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In this paper, I would like to discuss “how we perform gender in video games”. More precisely, I would like to ask if choosing a “female character” in MMORPG1 leads male gamers to be assigned as “women” (even if they identify themselves as men). With this subject, I would like to consider the meaning of playing a “female character”, the “virtuality” (Boellstorff 2008) of gender identification, and its performativity (Butler 2006). In addition, I would like to ask if performing a gender in a RPG2 could have similarities with a “destabilising tactic” (ibid.)3. The purpose of this text is to share some insights about the processual aspect of gendering and sex identification. We have to acknowledge that I have my own positionality (Abu-Lughod 1996) and what I will describe could be partial (Clifford et Marcus 1986). However, as Berliner (2008) puts forward in his article, being a man should not exclude me from talking about interactions between men and women. It is necessary to be conscious of the impact of one’s positionality in the production of knowledge. From this point, I will try to explore the “doing” of gender in a gaming context (Butler 2006). This short ethnographic experiment has been previously performed by predecessors such as West and Zimmerman (1987 ; 2015) or Butler (2006) who have shown the impact of game as a matrix of gendered socialisation.
Leclercq Arno Anthropology of Gender and Sexuality
000432586 David Berliner
In this paper, I would like to discuss how we perform gender in video games.
More precisely, I would like to ask if choosing a female character in
leads male gamers to be assigned as women (even if they identify
themselves as men). With this subject, I would like to consider the meaning of
playing a female character, the virtuality (Boellstorff 2008) of gender
identification, and its performativity (Butler 2006). In addition, I would like to
ask if performing a gender in a RPG
could have similarities with a
destabilising tactic” (ibid.)
The purpose of this text is to share some insights about the processual aspect
of gendering and sex identification. We have to acknowledge that I have my
own positionality (Abu-Lughod 1996) and what I will describe could be partial
(Clifford et Marcus 1986). However, as Berliner (2008) puts forward in his
article, being a man should not exclude me from talking about interactions
between men and women. It is necessary to be conscious of the impact of one’s
positionality in the production of knowledge. From this point, I will try to
explore the doing of gender in a gaming context (Butler 2006). This short
ethnographic experiment has been previously performed by predecessors such
as West and Zimmerman (1987 ; 2015) or Butler (2006) who have shown the
impact of game as a matrix of gendered socialisation. We play to be other in
numerous contexts. However, what I want to explore those moments when
played identities are coming in interaction with what we consider as our real
self (Goffman 1973). Then, in a short story, I will try to explore how my
experience of playing a gendered other has led me to question my real self.
Massively multiplayer online role-playing game
Role Playing Game
Butler used the concept of stratégie de déstabilisation (Butler 2006 : 96) but I prefer the use of « tactic »
(de Certeau 1990 : XLVI) because it puts more emphasis on the agency of individuals. In fact, a tactic is
a daily life action aiming to renegotiate hegemonic order ; whereas a strategy is an institutionalized
action answering to a political rationality (ibid.)
1. A man playing video games
I was a teenager of 10-12 when I started playing video games. I used to play
with friends to a video game called Dofus. This was an online RPG taking place
in a medieval-fantastic context. Dofus was a so-called free to play game and
it was the game for children of my age who couldn’t afford a MMORPG like
World of Warcraft.
Dofus proposed different classes of characters: a Warrior, a Rogue, a Mage,
etc. I decided to play a Rogue. Then, I was allowed to choose a gender for my
avatar. But what was very frustrating, was that the Rogue masculine avatar
was a skeleton-ish avatar that I found awful. At the opposite, the feminine
skin looked more like how I perceived Rogues: black hood, daggers, a black
coat… Also, I had noticed that the feminine avatar was sexualised (she wore
a thong and was half-naked
In fact, at my age, I was not able to see the problem with the way Dofus was
giving a hyper sexualised image of womanhood. The funny part of my story
was that some people began talking to me. They invited me to discuss with
them on MSN
, gave me fat loots
and even helped me to level up. But I
quickly realised that masculine gamers were not blind and saw that I was a
man with a woman skin. So, when they figured this out, they disappeared
(not without calling me a fag [tapette / PD in French]). In very few words, I
completely failed to play the woman’s role that people had assigned to me. The
personality of my character didn’t fit with whom or what I was supposed to
Here we can begin building an interpretation. When deciding to play this
character, I had to endorse a new personality. I had to play a feminine
The presence of this thong could be questionned through gamer’s perception of pornography and
sexuality. However, it will not be the subect of this text.
