GameScenes is conducting a series of interviews with artists, critics, curators, and gallery owners operating in the field of Game Art, as part of an ongoing investigation of the social history of this fascinating artworld. Our goal is to illustrate the genesis and evolution of a phenomenon that changed the way game-based art is being created, experienced, and discussed today. The conversation with Angela Washko is part of Season Four and was conducted by Mathias Jansson via email. It took place in February 2013.
"Angela Washko is a New York based artist and facilitator devoted to mobilizing communities and creating new forums for discussions of feminism where they do not exist. These forums are created through actions, interventions, videos, and performances- sometimes in video games! She recently founded the Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft.“ (Angela Wahsko)
Washko explained the rationale behind her massive (not pun intended) ethnographic research project in World of Warcraft in these terms:
"I am interested in the unusual political space that evolves within World of Warcraft. It takes quite a lot of effort to ever break into the social aspects of the game. One has to make a fairly serious commitment to the game (undergoing lengthy tutorials, innumerable quests, training professions, learning their characters’ skills, equipping the character so it can survive in inevitable combat) to ever make it to the point where they are in a guild and regularly communicating with large groups of people. Because of that barrier between the committed and the dabblers, a unique social community is created in each realm of World of Warcraft that few know about, despite the game’s widespread popularity. The blatant discrimination, homophobia, and extreme sexism that persist are not a result of the developers’ aesthetics, but the community of avatar-hidden individuals that play it. I am creating videos from performances inside of World of Warcraft that investigate the relationship between female players and the intensely complex social communities within WOW. I am hacking the understood functionality of the game by actively engaging in political and social discussions about women instead of going on quests and killing stuff. I hope to help to create an environment that encourages women gamers to participate. I also present performances and videos to a non-MMO-informed public that is unaware that these communities exist."
GameScenes: How would you describe the World of Warcraft community?
Angela Washko: Well, to anyone who plays World of Warcraft, it's no secret that there are some aggressively reinforced traditional gender roles being communicated... All The Time. You can't go into a major city (yes, WoW has cities, and yes they are large community gathering spots where you can talk to strangers and buy stuff just like" IRL" urban spaces) without witnessing some kind of misogynistic or homophobic language on one of the many communication channels. Phrases like "get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich (or sammy)" or "gb2kitchen" for short or "wow, you have a computer in your kitchen?" are used as soon as someone says they are female. The most popular argument made for the adoption of this language is that there has to be some space for fantasy. The game (though the most official census data is a bit old now) is played by 85-90% men and more than 55% of the female characters running around are actually played by men too... So a female player has to "come out" as female in a way, as male players will assume that anyone they are speaking to are male unless identified otherwise.
Live performance by Angela Washko (The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft) documented by Alex Young, December 8 2012.
GameScenes: Your interactive game show “World of Warcraft Explains Feminism” reminded me of Joseph Delappe’s performance “death-in-Iraq” (2005-2011) series of performances, in which he entered "The online US Army recruiting game, "America's Army", in order to manually type the name, age, service branch and date of death of each service person who has died to date in Iraq". His practice was seen by many as a disruption of the expected gameplay or even as an act of trolling. Similarly, you are trying to break the illusion of the "magic circle" and introduce elements of "real life" into a simulation, that is, a simplified, playful version of reality. By doing so, you are making the player aware that even in a game there shouldn't be a "free zone" to behave misogynistic. Can you tell me more about the idea behind “World of Warcraft Explains Feminism"? Also, what kind of response did you get from the players?
Angela Washko: I had been doing these "research performances" inside the game in which I discuss feminism instead of killing things or following the clearly guided quests designed by the game quietly without producing much tangible physical, or video evidence. I wasn't documenting it very well. Jason Eppink and I had been talking a lot about this game show as art exhibition format for an exhibition he curated called "iSpy." The theme that tied together all of the game shows was surveillance. I realized that part of the danger of displaying the results of my research was that I would be potentially exploiting the very community I was participating in and trying to change by turning them into non-consenting performers - not unlike what surveillance technology does. I am holding them accountable for what they say to me by recording it and replaying it for an audience. And now as my research process and resulting images and videos become more public, I am still struggling with this. I think it's important to not reinforce the already negative stereotypes surrounding gamers/gaming. Gaming is an intellectually stimulating process and encourages play in a way that some people have a hard time finding in everyday life. I feel a responsibility now, a year into the project, to dispel those stereotypes before I do performances or give talks. The player base of WoW is extremely diverse. I play with marines, college professors, high school students, retired people, engineers, retail workers, computer scientists, people with severe physical handicaps... People from all different economic, racial, gender, and sexual orientations. The most painful failure of the first weekend of iSpy was when people were coming up to me afterward assuming that I was talking to a bunch of "14 year old nerdy boys right?". I realized that from now on, any time I perform for people that haven't played the game - which means every time that my audience is the "art world" - that I need to talk about the community beforehand. The real average age of the player base is 28.
