Can the Subaltern Play and Speak or Just be Played With?

Can the Subaltern Play and Speak or Just be Played With?

David J. Leonard (Washington State University, USA)
Copyright: © 2009 |Pages: 18
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59904-808-6.ch054
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This chapter examines and responds to the silencing, resistance to any intrusion of questions about race and racism, and overall erasure of race from the debates and broader discourse concerning video game culture. It not only provides insight into the nature and logics guiding claims of colorblindness, but also connects the ideologies and culture of denial to the broader racial discourse of post-civil rights America. Hoping to inspire debate and transformative knowledge sharing, this chapter additionally offers a textually-based racial analysis of Outlaw Volleyball as an example of the type of critical examination required to move beyond a culture that often reduces bodies and voices of people of color to objects of gaze, ridicule, and consumption while denying any sorts of criticism and questions regarding the racial meaning and texts evident within much of today’s gaming.
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Among some of my students, friends, and even neighbors, I have been known as the professor—the guy—who plays (studies) video games. It is not unusual for students and kids in the neighborhood to inquire about a particular console game, leaving me to wonder if I am a peddler of virtual reality. Although these exchanges often take place outside of a formalized educational setting, I try, as difficult as it is, to treat these encounters as teachable moments, challenging them to think about games as more than entertainment and as not simply just a game, but rather cultural projects saturated with racialized, gendered, and sexualized meaning. Despite subtle resistance, evident in many of these instances, and the commonplace erasure of race from the overall discussions of video games, my focus on teaching and learning about contemporary racial discourses through examining video game culture guides these formalized and informal interactions. As a teacher and researcher of race, racism, and stereotypes I often wonder how I could not study video games, learning and teaching about some many of life’s paradoxes and questions.

With this in mind, this chapter works to initiate a conversation about the denials that race matters within video game culture, reflecting on the broader implications of claims of colorblindness, while also offering a “how-to-do” example of racially-based (centered) textual analysis. The inclusion of a discussion of Outlaw Volleyball is not meant to provide a definitive picture of race and video games; nor do I claim it to be representative of the broader racial logics and ideologies that find their way into a spectrum games. It is most certainly extreme in nature, in terms of its construction of race, gender, and sexuality. Through this chapter, I argue that, despite assumptions otherwise rather than representing an aberration, the racial theories and representations animating from/within Outlaw Volleyball push mainstream formulations of race to their accepted, naturalized, and logical place within dominant discourse. Consequently, it is my attempt here to offer a critical reading of the representations, ideologies, and textual signifiers evident within this game not simply as an illustration of the racial meaning within this lone game, but as a means to bring into focus the power and importance of racial analysis within video game discourse. As part of both an effort to push conversations about race within video game culture and because of what this game (and the broader silence regarding race within video game culture) teaches us about the networks of racialized power in the 21st century, I use this space to reflect on the broader cultural silence in the face of a game such as this as well as the possibilities of an increased conversation about race and racial imagery among scholars, programmers, and players. Moreover, following a discussion that expounds on a post-civil rights or new racist discourse and the dialects between video game culture (production, reception, commentary) and broader societal forces, I use this space to demonstrate the importance of examining games in a way that moves beyond binaries and a focus on stereotypes/simple textual utterances toward analysis that situates images and representations within a broader historical, cultural, and social context that reflects on ideologies, discourse, and power.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Colorblind Discourse: A guiding discourse of a post-civil rights America that not only presumes the existence of colorblindness (race no longer matters concerning rights of citizenship, access to the American Dream), but the desirability of a culture, dominant institutions, and worldview that doesn’t see, recognize, or consider race (color).

Textual Analysis: Including various forms textual analysis (e.g., semiotics), which treats popular culture texts as those embedded social, political, and cultural meaning, an approach utilizing textual analysis examines as cultural products saturated with narratives, ideologies, and discourse.

Backstage/Frontstage: Idea promulgated by Picca and Feagin (2007) that describes racist practices, ideologies, and performances as varying depending on space of orientation between those on the frontage (public) and backstage (private). Video games provide an interesting space to think about this ideal given the simultaneity of both the public and private.

Binaries: The existence of either/or explanation or theories, which guide dominant conversations and propel a culture war. A key element to the hegemonic of binaries within hegemonic discourse is the existence of spheres or points of opposition so that blackness as a signifier does not exist in absence of a solidified understanding of whiteness.

Subaltern: A term emanating from post-colonial theory, it refers to minorities—those marginalized and disempowered—who have been systematically silenced and denied agency by the power structure.

New Racism: In the absence of a formal system of segregation and other blatant forms of racism, new racism describes the system of persistent inequality, injustice, and racial differentiation. Likewise, new racism refers to the codes, logics, and ideologies that facilitate, rationalize, and naturalize power imbalances in the absence of formalized segregation or apartheid within 21st century America.

Stereotypes: Often simply used to describe commonly accepted generalizations attributed to particular groups, it is crucial to see stereotypes in their relationship to dominant ideologies, governing power structures, systems of inequality, and daily lived and unequal power relations.

Race: Socially-constructed marker of difference that despite its fluidity and politically, socially, and culturally constructed nature has material consequences, contexts, and lived personal/situational implications.

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