Proving Grounds: Performing Masculine Identities in Call of Duty: Black Opsby Gareth Healey
This article reports on a piece of participant observation research into the gaming cultures of boys when they play Treyarch’s Call of Duty: Black Ops (Treyarch, 2010; henceforth CoD). Specifically, it focuses on the notion of the “digital imaginary”, proposed by Derek A. Burrell (2008), and how the speech and actions performed by 11 boys when they played both with and against each other help to construct the boys’ individual masculine identities, constitute the identity of their gaming group as well as police its composition.
The research finds that boys construct ever-shifting performances of masculinity, sometimes drawing upon the same hegemonizing signifiers from which they later (in post-game interviews) try to distance themselves. Drawing upon the notions of “performativity” (Butler, 2008), “hegemonic masculinity” (Connell, 1995) and “working consensuses” (Goffman, 1990), it proposes that these average-attaining boys choose the proving grounds of CoD in which to enact their masculine identities largely because such digital arenas do not rely on traditional signifiers of masculinity (like size, strength, sexual prowess). In their symbolic destruction of these signifiers they also re-enact many of the hegemonizing relationships found in these self-same discourses. The article suggests a link between the sorts of policing of identity found in masculinities and the kill-or-be-killed nature of the war game.
boys, masculinities, identity performance, expert, status, post-structuralism, first-person shooter
War games are big business, and none bigger than the Call of Duty franchise. In 2015, CoD publisher Activision boasted that the franchise had sold 175m copies -- more than any other digital war game (Activision Game Blog, 2015); in 2014, C-Net reported that the Call of Duty franchise had surpassed the $10bn mark (C-Net, 2014). It is recognized in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most-sold first-person shooter (Glenday, 2013). The series has been studied extensively from the perspectives of history (Elliott & Kappell, 2013; Pötzsch & Šisler, 2016; Ramsay, 2015), as well as different forms of play (Burn, 2013; Huntemann, 2010; Meades, 2012), but so far relatively little focus has been directed at examining that group so often culturally associated with war games: the adolescent male.
The term “war games” aims at more than a description of a game’s fictional setting and themes. A war game addresses the player at the representational level and the ludic level: The game does not merely re-present warlike characters, settings and narratives, it is by its nature heavily ag�'nistic. Saying that war games are ag�'nistic invokes Caillois’ assertion of competition and that “the point of the game is for each player to have his superiority in a given area recognized”, but it goes beyond this also (Caillois, 2006, p. 132). Games like FIFA (EA Sports, 1993 onwards) or Mario Kart (Nintendo, 1992 onwards) allow for competition, but it is a competition that usually leaves the adversary standing. The purpose of war games is to pummel your enemy into the ground: to be antagonistic towards them, to destroy them utterly. Carnegay & Anderson (2005) draw a distinction between games that are competitive and games that are violently competitive, suggesting that their study “contradicts[s] the… hypothesis that increases in aggression-related variables induced by violent video games are solely the result of the competitiveness of these games” (Carnegay & Anderson, 2005: p. 887) . Whilst my purpose here is not to revisit the violence/effects arguments of the late 1990s and early 2000s, I do suggest that the structuring forces offered by war games are comparable with some of the structuring forces at work within the masculine hegemony, that both go beyond merely “winning” a competition, and so war games (and CoD in particular) provide the perfect “proving grounds” for hegemonizing performances of masculinity.
I suggest that there is a relationship between the sorts of status gained in the arenas of CoD and the sorts of masculine status negotiated between boys when they play this war game. These spaces become “proving grounds” for boys’ masculinities in which they perform, co-construct and counter-construct a range of masculine identities. Though this study is undertaken using a qualitative game-studies approach, it may also be of interest to cultural studies more broadly, as well as to interdisciplinary studies working in the fields of gender, sociology and psychology.
This article describes some of the ways in which a group of 11 boys aged 13--15 perform masculinities as they play CoD. It explores how they construct themselves as a “skilled expert” and how this construction relates to status within the masculine hegemony. It also describes how they counter-construct as “gay” any performances that fall outside the agreed perception of boyhood within their own “digital imaginary”, which is the space in which masculinities are produced when playing. Finally, the article explores the relevance of the war game (specifically) to the debate over masculine gaming cultures, identity performance and the concept of “proving grounds”.
Overview: Games, Gender and “Some Subordinated Other”
This study situates itself within the relatively new “third wave” of studies into games and gender. Third wave studies explore intersectional concepts such as how sexuality relates to gaming culture or how masculinities are defined and understood (Richard, 2013). They build heavily on the foundational groundwork of “first wave” studies (Bryce & Rutter, 2003; Cassell & Jenkins, 1998; Kennedy, 2006), which focus on issues surrounding gender differences in computer games, and on “second wave” studies, like those undertaken by Sanford & Madill (2006) and Jenson & de Castell (2008). Second-wave studies tend to be more post-structural in nature, exploring what is meant by terms like “boys” and “girls”, “masculine” and “feminine”. Psychological studies (Anderson & Bushman, 2001; Endestad & Torgerson, 2003; Gentile et al., 2004) that look into the effects of games on adolescents, whilst interesting in their own right, have a distinctly different focus from those approaching game studies from a cultural perspective. As this article approaches its subject of study from the perspective of game studies and gender studies, the psychological focus will not be further explored here.
