Not Exactly Avatar Secrets: A Critique of Ramona Pringle’s Research
Welcome ladies and gentlemen, orcs and gnomes, to the first edition of Flavor Text Roundtable, where the authors of Flavor Text all have 2 copper to throw in the Dalaran Fountain. Today we’re looking at a new website and business venture by Ramona Pringle, Avatar Secrets.
Ms. Pringle writes that she’s discovered a way to “harness the 21st century primal wisdom of the virtual game experience and apply this survival knowledge – the Avatar Secrets – to real life, to attain the success, happiness, balance and love .”
She explains that she was shocked to discover that people who enjoy video games find love and relationships, even whilst her non-geeky female friends were single. She has parlayed this into a small new media business, and has had one speaking engagement at SxSW, with another lined up at Geek Girl Con, and was recently featured in the New York Times.
Pringle began playing World of Warcraft approximately 10 months ago and now has a level 49 night elf priest. From this extensive background, she has derived generic life lessons, called The Secrets, such as “Sometimes Success Requires a Detour” and “Know Your Strengths”. She’s also compiled an Avatar race/class matching game, which matches your first character with your true personality, horoscope style.
1. Othering Female Gamers
2. On Avatar Personalities
3. On Gamers and Full Lives
4. On Close-but-Not-Close-Enough
5. On Quests for Meaning
6. On the New York Times
7. On Personal Stories
8. On Geek Girl Con and What Makes an Expert
9. Conclusion: On Connection
On “Othering” Female Gamers
Cat: I think the main issue I take with this – and you addressed it earlier on Twitter – is that the whole thing just smacks of “gamers are human beings, too!” as if this is somehow news. The sky is blue! Fire still hot! Gamers capable of social interaction and forming meaningful relationships! There’s a tone of gamer as Other that lurks beneath the whole thing, which makes me uncomfortable, frankly.
Norm: I agree – a large part of the “surprise” here from the author, and from the mainstream media reception, is still “Surprise! Fringe members of society lead fulfilling lives”. With recent well publicized studies about the number of women playing MMOs, and especially the huge number of women playing social games, it should not be a surprise at all that the vast majority of gamers are in fact normal, perfectly well adjusted people. Pringle writes:
[I was at Blizzcon] in the summer of 2009, and was amazed by the amount of couples I saw, walking hand-in-hand, pushing baby carriages. When I returned back to New York after that shoot, I looked at my best friends – beautiful, fun, successful women – and was struck by a startling realization: These girls are all struggling to find the right guy, yet MMO gamers seem to be finding true love.
I cannot think of people more beautiful, fun, or successful than some of the delightful women and men I’ve had the pleasure to meet in, and in the social spaces surrounding, World of Warcraft. Some are happily single, some are looking, some are dating or married. Non-gaming women are not missing some vital life secret, they just haven’t found a partner. And I strongly object to the idea that finding a partner is the “secret” to happiness.
Lani: Absolutely, Narci, that “beautiful, fun, successful” line was the one that really got me, too. It pretty much directly implies that if you are a gamer, you can’t be beautiful, fun, or successful, which is not only untrue, but perpetuating hurtful stereotypes about all gamers. Her surprise that gamers could indeed meet and enjoy each others’ company really only illustrates her own narrow-mindedness. That she was SHOCKED, I TELL YOU, SHOCKED to find happy couples at Blizzcon tells us pretty clearly that her assumption upon going to Blizzcon was that it would be full of unhappy and single people.
News at 11, with 12 million subscribers worldwide, lots and lots of different people are likely to play WoW, including happy couples, and including all the people and types of people you thought would never “do that kind of thing.”
Cat: Precisely – I mean, a big part of why I enjoy WoW after nearly four years is that I value the social element that being part of the Warcraft community provides. Case in point, Pewter’s coming over for my birthday in a few days, and we never would have met if it wasn’t for WoW! But forging friendships wasn’t the reason I got into WoW, and I feel like Pringle is putting the cart before the horse in some ways. I don’t want to say that WoW can’t be used as a tool for self-actualization or finding meaningful relationships, because it can, but I’m not sure that it’s something you can do in a 10-step program. It’s an organic process, just as it would be in any other venue.
