Play, configure, perform

Apologies for being away from blog-planet for so long – have been working on my thesis and conference papers. Working on my Theoretical Framework at the moment and trying to cover children’s configurations in games and gender performativity and relate it to game literacy. (see The Cultural Studies Reader Blog for a summary of gender performativity and Judith Butler’s notion of gender as performance). I also found this blog post from 2009 on the Queering Theory blog about Hanna Montana in (gender) trouble very interesting. On finding this article on Bryn Mawr News, I realised Butler is still very much alive. I wonder what she would think of her theory being applied to children’s gameplay.

I found that children perform gendered identities in relation to games and gaming technologies. For example, the PlayStation 3 and specific game titles were ‘boyed’ whereas the laptop and different game titles were ‘girled’ in one of my field sites. From a feminist persprctive, technology is a process of production and consumption, a form of knowledge and a site of gender domination in addition to a power struggle (Cockburn 1992, Lemish & Cohen 2005, Bosch 2007). Games can be seen as commodities that boys and girls use to construct meanings of their gendered identities. Different games acquire symbolic value and become signs of the self. Both boys and girls use games as a kind of conspicuous consumption, although in gendered ways, showing off things about games that are aligned with normatively gendered interests because they perform this for their peers. This kind of discussion forms an important part of my thesis.

Judith Butler - idea of 'doing' gender is central. Butler says: 'There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; ... identity is performatively constituted by the very "expressions" that are said to be its results.' (Gender Trouble, p. 25). In other words, gender is a performance; it's what you do at particular times, rather than a universal who you are.

“Butler suggests that certain cultural configurations of gender have seized a hegemonic hold (i.e. they have come to seem natural in our culture as it presently is) — but, she suggests, it doesn’t have to be that way. Rather than proposing some utopian vision, with no idea of how we might get to such a state, Butler calls for subversive action in the present: ‘gender trouble’ — the mobilization, subversive confusion, and proliferation of genders — and therefore identity.

Butler argues that we all put on a gender performance, whether traditional or not, anyway, and so it is not a question of whether to do a gender performance, but what form that performance will take. By choosing to be different about it, we might work to change gender norms and the binary understanding of masculinity and femininity.” (Source:

I want to merge the idea of cultural configuration and gaming as configurative practice, drawing on new media theorists Moulthrop (2004) and Eskelinen’ s (2001) work.  New media such as digital games demand a new relationship to media, as it entails a “turn from consumption to participation, from interpretive to configurative practices” (Moulthrop 2004). Regarding games as configurable media in particular “we have to interpret in order to be able to configure” (Eskelinen 2001).  Configurative practices involve the “manipulation of dynamic systems that develop in unpredictable or emergent ways” (Moulthrop, 2004).  According to Moulthrop (2004), Eskelinen (2001) defines ‘configurative practice’ rather narrowly as the player’s strategic operation upon elements of a game, but he argues that it is possible to broaden this term significantly if we conceive of configuration as a way of engaging not just with immediate game elements, but also the game’s social and material conditions. My thesis examines children’s gameplay as configurative practice – a social and active process where gender performativity is a very important part of play – and analyses these configurations and performances as they are produced in play. This has implications for game literacy which will be my final chapter.

Preliminary findings and chapter planning

(Pic from a promising blog on gender in game design from 2009 that seems to have died.)

During December 2010/January 2011, I did fieldwork with children at a  holiday club hosted at a Cape Town school. The following aspects played out when the children played games together:

  1. Making friends: Children with interests in similar games bonded over the games and spent time together away from the computer or TV as well during their time at the club (riding bikes together, swimming, etc).
  2. Managing turns: Children respected one another’s turns and the 30 minute playing time rule. Because there were so many children, the children and I put together a play schedule of who plays what and when. Needless to say, the children were quite strict to monitor each another’s turns. Many of the children observed and interacted while others were playing and ‘helping’ one another was a prominent feature.
  3. Gender differences: Although there is more diffusion nowadays between girls’ and boys’ access to games and preferences for particular games, gendered play patterns still persist. There were some interesting episodes where some degree of boundary crossing occurred, but this is largely due to the club setting where children assert themselves through difference, in this case mainly being a boy or a girl and playing games they see as boyish or girlish. However, discussions revealed that this is very different at school and with friends they are closer to. Girls sometimes play wrestling and racing, and boys like Sims.
  4. Games that are part of media franchises: Children’s knowledge about popular movies and music informs their like or dislike of certain games. How boys and girls related to some of the Sing Star songs was very interesting, choosing songs they perceived as suitable for their gender and criticising some of the artists based on their knowledge about these stars from popular media.
  5. Reading rules: Games are complex interfaces that involve interpreting game rules. The children negotiated these rules in interesting ways, sometimes against those set by the game and at other times to suit their agendas at the moment of play.

These aspects will be used as themes for different chapters in my PhD thesis: Understanding gendered social play with digital games, reading game rules, customization as multimodal practice, and I’ve also got some great data on cellphone games. I am currently working on a draft chapter “Beyond gaming contexts: The role of schooling and gender in children’s game play, differential access to digital games and interpretation of branded cultures in two diverse settings in Cape Town” but it’s way too multi-faceted and will probably be split up into separate chapters.

For the April holiday club I have chosen age-appropriate games with stronger storytelling (Harry Potter, etc.) and creative elements which depend on exploring the game’s interface and customizing elements of the game (EA Create where children design their own game scenes and Sims 2).