Reponse to Class Discussion: Cultural Criticism & Better Games


In today’s class, Professor Stabile mentioned that part of the issue of the toxicity of games is that games are not policed unless someone high in power decides to hold players and game makers accountable. It would also work if the majority of players decided to censor other gamers and game producers’ questionable behaviors until a new, more inclusive social behavioral norm was constructed.

Earlier in the term I wrote on the similarities between game toxicity and white segregationists’ anger against the US Civil Rights Movement and how both stemmed from fear of changing established hierarchies. Today’s topic made me flash back to the civil rights movement and in particular to the case ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) which was the foundation for the discriminatory practice of “separate but equal.” The Supreme Court ruled that legislation that enforced separation of races did not make one race inferior to the other and any construed inferiority resided only inside the heads of those who chose to believe it.

I bring this up because having an overtly masculine gaming environment that discriminates through use of stereotyped characters or through toxic gaming rhetoric only reinforces the idea that women and frankly anyone who is not a heterosexual white male are inferior. By building better games, games that make respecting fellow players a social norm, then discrimination may also decrease in the real world in addition to virtual ones.


We talked about barriers to building these “better games” such as a larger workload for game producers and discussed what would happen if games eliminated gender or expanded the categorization of gender. Ideals about gender from brawny men to busty women stem from social constructions so either these norms need to be broken down in reality or a game producer needs to be courageous enough to try it out and see what actually happens.

An opposite approach is by making people aware of the negative consequences of violent actions such as’s September 12th; however, these artistic projects only work in inducing short-term, inner negative feelings about bad behaviors rather then laying the groundwork for significant social change as most people avoid feeling bad for extended amounts of time. These thought provoking games may bring awareness, but better games can augment them by redirecting players expectations and behaviors to be more beneficial not just in a game, but in the real world too. 

These better games do not have to be brand new. Already existing games can be made better by individual players (Donkey Kong dad for example: who work to eliminate the inferiority statuses of other players by challenging standard beliefs and concepts. It is completely possible that a better gaming culture can be cultivated, all it needs are players and producers who slowly chip away at outdated and unappreciated norms. 

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6 Responses to Reponse to Class Discussion: Cultural Criticism & Better Games

  1. dargan99 says:

    I agree with Mary’s assertion that social-norm-swapping games do not necessarily have to be new, but I believe that there’s a great potential for new games to do just the same. Brand power is something that we’ve touched on a few times over the term but we haven’t truly delved into its influence in the gaming industry. For Nintendo alone, popular series such as Super Smash Brothers, Pikmin, Super Mario, Pokemon, and The Legend of Zelda have amassed an enormous fan base that participates in licensed events, produces fan fiction and fan art, and even cosplays at gaming/anime conventions. Furthermore, when the next game of the series is released, it’s the previously established fan base that most avidly seeks it out.

    This power held by the production companies can be used for the sake of neutralizing pre-established gender roles in games. In fact, Nintendo’s already well on it’s way to doing so with their 2006 (2005 in Japan) release of “Super Princess Peach”, in which Mario becomes the “damsel in distress”, so to speak ( As far as the actual gameplay goes, it’s fairly standard and almost indistinguishable from the other Super Mario games that can be found on handheld devices (a video play-through can be found on here: Yet I believe that Nintendo’s popularity in the handheld gaming market gave the company an opportunity to successfully market a product intended to reverse pre-established gaming gender norms. Peggy Orenstein, contributor to the New York Times, had this to say about Princess Peach in her 2006 article, “What’s wrong with Cinderella?”:

    “Now here were some girls who had grit as well as grace. I loved Princess Peach even as I recognized that there was no way she could run in those heels, that her peachiness did nothing to upset the apple cart of expectation: she may have been athletic, smart and strong, but she was also adorable. Maybe she’s what those once-unisex, post-feminist parents are shooting for: the melding of old and new standards. And perhaps that’s a good thing, the ideal solution.” (Orenstein 2006)

    As Mary stated, the gaming industry needs more producers who are courageous enough to make and market games that break outdated perceptions towards gender roles. Yet more than simply altering previous games with modifications (like Donkey Kong Dad), I believe the brand power of game producers will be an influential driver in the future of gaming.

