inevitably next in the evolution of culture and our species. It is the ‘Other’ that we are destined to become.”
In a different interview he went on to further outline what the pandrogyny project was all about.
“We are not trying to look like twins, though we wouldn’t mind that if it were possible. We are seeking to give an initial impression of visual similarity as far as we can. As a 56 year old biological male who is 5 foot six inches with a 30 inch waist, I can never reasonably expect to look identical to Lady Jaye who is a biological female who is 35 years old and 5 foot 10 inches high with a 24 inch waist. [However] we are committed enough to surrender our bodies to surgeries even if we end up not liking how we look. That is not what we are concerned with. We have no urge to try and ‘look better’, or younger, or more ‘glamourous’. Nor are we changing gender. Pandrogeny is about neutralising gender in order to REPRESENT a future possibility for thee species”
One of the central themes of their work is the “malleability of physical and behavioural identity”. P-Orridge’s work has been influenced by the ‘cut-up’ techniques of both William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin (a technique popularized by David Bowie in the 1970s). As P-Orridge explained:
[Burroughs and Gysin] began to cut-up and, incorporating random chance, re-assembled both their own and co-opted literature…They referred to the phenomena of profound and poetic new collisions and meanings that resulted from their intimate collaborations as the ‘Third Mind’. This was produced with a willingness to sacrifice their own separate, previously inviolate works and artistic ‘ownership’. In many ways they saw the third mind as an entity in and of itself. Something ‘other’, closer to a purity of essence, and the origin and source of a magical or divine creativity that could only result from the unconditional integration of two sources”.
Genesis first met Lady Jaye in the early 1990s and eventually fused their separate (art)works before combining their individuality. They have literally cut up their bodies to create the pandrogyne, a third body that is the sum of their two bodies and minds subsuming each other. Genesis says that the way that he and Lady Jaye look relates directly to the internal dialogue that describes themselves to each other. In an interesting interview with Douglas Rushkoff in the Believer magazine, Genesis was asked what the difference was between pandrogyny, transvestism, and transgnder. He replied that:
“The main difference is that Pandrogeny is not about gender, it’s about union. The union of opposites. One way to explain the difference is very easy: with transgender people the man might feel that he’s trapped – the person feels they’re a man trapped in a woman’s body, or a woman trapped in a man’s body – whereas in Pandrogeny you’re just trapped in the body. So Pandrogeny is very much about the union of opposites, and, through that reunion, the transcendence of this binary world and this illusory, polarized social system…When people have an orgasm together that’s a moment of Pandrogeny. And when people have a baby, the baby is pandrogynous, sexually. Because it is literally two people becoming one”
Genesis and Lady Jaye have both taken body modification to the maximum, but unlike most people that engage in extreme body modification, they have done it in the name of art, not beauty or vanity.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Ford, S. (1999). Wreckers of Civilization: The Story of Coum Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle. London: Black Dog Publishing.
Frederique (2011). You’ve heard of androgyny, but what about PANdrogyny? CrossDressers.com, September 13. Located at: http://www.crossdressers.com/forums/showthread.php?159912-You%92ve-heard-of-androgyny-but-what-about-PANdrogyny
Palmer, T. (2008). Genesis P-Orridge: The Body Politic. Current.com, December 29. Located at: http://current.com/1lkam4c
P-Orridge, G, (2002). Painful but Fabulous: The Life and Art of Genesis P-Orridge. Soft Skull Press.
P-Orridge, G. (2011). Pandrogyny and the overcoming of DNA. Sex, Gender, Body. Located at: http://sexgenderbody.tumblr.com/post/11588285014/pandrogeny-and-the-overcoming-of-dna
Rushkoff, D. (2012). In conversation with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. The Believer. Located at: http://believermag.com/exclusives/?read=interview_p-orridge_rushkoff
Wikipedia (2012). Genesis P-Orridge. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genesis_P-Orridge