My venue of choice just so happens to be INTERNET DRAGONS, but I also know that internet dragons are a hobby I enjoy, and my hobbies won’t appeal to everyone. If you find yourself subscribing to WoW because you think it’s going to be this magical cure-all for loneliness and what you find that you’re lacking in terms of human contact and connection in your life, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.
Pringle implies that the words “beautiful” (and we haven’t even touched upon the fact that beauty is an incredibly relative term), “fun” and “successful” are not part of the geek girl vocabulary when she describes the abundance of happy couples she saw at Blizzcon, and like you, Lani, I was so puzzled when I first read that part of her website . It read, to me, as if the fact that I play WoW negated any possibility that I could be any of those things. By implying that they’re mutually exclusive, her statement serves only to widen the gap between gamers and non-gamers; I can see how the idea that OMG GAMERS CAN FIND LOVE NOW YOU CAN TOO could play on the insecurities of someone who has a less-than-favorable impression of the gaming community and breed resentment.
Perc: She’s very savvy and throws around some current empowering buzzwords, but she ultimately comes across as an outsider appropriating, as you put it Cat, an organic process. I don’t mean to imply that her newness discredits her research–WoW is well-known for being an accessible game (and it was the first MMO I played, too!). What I mean is that she has created a website devoted to life lessons and personality observations in WoW without taking the time to fully research her universe–and it shows. WoW is treated as a quick remedy which everyone should try to fix their relationship problems instead of a legitimate hobby people enjoy in their spare time. I felt very detached when reading her chronicles.
If this was a personal blog chronicling leveling woes, then her tone and narrow focus would be fine for that medium. However, the shoddy research is unacceptable for a reporter and media producer affiliated with PBS and NYU.
Perc: She has one character that is not maximum level, who levels slowly by Cataclysm standards, who does not discuss guilds, theorycrafting, raiding, or lore specifics. Without acknowledging the many other reasons why millions of people play, her arguments ring false. Suppose you play a blood elf because you’re a paladin in a Horde guild–nothing to be gleaned about personality. Suppose you mastered questing easily, and did not need companionship while leveling–you can still interact via guilds and raiding. She presents avatars as a literal representation of a person in Azeroth, but does a haphazard job of explaining what Azeroth actually *is*.
Cat: The whole point of avatar matching is moot for me because I didn’t know a damn thing about night elf lore when I first rolled Catulla. I wanted to be a druid, my friends played Alliance, and this was TBC-era WoW, so the choice was made for me. I’m not saying that I think Catulla doesn’t reflect various aspects of my personality, but I only came to realize just how much she did as I learned more about the lore ingame and how I chose to interact with it as a citizen of Azeroth. I’d like to know how many people actively consider how racial lore matches up with their personality when creating their first character, actually. Horoscopes are vague for a reason – so’s this.
And you’re absolutely right, Perc – the critical flaw in these “personality asessments” of Pringle’s is that she’s not using a holistic approach to analyze how Azeroth operates as a social networking medium. It’s far more complex than the 1:1 correlations she’s trying to draw.
Lani: Haha, same for me, Cat. I rolled my night elf druid because I was interested in a druid, and I wanted to see the Alliance side, since I started out playing Horde. And, like you, because I started playing my own account not long after TBC dropped, the choice of night elf was made for me. My interest in rolling characters for other reasons–such as the racial lore–came later.
Perc: I agree about the lore. As I’ve played the game over five years, my reasons for rolling characters has developed. My first character was rolled because she had the option of purple hair and needed to be Alliance in order to chat with friends.
Since then, I’ve been drawn to the lore of the night elves and have rolled other toons as more sophisticated character studies. There is something special about my first toon, which is still my ‘main,’ but in developing lore snippets about my other night elves, I’ve seen different fragments of my personality reflected in them too.
Norm: Let’s take a look at her Night Elf profile – since it’s her “type,” it must be the one she knows best! Plus, we have three fully qualified Kaldorei to examine it.
- Confident and outgoing, but quiet and reserved.
- Compassionate but judgmental
- Caring, but harsh
- Consider themselves sensitive good listeners
Well, that’s clear. Basically anyone could see themselves in this description, from Mother Teresa to Ron Jeremy. Malcolm Gladwell talks a bit in the New Yorker about using these techniques to create profiles for Serial Killers. Typically these profiles consist of obvious guesses (look for a strange unmarried loner who lives near-by) and waffling contradictions that describe 90% of the human race (more comfortable with friends than strangers.) Only 2.7% of profiles studied by the British Home Office actually matched the criminals who committed their crimes, but the idea of profiling is so persuasive and powerful that we have an entire genre of television shows about brilliant men making brilliant deductive guesses about criminals and the occasional non-Lupus disease.