Second-wave game studies that interrogate what it means to be “male” or “female” have laid the theoretical and methodological groundwork for this article. Sanford & Madill argue that “there are multiple ways of being males and creating/negotiating male subjectivity” (Sanford & Madill, 2006, p. 289). Jenson & de Castell observe “a wide range of performances: from hyper-masculinity to hyper-femininity from both boys and girls” (Jenson & de Castell, 2008, p. 19). In a study of players approaching Guitar Hero (RedOctane, 2005) for the first time, where boys and girls began from equal levels of knowledge about the game and its interface device, Jenson & de Castell observe that “what we have been (mis-)reading as research about girls and gameplay… could in reality be about novices and gameplay” (Jenson & de Castell, 2008, p. 19). The implication is that “novice” and “girl” had become incorrectly and conceptually interchangeable within game studies; it is a link that I argue has its counterpart in masculinities with the terms “gay” and “noob”.
Both Sanford & Madill’s and Jenson & de Castell’s studies utilize the notion of the performativity of gender and so does this one. “Performativity” views gender as a doing: a series of performances that signify one’s identity when understood in the context of “a set of meanings already socially established” (Butler, 2008, p. 171). People do gender against a backdrop of cultural expectations about what genders should and should not “be”. However, performativity is also “a re-enactment and re-experiencing” of these meanings: each performance serves to redraw the notions and cultural expectations surrounding gender. Developing reflexively alongside these expectations, performances are influenced by (and in turn come to influence) hegemonic understandings.
Cultural hegemony not only sets out which performances of social identity will be rewarded and which punished (and everything in between), it also serves to render these relationships “natural and normal” (Hall & Jefferson, 1977, p. 38). The masculine hegemony implies a sort of “gender hierarchy amongst men” (Connell, 1995), where certain performances are given greater social status than others. Connell gives the example of performances of homosexuality, which are positioned “at the bottom of a gender hierarchy among men” (Connell, 1995, p. 78).
Connell coins the phrase “hegemonic masculinity” (Connell, 1995) to describe this hierarchy, but later clarifies that the term is not purely adjectival and does not describe a type of masculinity that it is possible to attain. In a similar vein to the notion of performativity developed by Butler, Connell’s “‘masculinity’ represents not a certain type of man but, rather, a way that men position themselves through discursive practices” (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, p. 841). In an attempt to preserve this later relational understanding of Connell’s hegemonic masculinity, I have chosen the term “hegemonizing masculinity”, which is used throughout this article; it is my hope that this term better reflects the action of hegemony and its relationship with the masculinities produced.
Third-wave studies of games and gender are still fairly few, even fewer are those that study notions of masculinities specifically. I wish to draw on one particularly, as it is so directly relevant when drawing the concept of a “proving ground” for masculinities. In his description of “the state of boyhood [that can be thought of] as the subjectivity that is produced by and produces the digital imaginary”, Derek A. Burrill draws “the digital imaginary” and paints its relationship with “boyhood” (Burrill, 2008, p. 5). The digital imaginary consists of the spaces in which gameplay takes place and includes the digital spaces of combat, but also the more conceptual, cultural, private spaces appropriated for the playing of games; in some games (and especially war games), these tend to be very masculine, exclusionary spaces in which “boyhood” can be performed and performances contested.
Gaming has repeatedly been constructed as a male space, a “boys’ club” that is not for “other” people (Handrahan, 2011; Pearson, 2013; Sinclair, 2014; Winter, 2013). For Burrill, particular performances that are integral to the digital imaginary produce “constantly unstable” masculinities “in which to ‘prove’ oneself, one must perform the rites, rituals, and repetitions of an ‘acceptable’ (straight, white, middle class…) masculinity” (Burrill, 2008, p. 21). These “rites, rituals and repetitions” bear a similarity to the “set of meanings already socially established” of which Butler speaks (Butler, 2008, p. 171), and -- with both -- there is a reflexive relationship between the understandings about how to perform within the space and the actual performances that are found within. People’s performances are always understood in relation to the expectations and values of those witnessing them, and deviation from anything “natural and normal” can lead to exclusion from the cultural space (Hall & Jefferson, 1977). One of the tools of exclusion is found in the deployment of sexualized language.