Ultimately, I realized that the reasons for the misogynistic language are more complicated than I originally thought. The reason I don't think it's acceptable to excuse it as fantasy is that it reveals bigger issues about culture as a whole outside of the game. It's not pure fantasy. I've realized that WoW is a space in which the suppressed ideologies of a politically correct global society flourishes. The common language is a result not of pure imagination – but of a resistance to imposed cultural rules outside of the anonymity and autonomy of this virtual space. As women gain freedoms to pursue occupations free from the pressures of having children and “settling down” those that still hold onto another generation’s morals enact them here stating loudly that women should not work, drive, do manual labor, or have careers that keep them from having/taking care of children. And you could dismiss the language as "just joking" but it keeps women from playing or participating in something that is otherwise a pretty amazing game with very interesting social components.
Angela Washko, "Heroines with Baggage (How Final Fantasy Shaped My Unrealistic Demands for Love and Tragedy)", 2012
GameScenes: What is your relationship to World of Warcraft? What does it mean to you, as a female-player?
Angela Washko: Well I used to play pretty "hardcore" while I was in college. One of the common responses from male players to my questions about how they feel about female players is that "they just aren't as good" or "that it's not natural for women to be good at video games." Which (though I can't back this up with scientific evidence) seems quite ridiculous to me! [WARNING: INACCESSIBLE GAMING LANGUAGE COMING UP] When I was playing at my most competitive I was generally #1 or #2 in DPS (damage per second) and wearing some of the best equipment you possibly could for the content available in the game at that point. But I always found that there was suspicion about my rank and participation. One of the guild leaders was very affectionate toward me, and this created some tension with other guild-mates (including my IRL boyfriend hehe)...that I might be getting preferential treatment because of this. I felt uncomfortable that "give her a boob job!" was sometimes used as an exclamation of victory or success in a raid, never liked that for some reason my guild-mates had a fascination with talking about butt sex (butt sechs), and of course all of the discussion of getting back into the kitchen......but I never did anything about it and was too scared to say anything expressing dissent.
My art practice has developed into a feminist practice in which I use play to address power structures embedded into collective consciousness through media. I started to re-play the role-playing console games I grew up with (Final Fantasy 2-10, Chrono Trigger, Metal Gear Solid, Valkyrie Profile, Star Ocean and more) - deconstructing them for the obvious impact they had on forming my ideas about relationship roles. This is quite silly on one hand, obviously it is absurd to project yourself onto a video game character, but people do...and I did. That project is called "Heroines with Baggage." Then I started thinking about World of Warcraft and the fact that the developers were not responsible for reinforcing negative stereotypes about women, it was the community. Now I feel as though I have the tools (and courage) to talk about the language in a way that hopefully unearths the reasoning behind it. Hopefully it will impact the breadth of things discussed and the way in which they are discussed on the servers I play on...this was the initial goal, but I'm not sure that I'm in it for that anymore. It was easy early on to package this as a "feel-good" "change-the-world(of Warcraft)" project and the more I do it, the less realistic that is as a representation of what I'm doing.
Angela Washko, Playing Girl, online performance, 2012
"In this particular performance, I discussed several male players' decision to play female toons (avatars) and also got into a discussion with a female player about her belief that if you wear revealing clothing it's your fault that you get raped (hardcore slut-shaming)."" (Angela Washko)"
GameScenes: Would you say that the art world and WoW share the same structural gender problems, albeit differently expressed and articulated? How did the art world react to your performances, that is, a female artist, using video games as a means of expression?
Angela Washko: I think the art world is a little bit more politically correct in the way it addresses feminism and misogyny than WoW is. It's more institutional in the art world. It's kind of like the difference between when I go to my rural-ish hometown - people are just plain racist and homophobic. They "tell-it-like-it-is", which means that they loudly state their oafish, conservative views. WoW is more like that. In the art world in NYC, it's a bit more like institutional racism and sexism. On the surface people are very open. However the underlying structures reveal themselves in many ways. There are many more women graduating from art schools and still far fewer successful female artists. There are many rockstar female gallerists, but the top 20 gallery power lists are always dominated by men. "Gallery girls" or "gallerinas" work under gallerists, exploited for their sexuality and sent off to convince rich dudes to buy shitty paintings. I mean, ok that's a little unfair. But it's how it works. I've worked for several commercial galleries as a "Gallery Associate" aka gallerina, and I don't recommend it. Some places are better than others. Female artists that are social media savvy, hard-working, willing to organize, and up to do whatever it takes to survive in the art world are frequently labeled as "careerist" or "catty" while male artists who are doing the same are rewarded as "go-getters" and "ambitious." But people like the Guerrilla Girls and Andrea Fraser have done a lot to try to make these systems more transparent. I guess in the gaming world, that's what I'm trying to do, while also sharing the two worlds.