    • cstabile says:

      Hmm. Would like to hear more about how brands could be leveraged to promote change. My sense is that brands tend to be very conservative and protective of the(ir) status quo. Perhaps Bioware is a counter-example, though?

  2. anelso11 says:

    Blog response post #3 (@mmartini2013)

    I have to start off by saying that I agree with your notion that game producers really need to start breaking down these traditional social norms depicted in today’s games in order to lower their toxic player environments. The fact that many game producers still cater to the heterosexual, white male audience reveals that they are not only apprehensive about change but are also missing out on appealing to a wider (and, frankly, a more diverse) demographic. Although the overall involvement of game producers would help in generating a more inclusive social and behavioral norm, I feel that the larger, well-known game-producing corporations need to take the initial steps. These big-name companies command the unwavering attention of the player demographic through their popular and often heteronormative games. So, producers of these companies may be able to bring about the largest transformations in player mentality and behavior by creating games that break the traditional gender/sexual/social norms. They would not only serve as appropriate role models for smaller companies and individual producers to follow, but they would also open up the door for new genres of games.

    Thus far, I feel as if the indie game producers and/or the small game companies are developing the majority of the games that challenge the heteronormative thought. Unfortunately, many of these do not receive the publicity they rightly deserve. Along with creating their own games that break down the traditional social norms, the popular gaming companies should also assist by endorsing or publicizing these smaller break-through games. Owners of the well-known game consoles could do the same by advertising them or making their games available to the players (for free or for money) through their online stores.

    I also agree with you with respect to the limited impact the approach of making people aware of the negative consequence of violent games really has. Repeatedly instilling negative feelings about bad behaviors merely repulses individuals from those sorts of artistic approaches, essentially undermining its entire purpose or message. Like you questioned, who wants to feel depressed all the time? Games serve many purposes, from entertainment to socializing, but intentionally disheartening one’s self is not one of them. Rather than deter gamers from playing games, it may be more effective to use the medium to bring about change to social norms in both the virtual and real worlds.

    I’d like to end by commenting how wonderful it is to hear stories where individuals take the initiative to eliminate the inferiority statuses of non-heteronormative players. If more people challenged the gender/sexual/social norms through gaming on a daily basis, a more inclusive and open-minded gaming environment would appear more plausible to the general public.

  3. jtomcal says:

    I see where you are coming from in relation to changing toxic behavior. However, how does one get a majority of players to decide to help police other gamer’s behavior? A few points relating to behavioral change in my own personal experience.

    Firstly, most people do not like being told they are wrong. Of course, it depends on how the person is told that he or she is wrong. In the case of destructive criticism, the one being corrected will almost definitely respond negatively. In the case of constructive criticism, it is a toss-up as to whether or not they respond positively. It really depends if the person is reasonable and open to change.

    Secondly, strength in numbers helps. As you mentioned the Civil Rights movement, one person did not make that movement happen. Dr. King most certainly helped lead it, but the message was really sent by the number of people that decided they wanted change. In relation back to my first point, more than one person advocating for another person to change their behavior is far more likely to succeed.

    Thirdly, game developers can help out with this problem. There are some environments that allow the proliferation of toxic behavior. This can be a combination of no policing, no report system, anonymity, etc. However, there are some games that attempt to encourage player reform. One of my teachers has described behavioral reform in the metaphor of a rabbit attempting to be moved with a carrot and a stick. The carrot represents positive encouragement, rewards for good behavior. The stick is punishment for bad behavior in order to move the person in the proper direction. In my opinion, a good game developer can implement both. Take for example, League of Legends. They have a player run tribunal system that judges cases (the stick). However, they have implement things, such as the honor initiative, where players can give honor to players that demonstrate outstanding behavior like being a good teammate, helpful, or friendly (The carrot). Additionally, League of Legends has given out IP/RP rewards (currency to get more champions and skins) to players who haven’t received any warnings or bans from the tribunal in their recent history (Another carrot).

