Review Fix chats with Marc A. Ouellette, who discusses his book, Playing with the Guys and the creative process behind it.
About The Author:
Marc A. Ouellette is an award-winning educator who teaches cultural and gender studies at Old Dominion University, where he is the Learning Games Initiative Research Fellow.
About the Book:
A lot of work has been done talking about what masculinity is and what it does within video games, but less has been given to considering how and why this happens, and the processes involved. This book considers the array of daily relationships involved in producing masculinity and how those actions and relationships translate to video games. Moreover, it examines the ways the actual play of the games maps onto the stories to create contradictory moments that show that, while toxic masculinity certainly exists, it is far from inevitable. Topics covered include the nature of masculine apprenticeship and nurturing, labor, fatherhood, the scapegoating of women, and reckoning with mortality, among many others.
Review Fix: What inspired this book?
Marc A. Ouellette: I have a variety of inspirations for this book. I’ve played video games for a long time–we had a C64 with several hundred disks full of games that are now at the Learning Games Initiative Archive at U Arizona–and obviously, some things have changed. I had intended to map out a series of engagements with queer characters and themes in games, along the lines I had theorized in a paper that I wrote in 2013 for the lovely and still frequently cited textbook Ryan Moeller and Jen Dewinter edited. that was my hope.
Then the world got more reactionary and racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and misogyny became more pronounced in politics and in pop culture. that changed my tack. At the same time, I noted a tendency towards a sort of deterministic thinking in scholarly responses to the gendered portrayals in games. one of the questions that were largely unanswered was whether the medium determines the gender or the gender determines the medium. perhaps Bonnie (bo) Ruberg puts it best in a series of tweets that I cite (with permission) in the book. to paraphrase, we had game scholars who might not have a background in gender studies and gender or popular culture scholars who might not have a background in games. the result was a combination of media effects and sex role theories. Those approaches also became a sort of industry in their own right and I knew I’d be writing uphill, as it were, the whole time, which is why I started doing a quantitative analysis of the field as well as a qualitative one. then I went where the research took me which actually led me to reconsider questions about masculinities that I had dealt with in the course of my dissertation. the answers in some places were remarkably different, but the ones that stayed the same were equally telling because the process of reaching those answers–especially concerning the stability of masculinity as a performance, as something distinct from patriarchy, as something that is by its definition subject to change and not immutable–was markedly different.
Review Fix: Why are video games important today?
Ouellette: This is in some ways a funny question. the quick and dirty answer is to drop the data about how bad video games outsell Hollywood and have done for a long time. but that, like a lot of things, conflates financial or monetary “success” with importance. conversely, in an infamous article (at least within game studies circles) a classics professor in 2019 declared that the time had arrived to start studying video games in a scholarly fashion. there was very much a sense of the Matthew Arnold or fr Leavis touchstones approach to things, including an insistence on studying games in terms of the ways classical texts can be portrayed in them. then there was an article in the Washington Post proclaiming a “Fortnite to alt-right” pipeline and the intimation was that playing Fortnite would lead to becoming a Q-anon believing insurrectionist. I looked at that headline, especially, and was aghast. I also published an article shortly after that in which a reviewer demanded that I mention both the online harassment of women in games and game studies–which I won’t name for the same reasons Ruberg doesn’t–and that I cite the “Fortnite to alt-right pipeline” as a given even though neither had anything to do with the topic, themes, approaches, or the games themselves in my paper. it was this sort of determinism that has inspired me to write otherwise, but also shows that games are important because a lot of people don’t know what to do with them and there is something about games that lulls scholars into offering outdated lines of critique when looking at them. in the one case, some of us have been studying games for over twenty years and not just as literary texts or as interactive movies, but as multi-modal texts. in the second case, I’ve heard that same basic argument made for comic books, wrestling, rock n roll music, heavy metal, hip hop, anime, and other forms that adults either don’t get or that adults assume are automatically for kids by the medium. there is a tendency to overlook the content of the medium in favor of the medium itself. for my part, I’ve been asking something different: how can the study of games (and their players) help us understand other existing texts and disciplines. and, yes, that’s not always easy or popular.
Review Fix: Why do they matter scholarly?
Ouellette: Let me begin this answer where I ended the last one. take for example the last chapter of my book. I started to think of games as a sort of elegiac fiction; that is, a narrative version of the poetic form of the elegy. as it turns out I was extremely lucky in my undergrad to have a professor whose life work was a book on Tennyson’s massive elegy, in memoriam. the elegy, a lyrical poet about loss and lament, is one of the oldest forms of literature in the tradition following from the ancient greeks. having seen the pattern of the elegy in a host of games, I was able to consider the process and how it has evolved through the prose elegy, to its peculiarly American form, and onto the same structure in games. one of the keys to the elegiac process is that it is enacted. it is also witnessed. it has to have a loss condition and a resolution. it has moments of discovery and recapitulation. it is a process. in playing the games, I came to understand the process of mourning and melancholia as they relate to masculinity much more thoroughly than I otherwise would have and I also was able to begin the process of thinking about the performance of the elegy as a poem.
Even having said that, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the myriad ways games are important to scholarship, from teaching and learning to understand media, to the idea of the consumer as producer and of course the idiosyncratic and unexpected ways that people use or consume texts.
Review Fix: How do they affect pop culture?
