Review Fix chats with ‘Women and Video Game Modding: Essays on Gender and the Digital Community’ Editor and Author, who discusses the journey the book took her on and how she’d like it to be appreciated by the masses.
About the Book:
The world of video games has long revolved around a subset of its player base—straight, white males aged 18–25. Highly gendered marketing in the late 1990s and early 2000s widened the gap between this perceived base and the actual diverse group who buy video games. Despite reports from the Entertainment Software Association that nearly half of gamers identify as female, many developers continue to produce content reflecting this imaginary audience. Many female gamers are in turn modifying games to appeal to players like themselves. “Modders” alter the appearance of characters, rewrite scenes and epilogues, enhance or add love scenes and create fairy tale happy endings. This collection of new essays examines the phenomenon of women and modding, focusing on such titles as Skyrim, Dragon Age, Mass Effect and The Sims. Topics include the relationship between modders and developers, the history of modding, and the relationship between modding and disability, race, sexuality and gender identity.
About the Author:
Bridget Whelan is an assistant professor of English at SOWELA Technical Community College in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her research interests include children’s literature, fan studies, game studies, and girl culture.
Review Fix: How did this project start for you?
Bridget Whelan: I gave a presentation on women and video game modding at the 2015 PCA (Popular Culture Association) conference in New Orleans. Before the conference, several publishers evidently saw my presentation’s title in the line-up and contacted me via email to ask if I’d be interested in expanding the talk into a book. I met with the McFarland representative at the conference and agreed to sign on with them. The editor initially wanted me to write the book myself, but I said I was too overworked to handle the entire project myself but would be more than willing to edit an essay collection.
Then again, I guess you’re wondering where the idea for the presentation and book came from in the first place? Well, I’ve been a gamer my whole life, even though I didn’t have my own console until I was 32, or my own gaming PC until I was 34. The reason most people think I purchased my PC was because my friend bought me The Sims 4, and my laptop couldn’t run it. But the real reason I bought it is because I was unhappy with the distribution of romance options in Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014). I started looking into PC modding (I had already previously modded my Xbox 360 save files to recolor my armor, change my weapons, and, yes, romance whoever I wanted) and realized that there was a whole community of non-cishet and/or non-male modders and gamers that seemed to be flying under the radar. I was fascinated by these folks and their efforts.
Review Fix: Any challenges during the writing process?
Whelan: Oh, goodness, yes. I had never edited an essay collection before, and my background is in children’s literature, not game studies. I struggled to advertise my CFP and initially received very few bites. I found I couldn’t be as picky as I wanted to be with my initial inflow of submissions. But that first group ended up being a disaster as people stopped responding to my emails, consistently failed to meet deadlines, and even informed me after final edits that they no longer wanted to be a part of the book. I was baffled and disheartened. However, I also wised up. I educated myself. I tried to immerse myself more in the games studies community, started following and communicating with folks on Twitter, got to know who the big names were. The second time I advertised the CFP I got some truly great responses. I was able to sift through the submissions and select some really excellent abstracts, some from names I now recognized . There was one very patient holdover from the first wave of submissions, but for the most part, the book’s contents are made up of this second wave. And I’m incredibly proud of ALL of my contributors. They’ve written some truly fabulous essays.
Review Fix: How have women in gaming changed the industry?
Whelan: That’s a huge question, and one I’m not sure I’m qualified to fully answer. I’m just a simple scholar, gamer, and modder; I’m not personally part of the industry myself. However, from my outsider’s point-of-view, I can certainly say that including more women in the industry has led to more diverse content in games, especially AAA games. This goes for queer developers and developers of color, too. Once you have more voices at the table, you will definitely begin to see the content they produce start to shift, to better reflect the populations who actually play their games. We are also starting to literally see and hear from more women in upper levels of video game development; for example, I just watched a video featuring CDPR’s art director, Kasia Redesiuk. I also caught a Gamescon interview with Spider’s CEO, Jehanne Rousseau. I don’t mean to speculate on these folks’ gender identities, but it’s clear they aren’t cis men. And I think that’s really comforting and inspiring to the millions of girls and women around the world who play games.
Review Fix: How do you think women in gaming have changed Pop Culture?
Whelan: Oof, that’s another very big question. Well, I guess that will take a bit longer for us to truly assess. If this is asking, when and how will we see the efforts of women developers affect the culture around them… I guess one answer would be, the greater variety of female characters for fans to enjoy, write about, cosplay, purchase figurines of, etc. I couldn’t say how video games stack up against other types of media, like film. I mean, Star Wars chose to have a woman star in their movie a few years ago and there are some so-called fans who still haven’t recovered. Meanwhile, BioWare are accused of being “SJW”s because one of their female characters has an undercut. So, it’s hard to say at this point. Plus I think different forms of media affect one another; Lara Croft beget Rey, who beget Sara Ryder, and so on.
Review Fix: What’s your background like? How has this topic affected your life?
Whelan: My background is in children’s literature, specifically girl culture and princess culture. You can see how this intersects with how I interact as a scholar with game studies. I’m particularly drawn to pop culture and how it affects and is affected by marginalized young people, especially girls, queer teens and kids, and kids of color.
I myself am a gamer and have been my whole life. I’m AFAB, so it was my brother who was given the consoles and video games when we were kids, so I was forced to play with him on his Sega Genesis, Dreamcast, and Playstation. I didn’t mind at the time, of course, because it never occurred to me that I could ask for games of my own (plus I loved my little brother and enjoyed playing with him.) As an adult, I got back into gaming when I was invited by a few colleagues to their Halo 2 parties. After that, I bought my first console in my 30s, and dove headlong into the world of Dragon Age once I learned I could play as a female and romance the lovely pirate, Isabela—or play as a male, and romance the sweet but broody male elf, Fenris! I have to thank BioWare in particular for showing me that video games had more to offer than the stereotypical white, straight, male hero.
And yet even I had my own prejudices and preconceived notions based on ignorance. Five or six years ago, I was quite surprised to learn how many women were involved in video game modding. And when you think about it, it makes so much more sense for women and other marginalized people to mod their games because so often those games fail them when it comes to proper representation.
Review Fix: What did you learn about yourself through writing this?
Whelan: Hmm, I learned that I am a lot more patient than I realized ;) I’m also impressed that I was able to pull this off. I’m so extremely proud of this collection and everyone involved in it.
Review Fix: What are your goals for the book?
Whelan: My goal has always been to shed light on the women and non-binary modders and the work that they do. It has been to show folks that the video game industry is changing, and that part of the reason it’s changing—for the better, I might add—is partially because of these aforementioned modders and those who use their mods. I want people to be aware that women play games. I want them to be aware that more and more women are making games. I want them to see that video games matter, that it matters if you dress your male characters in full armor but slap metal bikinis on your female characters. That affects people. It makes them see themselves and the world around them in a certain way. We can change that.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Whelan: Nothing for now! I need a bit of a break after this project—which I’ve been working on for over four years now! At present, I am shifting my focus to creative writing, and later on, I plan to slide back into the more familiar and comforting sphere of children’s literature. I’ll never stop playing games, writing about games, and listening to the increasingly diverse voices within games studies though.