Teaching Representation in Games

This past semester I taught a class on representation in games for the first time. I’m not a stranger to the topic, much of my critical work and speaking gigs have been about representation in games, but it was a new experience figuring out how to teach undergrads about the topic. I figured it’d be worthwhile to share my process, how it went, and what I think it means to teach representation.

A little context is in order, because a class is created under different contexts depending on the school system and departmental needs, along just with the kind of program and culture of the students one teaches. I was asked to teach a survey of as many different kinds of representation as I could, so I ended up teaching specifically to gender, race, sexuality, class, disability, and age. This isn’t the most common format, usually any sort of media studies course will be focused on just one topic, such as Race in Games, and spend time diving into the various approaches so students come out with a pretty developed understanding of the discourse around subject. I was also teaching in a BFA program which ultimately trained students to develop games, and while it’s possible for a student to focus on theory, there is a much heavier emphasis on development. My course was encouraged to have multiple forms of final projects, so not just papers but also creative projects to accommodate the range of people who’d be taking my class.

Despite how usual theory courses go, I didn’t find having projects to be a hindrance, rather the complete opposite, for my next iterations on this class I was to further integrate a critical project. I’m attempting to frame theory to be inspirational in a practice environment, to have students move away from using criticism to decide whether something is good or bad but instead use it to further evolve the media they are looking at. So the final project was basically a prototype of a game or conference talk that evolves things that students are passionate about. I do feel like in the context of universities where people are paying a lot of money to learn, courses greatly benefit from having a more obvious use than a reservoir of topics for cocktail hour. And really, it’s mostly me trying to pass down how I work, since I am inspired by theory to make experimental work and to develop new ideas about games and play.

I’ll go through an talk a bit about my experiences by each of the sections I taught. The first lesson I learned in reflection was how sectioning off by identity category worked against me more than it did for me. When choosing my readings, it became clear to me I didn’t really want to teach a ‘how-to’ and representing marginalized identities; the idea actually struck me as deeply weird, to get students to go and find stereotypes, discuss them, and then try to recreate some ‘good’ depictions. Though everyone involved probably believed that’s what the course was going to be, I decided to choose more foundational philosophy in various fields that speak to the act of representing or creating identity, so we can get to the root of what it means to represent rather than equip students with some incomplete inventory list. Because I grouped readings under headings like “Race” or “Disability,” student at times got hung up about trying to directly speak to those topics as they are in popular discourse, so getting hung up on finding race in a particular game instead of looking for the power dynamics the readings are most concerned about. It also meant that subjects I thought were easier (Gender) came first and subjects I was the least read on (Disability and Age) went last. Thankfully my reading list was pretty successful outside of one or two, so I’d keep an even spread of readings from these subjects and reorganize them into different sections, like Power instead of Gender. In hindsight this was an obvious thing to do, I’m fortunate that I was encouraged to make the course uniquely my own so I can structure it how I want and others might be forced to have these sorts of distinctions, but I do think teaching about representation isn’t about detailing identity rather helping students understand how is it we form someone’s identity in our minds and what are the power plays in the act of representing.

I started off the class by reading with the Combahee River Collective’s “Black Feminist Statement” to hopefully start the class understanding that while we were going through the course section by section, all these topics are greatly intertwined, and the general awareness of intersectionality. I also chose Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” in attempt to focus our attention on everyday details and not just broad sweeping claims about how power works in society. However, I found that introducing with these readings was more of a reflex on how I would start any other theory course dealing with identity rather than my specific needs. My future readings covered these topics quite well and I felt like most of my students already hear this language, which seems to be getting further and further institutionalized. You never know what kind of people show up to take your class but overall I feel like using these to start off my class underestimated where my students were at. In the future I think I’d want to do an in-class reading and exercise that acts as a sampler of the course overall, probably by finding some contemporary writing and games that put into focus the issues around representation.

For the Gender section I first got students to read the first couple chapters of Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl to get them used the kind of terms they would be encountering and how to look past the first level when it comes to accessing identity issues. It turned out to be a great introductory reading because it took students from identitarian terms like sex and gender to dynamics of power around femininity. It’s obvious when you’re already used to thinking this way, but many people don’t make the jump from something like being black to blackness, and Serano’s language is useful for student, especially since most haven’t read critically about a feminism focused on trans women. I also gave students the daunting task of reading through the beginning of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, which ultimately calls into question the idea of identifying as a woman and one of the more recognized appearances of performativity. In the future I’d probably move Gender Trouble further back in the course because her writing is a very high barrier for students, but ultimately super useful for breaking down a lot of assumed ideas about social justice and identity people absorb from the internet. I decided to pair these two readings together with Bayonetta, a forever controversial game about femininity in critical circles. I had some feedback before the class that this might have been too much for undergrads, but they had a great time, mostly because Bayonetta at the very least is interesting to look at and pleases a lot of impulses from people who play video games, and so the difficulty was mostly in how Bayonetta is received in feminist critique. It is a great game for people to disagree over and I totally recommend it if you want to tease out complications in contemporary feminist critique and harken back to its more poststructuralist/postmodernist roots.

