HCI, Feminism, and the Cake that I Don’t Usually Get to Have

This week I read a wide variety of works on digital technology, including Benjamin’s influential essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and Bush’s “As We May Think.” One of the uniting threads that tied many of the readings together was a shared focus on human computer interaction. Many of the works I read this week seemed to focus more on specific and concrete moments of interaction  (a user navigating a hypertext or creating a character in a video game) as opposed to the broader and more abstract discussions that have dominated previous readings. I found two essays, Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” and Turkle’s “Constructions and Reconstructions of Self in Virtual Reality: Playing in the MUDs” to be particularly thought provoking because of the way that they combine HCI with a discussion of gender. What follows is an anecdote that hopefully relates to these issues.

I was chain smoking through the Portal series a few weeks ago when I noticed something interesting: the game’s avatar is female. This is in and of itself an interesting fact for reasons that will hopefully be made clear, but what is perhaps even more interesting is that I was incredibly surprised when I realized that my character was a woman. The thoughts that ran through my head when I spied my ponytail clad self were as follows: huh, that’s odd that I’m a woman. I thought I was a man in this. Hm. I must have just selected a female avatar at some point in the beginning of the game. Oh no, wait, that can’t be right. You don’t custom build an avatar in this. Wait, that means the default avatar is female. Wow. That’s odd.

The reason that this is odd is because as an FPS Portal uses a first person point of view; the only time you can catch a glimpse of yourself is through one of the mirror like oval portals your character can create. There are many, many games were you play as a set female character (Tomb raider, Arkham City, Resident Evil etc.) But in those games, players are made well aware of their female identity through the voyeuristic 3rd person point of view. (This clearly isn’t true of all games but I would say its true of a vast majority.) Typically, even if the character is female, the viewer’s gaze is male. I simply assumed when I was playing Portal that because I was not presented with erotic images of the female body that I must be playing as a male character. I assumed that because gender was not a focal point, I was not a woman. I assumed that male was normative.

Seeing a glimpse of “myself” through a portal and discovering “my” gender was a moment of self-reflexivity; within this moment, my own surprise served as telling reminder of the degree to which the gender politics of video games have influenced my own perceptions. Though Turkle is talking specifically about role playing games, my experience reminded me of Turkle’s point about digital identity: “The medium enables the self to explore a social context as well as to reflect on its own nature and powers.” This ability to self-reflect, as opposed to the obvious sexism that is inherent within video game culture, is the main point that I am trying to get at. I think the notion that at its most ideal technology serves as a medium of self-reflexivity extends beyond issues of gender. When Bush writes about the memex and when Engelbart writes about the workstation of the future, there is an element of putting something of yourself into the computer, swirling it around, and being able to get some new insight about the self back in return. In both of these cases, the computer seems to serve as an external object through which we can better visualize and conceptualize our own thoughts.

I also bring up Portal in relation to Haraway’s notion of the cyborg as an androgynous being that defies the traditional dichotomies present in western culture. Like the character of Ripley in Ridley Scott’s Alien, Portal’s protagonist is a female character who is given a “male” role.  As Haraway notes, “a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.” Sadly, it often seems like the creation of “partial identities and contradictory standpoints” is not as present within technology as it should be. Turkle writes that through electronic self-representations “people become masters of self-presentation and self-creation. The very notion of an inner, true self is called into question.” I know that her discussion is confined to role-playing games, but I can’t help but feel that her statement is overly optimistic. How often do the technologies we use actually allow for moments of self-reflexivity and self-creation, as opposed to an insidious perpetuation of the status quo?

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5 thoughts on “HCI, Feminism, and the Cake that I Don’t Usually Get to Have

  1. I find it interesting that there are numerous female personas available in the interactive gaming world. I I am not intimately familiar with these games, but I have always had the distinct impression that the online and virtual world of gaming is a male dominated activity. Female perspectives are coming out and being portrayed. Is this a sign that there are more females participating in online gaming, or more female programmers? I sure how so.

  2. Kristin, There are numerous female personae available, but nearly all of them are hypersexualized. What is interesting is how you’re addressed by other online gamers. The slurs and threats come fast and furious, and when you’re not being dissed, you’re being come on to. Our cyberselves are not our own. I think that the shift might be from more writers, animators, storyboarders, and gamers being women, but I think it also has to do with us asserting ourselves and carving a place out. I remember when I used to play D&D and Paranoia and GURPS, all role-playing games quite popular in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Girls were marginalized and sexualized. I often tried to make my characters as far away from Arwen as possible. I was often a smelly male dwarf or a chaotic-evil wizard because it made it far easier for the blokes to accept my persona as a gamer. Strange life indeed.

  3. Your question is very interesting Gabi. It reminds me of the more misogynistic Metroid game where you find out that the protagonist, Samus Aran, is actually a woman. Unfortunately, the only reason you discover her gender is after a special end sequence where Samus leaves her Varia suit and is scantily clad in a bikini top. Does this lead to a separate appreciation, or is it merely a neat fact that tries to expand the video game market to a new audience? I unfortunately have leaned towards the latter in respect to first person video games, such as portal. I do believe with MUDs or MMORPGs that a person can safely vicariously live and experience the life of a thief, a dwarf, a mage, etc. without suffering harmful consequences. More importantly I could reflectively consider what being a woman would feel like. How would other characters treat me? Would I manipulate a woman’s sexuality to earn objects? It depends. For the most part I feel like it is an experiential extension that allows for social experimenting such as in chatrooms. At least that has been my experience with open-ended video games where I can be someone who I am not.

  4. I think this post is spot on. I remember noticing the gender issue when I played through Portal as well, and I also remember noticing that the men I was with (my brothers) didn’t seem to notice it at all. I wonder about the issue of self-reflexivity vs. perpetuation with social media, too; it seems that new platforms are always being touted as new ways to define “you,” but then that so much of the definition seems to depend on external cues–how many ‘likes’ does your post have? How many people follow you on Instagram? In this way, it seems possible that an RPG presence could be more honest than some versions of the self that are “really” us.

    1. Based on the widespread fan art and wikis, I’m pretty sure that male players mostly did notice that Chell (the Portal protagonist) was a woman.

      But it is true that the game’s designers, mostly male, were very consciously subverting and inverting many of the conventions of the genre. A first-person shooter where you can’t “shoot,” which winks at the ubiquity of boxes and box “puzzles,” and makes a woman rather than a man the “stubborn” and “stoic” protagonist. Oh, and the antagonist computer GLaDOS is also very clearly feminized from the start.

      The subversion works because “you” (whoever you are) very rarely do have control over the shape of the protagonist. So, what if a game did the opposite of genre staples?

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