The use of sexualized language as a performance of masculinity is not something peculiar to digital games play. Pascoe observes the use of the word “fag” in American high schools, which is at once “the worst epithet one guy could direct at another” and “[can be used] to describe anything from someone’s clothes to a new school rule that the students did not like” (Pascoe, 2005, p. 335--336). One of the chief uses she identifies for the word “fag” amongst masculine culture is that it “demonstrate[s] the boy who is invoking the fag is not a fag” (Pascoe, 2005, p. 339, emphasis in original). Elsewhere, Kehily & Nayak describe “cussing” or “blowing competitions” between students at UK schools, in which the aim is to crystallize “who is ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ through the public exposition of power and authority” (Kehily & Nayak, 1997, p. 73). A similar phenomenon is observed by Frosh, Phoenix and Pattman, who refer to the “policing” of the attributes of “popular masculinity”, including “‘hardness’, ‘coolness’, ‘sporting prowess’, casual treatment of schoolwork and being adept at ‘cussing’” (Frosh, Phoenix & Pattman, 2002, p. 3).
It is important to note at this stage that there are other forms of exclusionary language that are non-sexual in nature. Phrases like “boff” or “geek” or “sad” are used within UK-English to describe some subordinated other from which the speakers wish to distance themselves. At the received level of understanding these words signify negative concepts to the listeners and have a distancing effect. However, sexualized exclusionary words -- most notably “fag” and “gay” -- also have implications at the socio-historical level of discourse that serve a hegemonizing function, as Connell observes, to “position homosexual masculinities at the bottom of a gender hierarchy amongst men” (Connell, 1995, p. 78). Through their invocation in the context of negative status, use of the words gay or fag implicitly construct values around homosexualities that words like geek and sad do not: whatever the intention of their users, they also serve to reinforce the “natural and normal” performances of boyhood tolerated within the digital imaginary; they reproduce a hegemonizing masculinity against which identities must be “proved”.
Gender performances under hegemony constantly contest which performances lead to status and which to subordination within the social spaces where hegemony is enacted. Whilst there are other relationships with hegemony, including Connell’s marginalization (Connell, 1995) and Swain’s personalized masculinities (Swain, 2006), this article focuses on the relationship between status and subordination. In this regard, getting status in any kind of gendered space involves contesting a continual negotiation about what is considered status-worthy (and by whom). One tool that is used in understanding this negotiation is the “working consensus” laid down by Goffman (1990). Working consensuses are established around certain expectations and values that will be tolerated by the culture in question. They are a “starting point”, a set of understandings that are debated, modified or upheld by the members of the culture (though the process has no true beginning nor end). As is suggested by Kehily & Nayak (1997) and by Frosh, Phoenix & Pattman (2002), wordplay plays a large part in social negotiation including that of these working consensuses, but -- as Butler (2008) and Connell (1995) suggest -- such wordplay is not done in isolation of “a set of meanings already socially established” (Butler, 2008, p. 171). Gaining status in masculinities is as much about knowing (or constructing) what is status-worthy and what is not as it is about then reproducing status-worthy performances. As with all such endeavours, there is an element of trial and error in this approach. In this regard the “proving grounds” become as much about trailing out proofs of identity as they are about proving determinate relationships to identity.
In identifying the characteristics of boyhood I believe Burrill is describing one template for a working consensus within masculinities and games. He describes it as a space where the “rules” of later manhood are laid down: “‘no sissy stuff, [be] a big wheel, a sturdy oak, give ‘em hell!’” (Burrill, 2008, p. 30). For Burrill, boyhood is a complex social understanding that at once places upon those who seek status from it the expectation that the (masculine) “rules” will be followed, but it is also a social space “in which adult males return to their adolescence to play without the responsibilities of adulthood” (Burrill, 2008, p. 15). In this space, performances will be judged and identities “proved” as the boys contest their masculine status.
Methodology and Ethical Concerns
The 11 participants of this study were all boys, all aged 13--15 at the time of the research. They all attended the same school and had all been labelled as “average-attaining boys” by the school, where “average-attaining” was defined as coming to the school with an average Key Stage 2 points score of 25--29. They were assembled out of 64 respondents to a questionnaire on gaming habits, conducted at the school. The questionnaire asked students to list the three games that they play the most frequently and for how long they play each per week. At the bottom of the questionnaire was a section in which a student might indicate a desire to take part in the observed section of the research. These 11 boys all indicated such a desire and were able to get parental permission to take part.
The boys put themselves in groups of 2--4 and were asked to agree on a game that they all currently had that their parents “were okay with them playing”. The only game that fulfilled these criteria was Call of Duty: Black Ops. Prior to beginning the research, students were given two letters, one for them and one for their parents, which they were asked to return if their parents agreed that they could take part. On this letter it was clearly communicated that the game itself carried an 18 certificate from the BBFC. Students were required to get parental permission and to give their own consent before research began.
The research itself consisted of four one-hour gaming sessions taking place in the students’ homes, where the students would play in groups of two-to-four; they always played in the same groups and they chose with whom they played. Play sessions were video-recorded with the cameras focused on the student not the screen.
These recordings where then synchronized with each other and turned into a video where it became possible to see all participants on screen at the same time, interacting in real time. These play sessions were preceded and followed by group interviews with the students in which they were asked about their perceptions of themselves and their play. In the interviews following the play sessions the students were shown short clips of their play and asked questions about it. These interviews were also video-recorded.
