Some Questions Regarding Burrill’s Gender Criticism

I enjoyed Burrill’s article very much, and I was particularly happy with his attempts to define the emerging parameters of gaming criticism as well as to argue its importance to the study of culture.

Much of what Burrill had to say made a lot of sense to me. Particularly his use of game theory to define the scope and implications of his inquiry and his instance on examining the effects of a game’s environment on the player. A game’s environment, structure, rules, objectives and limitation of choices all communicate something to the player of the game. The players’ repeated pursuit of an objective, with all of their failures and successes, reinforces the value of their choices as well as the value of the goal pursued. Theoretically, any and all media as a product of culture has an impact (however immeasurable) on the cultural values of the consumer and video games are no exception.  

Burrill argues that many video games endorse the values of “hypermasculization” and encourage the performance of hypermasculization through game play. And while I do not disagree that hypermasculization is a real phenomenon, I have my reservations about the strength of Burrill’s contentions.

Burrill says “The iterative structure of Syphon Filter operates as a contractual set of rules that reinforces hierarchy within the split/subject, between passive and aggressive, feminine and masculine.” But to my mind all that can be said for sure is that the game reinforces the value aggressive violence to obtain a goal. Weather this is an inherently masculine value is something I feel I have to question. I obviously have to admit displays of aggression are more culturally acceptable to males but is aggression in itself a practice of masculinity?

Burrill’s examination of Metal Gear Solid is much more problematic to me. Because the game requires less aggression, Burrill is left to argue that the games emphasis on stealth, hiding and constant trial and error is representative of masochistic desire, concealed masculinity, penetration, passive femininity and the performance of repressed homosexual desire.  I apologize, but I find this contention is not only ridiculous but insulting, which I’m sure to Burill is simply further evidence of my homophobia and repressed resentment of my sexual identity. How on earth can one perform white straight masculinity, repressed homosexuality, passive femininity and masochism simultaneously? How is any and all unidirectional action of game play inherently representative of hierarchical masculinity? The linear plot as the dominant mode of storytelling is not (to my mind) reflective of masculine cultural dominance, though I have heard this argued as well.

The article has inspired other questions for me regarding games, gender and identity: Can the continual pursuit of a game’s objective despite known possibility of failure really be representative of sadomasochist impulses? If a woman plays a game which encourages the performance of hypermasculinity, what is she performing by playing and pursuing the same objectives? What’s more, if she is enjoying the hypermasculine game, what does that say about her psychology? Has she been brainwashed into giving her consent and approval to an appendage of the patriarchy? If a man selects a female avatar, or a woman selects a male avatar to play, what gender values are they performing and why? What might Burrill have to say about the newer wave of games that allow players to make choices that effect not only plot outcomes but the ways in which computer characters interact with the avatar and the morality of the avatar itself? What sort of masculinity or femininity might these sort of games endorse?

These are just questions I have, and I hope we might get to some of them in discussion or in response here.  

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3 Responses to Some Questions Regarding Burrill’s Gender Criticism

  1. knystrom2013 says:

    BPR #4

    There’s a lot to like in this post Evan, I think you really nailed it on the head in many ways here. I think your point about masculinity =/= agressiveness is a huge point that isn’t taken into account. Like you, I agree that hyper-masculinity is something very prevalent in film and video games. But Burrill seems to suggest that the reason we play these games is not because of fun, or because of game mechanics, but rather that these all boil down to players enacting their own “sadomasochism” or something. Personally I find that outrageous – perhaps in a philosophical sense this could be true, but only at the shallowest levels of gameplay. Granted, his points are not directed at why people play these games persay, but he seems to be suggesting that certain elements of gameplay become fundamentally masculine or feminine. Maybe it’s just me, but some of these gender assignments become quite preposterous, as he demonstrated in his game descriptions.

