Not Man Enough for LOTRO

I could barely even walk straight. I was swinging my camera wildly and even straight through my head. I stumbled around knocking into walls and trees. I had just “entered middle earth” for the first time as my newly minted elf huntress avatar in Lord of the Rings Online, the massively multiplayer online role-playing of the World of Warcraft variety. I was experiencing firsthand what I had only before glimpsed over a guy friend’s shoulder. I had never thought that I would be playing a game like this myself. I got incredibly frustrated multiple points in just the Intro alone, shoving my computer away and muttering “How can I be so bad at this!” and “Ugh, I can’t believe I have to do this.”

I continued to feel uncomfortable with the game as I was assigned multiple gameplay levels to beat or quests to finish over the next few weeks. I was self consious and realized that I was always behind on my LOTRO’ing because I avoided playing it in public spaces like the library (where I do a majority of my studying) for fear of judgement. First, I thought I was embarassed for someone to see how bad I was at playing and how I couldn’t help walking in zig zags or straight into trees. But as I got better at the game and started levelling up, I still felt a certain anxious avoidance and made sure to sit so the least number of people in the library could see my screen.

When friends commented on the fact that I was playing LOTRO while we were studying together, I felt the need to explain myself. I joked that I stayed in my room all the time now secretly playing LOTRO because I wasn’t “hot enough” to be doing it in public in an intriguing and “cool” way. The joke was laughed at but it left a sour aftertaste in my mouth. I reflected afterwards and realized that my comment had nothing to do with my “hotness” and everything to do with my “women-ness.” No matter how beautiful, as evidenced by the lovely ladies I know who are avid gamers, no one is exempt from the confused head tilt upon finding out that they play video games, especially games like LOTRO. While my joking remarks were highly problematic in themselves, they could also be revealing some pretty widespread issues in gaming.

First of all, I hadn’t thought about what was “cool” or not since I was thirteen, yet being forced into playing a game like LOTRO suddenly made me feel gainly and self conscious. Was I suddenly regressing and having flashbacks to caring so desperately what people thought of me or was moving into the boundaries of what had been conditioned into me as socially acceptable causing the inner anxiety? Were there implicit social norms about what kind of person are “allowed” to play video games in public and who are not?

In the NYT article, “Women Get In on the Action in Video Games”, it is exclaimed with triumph that almost 50% of gamers are now women. So am I imagining all this? Maybe not. The article does admit that males are more likely to play “immersive, narratively complex games” while women preferred” ‘casual’ games” like Candy Crush or Farmville. Are women simply not interested in the immersive, richly layered stories and experiences? I was frusterated by my gender for a moment and asked myself were we not “sophisticated” enough to appreciate a richer more complex and demanding medium? No. I think that while the growing playership in casual games is an exciting development. The continued gender gap in MMO’s like LOTRO reveal that there is more than just a steep learning curve barring the way for a lot of women.

Even after I started to really enjoy the game, I was sad when I realized that if I had stumbled upon the game casually, I would have never played for this long, not because I wouldn’t enjoy it but because I would have run into too many invisible social barriers and given up. I know there are hundreds of thousands of happy and carefree non-white male players in LOTRO. But for each of those, I wondered how many dozen young girls were deterred by the same creeping self consiousness I faced when playing for the first time.

-Diana Zhu

A Musing About Games and Gender

In a relatively recent video series on youtube, PBS Game/Show, one of the videos discussed was “Are You Weird if You Play as the Opposite Sex?” (source below). In it, there was quite a bit of discussion into a genre of roleplaying games that allow players to design their own characters. These game include many MMORPGs and single player games, such as World of Warcraft, Mass Effect series, the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, and many others. After watching the video, I have been thinking a bit about why I sometimes play as opposite genders in roleplaying games.

It would be lying if I said I often play as female characters in games. If one looks at my Mass Effect save files, the ration is something around 2:5 female to male. As a man, I still usually default to being a man in video games as well. While I do not consider this skewed ratio an issue, I have seriously thought about this particular behavior. Is it simply because I am a guy, or because I am uncomfortable playing a women, or perhaps I am unconsciously gynophobic? That last one is a joke, mostly. After thinking about it and getting nowhere, I decided to jump in and start a female Commander Shepard, back when I was playing Mass Effect 2. And I enjoyed it just as much as playing the male Shepard, even when I am getting her…romantically involved with other men, or male aliens (yep, you can do that). The experience was fun, engaging, and maybe even a little bit enlightening.