The videos were transcribed and the transcripts coded for speech and multi-modal signifiers such as gesture and facial expression. The transcripts were analyzed using a form of critical discourse analysis adapted from Fairclough (1992) and Wodak & Meyer (2009), focusing on: the words used, the reception of the words used and the socio-historical significance of the words used. This stratified approach made it possible to relate their discourse and their actions to some of the larger, intersectional issues such as gender and identity.
The use of a game with an 18 certificate raised certain ethical questions, particularly since the participants were all aged 13--15. Care was taken to anonymize both the students and the school: aliases are used throughout this article. None of the boys was introduced to a game that they had not already played. Questions that might hint at how the boys were able to obtain games outside of their age rating were not asked. All boys were reminded of their right to switch the camera off or to stop participating at any time during the research. Fortunately, none of them did.
Once the research group became assembled, quite by accident it was noticed that the boys were all on the school’s “average attaining boys” list. The proportion of boys so-identified by the school was 25 percent of their total male population (223/892), but the proportion of boys involved in this research was 100 percent. It was determined to factor this into the interpretation of the findings.
The findings were organized into two main sections: one exploring the construction of a masculine identity through the use of sexualized language, the other exploring the construction of an “expert status” through game knowledge, bragging about skilful play, and the construction of a subordinated “other”. In this regard, it was hoped to describe “the rites, rituals, and repetitions of an ‘acceptable’… masculinity”, and so describe the constitution and the composition of the “boys’ club”.
Sexualized Language: “If You Turn The Power On, That Makes You Gay!”
This comment was made by a player called Jake, who was playing a game mode of CoD called Zombies. The aim in Zombies is to work together to survive wave after wave of computer-controlled opponents (the zombies). Jake was playing in a group of four (Jake, James, Colm and Gus); they frequently play together, though they do not always play this game (CoD) or this game mode (Zombies). “Turning on the power” refers to the action of activating the power switch that lies behind four locked doors. All of the boys know where the power switch is and what it does. Once it is activated it becomes possible to use the teleporter, to use certain devices and to lay traps, thus making the game easier to survive.
Jake’s choice of language is an attempt to construct the terms of masculine status within this gaming culture: there is status to be won in toughing it out, in surviving against harder odds. The survival aspect is one of the hallmarks of war games that distinguishes them from many other competitive games. Where his language is concerned, there is the use of the conditional “if-then” phrase: if you turn the power on then you are gay. Interestingly, no-one questions the meaning of the statement nor asks for elaboration on its construction. This fact suggests that the boys share a pre-existent understanding of what the notion of “becoming gay” means in this context -- that the “set of meanings” surrounding “gayness” are already “socially established” (Butler, 2008, p. 191). It seems as though having extra help is being constructed at the socio-historical level of discourse as “gay”, and therefore implicitly “less masculine”.
I asked the boys to clarify their use of the word “gay” in the post-play interview:
James: Gay is, like, sort of, the thing that you should never do. (...)
Gus: [We use it to describe] People who are, just, like, annoying other people. In a way.
James: Yeah. Noobs.
(Jake, Gus & James -- post-play interview, 05:27--05:54).
A “camper” is someone who -- instead of running around the map taking the enemy head-on -- hides in ambush, waiting to strike an enemy unannounced; a “noob” is a newbie: an inexperienced player. Both of these terms are loaded with masculine status signifiers. The linking of “gayness” with “noobiness” suggests a conceptual link between “gay” play and inexperience. In this respect, noob (with its signifiers of inexperience) and camper (with its signifiers of cowardice) are discursively linked first of all with “the thing you shouldn’t do”, but are further linked with “gayness”, in a process that seems to shuffle both noobs and campers to the “bottom of a gender hierarchy among men” (Connell, 1995, p. 78). Inexperience and cowardly play are “gay”: “Real men” are experienced and brave.
It is interesting to view these boys’ description of “gay play” through the lens of masculinities, because of the connotations implied in their inverse. If both inexperience and cowardice are being constructed as unmasculine (at the bottom of the masculine hierarchy), then it stands to reason that their inverses, experience and bravery, are being constructed as very masculine traits (at the top). The second interesting thing Jake’s statement achieves is to give a valuable insight into the gaming culture of this group of boys. These boys do not have high amounts of physical or academic status (by not being strong/sporty and by being labeled “average attainers” academically); likewise, they are not especially affluent within the context of the school that they attend, giving them limited access to economic status. On top of this they are boys (not men) and so do not enjoy any of the status coming from adulthood. Such facts restrict their opportunities to gain status, and naturally drive the performances of the boys more closely towards those areas where they can attain status within their sub-/counter-culture. They may not be able to signify hardness or coolness or even sporting prowess (Frosh, Phoenix & Pattman, 2002), but they can perform bravery and experience within the digital imaginary. Notably they can perform it against people who have all of the status listed above in a relatively level playing field. What is interesting, though, is that whilst their construction of the digital imaginary does not reference any of the signifiers of age, economics, sporting or physical prowess, it does still -- intentionally or not -- construct the digital imaginary (and the “acceptable… masculinity” performed within it) as exclusionary and homophobic (Burrill, 2008, p. 21).
