Introduction: Game Culture and Gender
As texts with the potential to help mediate specific forms of identity, video games are rich and complex sites for analysis. A tendency, however, still exists in scholarship to treat video games as just another kind of text, and work that explores the expression of masculine identity persists in drawing from cinematic analysis without proper consideration of game design and how these games are played (Triana). For example, insights from studies into horror cinema may illuminate the relationship between players and game systems in survival horror video games (Habel & Kooyman), but further study is needed to explore how people interact with the game.
This article aims to build towards a scholarly definition of the term “Power Fantasy”, a concept that seems well established in wider discourse but is not yet well theorised in the scholarly literature. It does so through a case of the most recent reboot of Doom (2016), a game that in its original incarnation established an enduring tradition for high-action Power Fantasy. In the first-person shooter game Doom, the player fills the role of the “Doom Guy”, a faceless hero who shuttles between Earth and Hell with the sole aim of eviscerating demonic hordes as graphically as possible.
How, then, do we begin to theorise the kind of automediation that an iconic game text like Doom facilitates? Substantial work has been done to explore player identification in online games (see Taylor; Yee). Shaw (“Rethinking”) suggests that single-player games are unexplored territory compared to the more social spaces of Massively Multiplayer Online games and other multiplayer experiences, but it is important to distinguish between direct identification with the avatar per se and the ways in which the game text mediates broader gender constructions.
Abstract theorisation is not enough, though. To effectively understand this kind of automediation we also need a methodology to gain insights into its processes. The final part of this article, therefore, proposes the analysis of “Let’s Play” videos as a kind of gender identity performance which gives insight into the automediation of dominant masculine gender identities through Power Fantasy video games like Doom. This reflexive performance works to denaturalise gender construction rather than reinforce stable hegemonic identities.
Power Fantasy and Gender Identity
Power Fantasy has become an established trope in online critiques and discussions of popular culture. It can be simply defined as “character imagines himself taking revenge on his bullies” (TVTropes). This trope takes on special resonance in video games, where the players themselves live out the violent revenge fantasy in the world of the game.
The “power fantasy” of games implies escapism and meaninglessness, evoking outsize explosions and equally outsized displays of dominance. A “power gamer” is one who plays with a single-minded determination to win, at the expense of nuance, social relationships between players, or even their own pleasure in play. (Baker)
Many examples apply this concept of Power Fantasy in video games: from God of War to Metroid: Prime and Grand Theft Auto, this prevalent trope of game design uses a kind of “agency mechanics” (Habel & Kooyman) to convince the player that they are becoming increasingly skilful in the game, when in reality the game is simply decreasing in difficulty (PBS Digital Studios). The operation of the Power Fantasy trope is also gendered; in a related trope known as “I Just Want To Be a Badass”, “males are somewhat more prone to harbour [the] wish” to feel powerful (TVTropes). More broadly, even though the game world is obviously not real, playing it requires “an investment in and commitment to a type of masculine performance that is based on the Real (particularly if one is interested in ‘winning’, pummelling your opponent, kicking ass, etc.)” (Burrill 2).
Indeed, there is a perceived correlation (if not causation) between the widespread presence of Power Fantasy video games and how “game culture as it stands is shot through with sexism, racism, homophobia, and other biases” (Baker). Golding and van Deventer undertake an extended exploration of this disconcerting side of game culture, concluding that games have “become a venue for some of the more unsophisticated forms of patriarchy” (213) evidenced in the highly-publicised GamerGate movement. This saw an alignment between the label of “gamer” and extreme misogyny, abuse and harassment of women and other minorities in the industry.
We have, then, a tentative connection between dominant gameplay forms based on high skill that may be loosely characterised as “Power Fantasy” and some of the most virulent toxic gender expressions seen in recent times. More research is needed to gain a clearer understanding of precisely what Power Fantasy is. Baker’s primary argument is that “power” in games can also be characterised as “power to” or “power with”, as well as the more traditional “power over”. Kurt Squire uses the phrase “Power Fantasy” as a castaway framing for a player who seeks an alternative reward to the usual game progression in Sid Meier’s Civilisation. More broadly, much scholarly work concerning gameplay design and gender identity has been focussed on the hot-button question of videogame violence and its connection to real-world violence, a question that this article avoids since it is well covered elsewhere. Here, a better understanding of the mediation of gender identity through Power Fantasy in Doom can help to illuminate how games function as automedia.