MSN (The Microsoft Network) was an instant messagery which have stop to exist. It allowed people to
discuss fastly on internet.
« Word used in various games to describe rare, valuable, or large amounts of loot/money/items gained
in a short period of time. Examples may include rare drops from enemies, or gaining large sums of
money relatively easily » (« Urban Dictionary: Fat Loot », Urban Dictionary, consulté le 19 novembre
character. It was not just me anymore, I was someone else. I performed
new identities (Butler 2006).
2. Why I failed to play a woman
Bourdieu (1980) has shown that we act depending on predispositions we
embodied during our different socialisations. We represent our world following
classifical systems that we learn from different environments (ibid. : 90-91).
These classifical systems shape the way we understand our own identity and
the other’s ones (ibid. : 92). In addition, it has a political/normative impact on
its own (ibid. : 93). Our perspective on gender, following Bourdieu, is shaped
by patriarchal representations (Bourdieu 2016). We encompass these
representations and it contributes to the way we assign genders to people,
without questioning its arbitrary aspect, and its tendency to reify masculine
domination (ibid. : 22). In other words le monde social construit le corps comme
réalité sexuée et comme dépositaire de principes de vision et de division
sexuants (Bourdieu 2016 : 23).
It is important to understand that children are not “asexual”. They construct
their “own social word” (Thorne et Luria 1986 : 177), and they establish their
own gender system organised around the institution of heterosexuality” (ibid.
: 177). Thereby, sexualised language and practices, and a gender segregation
at school (ibid. : 178) can be observed in cross-sex relations at young age. Boys
integrate set of interactions at school where a masculinist and homophobic
ethos predominate (ibid. : 181). Thus, my perspective on what is a feminine
behaviour was acquired following schemes spread from my childhood, and it
still has impacts now. More specifically, I learned what are gendered
behaviours from discourses spread by the ideology of masculine domination
(Bourdieu et Boltanski 1976). The dominant ideology acts like an hegemony
by producing common ground (ibid.), a méconnaissance pratique spread
into discourses (Bourdieu 2016 : 64).
Without knowing it, we tend to assign genders to people according to
predispositions learned during socialisation (Bourdieu 2016 : 58). These
assignations constitute symbolical violence which is exerted through
perception, and appreciation of actions (ibid.). This habitus creates
inclination to act in a certain way, following with whom we are interacting
(ibid.). When I started to play a female character, people assigned me to a
role shaped by their representation of what they conceived to be a woman.
But also, I played this role following my own vision on female gender by
encompassing a certain habitus
. The failure in the way I tried to play a
woman can be imputed to my own misrepresentation of what is a woman,
but also on the way other men see women. I tried to play a generic identity
without conceiving the heterogeneity of women’s experiences.
Performing gender can be seen as a action dramatisée (Goffman 1973 : 36).
Our interactions as gendered and gendering individuals are determined by the
way we play our gender-based roles (Bourdieu 2016). We assign each other
the roles that we are supposed to play, and by their routinisation, we tend to
naturalise them as taken-for-granted (ibid.). The Goffmanian métaphore
théâtrale (Goffman 1973) is important to understand the way we act, but we
also have to take into account the role of the patriarchal dominant ideology to
understand the interactions between individuals. Bourdieu said that l’ordre
social fonctionne comme une immense machine symbolique tendant à ratifier la
domination masculine sur laquelle il est fondé (ibid. : 22-23) ; but more than
that, this social order depends on how people perform dominations. Indeed,
performing gender is a constant adjustment process of our dispositions to des
structures objectives de domination which tend to be unconscious (ibid. : 58).
