The Idea of the Gamer

Introduction to Amanda Phillips' Gamer Trouble

25 March 2021

Over at No Escape,1 Kaile Hultner proposed the idea of a reading group that would asynchronously work its way through Amanda Phillips’ Gamer Trouble: Feminist Confrontations in Digital Culture (2020).2 With the semester nearing its end, this seemed to me like an excellent opportunity to engage with some contemporary work in game studies, and to do so in conversation with others. A month or so later, the book having finally reached me, it is time to begin.

In their first post looking at the introduction to the book, Hultner describes Phillips’ writing as “polemical,” “spicy.”3 Phillips’ writing is indeed “spicy” in the best of ways, embracing the heat of contested topics in game studies and gaming broadly. As Hultner points out, Phillips takes the primal scene of the narratology versus ludology debate in game studies to task, rightfully critiquing the “gendered timbre of the argument” that so often excludes feminist and other marginalized perspectives as “sloppy” or “emotional.”4 For Phillips, “an unrepentant queer feminist scholar pursuing racial justice,” such language is quite blatantly not actually concerned with “rational, precise” scholarship, as it claims, but with the erection and maintenance of “the ‘academic walls’ structuring our disciplines” (a phrase they borrow from Sara Ahmed).5 The work to be undertaken, then, is the work of trouble (much like Ahmed’s “complaint”6), which Phillips connects with John Lewis’s “good trouble,”7 Judith Butler’s “gender trouble,”8 and Donna Haraway’s “staying with the trouble,”9 so diagramming an intersectional vector space oriented toward justice.

To carry out this work of critical justice, Phillips must reckon with ‘bad’ trouble, the titular “gamer trouble,” which is to say, not only that which troubles gamers, but also the trouble gamers cause. As far back as 1450 (the Oxford English Dictionary attests) gamers were bad news.10 As Hultner notes, “we all inevitably gravitate back” to the “black hole” of #GamerGate and the “violent and continual cycle of tension, harassment and gatekeeping” out of which it sprung and which it continues to produce.11 For Phillips, #GamerGate simply made visible to the general, non-gamer public those forces that already defined much of gamer culture and the “idea of the gamer” as such.12 Indeed, this “idea of the gamer” has been an essential “marketing fiction” in the industry for decades,13 a fiction that Graeme Kirkpatrick has traced as far back as the early 1980s.14 The troubling work of critique is necessarily entangled with the trouble of institutionalized toxicity in gaming. Try as we might, this trouble cannot be ignored. It is for this reason that Phillips is “interested … in meeting gamer trouble on the battlefield of big-budget mainstream games.”15 It is here that the gamer ideology must be challenged.

Justice-oriented gamers might be inclined to treat this confrontation like a “boss battle,” but as Phillips makes clear, this confrontation is less a boss battle and more an “endless grind.”16 Social justice is “a process without end”; “one can never arrive” at utopia, because—to be just one of many who has made the same point—utopia is quite literally no place.17 Our work, then, the work of trouble, is to “excavat[e] the technological and ludic processes that underwrite, reinforce, and contradict what’s happening outside of the game console,”18 and to engage with the “mess of stories, rules, machines, conflicts, desires, affordances, constraints, and politics with which we continually struggle to actualize ourselves.”19 This is hard work. It can be tedious work. But it is most certainly vital work.

Phillips locates the impetus for the work of trouble in “the central turbulence that animates gaming and gamer culture: playing a video game.”20 Both gamer trouble and the troubling of the gamer are predicated on this turbulence. In just a few pages, Phillips deftly constructs a model of this turbulence, simultaneously resisting the move to privilege “human subjectivity—that fetishized essence of gameplay that gamers and critics alike call ‘agency’ or ‘interactivity,’” while also avoiding the various straw men that distract from what actually happens in the act of playing a video game.21 Citing three key terms from the history of game studies—the magic circle, flow, and immersion—Phillips deploys James Ash’s The Interface Envelope (2015)22 to resituate these terms and check their unbridled influence without doing away with their use for understanding the real “sense of separation” that occurs during gameplay.23 Ash’s “interface envelope” was a new concept for me, but I found it immediately compelling. Phillips describes it as follows:

The interface envelope captures the tendency of an interface to shepherd a user’s attention and entangle them within its own circuits of power, continuously adjusting and folding itself around them to create shifting, extended modes of engagement. For Ash, envelope power results when a developer successfully enfolds players within their systems, but its responsive and temporary nature means that the envelope is not always achieved nor does it always look the same from player to player. Because of its ability to imagine envelopment in terms of flexible power exchanges between gamer, game, and technology, I find this formulation particularly useful for a feminist analysis of gaming.24

