In 2012 Nina Huntemann wrote, “It isn't difficult to find feminist game studies, or feminist gamers.”1 This is no less true eight years later. It isn't difficult to find feminist game studies. Academics—like me and the contributors to this special issue—produce articles, monographs, special issues, and edited collections with steady regularity, and the broader community of game critics digs in with video essays, podcasts, and op-eds. Those working in industry participate in this discourse as well, as evidenced for instance by panels and events at the Game Developers Conference. Feminist thinkers have been tackling the tangled knot of games culture for at least twenty years. The now-classic From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games (1998) launched multiple follow-up anthologies.2 Game developers like Brenda Laurel, Sheri Graner Ray, and Megan Gaiser helped spearhead a movement to take girls seriously as players in the mid-1990s and have continued to write and speak extensively about games and gender.3 Depictions of women in games have driven inquiry into a number of games, including notably the Tomb Raider series.4 Feminist scholars have long researched complexities of gamer culture, including competitive gaming, arcade culture, fandom, and player identity.5
An energetic flurry of feminist thought about video games helped define game studies in the early part of this decade. Alex Layne and Samantha Blackmon first launched Not Your Mama's Gamer as a feminist game studies blog in 2011.6 The first issue of Ada New Media in 2012 included Mia Consalvo's call to action for game scholars, arguing that feminist scholars must address what she termed “toxic gamer culture,” and Lisa Nakamura's “Queer Female of Color: The Highest Difficulty Setting There Is? Gaming Rhetoric as Gender Capital.”7 The entirety of the journal's second issue, edited by Huntemann, focused on feminist game studies, with contributions from Aubrey Anable, Kishonna Gray, Alex Layne and Samantha Blackmon, Adrienne Shaw, John Vanderhoef, and Jordan Youngblood.8 Anita Sarkeesian at Feminist Frequency launched a Kickstarter for a series of videos critiquing tropes in video games in 2012, releasing the first video in the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series in 2013.9 During 2012 and 2013, Jennifer deWinter and I wrote a series of short pieces for Flow about sexism in and around video games, the first of which responded to a game called “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian.”10
2012 was also the year of #1reasonwhy, a hashtag campaign fomented by Kickstarter games specialist Luke Crane's earnest and unintentionally hilarious question on Twitter: “Why are there so few lady game creators?”11 The hashtag ultimately sparked multiple panels at the Game Developers Conference and a further hashtag campaign, #1reasontobe, started by Tomb Raider reboot writer Rhianna Pratchett.12 The hashtag campaigns felt at the time like a moment of resistance, of organizing, and even of joy. Huntemann called them a direct challenge to “the symbolic annihilation of women in games.”13
Optimism can be a precious commodity among those of us who study games, but I think I speak from more than nostalgia when I say that briefly, many of us felt that the landscape of games was changing. The future looked—if not bright, at least less terrible. The feeling was short-lived. In August 2014 Zoë Quinn's former boyfriend posted a lengthy, unsubstantiated claim that Quinn had traded sexual favors for positive reviews of Depression Quest, a critically acclaimed game she had developed. The accusations were false; Gamergate, the storm of anger and abuse they precipitated, however, has lasted now for years. A year in, Quinn wrote that “August never ends.”14 A number of feminist scholars became Gamergate targets. One lengthy video accused participants in a Digital Games Research Association roundtable of plotting to destroy video games in an elaborate conspiracy.15 Some of gaming's most visible critics went into hiding and canceled events over safety concerns.16
Now, as five-year retrospectives go live on websites, many of us think of Gamergate as a watershed moment with a clearly delineated before and after, even though we acknowledge both the pre-Gamergate harassment and that there really is no post-Gamergate; it never ends.17 Perhaps the optimism of the pre-Gamergate moment in feminist game studies is now past, but the work is as urgent as ever. Every history is marked by watersheds, by moments in which something changes radically or crystallizes fully. The US Civil War neatly divides the history curriculum into two halves in many college programs: before 1865, after 1865. But these types of turning points or crystallizing events can happen at any scale, including scales much smaller than a protracted, bloody battle for the soul of a nation. So, for example, in the history of video games, we talk about the time before the coin-op crash in 1983, just as in game studies we might talk about the time after the founding of Game Studies the journal—or, at least, it would seem the journal's founders would like us to.18
The heightened tensions of cultural politics over the past five years have raised the stakes for feminist scholars, but many have continued to grapple with games culture, troubling gaming's racial politics, rhetoric of meritocracy, and founding myths.19 Elizabeth Losh in 2015 held up feminist game studies as exemplary of the potential for the types of feminist work that might be possible in digital humanities in part because of the diversity and significance of feminist game scholarship.20 But even as feminist game studies has come of age, as evidenced by not only the impressive number of conference papers, journal articles, books, and other scholarly outputs and also a growing interest in historiography and field formation, the scholarly history of video games is still an area ripe for feminist research, a point raised by Soraya Murray in an earlier issue of this same journal.21
In 2017 the American Journal of Play dedicated an issue to “The New Video Game History” and included an article I wrote highlighting a trio of under-sung women: video game regulation activist Ronnie Lamm, coin-op route operator and industry activist Amelia “Millie” McCarthy, and Exidy executive Lila Zinter.22 In it, I used these three as examples of the types of women who have profoundly shaped the history of video games only to fade into the margins—no matter that, for a time, they made headlines and drove both corporate and governmental policy. That article, subtitled “A Manifesto and a Way Forward,” was a call to action; this special issue is one of those actions. The time for feminist histories of video games is right now. This issue of Feminist Media Histories is part of what I hope will be a widespread effort to document and analyze the history of video games broadly—from the bottom up, from the margins, from the sides, at scales large and small, from the center, and from angles we have yet to imagine.