My own performance, as a man playing woman, was determined by my own
background, my own ability to endorse this role, but also by my inability to
naturalise this role (ibid. : 56). Actually the heteronormative frame (Butler
2006) and the question of the heterosexualité obligatoire (ibid.) have to be
taken into account. My attempt to subverting the gender’s order was
For example, by being less assertive, less talky and by following advices of other players
embedded in a manly-heterosexual frame which is quite difficult to cross. But
this is not impossible. In fact, we are not prisoners of classificational systems
(Goody 1973), and human abilities to play between the gap of the masculin
banal (Guillaumin 1984) must be analysed. Thus, before going further, we
have to reflect on the construction of gendered categories through time and
see the political impacts it has on how we have seen women (and also how
they see themselves as gendered individuals).
2.1. Men and women as political categories
Structuralism had a tendency to put human beings into « symbolical prisons »
(Goody 1979), and to reduce gendered opposition in a nature-culture dialectic
(Ortner 1972). For example, Ortner ascribe womanhood to notions like
irrationality (ibid. : 81) domestic (ibid. : 78), and care (ibid. : 79) without
asking seriously the liberty between these classificatory frameworks. In other
words, we are able to poach (braconner) (de Certeau 1990 : XLIX), to
subversive the heteronormative and patriarchal framework (Bourdieu 2016).
In our study of gendered relations, it is interesting to take into account what
Wittig said about the ideological reconstruction of our woman-man opposition
as « natural groups » (Wittig 1980 : 75). This division starts by a false axiom
which is the universality of heterosexuality (ibid. : 76). With the emergence of
de Beauvoir’s work seventy years ago, the concept of gender as a social
construct has gained popularity. But we forget to see sexes as social
constructs too. Actually, before the eighties, feminism did not see that
“woman’s corporal materiality” does not exist in itself but is the consequence
of a mark (ibid. : 77). This marking was imposed following a mythe de la
femme (ibid.). Indeed « La marque ne préexiste pas à l'oppression […] les sexes
sont appréhendés comme une donnée immédiate, une donnée sensible, un
ensemble de « traits physiques ». Ils nous apparaissent tout constitués comme
s'ils existaient avant tout raisonnement, appartenaient à un ordre naturel. Mais
ce que nous croyons être une perception directe et physique n'est qu'une […] «
formation imaginaire » qui réinterprète des traits physique (ibid.).
Sex and gender were constructed following the ambition to subject bodies by
the use of techniques de pouvoir, a bio-pouvoir maintaining our docility
(Foucault 1976 : 185). By the use of ideological state apparatus (Althusser
1975), bodies were marked in ways to ensure a sexual division of labour and
the controlled insertion of bodies into the production apparatus (Foucault
1976 : 185). To assign bodies to a sex, following patriarchal and heterosexual
schemes contribute to a new moral economy which disqualify certain (female)
bodies for controlling them (ibid. : 186). By the use of a certain knowledge on
woman’s body (psychiatrisation for example), the hegemonic masculinity
ensures a certain moralisation and regulation of what has to be “women’s
behaviours and “male’s behaviours” (ibid. : 192). Women’s bodies were
fragmented by medical discourses, putting emphasis on body parts, especially
on their genitals (Martin 2001 : 19). Taken as objects, medical institutions
created a knowledge about women, a sciencia sexualis (Foucault 1976 : 68),
without giving attention on them as subjects (Martin 2001 : 20).