I often display my research process in WoW for live (art world) audiences. Here's an example. I hope that sharing these worlds with each other will inspire an interest in the way gaming impacts culture now and establish value to these massively multiplayer games which are frequently dismissed in academia. As for the reaction to the art world..... When I first started doing these projects (early 2011), a lot of people were just blown away by the aesthetics and images because they weren't familiar. A lot of artists grow up dismissing video games as a waste of time...at art school it was especially frowned upon to be a gamer. At Tyler, my roommates and I had a reputation for gaming because we were some of the only ones still doing it - and when asked by instructors why other classmates didn't play video games - they responded that they were "too busy" and that it was "a waste of time" and that gamers have "too much time on their hands." I think the concept of creating hierarchies for how we use our time is very interesting. Partying and socializing is viewed as somehow more productive than socializing inside of a game space.
I was lucky as I got a lot of support from other women making art projects in internet social spaces who have bigger net art communities - like Ann Hirsch and Jennifer Chan. I also noticed a huge shift of interest in my work after Anita Sarkeesian's Kickstarter blew up in all kinds of different media. Suddenly I was "another one of those feminists inside games making projects inside games." One of the funniest responses from the "art world" for me was one week Hrag Vartanian from Hyperallergic dismissed my practice in video games as trendy and in the next week or so his senior editor wrote one of the nicest most thorough reviews of Chastity. For me it has been very hard to figure out how to create ways for people to interact with it. The work has been showed in the gameshow exhibition format mentioned earlier, in live performances, in prints from conversations in-game, and in videos played mostly in gallery contexts and online. I have also been experimenting with transcribing the conversations into text formats and thinking about making theater pieces from the conversations as well.
GameScenes: In “Heroines with Baggage” you investigate negative gender-based stereotypes throughout video games. Can you tell me more about this work? Why do you think the game industry is still so blatantly male-dominated today? The number of female players has grown exponentially in the past decade, and yet female heroines are still an embodiment of men' expectations and desires, Lara Croft being the perfect example. Here's a digital woman coded by men...
Angela Washko: Well, to be clear- in that project I am specifically looking at the role-playing console games that I played growing up in the 90s. Final Fantasy 2/3/7/8/9/10, Chrono Trigger, Valkyrie Profile, Star Ocean, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy Tactics, Thousand Arms and many more. It was a look at how these games impacted my understanding of my role in romantic partnerships (and ultimately many other women). Even these games that I mention have some female protagonists. Lenneth (Valkyrie) in Valkyrie Profile upon first sight seems like such a great hero character. She is physically and emotionally strong, she is placed in a position of power, she makes intelligent decisions. But ultimately she is haunted by a childhood boyfriend and daydreams about fairytale weddings and ends up being pursued and saved by this scary guy who is in love with her. I mean that is definitely the abridged, overly simplified version of her character. But many of these games have characters like this Final Fantasy 3 (US)/6(Japan) has arguably two main characters - both are women. Terra is constantly being used by men because she is magical, and once freed makes statements like "but I have no significant other in my life," and "how can anyone ever love me" even though she's completely badass. Celes is pictured as trapped and in trouble, constantly being (literally) backhanded by men in power. In the FMV sequences in the Playstation remake she is always clutching a scarf- a memento from her male love interest and gazing off into the distance, thinking of him.
Both of these characters are two of the physically strongest and most useful in the game... But their plotlines are tied to being in trouble, needing to be saved, and desperately wanting to be loved. In this game another archetype is recurring, male characters' girlfriends (who are not otherwise useful to the plot) are always dying in some tragic/romantic way. The representation of women in games is complicated. Lara Croft, Tifa from Final Fantasy 7, and the women in Dead or Alive and Mortal Kombat are easy to pick on because they have huge tits, disproportionate figures, and hyper sexualized outfits. The problems with that are blatantly obvious. The process of playing an RPG is often like enacting the scenes a 50-80 hour long film. For me it is more interesting to look at games that try to create positive representations of women (effectively influencing young girls' and boys' ideas of roles in relationships) and archive where their intentions get crossed with regurgitated ideas of romance and tragedy that are frequently deconstructed in film.
LINK: Angela Washko
Text: Mathias Jansson
Editing: Matteo Bittanti