The example of the power switch is representative of a whole genre of sexual-discourse. Other examples of this construction can be found throughout this study:
Max: Open up that door.
Bart: That’s gay.
(Bart & Max -- second session, 30:36--30:38).
Jake: I’m gonna camp now.
Gus: Oh don’t, Jake, that’s just gay!
(Jake, Gus & James -- third session, 22:07--22:09).
James: Right, how do you turn killstreaks off?
Jake: Don’t bother. Just don’t use them. If you use them -- you’re gay.
Colm: Yeah. Okay. Just don’t use them.
(Jake, Gus, James & Colm -- second session, 44:53--44:55).
These exchanges between the boys serve to demonstrate that “the boy who is invoking the fag is not a fag” (Pascoe, 2005, p. 339). I would argue that they are first and foremost an attempt to set the terms by which masculine status will be granted within the digital imaginary, but -- because of the inescapable reproduction of a hegemonizing masculinity in the choice of “gay” as the pejorative terms -- they also serve to reinforce the subordination of gay identities (and any performances pertaining thereto) “at the bottom of a gender hierarchy amongst men” (Connell, 1995, p. 78). Within these boys’ version of boyhood, performances of inexperience and performances of cowardice constitute the unmasculine “other”. The application of “gayness” by the boys does not stop only at in-game actions.
As the same group of four boys sat down to play their first session, they fell out over one of the player’s Clan Tags. The Clan Tag is a feature offered by the game to allow a player to identify to which clan he belongs (a group of people all of whom fight together, usually on the same side and usually against other clans). Clan Tags are composed of four letters and the player may write whatever he chooses in the box. The Clan Tag sported by Gus here is: W40K.
James: Oh my god, Gus, you do not have that Clan Tag?! You do not have that Clan Tag!
Gus: No. Wes changed it. When I was round his...
James: Warhammer 40K.
Gus: Wes changed it!
Jake: Is that what that means?!
Gus: I swear...
Jake: Oh my God...
James: Yeah. Warhammer 40K.
Jake: ...that is so gay.
Gus: Wes changed it!
Jake: Oh sure thing.
Gus: I will change it right now! I will!
Jake: [in mock-sympathy] Awww... no...
James: [laughing] Warhammer 40K...
Gus: Shut up!
Jake: [in mock-sympathy] Awww… no...
Gus: I gave it uu-up [elongated]! Shut up!
Jake: [in mock-sympathy] Awww... no...
Gus: Fuck yooou... (Jake, Gus & James -- second session, 05:38--06:10).
James’ declaration, “[y]ou do not have that Clan Tag”, followed by Jake’s assertion “[t]hat is so gay” constructs 40K as “that thing you should never do”. It implies that merely by associating with 40K culture, Gus is less masculine. In their post-game interviews the boys clarified that 40K is a reference to the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop game, where players control squads of painted lead/plastic miniatures in dice-based combat against each other; it is a popular war game, particularly with teenage boys. Gus is not being accused of playing 40K, merely of having a Clan Tag that advertises it. When his previous two attempts to distance himself from the Tag fail, and in the face of the unanimous laughter of the other boys, Gus is forced to concede, “I gave it uu- up!” His choice of words here is similar to the language of addiction or vice, and serves to signify similar socio-historical discourses: one might give up smoking, or drinking or drug-taking, just as one might give up 40K.
Curious to learn more about the differences between the digital wargaming culture of CoD and the tabletop wargaming culture of 40K, I showed the boys this clip in their post-game interview and asked them about it.
Gareth Healey (GH): How do you tend to think about people who play Warhammer or Warhammer 40K or any of those sorts of things?
Jake: I dunno, really.
Gus: I don’t mind, as such, cos I’ve done it and I’ve got friends who’ve done it, and that, and I started it because they was into it.
Jake: Yeah, I used to do it when I was little.
James: Yeah, I think it’s just that people get sooo [elongated] involved with it that it completely changes their life, that it -- kind of --
GH: How? How does it change their life?
James: Well, they’re like, always talking about it and everything you hear them talk about, they’re always, like...
Jake: To be fair: all I talk about lately is Skyrim, so...
Jake: [to Gus] And [so do] you. ...
GH: Which sort of people would look down on it [40K]?
Jake: If you think, like, stereotypically, like, I dunno, like the popular people, if you know what I mean. You know when you see a movie or something and you’ve got the popular group, they kinda look down on it [40K].
GH: Who’s the popular group? What makes them popular?
Jake: Like in American programs, like in the, the jocks and sportspeople and stuff.
GH: Oh, okay. Do we have those sorts of people here then, at this school?
Jake: Yeah, I think so.
James: There normally are a few.
Gus: Kind of, yeah.
GH: Without naming any names could you sort of describe to me what they’re like?
Gus: Well, kinda like, big heads.
James: Full of theirselves.
GH: What tends to make them bigheaded?
Gus: They’re, sort of, successful at lots of stuff.
GH: Successful in what way?
Gus: Sports, like.
Jake: In lessons as well.