This tendency to objectify women, instead of treating them as subject, can be
observed in Wittig’s critique of Marxist feminism. Marx, in his ambition to
emancipate workers from salaried alienation, gives a theoretical framework
putting emphasis on the material conditions of existence (Marx et Engels 2010
: 28). His project was to make visible the dialectical opposition between class
interest. For that, he chose to objectify classes in function of propriety on
means of production (ibid. : 25). In this perspective, women’s interests were
assimilated to proletarian ones. Wittig affirm that Marxism stops women to
think and to constitute themselves as a class (Wittig 1980 : 82). This by
naturalising men/women’s relations, without seeing that women’s class
positionality was specific, and conditioned by the sexual division of labour
(ibid.). We could also ask the lack of representation of racialised or queer
experience, and its specificity in regard of the hegemonic domination (Lorde
1997). In other words, we have to nuance the universalist perspective on
women conditions by giving more subjectivity and agency to women (Mohanty
1991). But also, it is important, to keep our focus on the universality of
masculine domination.
Many feminist works criticise the universalist approach by saying that it
mystifies local specificities of domination. Universalism denies women’s
agency and their ability to subvert patriarchy. Although, Butler denounced
the harmful aspect of universalist feminism on our representations of orient
or tiers-monde women (2006 : 63).
Butler criticises the feminist’s tendency to attack universalism by showing
how gender and sex can be used as open categories for reuniting different
groups of interest behind common goals (the fall of hetero-patriarchy) (ibid. :
40). In her perspective of genders, Butler denounces the fallacy of seeing the
gendered symbolical order in terms of opposition between nature and culture
(Fassin 2006 : 8). Butler proposes to analyse this opposition as a historical
production (ibid. : 9), a domination tool (ibid. : 11) which has pushed feminists
to confuse gender and sexuality. The way we are assigned a gender is a
condition of our agency (ibid.). Butler wants to focus on our ability to subvert
the hetero-patriarchy (ibid. : 16).
While Butler uses drag as an example of subversion of gender, I argue that
her contribution helps us understanding the little story I told at the beginning
of this paper. First, we have to take into account the processual aspect of
gendering and sexualisation (Butler 2006 : 84). When I was a child, my identity
was not fixed yet and this is no longer the case today. The way I have been
gendered is an on-going process and my identity was also shaped by regulating
practices; which form a coherent identity on me through a normative matrix
(ibid. : 85).
2.2. Being a trouble-genre
If I found playing a woman a funny thing to do, it was because I had
integrated the fact that this role was not mine; it was a subversive other. I
was playing a trouble-genre, an identity that could not exist, an anomaly
to my own assigned matrix of development a man in a “women’s body. I was
not a gender, I did a gender; I performed it (ibid. : 96)
Some might say that performing genders in video games is drastically different
from that in real life. Nevertheless, similarities might be witnessed because
we are virtually human (Boellstorff 2008). In fact, online activities [and more
broadly social activities] are role-play in every ways, even for those who aren’t
roleplaying, because people just suppress some aspects of their personalities
and accentuate others (ibid. : 119). This reflects a broadly shared cultural
assumption that virtual selfhood is not identical to actual selfhood (ibid.).
Lots of scholars put their interest in the construction of the self; and try to fill
the gaps between the self and the tech (ibid. : 120). What is important to
understand is that the gap between virtual and actual self could reverberate
into everyday practices of identification and interaction (ibid.) but without
the social constraints or the particularities of physical embodiment (ibid. :
121). In some ways, digital relationships allow some people to express their
real self, without the congestion of their social face-to-face anxieties (ibid. :
Comparing with what I observed in Dofus, other gamers took my female avatar
as a component of my Self. They saw my avatar as the embodiment of a woman
without asking what I really was. They took the virtual presentation of my
Self as a representative figuration of my physicality. Woman physicality is
regularly seen by other gamers as a primordial component of her Self, but also
as being “compulsorily heterosexual. In extenso these pre-conceptions shape
the way gendered interactions are taking place in cross-sex context.
However, to be able to continue, we have to question the specificities of a text-
based relation. Control over self-representation is a key-feature of virtual
words (ibid. : 129). Nevertheless, what are the communicational determinisms
of gender relations? Virtual embodiment can be seen by players as a loyal
representation of themselves, but others can also see it as a treason (ibid. :
134). In my case, I played a woman for fun, I had no control on her look, but
other players saw it as a phantasmagorical representation of me; but when
they saw me acting and speaking, they were disappointed (ibid. : 136).
