SPECIAL AAR SERIES Part 2: Gamer-Player/ Gamer-Avatar: The Potential of a Video-Gaming Body by Sara Frykenberg with introduction and response by Mary Hunt

Sara Frykenberg Mary HuntIntroduction:

This is one of four papers presented in Chicago at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, November 17, 2012, in a session entitled  “Feminism, Religion and Social Media: Expanding Borders in the Twenty-First Century,” organized by Gina Messina-Dysert and chaired by Rosemary Radford Ruether with Mary E. Hunt as the respondent. What follows is the general response followed by, after each of the contributions, Hunt’s appreciative analysis. The first paper was posted here on Feminism and Religion, and the other two papers are posted here and here on the Feminism in Religion Forum

General Remarks by Mary Hunt:

The stated purpose of the panel is to discuss “how digital projects are remapping the feminist theological terrain and creating opportunities for a wide range of voices to participate in ongoing and new conversations related to feminist issues in religion.” These writers have done that and more.

Several things stand out: first, two vital blogs exist that deal with exciting, new material which I recommend highly. Their very existence is reason for celebration. Second, their creators are sufficiently evolved to work together to promote their own, each other’s, and many other forms of social media as pedagogical and organizational tools. This is reason to rejoice. I can recall previous projects that I will not cite in which leaders whom I will not name worked with different results. They competed with one another in unhelpful ways, destroyed the very work they created, and ruptured the fabric of the field they wished to enhance. So the cooperative model manifest in this work is reason enough to commend it.

We never scratched in the sand with a stick. But when the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) began in Silver Spring, Maryland (suburban Washington, DC) in 1983, typewriters, albeit electric ones, were essential equipment. I write this response on a MacBook Air, same basic keyboard but a far cry from the old machines.

The founding document of WATER was a three-page proposal for the “Women’s Theological Alliance” which I typed complete with White Out. For the uninitiated, White Out is a liquid correction fluid applied to paper when one makes a typo, allowed to dry, and then typed on again. We made copies of the original document at the neighborhood print shop for distribution. Voilà, we were in business.

Thirty years later, we handle routine communication on iPhones, Apple laptops and iPads, and printers that scan and fax. We utilize social media including Facebook and Twitter. We maintain a website and strategize how to move our newsletter from print to digital mode. Google groups are tools of the trade; flash drives are indispensable.

The evolution has felt seamless if obligatory at times—from floppy disks to compact ones, from fax to email, from printing photos to carrying them around on the phone. We plan to embed videos soon in our web site. The implications at each step are not trivial, and the gestalt is telling. More people are aware of our work and involved in parts of it than ever before. This is how a 21st century non-profit functions.

In the midst of enthusiasm for techno wonders, it is wise to remember, however, that the pioneers in the field of feminist studies in religion—including Georgia Harkness, Nelle Morton, Pauli Murray, to name just a few—never sent an email. I am quite sure that Mary Daly never blogged a day in her life. Ideas still trump technology. Hard work is all. But technology plus ideas and hard work can change the world as we know it.

Thanks again to each of these writers, and to all who have shaped and contributed to the FIR and FAR blogs. I hope that this discussion will pave the way for dozens more blogs to come. The more media the merrier.

Gamer-Player/ Gamer-Avatar: The Potential of a Video-Gaming Body by Sara Frykenberg
Sara Frykenberg
July 26th, 2011, 10:43 a.m.:

The Lady Sheogorath has not forsaken thee!  She is instead, looking for amber matrices in the Shivering Isles… wondering why she can’t get her minions to do this while she lazes about and watches dances provided for her entertainment… or [better yet] summon Haskil just because she feels like it.

I am the Lady Sheogorath.  I earned this identity through multiple quests and different in-game choices made while playing the Land of Madness expansion pack to Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  Posting this comment on Facebook over a year ago, I expected fellow gamers to “like” my post.  What I did not expect was the way in which non-gaming friends also “liked” it, attracted to the fantasy goddess image.  My post opened up a dialogue squarely in-between parts of my identity: the gamer, the avatar, the friend, the un-omnipotent goddess, the cyber-technology user (which itself, is an aspect of identity that speaks to my class privilege and aspects of my global identity) and the person relating to other beings from both physical and non-physical aspects of my experience.  My gamer-player/ gamer-avatar body is also a kind of embodiment that I choose, earn and is given to me, based on the parameters of the game I am playing.