    As a concluding remark, I say that the best first step (as mentioned in class) is to focus on your own personal behavior before attempting to change another person’s behavior. Finding people of like mind to take up your cause would be the next step. The third step would then be to create demand from game developers for their environments to inhibit the proliferation of toxic behavior.

  4. glovinge says:

    Resistance to Discrimination and Bad Online Behavior: The Reciprocal Relationship between the Top-Down and Bottom-Up Models

    As you point out Mmartiti2013, while the dominant and seemingly most effective model of policing online behavior today seem to come top-down from game designers and CEOs, an alternative model to police online spaces and create more civil online environments derives from individuals enforcing interpersonal accountability in their online interactions. There are powerful examples of these two models individually being put into action but I would argue that neither model is independent. Rather, the top-down and bottom-up models proposed are actually inextricably linked. As I mentioned in my last post on nonheteronormative representation and identification in video games, some game designers such as BioWare have recently begun to expand game-play options, incorporating elements such as romantic and sexual interactions between characters of any sexual or gender identification. They have openly stated that they are trying to make a game not just for white males but for everyone. This is clearly an example of a “top-down” effort to create greater equality in digital spaces. The key point to be made here is that top-down forms of combatting disenfranchisement in digital spaces can change the dynamics of online communities and therefor lead to a more productive community which is more able to combat inappropriate and discriminatory online behavior. This is a promising structural approach to combating the disenfranchisement that non-white/male players often feel when confronted with games that do not provide them with game-play options consistent with the way they self-identify or the way they preform gender. Changing the features and structures of gameplay can change behavior in-game. As professor Stabile put it, structural changes in-game are like roundabouts; unlike a stoplight that you’re supposed to stop at but can run if so inclined, a roundabout forces you to change your behavior. What’s more, like the extra attention and nervous awareness that many people feel when navigating a roundabout (at least in the sparsely roundabouted northwestern U.S.A) changing the structure of a game can encourage more mindful consideration of in-game behavior. By expanding game-play options to enfranchise everyone without specifically catering to any one demographic (i.e. the pink game strategy) it is possible disrupt unhealthy power dynamics in popular mainstream games, and give non-white/male players a voice to defend themselves. When players have playable options and representations in a game they are in some sense legitimized and empowered to engage in that space.
    While the top-down model of resisting disenfranchisement in digital spaces can clearly alter aspect of online communities as well as the behaviors they engage in, it is perhaps less obvious how the bottom-up model can cause changes at the top. As has been pointed out, enforcing accountability within the online community that you are a part of (i.e. trolling trolls) is a mode of resisting toxic behavior online. Additionally, in class we have pointed out that members of a digital community can exert pressure on proprietors of digital spaces by boycotting sexist or discriminatory games. But it is important to remember that the people on top come from the bottom; that is, game designers and developers of today are products of the community they are a part of. This is also true of the game designers and developers of tomorrow. That is why the bottom up approach, which enforces accountability in online interactions and combats toxic behavior, has much farther-reaching implications than just policing trolling behavior today. Calling people out and holding them accountable for their actions and words online today influences both the game designers of today which take part in these communities and can influence the next set of game designers and developers who will be making game in the coming years.

  5. cstabile says:

    I think M.’s original point is that art games and aesthetic interventions only succeed in making people feel badly for short periods of time. It’s important to note that that’s different from players calling one another out on bad behavior in the interactive games where these kinds of behaviors proliferate. J. seems to believe that the solution is to create in-game incentives for good behavior — my sense is that guilds and clans in MMOs also serve a community policing function in those games. I would very much like to think more with M. and other psychologists about ways to intervene in these and other hostile climates.

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