Auto-Mediating Gender through Performance in Doom (2016)
As a franchise, Doom commands near-incomparable respect as a seminal text of the first-person shooter genre. First released in 1993, it set the benchmark for 3D rendered graphics, energetic sound design, and high-paced action gameplay that was visceral and deeply immersive. It is impossible to mention more recent reboots without recourse to its first seminal instalment and related game texts: Kim Justice suggests a personal identification with it in a 29-minute video analysis entitled “A Personal History of Demon Slaughter”. Doom is a cherished game for many players, possibly because it evokes memories of “boyhood” gaming and all its attendant gender identity formation (Burrill).
This identification also arises in livestreams and playthroughs of the game. YouTuber and game reviewer Markiplier describes nostalgically and at lengths his formative experiences playing it (and recounts a telling connection with his father who, he explains, introduced him to gaming), saying “Doom is very important to me […] this was the first game that I sat down and played over and over and over again.” In contrast, Wanderbots confesses that he has never really played Doom, but acknowledges its prominent position in the gaming community by designating himself outside the identifying category of “Doom fan”. He states that he has started playing due to “gushing” recommendations from other gamers. The nostalgic personal connection is important, even in absentia.
For the most part, the critical and community response to the 2016 version of Doom was approving: Gilroy admits that it “hit all the right power chords”, raising the signature trope in reference to both gameplay and music (a power chord is a particular technique of playing heavy metal guitar often used in heavy metal music). Doom’s Metacritic score is currently a respectable 85, and, the reception is remarkably consistent between critics and players, especially for such a potentially divisive game (Metacritic). Commentators tend to cite its focus on its high action, mobility, immersion, sound design, and general faithfulness to the spirit of the original Doom as reasons for assessments such as “favourite game ever” (Habel). Game critic Yahtzee’s uncharacteristically approving video review in the iconic Zero Punctuation series is very telling in its assessment of the game’s light narrative framing:
Doom seems to have a firm understanding of its audience because, while there is a plot going on, the player-character couldn’t give a half an ounce of deep fried shit; if you want to know the plot then pause the game and read all the fluff text in the character and location database, sipping daintily from your pink teacup full of pussy juice, while the game waits patiently for you to strap your bollocks back on and get back in the fray. (Yahtzee)
This is a strident expression of the gendered expectations and response to Doom’s narratological refusal, which is here cast as approvingly masculine and opposed to a “feminine” desire for plot or narrative. It also feeds into a discourse which sees the game as one which demands skill, commitment, and an achievement orientation cast within an exclusivist ideology of “toxic meritocracy” (Paul).
In addition to examining reception, approaches to understanding how Doom functions as a “Power Fantasy” or “badass” trope could take a variety of forms. It is tempting to undertake a detailed analysis of its design and gameplay, especially since these feed directly into considerations of player interaction. This could direct a critical focus towards gameplay design elements such as traversal and mobility, difficulty settings, “glory kills”, and cinematic techniques in the same vein as Habel and Kooyman’s analysis of survival horror video games in relation to horror cinema. However, Golding and van Deventer warn against a simplistic analysis of decontextualized gameplay (29-30), and there is a much more intriguing possibility hinted at by Harper’s notion of “Play Practice”.
It is useful to analyse a theoretical engagement with a video game as a thought-experiment. But with the rise of gaming as spectacle, and particularly gaming as performance through “Let’s Play” livestreams (or video on demand) on platforms such as TwitchTV and YouTube, it becomes possible to analyse embodied performances of the gameplay of such video games. This kind of analysis allows the opportunity for a more nuanced understanding of how such games mediate gender identities. For Judith Butler, gender is not only performed, it is also performative:
Because there is neither an “essence” that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires, and because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. (214)
Let’s Play videos—that show a player playing a game in real time with their commentary overlaying the on screen action—allow us to see the performative aspects of gameplay. Let’s Plays are a highly popular and developing form: they are not simple artefacts by any means, and can be understood as expressive works in their own right (Lee). They are complex and multifaceted, and while they do not necessarily provide direct insights into the player’s perception of their own identification, with sufficient analysis and unpacking they help us to explore both the construction and denaturalisation of gender identity. In this case, we follow Josef Nguyen’s analysis of Let’s Plays as essential for expression of player identity through performance, but instead focus on how some identity construction may narrow rather than expand the diversity range. T.L. Taylor also has a monograph forthcoming in 2018 titled Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming, suggesting the time is ripe for such analysis.
