Eklund’s paper looks at discussions of femininity, identity, and the performance of gender by women in the online game World of Warcraft (Blizzard 2004-present). Her discussions of development of identity through a new, open, and experimental media platform such as this looks to understand exactly why and how women choose to present their gendered identities in this online space. Using World of Warcraft (WoW), a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG), is an excellent choice to look at gender in cyberspace, as the game provides a multitude of options and freedom to experiment with gender binaries and hegemonic gender norms.
Eklund relies heavily on Butler’s theory of gender performativity (1990) in supporting her argument. Although I cannot criticise her for choosing this as her main frame of research, gender performativity is perhaps relied on too much for the argument to be fully validated. The online form of the MMORPG does allow for a wide amount of gender performativity on the behalf of players (Hayes 2007, Shaw 2011), yet the existing hegemony and dominant perceived audience have a strong bearing on the notions of female gender performativity as well. ‘Multiple and coexisting identifications produce conflicts, convergences, and innovative dissonances within gender configurations which contest the fixity of masculine and feminine placements’ (Butler 1990: 67). Butler argues that playing with a range of gendered identities causes a conflict to the dominant binaries, which relates to the idea of the ‘female gamer’ rather than the ‘feminine gamer’. Eklund’s theory of gender is drawn directly from Butler, discussing that it ‘is not a stable identity, but rather a performative one.’ (2011:325). Her theory of the female gender identity through games being fluid and performative is supported by Hayes 2007 study, in which her findings concluded that ‘the multiplicity of ways of being and acting that adult women may bring to gaming that already challenge common stereotypes of so-called female abilities and preferences.’ (2007:47). Clearly, Eklund’s basis of gender performativity in examining gender identity in cyberspace environments is not misplaced and does have researched support, however, Eklund would have benefitted from a stronger theory structure to support her arguments.
Eklund mentions Halberstam and Flanagan in her theoretical overview (Halberstam in terms of her queer practice research, 2005). Had these been developed and carried through her primary research, the results could have been more detailed. Halberstam’s ideas of female masculinity such as, ‘how women have contributed powerfully and irreversibly to the constitutive terms of contemporary masculinity and how men have participated in integral ways in the foundations of contemporary femininity.’ (1998:48). The incorporation of female masculinity in examining the relationships between male and female gamers in online practices of gendered identity could have been fascinating, especially as multiple studies indicate that women do enjoy the violent and competitive sides of games at times, indicating masculine gender traits at play (Taylor 2003). Cunningham noted that women can prefer male game genres over explicitly female ones, and that ‘this violent and aggressive side of a girl/woman’s behaviour has to be repressed in conformity…playing violent games gives female players the chance to express this aggression.’ (2000: 223). Eklund could have examined the idea of female gamers embodying masculine identity traits in online practices, however she opts to focus on female identity in discussion with performativity and traditional gender theories, rather than exploring the male/female gender fluidity allowed by online games such as WoW. Flanagan’s ideas of knowledge affecting the implication of gender and gendered bodies, and in turn allowing freedom of expression, including in forms of gender, with ‘the obscuration of gender identity as allowed by technology’ (2000:438). Obscuration of gender identity is something greatly discussed in terms of MMORPG gender identity, as the game allows the ability to change gender, hide, or lie with regard to it. Eklund does use this somewhat in her research questions, however it is not developed. Eklund’s ‘article places itself in a feminist tradition’ (2011:324), as demonstrated by her reliance on Butler and the idea of ‘repetition in performativity’ (2011:325). Gaming and women is still highly contested area, especially when it comes to female gender identity, and Eklund does seem to realise this with her overview, yet taking a narrow view of the theory, Eklund limits the supportability for her paper and leaves it open to criticisms.