Ouellette: This answer will be deeply unsatisfying because I could go on for days. one of the ways to conceptualize how games affect pop culture is to think about the first moment you saw a very mainstream middle-of-the-road movie–of the sort made for the people who watched friends–or TV show and realized that a portion of it was designed specifically with the video game in mind, not that it referenced video games or incorporated them as a sort of vehicle or impetus, but as an in-built feature of the movie. then, there are the ways the actual process of filming and recording has adapted to the medium. conversely, there are certain games–the ET games in the garbage dump in the New Mexico desert–that have mythic and/or legendary status. to his credit, Spielberg saw the importance of games. alas, the game was horrible and the technology may not have been advanced enough at the time. I just gave another interview about the GTA series for le monde and they asked a similar question about that franchise as a cultural icon. it is no mistake that pr guru Max Clifford was involved in the selling of that franchise. games and their terminology have also become part of the lexicon. my kids tell me things are “poggers” and people in a variety of professions are eager to “gamify” things, even if they don’t know entirely what gamify means and actually mean “pointsify.” I am really only scratching the surface again, but one of the more intriguing things has been the role of video games in changing elite sports, something Steven Conway and I have written together and steve and others have written about elsewhere. football manager, for example, has had an effect on the actual play of football (aka soccer) in the top leagues. but, this is not entirely a new thing given that as the BBC reported in the early 2000s, British banks were already using games and simulators to train traders: pattern recognition, hand-eye coordination, decision making, quick and/or lateral thinking, etc.
Review Fix: What was the initial goal of the book? Do you think you succeeded?
Ouellette: The goal of the book was actually quite straightforward: detail the processes involved in producing masculinities in video games. within that, the next goal was to provide entry points where these processes contradict and to find moments when the games offer alternatives to hegemonic masculinity.
That said, I also make no bones about that being a fraught process and one that requires walking a very fine line and sometimes one that might be politically dangerous given the tendency to consider games in a neat tautology that says games are made by broh dudes for broh dudes to produce more broh dudes who grow up to make more games for broh dudes.
Somehow, when scholars think about games, we forget decades of scholarship that suggests the sex role and/or media effects approaches are reductive, outdated, and–here is the key–exclusionary in and of themselves. sex role theory will never be able to tell me a thing about intra-gender relations.
Thus, while I know I gave a thorough account of intra-gender relations and their impact on inter-gender relations, I know I might find very strong disagreement from certain quarters; indeed, one of those quarters might even have been an ally once upon a time. as well, the rise of so-called “gender critical” approaches has made the situation murkier when one considers gender because part of these approaches rest on the assumption of stable patriarchy, as opposed to masculinities–in the plural, which is precisely how I will always consider them.
Along the way, as the book changed, I realized that what I was looking at was the life-course of masculinities, as they develop, progress, change, and are reshaped. as I detail in the afterward, I began to write it as an elegy itself. I did spend a lot of time mourning as I wrote it. so much had changed and for the worse since I began studying games, but despair is not the end of an elegy. it has to end with hope.
Review Fix:What was the research process like?
Ouellette: The research process was an absolute blast once I sussed out what I was actually doing. I tend to write by hand in composition books or loose-leaf. I can write anywhere–and did. that makes it exceptionally easy (sometimes) to write as I’m playing. the part that took the longest was actually the first chapter, but that’s no surprise. I went through hundreds of articles to trace just how pervasive media effects and sex-role positions had become in papers allegedly studying games and gender. I needed that chapter to be solid like the piers of the fourth bridge. luckily, I belong to a group of scholars who study games, some of whom I’ve known for almost my entire career. every conference presentation was a chance not only to test out but to hear the thoughts of actually smart people. I am incredibly grateful to the people in the game studies area of the southwest paca and later of the games area of the pca/aca. when I started researching games, I had to give my university (at the time) the model number of a hard drive for my Xbox 360–ie, Microsoft hard drive model 1234–because they would not have approved it otherwise. when researching this book, I was fortunate enough to have someone in the dean’s office who understood what I was doing and said, “if you need a PlayStation, we’ll get you a PlayStation.” again, I was very fortunate. last, my family was incredibly supportive and understanding. My brother, as it turns out, is the principal design manager for one of the biggest companies in the industry. every once in a while a gift card or a box of games would appear. my wife has been teaching games and game design at the high school level for quite some time in her computer science classes–we met in engineering class– and our kids are avid gamers. in some ways, I took my cues from them, too. in the end, I’ve always taken the approach that anyone who tells me something I didn’t know is doing me a favor. that helps. regardless, like anything, the key is pattern recognition and organization. those are the only two things I’ll ever claim to be good at.
Review Fix: Do you still play games now?
Ouellette: Absolutely. I just wish I had more time and more money for research. I’m also lucky that my birthday is at the end of November, so I usually get the big releases for my birthday or for the holidays. one of the fun things is to go to conferences and play games with my colleagues and friends. each of us is good at a particular sort of game so we have to play games that are silly, impossible, new, cult, or table-top.
Review Fix: Any plans on continuing your research?
Ouellette: There are a couple of the chapters in that book that lend themselves (i hope) to being launch points for bigger studies. I have one of those in mind right now and I’m sussing out what a proposal would look like. I am also working on a pair of papers right now, one that theorizes the issue of what makes games “different” when scholars consider them and another that offers a rethink of a longstanding literary debate through the vehicle of a key game franchise, but my gut tells me I need to get back to my work in gender studies more than ever.
Review Fix: Who do you think will enjoy this book the most?
Ouellette: As I tell my students: I like my authors thoroughly dead–that is, in the literary sense. I really don’t know who will enjoy it per se. I didn’t want it to be an easy read and if I imagined a reader it was the reader who could genuinely appreciate a text without necessarily having to like it.
Review Fix: How do you want this book to be remembered?
Ouellette: Thorough, comprehensive, and fearless.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Ouellette: I have a book project that has been stalled by covid and the items mentioned above. someday, I will haul out the “secret literature project” and polish it off. I call it that because it’s a study of nothing but prose fiction and I don’t want my game studies colleagues to get the impression that I’m selling out.
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