The Idea of the Gamer, 5

Identity and Agonism

2021-07-26

After several months of reading and analysis, we can at last bring this series on Amanda Phillips’ Gamer Trouble to a close.1 In this essay, I would like to draw together Phillips’ final chapter with the conclusion to the book, linking Phillips’ understanding of “identity” with their understanding of “agonism” to highlight the “differential form” of selfhood that is particularly evident in “twenty-first century movements under capitalist production.”2 To be clear, Phillips does not treat of this form as unique to the twenty-first century, but rather demonstrates how this form is both thematized and troubled in contemporary videogames. It is this trouble which is of interest to us here.

Working off Kara Keeling’s conceptualization of “I = Another” and Audre Lorde’s “house of difference,” Phillips conducts a reading of FemShep in the Mass Effect trilogy, beginning with the “provocation” that FemShep “doesn’t actually exist.”3 Having not played a Mass Effect game in over eight years, Phillips’ reading dazzled me, identifying the trouble of FemShep’s presentation across the franchise in ways I had never before recognized. With great care and precision, Phillips highlights FemShep’s problematic positioning as secondary to the “index” of “white masculinity” that is BroShep, a positioning that is fundamentally effected at “the level of technology.”4 Phillips’ full discussion is well worth reading, but to summarize, they contend that it is the “investment in the white masculine body as digital Adam” that leads to the myriad troubles with “digital Eve,” troubles which become particularly salient in the case of FemShep.5 FemShep does not exist because her position in the game is that of “a ‘figurative man’ in the shape of a woman.”6

Always sensitive and nuanced in their writing, Phillips is quick to head off the “transphobic undertones of this critique,” noting that to “call someone ‘really’ a man or ‘really’ a woman in this context is to reflect on the ways that certain bodies are boxed into menu choices in the system and how such boxes influence the ways designers think about these individuals.”7 Systemically, structurally, Mass Effect is a series that produces a binaristic framing of character identities despite attempting to present a more “diverse range” of identities and orientations at the level of narrative—a failure that Phillips masterfully articulates before satirizing it with a delightful bit of pseudocode.8

It is in this failure, however, that Phillips discerns the possibility of “new forms of politics.”9 Rather than a politics based in identity and autonomy, the politics Phillips seeks begins where identity “fails to cohere,” in the “gaps and holes that structure [FemShep’s] existence as a customizable character,” in the very “fissures into which gamers suture their own investments and begin to ‘identify with’ the character.”10 Rather than look to the white male “center of subjectivity” for political force, Phillips looks to the “flexible points of customization that allow different versions of that character to exist,” versions that cannot ultimately be reconciled with each other.11 FemShep does not have an “essence,” has no “sameness across platforms.”12 Instead, FemShep resembles something closer to Lorde’s “house of difference,” functioning as a “place where communities can converge around their distance from hegemonic forms of power in order to collectively support one another.”13

In videogames, the fact that “I = Another” foregrounds the fact that identity is always “inflected” by difference, and is consequently characterized by “vulnerability and instability.”14 Justice begins, therefore, not with the “assimilation” of identities to power “in spite of difference,” but with the sheltering and “coalition” of identities that operates “through and with difference.”15 This is the politics that emerges in the community around FemShep, a politics that Phillips seeks to mobilize.

FemShep does not exist, is not “a character in her own right,” and yet, through her “inconsistencies … fans have achieved solidarity—not, crucially, by ascending to the status of the hero themselves but by inhabiting her contradictions, learning from them, and leveraging them to speak back to policies demonstrating that she (and they) are less than in gamer culture.”16 FemShep’s vulnerable and instable character “offers imperfect possibilities for a range of differences, a makeshift shelter for the marginalized” that is not the end but rather the starting point for a radical politics.17

In the conclusion to Gamer Trouble, Phillips gives this politics a name: agonism. Reclaiming Roger Caillois’ understanding of “agon” (the equal contest or combat) from its white supremacist, antagonistic deployment, Phillips sees in agonism the “disagreement” that is “crucial for pluralistic societies to function.”18 Where diversity is ultimately homogenizing as a political principle, agonism “is honest about the incommensurable differences between various factions and identities that nevertheless recognize the value in multiple perspectives.”19 Agonism acknowledges that “competition rarely happens on equal terms,” and so it is “invigorated not by decisive victory but by struggle in the context of a fair distribution of power.”20 Agonism honours the ties between adversaries in a shared space, while antagonism has only enemies that wish to destroy each other.21 In the face of the real antagonisms that plague our world today, Phillips contends that we must go beyond diversity politics to a radical agonistic politics that brings difference to the fore.

An agonistic politics is “able to face hard truths and hard problems without the expectation that they will be amicably resolved, to legitimate nonpeaceful resolutions to old and deep problems, and to differentiate between conflict and violence, contest and conquest.”22 Where diversity effaces difference, and antagonism annihilates it, agonism operates through the “frank and honest assessment of power differentials and places the burden on those with more power and privilege to level the playing field in whatever ways possible, including by making themselves uncomfortable, uneasy, and open to making mistakes.”23 Phillips remarks that this “is where many quests for justice end,” but the radicality of agonistic politics welcomes the vulnerability and instability of identities, seeking to negotiate imbalances and build coalitions of resistance.24 While “our inner heroes abhor weakness and disadvantage and are loathe to take risks that leave us exposed to ridicule or social penalties,” an agonistic politics “embraces constraint, failure, and fair(er) contest,” that which terrifies the solid and powerful self but delights the “inner gamer.”25

“Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble”—this is the challenge of an agonistic politics, a radical politics in pursuit of justice.26 And if we, like Phillips, “stay with the trouble,” there may yet be reason to be “hopeful” and “optimistic” about the possibility in gaming of justice to come.27


Notes

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

  2. Kara Keeling, cited in Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 137. 

  3. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 137. 

  4. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 147, 143. 

  5. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 152. 

  6. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 153. 

  7. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 153. 

  8. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 152-153. 

  9. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 141. 

  10. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 141, 139. 

  11. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 147, 154. 

  12. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 155. 

  13. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 161. 

  14. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 169, 161. 

  15. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 161-162. 

  16. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 169. 

  17. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 169. 

  18. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 174. Phillips is quite close to Rancière on this point. See, for instance, Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, trans. Steven Corcoran (London, UK: Continuum, 2010). 

  19. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 175. 

  20. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 176, 178. 

  21. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 176. 

  22. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 178. 

  23. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 178. 

  24. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 178. 

  25. Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 178. 

  26. John Lewis, cited in Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 171. 

  27. Donna Haraway and John Lewis, cited in Phillips, Gamer Trouble, 183, 171.