WHAT WE HAVE HERE
In the space left here, I would like to do two things. First, I highlight and celebrate the work of the contributors to this issue, who have provided rich examples of what feminist video game histories might look like. Second, I put forward a list of demands and provocations as we think through what this continued project can and should look like for those of us seeking to continue it.
This issue opens with Amanda Phillips's historiographic consideration of game studies, including the affective responses that have animated and circumscribed the field. In questioning the founding myths of both game studies (the field) and Game Studies (the journal), Phillips interrogates how emotional manipulation has been leveraged to establish and retain control of scholarly discourse and community, furthering exclusion of marginalized scholars. This foundational problem has served as a profound limitation on the development of game studies and the integration of feminist game studies and feminist game histories into the larger discourses of the field.
As Emma Vossen argus in her 2018 dissertation on cultural gatekeeping in games and game studies, exclusionary practices are echoed across the history of video games and even in influential pre-video-game media and pop culture.23 In her article for this collection she closely examines the cultural influence of J. R. R. Tolkien, both as the author of The Lord of the Rings (1954) and as a founding member of the Inklings, a literary discussion group comprised exclusively of men. Using an approach informed by media archeology and literary studies, Vossen argues that the exclusionary practices of game studies and video gaming are evidenced in the sedimentary layers of a century of fantasy media produced by and for white boys and men via the deliberate preclusion of all others.
Approaching video game history from the direction of a feminized rather than a masculinized genre, Anastasia Salter positions Infocom's Plundered Hearts (1987) as a loving homage to romance novels. She argues that Amy Briggs's game provides an interesting counterweight to the larger body of text games, and demonstrates the need for work that considers Janice Radway's arguments about the value of romance in the context of games.24 Plundered Hearts is indeed a compelling site for this type of analysis.
TreaAndrea M. Russworm and Samantha Blackmon present here a Black feminist mixtape of video game history. Organized through inventive framing as liner notes and music tracks, the article demonstrates the numerous ways in which Black women have participated in, critiqued, and shaped video game culture. Russworm and Blackmon present here an elegant, experimental example of how Black feminist thought should inform our understanding of video game history and how Black women entrepreneurs, activists, game developers, and academics have shaped gaming and game studies.
Working from a decidedly Marxist approach, Laine Nooney extends her earlier work on Roberta Williams as one of the co-owners of Sierra On-Line, a company that briefly transformed the former mining community of Madera County, California, into the “Little Silicone [sic] Valley.”25 Sierra On-Line, Nooney argues, fundamentally altered the economic fabric of the town of Oakhurst both in its rise and in its later departure for Bellevue, Washington. Here Nooney offers an industrial history of video games considered through the stories of three Sierra employees: Marie Cavin, who worked in sales; Liz Jacobs, who managed customer service; and Cindy Vanous, who worked in technical support. These smaller stories—of Oakhurst, of Sierra On-Line, and of Cavin, Jacobs, and Vanous—present what Nooney calls a “labor-oriented frame for documenting key moments of transformation, growth, and fracture within the US computer game industry.”
Finally, I am excited to include here two pieces highlighting the voices of game developers who have only rarely been featured in English-language game scholarship. The building of archives and documentation of history are deeply entrenched in cultural politics, and the inclusion of these conversations is intended as an intervention highlighting the transnational cultural flows of the games industry and the necessity of historical approaches that properly consider them. Alenda Y. Chang presents an interview with the French game designer Muriel Tramis, who has worked in the video game industry since the release of her first game in 1987. Tramis has made games deeply entangled with her personal and familial Afro-Caribbean history, directly confronting colonialism, enslavement, resistance, self-determination, and sexuality. Worth noting is that Coktel Vision, the company Tramis worked at from the late 1980s through 2003, was acquired in the early 1990s by Sierra, the US company that is the focus of Nooney's article in this issue.