These performances are clear in ways we have already discussed: for example, both SplatterCat and Markiplier devote significant time to describing their formative experiences playing Doom as a background to their gameplay performance, while Wanderbots is more distanced. There is no doubt that these videos are popular: Markiplier, for example, has attracted nearly 5 million views of his Doom playthrough. If we see gameplay as automediation, though, these videos become useful artefacts for analysis of gendered performance through gameplay.
When SplatterCat discovers the suit of armor for the game’s protagonist, Doom Guy, he half-jokingly remarks “let us be all of the Doom Guy that we can possibly be” (3:20). This is an aspirational mantra, a desire for enacting the game’s Power Fantasy. Markiplier speaks at length about his nostalgia for the game, specifically about how his father introduced him to Doom when he was a child, and he expresses hopes that he will again experience “Doom’s original super-fast pace and just pure unadulterated action; Doom Guy is a badass” (4:59). As the action picks up early into the game, Markiplier expresses the exhilaration and adrenaline that accompany performances of this fastpaced, highly mobile kind of gameplay, implying that he is becoming immersed in the character and, by performing Doom Guy, inhabiting the “badass” role and thus enacting a performance of Power Fantasy:
Doom guy—and I hope I’m playing Doom guy himself—is just the embodiment of kickass. He destroys everything and he doesn’t give a fuck about what he breaks in the process. (8:45)
This performance of gender through the skilled control of Doom Guy is, initially, unambiguously mediated as Power Fantasy: in control, highly skilled, suffused with Paul’s ‘toxic meritocracy. A similar sentiment is expressed in Wanderbots’ playthrough when the player-character dispenses with narrative/conversation by smashing a computer terminal: “Oh I like this guy already! Alright. Doom Guy does not give a shit. It’s like Wolf Blascowicz [sic], but like, plus plus” (Wanderbots). This is a reference to another iconic first-person shooter franchise, Wolfenstein, which also originated in the 1980s and has experienced a recent successful reboot, and which operates in a similar Power Fantasy mode. This close alignment between these two streamers’ performances suggests significant coherence in both genre and gameplay design and the ways in which players engage with the game as a gendered performative space.
Nonetheless, there is no simple one-to-one relationship here—there is not enough evidence to argue that this kind of gameplay experience leads directly to the kind of untrammelled misogyny we see in game culture more broadly. While Gabbiadini et al. found evidence in an experimental study that a masculinist ideology combined with violent video game mechanics could lead to a lack of empathy for women and girls who are victims of violence, Ferguson and Donnellan dispute this finding based on poor methodology, arguing that there is no evidence for a causal relationship between gender, game type and lack of empathy for women and girls. This inconclusiveness in the research is mirrored by an ambiguity in the gendered performance of males playing through Doom, where the Power Fantasy is profoundly undercut in multiple ways.
Wanderbots’ Doom playthrough is literally titled ‘I have no idea what I’m Dooming’ and he struggles with particular mechanics and relatively simple progression tools early in the game: this reads against masculinist stereotypes of superior and naturalised gameplay skill. Markiplier’s performance of the “badass” Doom Guy is undercut at various stages: in encountering the iconic challenge of the game, he mentions that “I am halfway decent… not that good at video games” (9:58), and on the verge of the protagonist’s death he admits “If I die this early into my first video I’m going to be very disappointed, so I’m going to have to kick it up a notch” (15:30). This suggests that rather than being an unproblematic and simple expression of male power in a fantasy video game world, the gameplay performances of Power Fantasy games are ambiguous and contested, and not always successfully performed via the avatar. They therefore demonstrate a “kind of gender performance [which] will enact and reveal the performativity of gender itself in a way that destabilizes the naturalized categories of identity and desire” (Butler 211). This cuts across the empowered performance of videogame mastery and physical dominance over the game world, and suggests that the automediation of gender identity through playing video games is a complex phenomenon urgently in need of further theorisation.
Ultimately, this kind of analysis of the mediation of hegemonic gender identities is urgent for a cultural product as ubiquitous as video games. The hyper-empowered “badass” digital avatars of Power Fantasy video games can be expected to have some shaping effect on the identities of those who play them, evidenced by the gendered gameplay performance of Doom briefly explored here. This is by no means a simple or unproblematic process, though. Much further research is needed to test the methodological insights possible by using video performances of gameplay as explorations of the auto-mediation of gender identities through video games.
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