Gus: Sometimes even with friends as well.
GH: So either people who’ve got lots of friends or who are very good at sports...?
Gus: Sociable people. People who are really sociable.
GH: Right. Okay. And they would tend to look down on something like Warhammer 40K? [Jake nods] And think it was… what?
Jake: Sad, really.
(Jake, Gus & James -- post-play interview, 04:31--06:44).
What is interesting here is not only the way in which the boys construct the image of 40K and its players, as seen from the perspective of the “popular people”, but also the way in which they counter-construct their own gaming culture in relation to this popular group. Jake invokes US TV and movie tropes when he identifies the popular people as jocks, or those who are good at sports. However, this definition is expanded by the others (and collectively agreed) to include people who are good in lessons and who are socially adept. These people are constructed as being bigheaded and “full of theirselves”, and yet the boys seem a little more vague when asked to provide a few details of this group. Jake, James and Gus all use qualifying language (“I think so”, “normally”, “kind of”) when asked if these people actually exist within this school and when pressed on what defines this group, they recourse to the vague signifiers of sports, academic success and popularity. These signifiers are very similar to the sorts of “popular masculinity” and “hegemonic” masculinity discussed in masculinities more generally (Connell, 1995; Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005; Frosh, Phoenix & Pattman, 2002). They imply a “popular group” where membership is restricted and earned on the basis of one’s sporting prowess, one’s ability to make friends and one’s ability to succeed academically.
I believe that the boys are describing their understanding of the masculine hegemony within their school. The popular people look down on 40K, they think it is “sad”, and in so doing the 40K-ers are symbolically expelled from the “popular group”; however, the boys in this study also look down on 40K. They use the language of addiction and vice to describe it; they construct it as something that is done when one is “little”; they openly refer to it as “gay” in the gaming sessions. It could be that in their construction of 40K, the boys are re-enacting and re-experiencing the dominating behaviours of the popular people, and in so doing shifting themselves -- their own “boys’ club” -- closer to the status afforded to that more dominant group. But not too close. They identify that group as bigheaded and “full of theirselves”, and -- moreover -- the referents with which the popular people are constructed are out-of-reach to the boys in this study (sporting prowess, academic success, social popularity). It is almost as if the boys are positioning themselves somewhere in-between the dominating popular people and the subordinated 40K-ers. Somewhere, one might reason, “average”.
The Expert Gamer
The boys construct the identity of the expert as being high-status and attempt to position themselves as expert through the use of two different systems of bragging. The first involved constructing oneself as expert through drawing attention to some hard-and-fast in-game referent such as having the most points/kills/money, or through more abstract terms like being the most skillful. Examples of this sub-genre include:
Bart: I’ve got, like, 200 more points than you...
(Bart & Max -- second session, 13:37--13:39).
John: Aaron, we’re almost getting even [kills].
Aaron: Yeah, but I did better, really. Fifteen big kills. Oh yeah. Oh yeah...
(John & Aaron -- second session, 06:00--06:04).
Jake: I’ve got two-to-nought [k/d]... It’s better than you, James...
(Jake, James, Gus & Colm-- second session, 06:20--06:22).
These sorts of brags were the most commonly challenged by the other players. One group of two boys, Bart and Max, would frequently challenge each other and developed quite complex systems of negotiation allowing each to save-face in the face of a direct challenge:
Max: [In a game of Zombies] Already more points than you.
Bart: No. Same.
Max: Actually, the same. The same. The same amount.
Bart: Yeah, but you’ve had way more zombies.
Max: Exactly, because I have the gun. That’s why it’s better.
Bart: No, you just, you’re luckier than me. You get more zombies.
Bart: [elongated] Yeees.
Max: The gun’s... the gun’s...
Bart: The gun’s crap anyway.
Max: Yeah, not in the first few rounds, though.
(Bart & Max-- second session, 26:56--27:19.
In this example the two boys constantly jockey for the position of expert, first of all the expert killer, but then -- when that fails -- as the most knowledgeable about the game. Bart’s contention that “the gun’s crap anyway” is refuted by Max’s maintaining that it is useful in the first few rounds: when one system of status fails (kills), the boys recourse to another (knowledge). There are even instances of the boys pre-emptively setting up such recourses, which constitute the second system of bragging: what I term “the anti-brag”.
Anti-Brags are a form of downwardly-constructed self-comparison where the bragger deliberately downplays his own ability before attempting something particularly difficult. Braggers mitigate their own success prior to its occurrence. Two examples can be seen below:
Bart: Heads up. There’s some [zombies] coming to you. I’ve hardly got any ammo. I’m gonna go down! I’m gonna go down! Oh, I didn’t. Go me...
(Bart & Max -- second session, 42:25--42:29).
Jake: Don’t worry, Gus will do this. Gus is the god of Zombies.
Gus: No I won’t!
Thirty seconds pass without conversation. Punctuated only by the occasional cry of desperation or exhilaration, Gus kills all the zombies to survive the round.
Jake: I told you Gus would do it...