Because the interface envelope is “never absolute,” the complex relation between player, interface, and game is always a turbulent one, prone to friction and failure.25 As Phillips aptly indicates, “at the heart of many gamer troubles lies ruptures that introduce the wrong kind of obstacles—those obstacles that stand in the way of the successful implementation of the envelope power.”26 To put it bluntly, gamer troubles are caused by disruptions of gamer power. “These include,” Phillips continues, “conflicts between player and avatar identity, guilt-inducing critiques, uncanny animations, and network lag.”27 One need not think very hard to come up with examples of each of these troubles in the last year of blockbuster gaming alone.

For myself, a precariously employed university worker, this conception of turbulence also helps me formalize my own tenuous situation. Phillips makes the link between games and academia, contending that “scoring a tenure-track job, a big federal grant, or resources to build a department” are just games in another domain, and the “gamer’s way”—“[m]aster the interface to master the rules to master your opponent”—is as true of higher education as it is of popular gaming culture.28 Patrick Jagoda’s Experimental Games (2020) supports Phillips’ on this point.29 Jagoda argues that gamification is the “formal and cultural counterpart to neoliberalism,” the economic and political paradigm that has shaped the world from the 1970s to the present.30 In my ongoing efforts to “usurp my machinery,”31 to put in the “effort not to reproduce an inheritance,”32 to resist authorization by the system of power and control, to refuse to play the game the “gamer’s way,” Phillips’ work is a welcome partner.

“Trouble,” Phillips writes, “describes resistance and consequence, anarchy and solidarity. It is something we find ourselves in as much as we create it for ourselves.”33 I am looking forward to the trouble to come.


Notes

  1. Kaile Hultner, “The Return of the No Escape Book Club,” No Escape, February 24, 2021, https://noescapevg.com/the-return-of-the-no-escape-book-club/

  2. Amanda Phillips, Gamer Trouble: Feminist Confrontations in Digital Culture (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2020). 

  3. Hultner, “Gamer Trouble Book Club #1: O Gamer My Gamer,” No Escape, February 24, 2021, https://noescapevg.com/gamer-trouble-book-club-1-o-gamer-my-gamer/

  4. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 18. 

  5. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 18, 19. 

  6. Sara Ahmed, Complaint! (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021). 

  7. John Lewis, Twitter, July 16, 2018, tweet: “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way. #goodtrouble.” 

  8. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2007 [1990]). 

  9. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016). 

  10. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 1: “That who soevyr suffer eny dise-player, carder, tenys player, or other unliefull gamer, to use unlifull games in their house.” 

  11. Hultner, “Gamer Trouble Book Club #1,” 2021. 

  12. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 8. 

  13. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 8. 

  14. Graeme Kirkpatrick, “Constitutive Tensions of Gaming’s Field: UK Gaming Magazines and the Formation of Gaming Culture 1981-1995,” Game Studies 12, no. 1 (September 2012), http://gamestudies.org/1201/articles/kirkpatrick. I have also discussed this “idea of the gamer” at length with reference to The Last of Us franchise in my paper “It Can’t Be For Nothing,” https://zenodo.org/record/4603525

  15. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 3. 

  16. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 3. 

  17. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 3. 

  18. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 4. 

  19. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 10. 

  20. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 12. 

  21. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 10. 

  22. James Ash, The Interface Envelope: Gaming, Technology, Power (London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2015). 

  23. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 13-14. I find this move especially interesting because these three terms are, for good reason, frequently criticized by Cameron Kunzelman and Michael Lutz on their podcast Game Studies Study Buddies. Phillips, via Ash, provides us with the passage whereby we might leave racist frameworks and psychologically specious ideas behind without denying the root experience which they tried to formalize—the “sense of separation” in gameplay. 

  24. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 14. This idea of the “interface envelope” is especially resonant with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s notion of “insertion.” See Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2012 [1945]). 

  25. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 16. 

  26. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 16. 

  27. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 16. 

  28. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 19, 15. 

  29. Patrick Jagoda, Experimental Games: Critique, Play, and Design in the Age of Gamification (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2020). 

  30. Jagoda, Experimental Games, 9. 

  31. See my Glitchspiel, https://vagrantludology.itch.io/glitchspiel. This line is drawn from Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (London, UK: Verso, 2020). Phillips would add: “Trouble is a glitch in the matrix” (Gamer Trouble, 11). 

  32. Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 149, cited in Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 19. 

  33. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 11.