    I totally agree with you about the Metal Gear Solid portion, and this is something I would like to discuss in class. Playing in a stealth scenario, and comparing this to repressed femininity, is utterly ridiculous. Especially the sentence about penetration thrown in there – most of the material thus far in the class comes from understandable different perspectives, but this section in particular stood out to me almost like a high school BSing their way through an essay. Because Snake gets penetrated by bullets, this is supposed to mean Snake plays an effeminate role? The game is about stealth in a military setting, its a Game, it’s supposed to be Fun, and people think it is Badass. I challenge Burrill to find one person who thinks Snake is effeminate because he is penetrated by bullets and doesn’t engage in direct combat. And if it is feminine, what is the takeaway here? That male players have repressed homosexual desires? That females will find something to like in this game because they can relate to the femininity? How do you go about proving either of those, to any degree at all? It seems insulting to both genders that game mechanics alone determine the “gender” of the game. My jaw almost hit the floor here. The worst part was, he abruptly ended his section on MGS right after he stated this. I really would’ve liked some justification, because I seriously have my doubts that he has any. If anything, he seems to be attempting to boil down even the most minute details into two completely separate realms of base masculine or feminine attributes. And gameplay elements like repeatedly trying something over and over again have no relation to gender whatsoever.

    I would really like to hear what Prof. Stabile has to say about this article. I have a feeling I have very different thoughts about this essay, but as often happens, my opinion will change after discussing it in class, or maybe I was looking at the issue from the wrong angle. No doubt do gender stereotypes exist in games, and there are many places for these labels such as the sexism we talked about in games like Knights of the Old Republic. But Burrill seems to be slapping labels on even game mechanics that quite frankly seem fabricated from nothing.

  2. Like the two of you, I’m of two minds about this reading. On one hand, I think that Burrill does a good job of talking generally about masculinity and its discontents and that he reviews a lot of material related to that in largely straightforward and helpful way. But then on page 33, he takes us deep in psychoanalytic theory (borrowed from film and media studies) and that’s a rabbit hole that just leads to analytic heartache. I should have set this up better, but I will make a note to talk a bit about the historical importance of feminist psychoanalytic criticism in class tomorrow.

    For now, I’ll simply agree with you that understanding power and domination as only and always masculine is not particularly helpful, because it somehow assumes that the feminine is the opposite of all that. That’s not a particularly robust theory of power, for starters, and it doesn’t account for other variables like race, class, and nationality. And I think that from p. 33 onwards, the analysis gets sloppy — as E. points out above, Burrill’s points get run together and in some cases are internally contradictory.

  3. tsvarga says:

    Blog Post Response #4

    I agree with a lot of what you have to say. The relationship that Burrill brings up between a culture that fosters hyper-masculinity and creates games that then go on to reinforce that hyper-masculinity in the players represents a real conundrum as to how to break the cycle. It also requires just as much work unpacking a lot of the implications related to how we think about aggression and male ideals.
    The question you pose about whether aggression is intrinsically masculine made me question the nature of labels like “masculinity” and “femininity.” You could argue that, because language and labels are arbitrary and decided by us as a culture, masculinity includes aggression simply because that is part of the definition. There is nothing absolute about what makes a man a man and what makes a woman a woman. We’ve been making it up along the way throughout history. If we can accept a difference between culturally supported labels and personal ideals of one’s own manhood or womanhood, I think there is more flexibility. Or perhaps we shouldn’t even strive to continue working with these signifiers, but instead erase the need to differentiate between gendered ideals, and concentrate on human ideals. We can work to minimize our differences to genitalia and minute size and shape discrepancies.
    Like you brought up in class, it would be great if we could define a tender and supportive father as masculine, but the fact is that a “manly” father maintains authoritative distance, especially from a son, based on our current dichotomy. Carol’s point, about how Burrill’s assumption that power and domination as aligned with masculinity assumes that femininity is the opposite of it all, helps to further criticize our means of classification, as well as its relationship to value. In general, society tries to define men with adjectives like aggressive, stoic, logical, and blunt, while women are in turn nonbelligerent, emotional, irrational, and tactful. While it’s useful to understand the baggage that comes along with these kinds of generalized definitions to have a dialogue, I think we would all agree that both of these lists could directly apply to the opposite gender than the one it claims to – we’ve given these descriptions their place on the gender scale.
    I think this plays right into another questions you raise about a woman playing and enjoying a game with a hyper-masculine structure. If operating within the conceptions of gender ideals laid out by society and the outline provided by Burrill, perhaps this woman would indeed be consenting to the patriarchy purported by the game. However, if coming from a more individualist perspective, this woman may simply value the expression of aggressive behavior, just like the nurturing father values a characteristic not allotted to him according to our current paradigm. If we could find ways to stop classifying and try to just allow people’s behavior to occur without contextualizing it within our current framework, then maybe we wouldn’t need to say our dad is masculine or not, but just that he’s a good dad. I don’t know, maybe I’m missing something here.

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