This is a scene from the Land of Madness, aka, The Shivering Isles.

This is a scene from the Land of Madness, aka, The Shivering Isles.

I think that some feminists might ask me, why would you play these games? Video games are often seen as juvenile, unreal fantasies that are at best, a waste of time or a temporary escape, and at worst, addictive mechanisms for the reproduction of societal oppression and violence… And many of these critiques are warranted.  Linda Eklund’s study of 8 female gamers who play World of Warcraft (WoW), suggests that the creation of game avatars was often motivated by racist standards and that the game itself— the way in which it is created – enforces heternormativity.[i]  Nora Campbell describes male video-game avatars as, “establishing the fantasy of armored impenetrability.”[ii]   That is, they tend to reinforce patriarchal and Christocentric understandings of power.

Halo’s “Master Chief” is a great example of this.  Master Chief from Halo 3He is literally clad head to toe in body armor.  However, ironically, Master Chief isn’t really untouchable.  Actually, as in many video games, the gamer-player/ gamer-avatar playing Halo has to die many, many times in order to in order to complete game tasks.  Immortality is in effect, achieved through death—I know, I know, where have we heard that before, right?  Yet, Master Chief is not the Christ.  The multiplicity of his deaths renders the deaths themselves somewhat meaningless.  And I would suggest that the purpose of this almost godhood is not to “finish” the game (as in, gain salvation): it is to keep playing the game.  The gamer-player/ gamer-avatar is far too complex a relational identity to be written off a pawn of oppression.

The body of the gamer-player/ gamer-avatar is both impenetrable and vulnerable.  He/she/they is online and offline, existing and physically interacting in both places at once.  He/she/they is in-between in an obvious way.  Literally, an observer can see and expects that the gamer-player/ gamer-avatar is functioning in more than one space.  Critically, this in-betweenness also allows the player to embody difference.  He/she/they’s avatar body may or may not “match” their offline body.  Nor is there an expectation for cisgendered or racial offline/online matching by other human-driven avatars despite heteronormative and often racially scripted game play and relationships with game-driven characters.  The gamer-player/ gamer-avatar chooses the embodiment that will help to create their story in the game world; but, as Eklund also notes, all chosen bodies can achieve the same levels and corresponding power (2011).  This ability to embody multiple and sometimes conflicting aspects of identity in a highly visible and often obvious way, combined with the ability to access power in an egalitarian way, tampers with our relational expectations in the world of game play.  As a kind of manipulation of racist and heterosexist expectancy, this multiple-bodiment has transformative potential.

Donna Haraway calls cyborgs, “the offspring of implosions of subjects and objects and of the natural and artificial.”[iii]  The gamer-player/ gamer-avatar is a relation to this cyborg and her family of misfit toys because he/she/they is born in a similar way.  The problem with this cyborg-relation is that he/she/they and their kin is born into an oppressive and abusive narrative.  The gamer-player/ gamer-avatar’s embodiment does not directly oppose this environment; it, actually, often actively participates in the narrative.  The gamer-player/ gamer-avatar is not anti-abusive.  Yet, this kind of embodiment is a self-conscious participation in muddling and the blurring of boundaries within an environment where others are muddling and blurring boundaries.  The gamer-player/ gamer avatar challenges oppressive paradigms by disfiguring them with a complex and multiple embodiment.

Feminist theologian Catherine Keller talks about the importance of refiguring and disfiguring abusive and destructive forces in order to create an “intersubject” that can challenge existent paradigms in relational ways.[iv]  This is a part of what she calls counter-power.  Using counter-power, you’re not in favor of a particular form of violence; but you’re also not the opposite of this violence because you are in (close) relationship to it.  In order to change the way we think about a narrative or paradigm, particularly an abusive one, we cannot deny our relationship to it.  Therefore, counter-power is about diffracting the image of abuse so it can become something different.  Diffraction is a distortion—a quarter turn of the mirror in a new direction.   It is a means of changing the way we ‘think a narrative.’  Cyborgs do diffraction, according to Haraway.[v]  I argue that gamer-player/ gamer-avatars do too. Actually, so does Eklund.  She sees the online game as having the potential to create gender-queer space (2011).  The gamer-player/ gamer-avatar can be whom he/she/they choses to be within limitation, embodying their own autonomy and even, “otherness.”