The next section on race I started of with Ian F. Haney-Lopez’ “The Social Construction of Race,” which I imagine isn’t the usual context most students learn of social construction but the reading presents a complicated view right out the gate. Both this and the beginning of Edward Said’s Orientalism created a really strong base for my students to talk from regarding creating the Other. Along with the readings from disability studies, I found critical race theory important because of how much bodies are focused on that seems to escape a lot of other disciplines when it comes to this level of study. I paired these readings with Spec Ops: The Line, another controversial game surrounding American nationalism and the creation of heroics through racialized power dynamics. Like Bayonetta, it’s another good game to have students disagree over. By now, my students were getting used to the “there’s no obvious good answer” conclusion presented by the readings and strange machinations of pop culture. Around this time I feel like some started to give up on the idea of wanted their games to be “good” and that our ideas of about representation and identity don’t always come out in the most obvious of ways as we like to paint it in diversity awareness initiatives in games.

When we went through the Sexuality section of the class, I think it was obvious to my students it was the one I was most excited about. Mainly, I had students read the fourth part of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality Vol. 1 which is where he details his ideas about power and the discourse around sexuality paired with a yaoi visual novel Absolute Obedience, a highly weird game about spies in postwar Germany hired out to seduce various targets into homosexuality. I figured if students weren’t overwhelmed by now this would be where I lose them, but feedback told me that this was a section that really changed a lot of their perspectives because of how intense the source material was. I felt like this was also the section students felt like was speaking to fundamental understandings of themselves, and while the topics being discussed were super loaded we were able to hold that space well as a class. I also had them read from The Handbook of the New Sexuality Studies which talked about how sexuality was constructed, though I’m not sure if I want to keep it in since we already read about social construction a little thoroughly elsewhere. Either because of the nature of these fields or my personal academic journey, a lot of readings reference Foucault and I’m going to move him earlier in the schedule as much as I can without fully intimidating students like I did with Butler.

There were a lot of little readings for Class because I wasn’t completely sure how to approach it in the way of representation. So there was The Communist Manifesto, Max Weber’s “Class, Status, and Party,” Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods, and Erik Orlin Wright’s Class Counts which was a sort of combination of the former three. While students and people in general tend to talk more about gender and sexuality with more confidence, I noticed a lot more connection with the topics around class and labor. The idea of “classes” of people seemed to make a lot of sense and also shares some language in games, as does a lot of these topics. I probably would want to focus the readings to fewer authors, but since this is an undergrad class this was the first time many students read Marx and that it is in the context of video games is interesting. I had them play the six different prologues of Dragon Age: Origins and see how their characters were treated differently, also the varying depictions of contemporary social problems through typical medieval fantasy tropes. I got a mixed read on how well this worked, students were more attached to the depictions of class rather than sussing out how power works through class. This is a less controversial game but many students like it, and so there was some tension around challenging how it used class and how it tied to things like race in reality. I also want to balance out my syllabus a bit more away from AAA so I’m thinking of using Cart Life instead, though I do think the genre of RPGs lends a lot to class analysis itself.

With the Disability section we get to understanding the creation of ‘normal’ with Simi Linton’s Claiming Disability and Lennard J. Davis’ “Normality, Power, and Culture.” I keep thinking to myself as I type this about how everything needs to come earlier in the semester, but it feels particularly true for this. Disability studies has a lot of challenging work for complicity in social justice movements particularly around bodies and the rhetoric around how we create groups. For my next go-around I would probably just need one of these readings, so I’ll probably add in writing on crip theory. I also had students read Fiona Kumari Campbell’s “Refusing Able(ness)” which some students liked but I must have originally read it when surrounded by more academic work because now it doesn’t read very well. The students played Rogue Legacy since I wanted them to see a contentious work that depicts disability but it was met with mixed success. Students who could write more design-focused papers dug into it better than the rest, and I realize that it wasn’t the strongest example because I was stuck trying to find depictions of disability instead of something that reaches towards this normalizing force that disability uncovers. Many of my ideas had to do with playing with actual hardware or games about controllers, but I’m not entirely sure what I’d replace this with yet.

Finally, I had a half section on Age, with a reading on ageism from Todd D. Nelson and one on what’s dubbed childism from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. I haven’t read much on age before I prepared for this class so it was interesting to see what was out there and how it related to my other readings. What was particularly striking to us all was how conversations around age focus on our culture’s bias against weakness or needing of care, and how that shapes society against children and older people. I didn’t pull off this section with confidence, and there weren’t many games that dealt these topics. I settled on them playing any version of The Sims and seeing the differences on how the game treats characters at different life stages, but it ended up more as an interesting conversation at the end of the semester more than deep critical engagement about age. I’m not entirely sure what to do with these readings particularly in the context of this class, which is about games that rarely seems to depict children or older people with enough depth to critique.

At the end of the course, students presented mini-talks or prototypes of games that involved concepts they learned and would potentially want to work on. I pitched these as being things students would want on their CV and much of what I saw were good starts. Along with their readings, every week I had students look up more contemporary articles on subjects and talk them through. While I don’t think it worked much in-class (students are kinda pooped after dealing with Butler all day) they were able to find where their opinion fits in the current landscape of writing and create gestures towards something new. I think for future iterations I would make this more project-based, either by having lots of little projects or a structured build up to a final. I haven’t had many courses like that, usually practice and theory are kept pretty much apart, but I’d really like to find ways to turn more students into critical creators, people who can do multiple forms of critical expression since I feel like I benefit from not just being a theorist, but also a writer, and also an artist, and that is something I can pass on to others to work with.


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