Methodology used by Eklund in her research paper is extremely fitting, and very well executed, both in terms of data collection method and treatment of participants. The paper itself is part of an ‘ongoing Swedish project about WoW gamers’ (2011: 326), with Eklund choosing to research this area which has subsequently arisen from the original study. All research methods used and the data collected from them is of a very good quality. The study is unusual in that it gives a great deal of detail about each of the participants, both in their personal details and in their gaming background. For example ‘Malin, 30 years old, is a promotion manager. She lives with her partner in an apartment and has always played games and has played WoW on and off since its release in 2004.’ (Eklund 2011: 326-7). Although this level of detail is seen in other studies, it is unusual that the participants are so well illustrated as individuals. Eklund takes into consideration their lifestyles and choices in making her assessments, which in turn gives the research an excellent ethical grounding, an importance discussed by Bryman (2012). Hayes conducts similar grounding, discussing the ‘identities and dispositions they [the participants] brought to playing’ (2007:30), however hers is much more limited and less is known about the lives of the participants. Shaw (2011) takes a similar approach in identifying and quantifying her subjects, however due to the broad nature of her research and the difficulties subjects faced in answering, her study is not as developed as Eklund’s in terms of participant engagement. However, Eklund admits to basing her study on ‘a phenomenological approach that focuses on participants own experiences’ (2011:326), inspired by a study from Cresswell. Cresswell highlights the importance of the ‘specific story of an individual’ (2012: 69). It is clear from reading Cresswell and the research collected by Eklund that she was influenced, however her decision to use his model as a basis for her research was well founded. Cresswell also notes that ‘phenomenology has a strong philosophical component to it’ (2012: 77), something which Eklund picks up on and uses to her advantage in the study, taking a broad outlook on the experiences of the gamers and viewing them as both collective and individual.
The main data collection method used by Eklund is qualitative interviews with her 8 participants. Considering the type of study and the type of data needed, qualitative interview was definitely the best choice, and this is reflected in many other gaming research papers, indicating it to be an excellent choice in this field of study. Kvale and Brinkmann also highlight the benefits of this research method as it ‘gives a good picture of a semi-structured research interview focusing on the subject’s experience of a theme.’ (2009: 25). Eklund wants the participants to share their experiences of gaming, and weaving these into a narrative from which to extract data is the most effective way of gaining data and allowing participants to feel comfortable. Eklund could have benefitted from observing gameplay of her subjects, to analyse in game interactions and performances of gender online between characters, examining the performance of gender identity through direct gameplay interactions and correlating it with the qualitative interviews with the participants. Hayes (2007), Shaw (2011) and Taylor (2003) carried out similar studies, albeit on a smaller scale, and the results of combined gameplay interaction and interview provided a much more in depth analysis of gender and gaming.
Eklund’s results did reveal that gender identity in online gaming spaces like WoW is more complex than first believed. She allies her findings of fluid identity with Nabeth’s ideas, who discusses that ‘The quality of these identities (representing the images of themselves that they project in these environments and therefore how they are perceived) has direct implications on the value obtained from these spaces and the quality of the interaction.’ (2005:2). Nabeth has a much deeper understanding of online identity than Eklund discusses, however, by framing her identity findings with this idea, she provides a strong backdrop for her own presentations. From the research gathered, Eklund notes that the female players are likely to embody femininity, and perform masculinity (similar to ideas from Royse, et. al. 2007). She discovered that female players were unwilling to reveal their offline gender identity at the risk of being targeted by male players (indicating the male normativity of WoW). Female players did not wish to be pigeonholed into stereotypes of women gamers as ‘bad’ or ‘useless’, instead preferring to play without revealing identity, or if revealing, by proving their worth in the game. This behaviour of hiding the offline gender or demonstrating strength has been noted by Stabile with ‘Online anonymity as a strategy that may also enable players to challenge gender ideologies and practises’ (2013:46). This implies that the performance of female gender online by women gamers is secretive, preferring to be seen as a gamer, a character within the game first and foremost, rather than as a woman playing. From this, it appears that gender neutrality is a rising trend amongst gamers (especially considering the preference of men to play as female avatars). One of the draws for the participants in Eklund’s study concerning WoW was that ‘sex has no influence on your level of mastery’ (2011: 336). Both male and female characters begin with the same story and power levels, meaning that each character begins on a completely even playing field, even with the overriding masculine and heterosexual norms pervading the games, and indeed, a vast amount of gaming culture. Salter and Blodgett noted the ‘othering of female participants in a male dominated space’ (2012:401) in their study regarding hypermasculinity and online culture, revealing that this is a concern that requires further attention.