In “Pioneras: Three Generations of Women Developing Games in the Southern Cone,” Phillip Penix-Tadsen presents four original interviews with game developers from Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay: Marcela Nievas, Sofía Battegazzore, Maureen Berho, and Martina Santoro. Nievas began producing games in the early 1980s, and they are among the first known games made in Latin America. Around the turn of the millennium, Battegazzore began her work in games by reverse engineering the Cartoon Network's Flash games so that the in-game text could be translated into more languages. Berho is an award-winning leader in Chilean game development and CEO and producer at the Valparaiso-based Niebla Games, a studio she cofounded in 2015. Santoro became the first woman to serve as the president of the Argentine Video Game Developers Association in 2016, and she talks about her experience making game pilots to sell to film and television producers and the importance of community for game development. These interviews with women working at different moments demonstrate the need for documentary efforts that capture the diversity of experiences that shape the game industry and facilitate a more international conversation about game development and game studies.
A CALL FOR OPTIMISM
Each of the articles here is, I hope, a provocation to further inquiry. History is a process, a practice, an insurmountable task. Many years ago when I was an undergraduate at Rice University, in the first class I ever took with the word “feminist” right there in the title, Susan Lurie pointed out in a discussion of Laura Mulvey's cornerstone essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975) that calling for feminist deconstruction is often framed as the preoccupation of the killjoy.26 But, Lurie continued, analysis itself is a type of pleasure—feminist theorists were not saying that we couldn't enjoy things, but that perhaps we should enjoy them differently. In that, she encapsulated something that all of us engaged in the feminist critique of culture and in the work of producing feminist history have, hopefully found: that even as we problematize and analyze, we find ways to enjoy things, if differently.
I began this introduction highlighting some of the feminist discourse that has shaped game studies over the past few decades, and I noted and lamented the passing of a moment of optimism that many experienced in the earlier part of this decade. But I see the continued work of feminist scholars over the past five years as part of that same well of optimism. Every intervention, every critique, is born of the belief that things could be better. The pieces here analyze and document the tangled threads of game history from diverse theoretical frameworks and perspectives. They trouble our settled understanding of what video games were, what game studies is, and what either can be. Feminist game studies isn't hard to find, and it hasn't been in many years; feminist video game histories are emerging. In closing, I offer four provocations and guidelines for what we need right now.
Histories, not history
The history of video games cannot and should not be presented as a single, unified trajectory. As the articles here demonstrate, video gaming has unfolded differently based on economic, political, cultural, and material factors. A number of historical works by journalists present game history as a large, sweeping narrative. This approach is understandable, but it can oversimplify the past and too easily fall into a celebratory narrative of progress. Further, singular narratives can mask experiences—like those of Black women arcade owners, or Latin American game developers, or customer service representatives—that are critical to understanding video games as an industry but fall far outside the celebratory histories that laud particular luminaries.
Discussion of safety is too often interpreted as a call for safety from people often dismissed as trolls. But the safety I seek has little to do with the behavior of strangers online and more to do with the professional norms of organizations that define the field, publish journals, organize conferences, and contribute to scholarly discourse. I have both heard and witnessed too many incidents in which marginalized scholars and junior scholars are belittled or threatened for raising real concerns.27 Feminist game studies and feminist game history are important and necessary interventions, and those engaged in this work should feel safe and welcome at professional events. Every conference and every professional organization should have a code of conduct that ensures the safety and inclusion of participants, and that code of conduct should be enforced. Nobody should have to rely on whisper networks to stay safe at a professional event.
This special issue, like all scholarship, represents the work of not only the credited authors but also the editorial team and a number of anonymous peer reviewers. I extend my profound thanks to all of them, and I also hope that the work here can help form a network of people interested in video game history. Feminist game studies continues in part because of concerted efforts at community building and scholarly service, and we must continue these efforts both to sustain the work already happening and to make space for new work.
I end by thinking about the pleasure of critique with which I opened this section. If critique leaves room for pleasure, it also leaves room for play, and indeed, game studies is deeply entangled with the study of play. But it should also rightly be entangled with play itself—with experimentation, with joy, with efforts to see things differently. Children learn from playing, of course, but so does everyone else. Most of us in game studies began researching games because we chose to spend time playing them. I'm loath to say that playing games is “fun” any more than I would call watching movies or reading books fun—it can be, but it can also be harrowing, moving, crushing, or disturbing. Play is fundamentally about experimentation, seeking the edges of what the world is and can be and imagining the other worlds that might be possible.
History may seem a strange form to think of as play, but so much of this issue is profoundly experimental, asking what the history of video games could look like as a way of informing the future. The study of the past and the formation of the future are both ongoing processes. Here, the past is a mixtape, a shuttered company, a boys' club, a series of watersheds, but the future could still be anything. I hope it is.