My husband looks a little different in the game; this image comes from the book series that inspired her name.

My husband looks a little different in the game; this image comes from the book series that inspired her name.

I play video games because I enjoy them.  I also consider online and gaming worlds “real” spaces of significance and significant potential.  Oblivion is not an MMORPG, but I am eagerly awaiting the launch of the Elder Scrolls Online.  I am currently playing Guild Wars 2 as a female Nord Giant, Sasinthe, with my husband, who plays a female human, Laura Lantha Lasa (He named herself after our favorite Golden General from the Dragon Lance series).  Laura Lantha Lasa is too sexy.  She is the image of heterosexist and racist patriarchy: big boobs, big butt, but petite with long blond hair.  She is also a man.  She is also my husband.

This may not seem like a radical challenge, but I believe that it is.  What non-players do not see is the way in which player-characters help one another online, putting their hands on the ground to resurrect fallen strangers and friends alike.  And I am excited for the potential within the gamer-player/ gamer-avatar’s embodied difference.


This post is a shorter version of my paper entitled: Inter-cendent bodies: A study of Cyborgs, Relational Theo/alogy and Multiple Embodiment in 21st century Gaming, delivered at the AAR National Conference this year.

[i] Eklund. Linda.  (2011) Doing gender in cyberspace: The performance of gender by female World of Warcraft players. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies.  17(3), 323-342.

[ii] Campbell, Norah.  Future Sex: Cyborg Bodies and the Politics of Meaning.  Volume 11, Issue 1, 2010. Pg. 6

[iii] Haraway, Donna J.  (1997). Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.         FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse.  New York: Routledge.  Pg. 12

[iv] Keller, Catherine.  (1996).  Apocalypse Now and Then.  Boston, MA: Beacon Press. Pg. 32-33

[v] Haraway (2010) calls diffraction: “a narrative, graphic, psychological, spiritual, and political technology for making consequential meanings” (p. 102).

Appreciative Analysis by Mary Hunt:

Sara Frykenberg lays out the potential of games to shed light on multiple embodiments. I must admit to being out of my league in the game arena, but I am learning. The recently released “Call of Duty: Black Ops II” featuring cyber versions of Oliver North and David Petraeus with a Hillary Clinton-like character serving as president has not really piqued my interest. But I am sure that readers can recommend some games that might.

I am generally sympathetic to the argument for “inter-cendent” bodies. Carol Christ’s feminist process thealogy and philosophy is on sound, if purposely shifting, ground.

I think Sara is correct when she says, “My abilities within the game are limited to the scope of its construction.” (p. 11) This suggests to me that energies to shape the game rather than simply to play what someone else has shaped would be an important feminist strategy. If race, sex, and gender continue to be elements of a character’s being, why not construct games in which the characters are egalitarian and diverse? What if we refuse to engage in games where they are not? That move on a mass scale would have considerable financial clout in the field.

What follows, the claim that “The challenge of the video game to embodiment is that we cannot assume the human alone” is tricky. Though it is not intended this way, it is reminiscent of mechanical understandings of the divine that have long fallen from fashion. If games are human constructions, then it seems to me even interactivity is still a garbage in/garbage out proposition. What am I missing? Cyborgs have never told me.

What excites me about this post is Sara’s embrace of a new genre for religious reflection. It reminds me of early feminist work in religion and literature that opened new horizons. This work does the same. I recommend looking at Margaret Miles’ forthcoming work on the “intelligent body” which she contrasts with the “rational mind” as a theoretical resource for explaining what I think is at stake here (http://www.waterwomensalliance.org/teleconferences-audio-and-notes). I plan to stay tuned and start playing.

Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D. is the co-founder and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. A Roman Catholic active in the women-church movement, she lectures and writes on theology and ethics with particular attention to liberation issues.

Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

Categories: Abuse of Power, Embodiment, Feminism, Feminist Theology, Gender and Power, Gender and Sexuality, Herstory, Identity Construction, LGBTQ, Naming, power, Power relations, Process Philosophy, Racism, Sexism, Women and Community, Women's Agency

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. Sara, thanks for sharing honesty. I usually do like your blogs. But why do you want to play war games? Is killing even if online really fun? Why? My sense is that the abused often want to abuse someone else, but is this really a good thing? Even if “no one is hurt”? I hope for “another way.” But I doubt that any other way willl come from American corporate power that creates and sells these games. In the interest of honesty, I just took a break from watching Law and Order SVU; I wish I could find something that challenges norms more deeply to watch…am I complicit too?
    PS Women are so starved for Goddesses as images of female power, that sadly, we often don’t criticize the kind of power Goddess images embody.


    • Oh Carol, I do believe that you are right. We ARE so starved for goddess images that reflect female power that we don’t look critically at the images, or the kind of power that these images embody. I would love to see you write more on this subject!


  2. Hi Carol,
    I hear your critique here. I actually expect that many people feel as you do about this.
    All I can say is that it is a misconception to think that video games are simply about killing. They are not, even if “killing” is something that happens in many games. All I can think for comparison, is that’s like saying your average fantasy novel (as the games I play are usually based in fantasy universes) is about killing because characters in the book kill. When I play chess technically I am aiming to “kill” the king of my challenger’s pieces, but chess is also not about killing– though it is often linked to strategy and war.
    Gamers are usually motivated by ability or their understanding of how well they play the game, not the violence of the game itself, according to a great deal of psychological research done on gaming.
    Games, like Guild Wars 2, often involve a whole world of activities that have nothign to do with beating monsters too. For example, gamer-players/ gamer-avatars choose two atrisan skills, which can include cooking, clothing making and jewelry design, as well as armor building, hunting equiptment, etc. Avatars participate in jumping puzzels seeking out artfully depicted vistas. Also, characters have to complete their own individual quests outside of player vs. player interaction– one of which involves trying to save the ecological system of the planet.
    Something I talk about in the longer paper that inspired this post is that I do actually see and feel like games are changing. You say that you don’t imagine that some other way will come from the corporate powers that create and sell “these games,” but the fact of the matter is games are already being created in different ways. The game Journey by ThatGameCompany, released earlier this year, is a beautiful game where you literally take a journey– no “killing” involved, and release trapped life that ends up helping to create the world through which you journey… the end goal of the game is to start the journey again. This game is someone’s vision of rebirth. It is stunning both visually and in the way it engages your whole body in the game play. You also play with other online gamers when playing, who can either choose to help you and communicate with you in musical ways, or choose to journey on their own. Every person I have talked to that has played this game had an emotional, beautiful experience…. ThatGameCompany is a small group– but I feel like what it offers here is something more and more people are hoping for in their games.
    I actually know people who work in this industry who actively try to put something different into what they help to create.
    Games participate in problematic narratives– yes. Most notably, they usually participate in a “good vs. bad” narrative– but even this is often dis- or refigured.
    There are plenty of stereotypes of gamers and what game play looks like; and like many stereotypes, they are often rooted in some truth. But there is a lot more to gaming than this view allows.


  3. Sara, I think it is important to point out the increasing sophistication of games that has lead to explorations/experiments/innovations like the game Journey, which represents a genre of games that has been received with intense enthusiasm not from new audiences (as games like Wii sports and Wii fit draw), but from the same hardened “abusers” who revel in the killing fields of first person shooters. The fact is, these gamers are open to new gaming experiences, are eager for them. Journey is one newer example, Portal, which is now on its second title, is another; not to mention the various sports games including soccer, baseball and football, music playing games such as Guitar Hero and RockBand, dancing games such as Dance Dance Revolution, and “grow your own universe/civilization” games such as SimCity and Spore. Heck, even early gaming had its Pong (literally a simulation of a ping pong table), which is now so iconic that you can buy art prints of the 8-bit screen. What can we say about the dismissal of these genres by feminists?