Eklund’s development behind the reasons of performing female gender online are interesting, and her close analysis of the reasons her participants gave for their personal gender performance in the online space makes the study more grounded in research than theory. However, Eklund could have examined the role of the female non-playable character (NPC) in WoW, given that male players often learn how to interact with women in the game from these avatars. Female NPC’s are known, particularly within WoW, to be overtly sexual and often cast into two roles of either the fallen woman or a wife (Hancock 2012). This overview of embedded female characters as subjects for male uses or only being visible because of their connections to men would have been an interesting discussion within the research, given that all players can interact with these characters. Eklund’s discussion of online practices and online gender performance is good, however, she opts not to move further and discuss the online body, something very unusual given her study revolves around a game which is focused on bringing the body online. Links could have been made to the posthuman body (Toffoletti 2007), discussing how embodiment interacts with gender online, and what affect this has on the players, especially women, as they attempt to both evolve and remain within the familiar gender binaries. Haraway (1991) and the ideas of cyborg nature and the role of women in virtual spaces too would have made for an excellent link to the performance of gender online in gaming spaces, especially considering the male dominance and heteronormativity in these MMORPGs.
Eklund is primarily focused on the performance of gender online, and the findings she concludes are interesting with regard to Butler’s theory of gender performativity, although I still believe the paper could have been more developed and more links drawn to other theoretical ideas to make it stronger. However, her research and research methodology is impressive, and her results provide a good reference point for any further research on online embodiment or further work on online gender performance. Her weakest area is certainly her theoretical overview, however her research and results are very well detailed and discussed, with more expansion of authors and a better overview of her research with regard to the field. Development into the online/offline body relationship would have benefitted her research, especially given the conflicting areas of the online and the offline and how they are blending. Although she does have overreliance on Butler’s ideas, her findings with regard to research on female gamers and their thoughts and practices in this online space are original, and with development in the future into other areas, could prove very valuable to the field of gender online in video games.
Blizzard Entertainment (2004-present). World of Warcraft. Vivendi Universal, USA.
Bryman, A, (2012). Social Research Methods. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge
Cresswell, J.W. (2012 3rd Edition). Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing among five approaches. Los Angeles: Sage Publications
Cunningham, H. (2000). ‘Mortal Kombat and Computer Game Girls’ In Electronic Media and Technoculture. Ed. Cauldwell, J.T. New Brunswick: Rutgers
Eklund, L. (2011) ‘Doing Gender in Cyberspace: The Performance of Gender by female World of Warcraft players’ in Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Vol 17 (323). Sage Publications.
Flanagan, M. (2002) ‘Hyperbodies, Hyperknowledge: Women in Games, Women in Cyberpunk, and Strategies of Resistance’ from Reload: Rethinking Women and Cyberculture. Ed. Flanagan, M. and Booth, A. USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.
Halberstam, J. (1998) Female Masculinity. USA: Duke University Press
Halberstam, J. (2005). In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press.
Hancock, H. (2012). ‘Are All Female NPCs in WoW Wives or Fallen Women?’ Available from < http://www.mmomeltingpot.com/2012/05/are-all-female-npcs-in-wow-wives-or-fallen-women/> [1.3.2014]
Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books
Hayes, E. (2007) ‘Gendered Identities at Play: Case Studies of Two Women playing Morrowind’. Games and Culture, Vol 2 (23). Sage Publications.
Kvale, S and Brinkmann, S. (2009 2nd Edition). Interviews: Learning the Craft of Qualitative Research Interviewing. USA: Sage Publications.
Nabeth, T. (2005). Understanding the Identity Concept in Digital Social Environments. Centre for Advanced Learning Technologies. Available from <http://www.calt.insead.edu/project/fidis/documents/2005-fidis-Understanding_the_Identity_Concept_in_the_Context_of_Digital_Social_Environments.pdf> [1.3.2014]
Royse, P et. al. (2007). ‘Women and Games: Technologies of the Gendered Self’ New Media and Society, Vol 9 (555). Sage Publications.
Salter, A and Blodgett, B. (2012). ‘Hypermasculinity and Dickwolves: The Contentious role of Women in the new Gaming Public’ Journal of Electronic and Broadcasting Media, Vol 56 (3). Broadcast Education Association.
Shaw, A. (2011). ‘Do you identify as a gamer? Gender, Race, Sexuality and Gamer Identity’ New Media and Society Vol 14 (28). Sage Publications.
Stabile, C. (2013) ‘ “I Will Own You”: Accountability in Massively Multiplayer Online Games’ Television and New Media Vol 15 (43). Sage Publications.
Taylor, T.L. (2003) ‘Multiple Pleasures: Women and Online Gaming’ Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies Vol 9 (21). Sage Publications.
Toffoletti, K. (2007). Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body. London: I.B. Tauris.