(Jake, James, Gus & Colm-- first session, 45:59--46:49).
What is most interesting here is the construction of the “expert” who knows just how much “skill” is required in order to pull off the death-defying feat. In consciously constructing himself as “unskilled”, the anti-bragger can demonstrate his “expert” knowledge about the game and so gain status in failure (as “expert”) or in success (as “skilled”). Both Gus and Bart prefigure their feats of skill (or luck) with statements that they are not going to succeed. Significantly, this prefiguring means that if they do fail then they will not lose as much status as if they had remained silent, as they will gain status through the construction of themselves as “expert” in game knowledge (though not in game “skill”): they knew they would fail. However, if they succeed -- against the odds, in the face of adversity -- then the resultant status will be all the more.
The brag is one attempt at a “grab for power” (and status) within the group; its resistance helps to structure the group’s ongoing understanding of what is understood as “worthy”, and so of how worth” is measured. Points, kills and scores are one set of referents, but where the “worth” is more abstract, constructions tend towards “skill”, “experience” and “expert” status. The masculine hegemony is used to validate these performances as “masculine” through the labeling of their antitheses as “girly” or “gay”. The “unskilled novice”, or “noob”, is one of the things directly identified by the boys as being linked with the “gay player”. Through bragging, the boys can offer proofs of different status-grabbing identities and then try to prove whichever one seems to garner the most status within the current working consensus.
What Is Proved in the “Proving Grounds” of CoD?
When the boys in this study use “othering” language, it is to exclude people from their culture. If the use of “othering” language (especially sexualized language) were the only means of exclusion from this culture then there might be grounds to say that CoD gaming culture is purely a “boys’ club” where displays of hyper-masculinity (including misogyny and homophobia) are required in order to guarantee entry. However, this study suggests that the relationship between masculinities and the “boys’ club” is far more nuanced than that. Boys are also excluded for claiming a different form of (largely male) gaming culture (40K) -- one that is characterized as “sad, really”. They can likewise be excluded for playing in a way deemed (by the boys in this study) to be contrary to the acceptable way to play (campers; noobs). Elsewhere in the study the boys admit to playing CoD with girls from time to time and are keen to point out that girls are not automatically excluded from the gaming culture.
Colm: Some people find it really surprising if a girl plays the Xbox and -- to be honest -- I don’t really find it that surprising. If a girl wants to play the Xbox, she can play. It’s not [short pause] just for guys.
(Jake, James, Gus & Colm-- first interview, 19:36--19:43).
Colm’s admission here, to the nods of the other boys, suggests that females are not excluded, yet the repeated use of sexualized, subordinated (and in some cases sexist) language by the boys suggests that performances of femininities (especially those signified through the othering language of “gay” and “fag”) are.
The fact that the language of “othering” used in games is also the language of “othering” used in masculinities is highly significant, but it is not that whole picture. It seems that these homosexual terms have become a “catch-all” for anything deemed as “un-masculine”: as Pascoe suggests, it “[can be used] to describe anything from someone’s clothes to a new school rule that the students did not like” (Pascoe, 2005, pp. 335--336). For the boys in this study, that involves playing against the legitimized mode of “masculine” play: be a skilled expert, be brave, be fair. “Gayness” is the ultimate “other”, the ultimate un-masculine identity, “the thing you should never do”, and in this regard, the attribution of “gayness” is one way that the policing of gaming culture as a masculine space begins to take shape.
It is in this area that war games offer something in addition to other forms of competitive but non-combative play. In a war game the policing of identity can go as far as the destruction of the “self”: the player is more than removed from the game, they are killed. This observation may be equally applied to MOBAs and other forms of fighting games, and perhaps they too tap into the bellicose, but the structures of a war game (especially a shooter like CoD) also promote teamwork and factionalism bordering on the tribalistic (Snider, Lockridge & Lawson, 2012). The implication becomes clear: play in the acceptable, natural and normal way or we (for it is a “we” not an “I”) will police you.
This policing is a two-fold enterprise: firstly there are the “laws” (the expectations and values) that one must obey in order to be accepted within the culture; then there is the “punishment” levied for breaking these laws. Burrill contends that these laws are the laws of popular masculinity: “‘no sissy stuff, [be] a big wheel, a sturdy oak, give ‘em hell!’” (Burrill, 2008, p. 30), but this study suggests that there is more going on here than the simple reproduction of hyper-masculinity within (and in order to carve out) masculine spaces. The “sissy stuff” alluded to may be signified ludically through the sorts of performances that are subsequently labelled as “gay” (the cowardly, unskilled novice). The “big wheel” again is something that may be signified ludically through the performance of the “skilled expert”. As was the case with girls and novices there has been constructed a link between gayness and novices (the unskilled; the noob), which serves to keep the digital imaginary as a place for popular masculinities and to counter-construct any other forms of gender identity as some subordinated other. It is against this backdrop, this “set of meanings already socially established”, that one performs within the proving grounds (Butler, 2008, p. 171).