    Does the realm of first person shooter really overshadow them? Is the violence of jumping on a turtle shell (in case we were to leave out one of the most important franchises in the history of gaming) so extreme that we just forget about all the different kinds of games out there? No. I think rather that feminists tend to have a bias towards technology narratives: they ignore or dismiss them as though feminism can simply forget about certain parts of society (which I might add are becoming increasingly more prominent in our social imagination) and at the same time pretend to stay relevant. I commented about this in your blog about the space program – feminists don’t take the program seriously, dismiss the narratives that grow up around it which are really just a form of ‘being a product of a society,’ and refuse to create narratives of their own. Part of making feminism influential is the telling and re-telling of stories in new ways, which leads to excitement around movements of social justice and not-so-simple re-embodiments. I have a bias here, as a literature emphasis, but platforms for storytelling should not simply be dismissed because they are connected to an amorphous “corporate superpower” – which let us be perfectly frank, is the fact of almost all forms of literature/media today.

    Is WoW similar to Law and Order SVU? Well, one is a space where thousands of people create (yes, often oversexualized or racialized and subject to a game aesthetic) bodies of their choosing, work as teams to achieve goals, and kill large and small creatures for loot and experience points. One is the worst kind of voyeristic narrative, giving you just enough “I’m gonna get the guy that did this,” to let you enjoy the detailed/lurid accounts of suffering by women and children week after week. I realize that the vengance or save the world senarios in games like Halo aren’t much better, even Mario lowers a peace flag as he moves from one castle to another, but gaming has more than just the gamer/avatar/player relationship to speak for it.

    Interacting with a virtual environment isn’t just an important aspect of gaming, it is the essence of gaming. Killing goombas or raiders or enemy soldiers, etc., is repetitive. It gets boring. But rather than think of this as desensitization to violence, think about the second implication: the story/plot/premise of the game has failed in some way. The fantasy isn’t enough to keep the gameplay going because, guess what, these vengeance stories or hero stories are just as repetitive as the violent acts that take you from one cut scene to another. So why play? Because of how you interact with the environment, aspects which range from the number of weapon options available to you, to the outfits you wear, to whether you have the ability to jump from platform to platform, etc. etc.: each one of these is a factor to explore, to find your limitations and capabilities in. The game itself is puzzle and it’s filled with so much more than rewards for completion. There are holes left by programmers to exploit, and often, there are jokes: these range from in-game cookies (items you can find which are often completely outside of the game’s genre/narrative), to blatant irony dealing with the ridiculous premise of the game.

    Borderlands 2 is a great example of ironic gameplay. The badguys are overdone, bombastic – a joke of themselves. When you set a “maniac-canibal” on fire he yells “I smell delicious” as his health bar goes down. This might sound rather crass, but consider this in comparison to SVU – one of the most offensive things about the show is how seriously it takes itself, how blatant the violence is and how reassured you are supposed to be by the distaste of the protagonists. Whereas, because I am the protagonist of the game I play, the developer has to take my irony into account. The instability of the narrative is buffered by jokes, by more interesting or even off-the-wall elements, and by many moments of pure puzzle solving: how do I open this door? – follow the clues to find out/try your hand at the “mini-game” of raising tumblers in a lock/etc. Sick of leveling? Join a guild in your multiplayer universe, try playing and interacting with real people as a different gender…. the options are various and alarmingly discounted by non-gamers. Patriarchal narratives break down in gaming universes, and the space gamers go to when they are done with them is to experience different aspects of virtual embodiment. Can we say this about contemporary, even feminist, literature? Or when those structures break down do we simply hope the next story will be better? There is realness in gaming environments that other kinds of media can’t even begin to approach, for the simple reason is that in gaming stories (which, yes, often look a lot like stories in the rest of society) the protagonists are real people. The success of games like Journey goes far to prove that this media is ripe for alternative lines of story. It’s an area with potential for real transformation in narrative with clear avenues to explore. Political action is linked to the stories we tell each other, why not communicate (instead of dismiss) an audience ready for new ones?


  4. People may be interested in the game A Force More Powerful, which is a game of non-violent strategy, based on the book of the same name.



  5. Perhaps it’s my age but I am struggling to understand why we want to continue to play war games of any kind for fun. I have just survived another booming 4th of July which felt like a war having been kept up until almost midnight by monstrous NOISE that is beyond my control. Somewhere out there in between booms, toads were trilling. Guns and more guns split the air and monstrous explosions destroyed any possibility of being in my body in any meaningful way, and supposedly I live in the “country.” Violence has become a way of life.



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