Actually, some parts of my masculine personality dwelled in my linguistic
performance. My hypothesis is that my “masculine personality was partly
discovered because of my linguistical performance. We have seen that gender
is not only a question of physicality. Thus I suggest to look closer to the way
linguistical skills shape gender performance.
3. Performing language
If we want to understand what happened during my interactions with other
players, we have to explore how gendering process works though a verbal
communication (with an avatar as physicality). In fact, “In graphical virtual
worlds, discussions of gender have tended to focus on embodiment, reflecting
how visuality had become powerfully constitutive of the virtual by the time of
my fieldwork” (Boellstorff 2008 :143). Without succumbing to a radical
linguistical determinism proposing that our representations are determined
by our linguistical categories, I want to show, as Gal did, that there is a close
link between gender, the use of speech (or silence) and the exercise of power
(1989 : 1). In fact, we have seen that gender is a system culturally constructed
and shaped by relations of power, reproduced by the actors themselves (ibid. :
2). Butler worked on subversive tactics to transgress gender, but it could be
interesting to explore more deeply how masculine domination can also be
embedded in womens everyday talk. Men ensure their authority over women
by linguistic forms as much as by social institutions (such as medicine or
political process) (ibid. : 4). In fact, gendered differences in speech can be
observed. For example, Gal can also be observed that women’s speech is more
articulated to high status (ibid). For example, Middle-class and working-class
men more frequently use pronunciations characteristic of the working class
than their female counterparts. And all men evaluate working class features
more positively than women do (ibid. : 7). Speech is a verbal gendered skill
which depends also on webs of conceptions and predispositions (ibid. : 8)
Speech says a lot on gender classifications. Hence speech enacts a discourse
strategy and is not simply a reflex or a signal of social identity (ibid.). But
also, manifestations of these gendered differences in speech must be
approached by analysing the gender of the audience and the varying cultural
salience of gender in different social contexts (ibid.). Variations of gendered
speech is occurring as several parts of linguistic system (ibid. : 8) and
contrasting normative values are assigned at women and men’s speech (ibid. :
9). For example : Men use less irony and fewer particles of either kind,
showing considerably less sensitivity to the details of social relationships and
context.(ibid. : 10)
Women tend to develop strategies and set of practices for implicitly criticise
men, or more precisely to subvert hierarchies (ibid. : 12). On the other hand,
boys use strategies to impose their ideas by ensuring muteness of women
(ibid. : 12). Interrupting is for example a strong mechanic of power used by
men in cross-sex interactions as a gesture of dominance against women (ibid.).
Gal insists on it by showing that adults interrupt children more than the
reverse (West and Zimmerman 1983 ; cited by Gal 1989 : 12).Discourses are
not neutral. It shows strategies of empowerment performed to ensure
legitimacy and authority over genders, class, and races (ibid. 16) for example
by denying the power of others (ibid. : 16).
To ensure muteness of women is a political asset of masculine dominance over
women. It reifies sexual and gendered divisions of the social and impose
symbolic violence. We have, as anthropologists, to look on muteness as a
structural product and the process by which women are rendered muted or
manage to construct dissenting genres and resisting discourses (ibid. : 18).
Something in my linguistic presentation of my self was not a good
performance and did not correspond to what other players expected from a
woman. It led me to be compromised and discovered as a male player. I was
maybe too assertive, maybe my spelling was no sophisticated enough. I
cannot answer this question. But it cannot be denied that a major component
of our gendered identity dwells also in our linguistic skills.
Thus, gender is not a set of traits, nor a variable, nor a role but the product
of social doings (West et Zimmerman 1987 : 129). In other words, Gender is
a socially scripted dramatization of the culture’s idealisation of feminine and
masculine natures, played for an audience that is well schooled in the
presentational idiom. To continue the metaphor, there are scheduled
performances presented in special locations, and like plays, they constitute
introductions to more serious activities (West et Zimmerman 1987 : 130).