Proving the Masculine
As the contractual constructions surrounding “gayness” and the attempts to construct an expert status both show, masculinity is something that can be proved in and around play. As the negotiations surrounding bragging show, proving masculinity involves a certain amount of both testing (trialling a proof) and evidencing (proving it). This is a reflexive process where precedents can be set, and challenged/resisted, and the terms of exactly what is being held as important negotiated and defined. This is the negotiation of the working consensus.
In this respect, what can be seen as tested for the boys of this study are the different performances of masculinity, some of which lead to status and some of which do not; what can be seen as proved is that status is granted to performances that are labelled as “straight” (as opposed to “gay”), “strong” (as opposed to “weak”), “experienced”/“expert” (as opposed to “inexperienced”/“noobie”), “skilled” (as opposed to “lucky”), “confidently asserted” through bragging (but not “too confident” nor “too assertive”, so as to be labelled “full of oneself”). Status is also granted to performances that are prepared to reproduce some of these hegemonizing expectations and values (to “other” problematic gender or sexual identities; to ridicule the weak; to “other” the inexperienced; to resist the construction of a dominant foe through challenging brags).
The second implication coming from the proving grounds concerns the notion that masculinity is being proved (both tested and verified) through play. Play is a different way of experiencing the world rather than a different version of it, and so playing with masculinity implies that a different set of understandings is at work in and around the play-sessions. This is not to suggest that the masculinities involved in the “proving grounds” of CoD are somehow “safer” or “less real” than those found in less-playful interactions. It is just as possible to become subordinated in games of CoD as it is outside of them. This possibility raises the question of exactly how status is being constructed by the boys in this study.
Status in CoD culture seems to be constructed using several different complementary strategies. One can perform the skilled expert, either through displays of in-game skill, through bragging about one’s achievements, or by engaging in a form of word-play that allows one to show off one’s knowledge about the game. Fairness abounds across the culture, as does the expectation that one will bravely meet the contest offered by the game (and not hide from it like a cowardly camper). In addition to these systems of identity construction, if all else fails, one can draw upon the masculine hegemony. One of the most common ways of doing this involves “othering” someone or something using sexualized language, which has the dual function of making one doing the “othering” appear directly more masculine by comparison, but also re-enacts a hegemonizing masculinity, which marks the one doing the “othering” out as re-enacting the masculine hegemony (and so as giving him the “right” to “other” people and the “right” to the status coming from such action).
However, the relationship that the boys have with the masculine hegemony is more nuanced than the simple reproductions of hyper-masculinity leading to masculine status. As the boys themselves suggest, hyper-masculine performances can also exclude one from the culture. Being “full of theirselves” is enough for the boys to exclude the “popular group”; this particular construction of masculinity (popular, academically successful, good a sports) does not grant high status in the “proving grounds” of CoD. This final realization suggests something about the nature of war games that might relate to the struggles of the boys as discussed in this article.
The boys in this study are average attaining. They do not have access to many of the status-giving social organizations of sports, money, academic or professional success. They exist in a singular space within masculinities: in the middle. As such, their status is constantly under assault from both above and below. In CoD, these boys have constructed a culture where the measure of a man can literally be tallied by the enemies he has killed, the things he knows about the game and the way he conducts himself in the playing of it. Moreover, they have constructed a place in which those they construct as “below” them (the “saddos”) and those they construct as “above” them (“the popular people”), and everything that each group stands for, can be fragged, sniped, stabbed and destroyed.
The proving grounds of CoD are a place where the 40K-er and the jock must both prove themselves according to the working consensus of these gaming boys. It is likewise a place removed from adult culture, or -- more accurately -- it is a place where the signifiers of adulthood (age, size, life-experience, earnings, sexual prowess) are meaningless. In this war game the banker, the teacher, the athlete can all equally be silenced by an average-attaining boy with a digital gun and something to prove. In the destruction of their foes (and the labelling of them as unmasculine either through their “gay” play, or equally unmasculine “noob” status), the boys destroy something of these masculinities also. The saddos are silenced; the popular boys depopulated. Hyper-masculinity, one should not forget, is one of the performances policed in the proving grounds -- the popular group constructed as being “full of theirselves”. Through the othering of such identities as unmasculine and the obliteration of the foes in-game, the boys symbolically destroy other masculinities on an ideological and a digital level. Bookish smarts and physical prowess are symbolically “killed”, subordinating them beneath in-game skill as the “measure of a man”. Perhaps that is why these games seem so popular with the average attaining boys in the study school and perhaps this is why such a disproportionately large number of those in that category wanted to be involved in this study.
Ultimately, the significance of war games in the production of masculinities may be contested, but I do maintain that the ability to kill your opponent is symbolically more powerful than scoring goals or being the first round the track. It taps into the projection of the self and the obliteration of contrary selves at a symbolic (as well as linguistic) level. Likewise, there is certainly room for more study of this middling group of boys and the masculinities they produce. However, what I would want the reader to take away from this article is this: If the sanctioned and legitimatizing social organizations in which you found yourself labeled you as “average”, would you not embrace a cultural place in which you could prove yourself ultimately as anything other?
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