So understandably I was sorely disappointed with other games such as Skyrim, where playing male or female characters hold no difference whatsoever, aside from the occasional pronouns. In Skyrim, and most MMORPGs, the sex difference is very glossed over, and have next to no bearing on the gameplay or the narrative. At this point, I have actually surprised myself, because I am now actively trying to learn more about the female perspective from video games.

Perhaps, just perhaps, this little habit of mine has contributed to my sense of gender equality. Unfortunately, I still can’t come to any sort of productive conclusion about playing games as the opposite sex, but nonetheless, it has me intrigued, and of course I am not going to quite anytime soon.


America the Checkerboard

The LA (and actually the whole world) of Snow Crash is a place where people are separate from each other. America is not so much a melting pot as it is a chess or checkerboard–once, people mixed, but now, they all have restrictions on where and how they can move. “…Hiro is black, or at least part black. Can’t take him into New South Africa. And because Y.T. is a Cauc, they can’t go to Metazania. (Stephenson, 83)” Even jobs have taken on the characteristics of traditional ethnic groups–Taxi drivers speak Taxilinga, and accept no one into their ranks who does not also speak it; and as Y.T. says, “…the longtime status of skateboarders as an oppressed ethnic group mean[t] that by now all of them [we]re escape artists to some degree. (Stephenson, 77)” In short, everyone in LA has an identity, based on their genes, jobs, skills, house (or lack thereof) and these things dictate who they speak to, where they can go, and how the Snow Crash drug affects them. Coming from Hawaii, I couldn’t really identify with his depiction of race; true separation of ethnicities is something that is hard to imagine on the island chain (though I will admit it was both a plausible and scary thought). I will say that skin color automatically identifies you as one of three things: Native (which really just means you COULD be native–Filipinos, Samoans, and Micronesians, for example, certainly didn’t colonize the place like the Hawaiians did), Asian (of which there are two classes–Islander Asians and FOBs, the Japanese tourists who are very, very easy to identify), or Haoli (aka, white. Haoli, which means foreigner, is often used to somewhat familiarly but condescendingly describe mainland culture, white tourists, and activities seen as ‘white’). These stereotypes are known everywhere and there are many jokes and assumptions that go along with them. More than once, I have been mistaken for a tourist when out shopping with my mother, even though I’ve lived on Oahu all my life, but it’s never bothered me; rather, I take it as part of the harmless Haoli stereotype. Races mix in Hawaii like they do nowhere else. Ask almost anyone what their race is, and they’ll give you a list that most likely encompasses at least three or four different ethnicities. It’s hard to explain, but back home, race is something that you’re proud of and yet doesn’t matter. “I’m Chinese/Samoan.” “I’m Hawaiian/Indian/French.” “I’m Okinawan/Irish/Korean.” We poke fun at each other’s ethnicities, with those identifications of skin color and race, but they’ve never gotten in the way of a friendship. The total segregation present in Snow Crash was a scary thought. If it was there, I wouldn’t know half the people I do, and even more of them would never have existed in the first place.

Gender depictions in Snow Crash seem a lot less scary. The two main female characters, Y.T. and Juanita, are very different women, and like today’s women, show that you can either accept or reject the notions society gives you about what you should be. Y.T. is very much a product of her society; she sees nothing morally wrong with the way men look at her, or even with the fact that Raven desires and sleeps with a 15 year old girl. She is a girl of the street and goes to jail, breaks out, escapes mad taxi drivers, and makes deliveries as a Kourier, navigating the world of the franchises with ease because that is her world–she was born into it and she embraced it. Juanita, on the other hand, has rejected the traditions now present in franchised-LA. She is a true and devout Catholic when the Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates have turned Christianity into a franchised chain, complete with neon Elvises; and she is, in essence, her own person–working on Metaverse facial designs when no one else believed it would go anywhere, divorcing Da5id, despite his success, money, and power, and even discovering the Snow Crash plot–Juanita is her own person, thinking outside the box and using her knowledge and skills to save the world (if only “for a while”). I identify with both women–Juanita, strong, smart, independent, and Y.T., also strong, smart, and independent, but youthful, and headstrong where Juanita is wise and careful. They’re very different people, at different times in their lives, with different backgrounds and responses to the world they live in, but parts of them fit my image of myself; I think everyone can agree that we feel both influenced by society (like Y.T.), but that we also reject parts of it and stand apart (like Juanita). And they show that in Snow Crash, there are many paths you can take, no matter your sex.