Hence, doing gender consists of managing such occasions so that, whatever
the particulars, the outcome is seen and see-able in context as gender-
appropriate or, as the case may be, gender-inappropriate, that is, accountable
(West et Zimmerman 1987 : 135).
Doing gender inappropriately can lead to be stigmatised, objected, by others,
because of their social expectations. Calling someone a fag, is a way to signify
the un-relatedness of male performance. It is a regulating practice, a
gendered homophobia (Pascoe 2012 : 335), aiming at signifying to any
trouble-genre that they have to stay in line. As Pascoe has suggested,
calling someone “gay” is a way to question his masculinity, assigning this
person de facto to a “marginalised social identity” (ibid. : 337). The violent
aspect of the social reaction of peers can be linked to what I see as a
widespread believe on internet: every woman on internet is a man in disguise,
or a ‘attention whore’”. To abject someone as “fag” is way to reduce an
“unpleasant ambiguity” (Douglas 1966 : 46) where gayness is a threatening
spectre” (Pascoe 2005 : 342) and a form of pollution that boys have to avoid
(Douglas 1966). This avoidance can be observable by the way non-masculine
people are stigmatised, ostracise and murdered
under hetero patriarchy, but
also in the will of people to stabilise someone else identity into gendering
Causes of this belief are multiple. A common shared idea would be that women
play video game less than men. But it could be observed that women tend to
prefer specific games (Hartmann et Klimmt 2006). According to Hartmann and
Klimmt, women tend to prefer non-competitive games, and put the emphasis
on game with rich social interactions (ibid. : 925), and also to game giving a
respectful representation of women (ibid.). Looking closer to this study, we can
I would like to insist on this aspect with the concept of homosexual panic defense (Kulick 2003 :
143) where the murder of gay people (and in extenso his/her rejection) is considered as « reponse to
provocation » (ibid. : 144)
also observe that women seem to play as much as men to RPG (ibid. : 923).
So why do male players think that there are fewer women playing videogames?
In my own opinion, as a male gamer, I observed that other men tend to think
that women playing video games do it for dragging attention of male partners.
As a matter of fact, in a hetero-phallocentric framework, a lot of men think
that women exist only for the sole pleasure of men. If a woman plays a video
game, she does it for the purpose of meeting. It leads to create a toxic climate
which, in turn, leads women to mute their existence in games by faking to be
a man. This subversive tactic of playing without being importunate is an
answer against the ambient hetero-sexism in video games. This leads also men
to think that there are fewer women playing, that they are men in disguise,
and that those who decide to act without cover are slut in need of attention.
The whole question is to know if these tactics are forms of a womans agency,
or the result of masculine domination.
This text cannot close the subject. In fact, my performance of doing another
gender than mine was a failure but gave me also some interesting views on
the relevance of hetero-sexism in daily life cross-sex interactions. Performing
gender in video games is a sort of role play but cannot be reduced to it. Gender,
class and race are not just performed, they are assigned and shaped by a
worldwide spread morale and economical hegemony : hetero-masculine
capitalism. My failure to “playing a woman” according to my own essentialist
vision of womanhood is not only due to a missed performance, but also to my
blindness to the specificity of women positionalities. Women endure diverse
form of oppression (sexism, homophobia, classism and racism) though their
lifetime (home, at school, at work, though pornography, and in daily relations).
These social oppressions are rendered invisible through the routinised actions
and then becomes taken-for-granted, a difficult-to-question identity that
people have to debunk. The perpetuation of assigned identity prevents us to
contest the harmful aspect of male hetero-capitalist domination and
exploitation. We must keep in mind that our gender and sexual identities are
an on-going process. This process must be fed by discussing with people
sharing an interest in un-doing their identity (Butler et Cervulle 2006), in
willing to contest current sexual and gender framework.
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