Lani: Hah! Not to mention contradictory. “Outgoing and reserved.” Uh, that makes a lot of sense. (No, it doesn’t.)
Norm: Exactly. Gladwell pointed me to Ian Rowland, whose book The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading itemizes the verbal techniques of psychics and astrologers and the very first one is the Rainbow Ruse—the “statement which credits the client with both a personality trait and its opposite.”
Lani: Furthermore, it’s not even a well-thought out summary of night elves as a people in-game. All the playable races in WoW have a great depth of lore behind them, and they all have distinct cultures with unique religious and social histories. To someone with a good knowledge of the World of Lorecraft (pun!), seeing a night elf player character could potentially say a lot more than just “night elf,” particularly on an RP server. However, the things it says are about the *character,* not necessarily the player. You can’t even correctly assume the gender identity of the person behind the toon (I have male toons, and I know lots of men with female toons) so this idea that the in-game race of someone’s avatar instantly says something about their real personality seems incredibly frivolous.
Norm: I have a confession to make regarding yesterday’s “Market Research” – I mixed up all of Ms. Pringle’s class descriptions after one too many knocks to the branches. Oops. Her actual class personalities, or stereotypes, are located here, in a card handed out at South by Southwest.
On the upside, 63% of you were satisfied with the false class description, and only 15% thought that the profile definitely didn’t fit. 85% reasonable success is why these vague and flattering descriptions can look on the surface like accurate portraits.
Each and every self-chosen description fell within one standard deviation of complete randomness, except for finding only 4 True Paladins. Turns out most of you 17 fake paladins need to work on being extroverted and caring!
Sadly the poll software I used, unbeknownst to me, wasn’t tracking responses cross-question, so I’m unable to determine if any statistically significant number of people chose the “right” description for their class. Please feel free to discuss in the comments if you’d like! I’m with Gaz – I should probably play my mage more if it means I get to be an intellectual pyromaniac.
Perc: It’s fascinating for me to learn about the motives behind rolling characters, and on the surface, yes it’s true–the characters you roll are an extension of your personality or interests. But there’s shallow and unfounded definitions at work here–avatars and their personalities are groomed only for matchmaking profiles. Referring to the dwarven avatar analysis, she concludes that “You plan out your outfits for the next day before you go to sleep, and you’ve figured out your entire wedding – from the caterer to the seating arrangements – before you’ve even met your future spouse.” Hm–quest in Twilight Highlands much? You practically end up planning the entire wedding for Fanny.
I would be interested to see the hundreds of interviews she conducted, both the responses and the types of questions asked. I haven’t found any on the site. In addition, I looked over the SxSW postcard which briefly covered ‘avatar matchmaking’ –aka what class is the most compatible in a potential mate. Rogues, shamen, and warlocks are all intuitive, warriors are quiet (um, ever hear a Main Tank during a raid?), mages are risk-takers with all their sizzling fire spells. These aren’t engaging and thoughtful observations–these are watered-down vague statements that could be applied to anyone. It further fizzles when held up against players that have switched mains, enjoy multiple alts, and perform well at different specs.
I am tired of reading snap-judgements that rogues are anti-social because they stealth or priests are caring because in vanilla, they only healed. When I first played WoW, it was appealing precisely because it was an avenue for me to express myself without the constraints of typical stereotypes. My performance in raids and interactions with guidmates defined my worth.
Lani: I have a major problem with this line:
When I was young – 8, 10, 12 – I played video games. I had a Gameboy and a Sega Genesis… But then I outgrew them. Or so I thought. I went to highschool and then off to college, had boyfriends, lived in different cities, got a master’s degree, traveled.
I would like to state for the record that I too have done all of those things, and gaming. I don’t mean to be snobby or imply that because I’ve done all those things plus gaming I am a more accomplished individual than Pringle. What I want to emphasize is that “college, boyfriends, living in different cities, master’s degrees, and traveling” are not mutually exclusive to gaming. In fact, they are only mutually exclusive if you make the assumption that all gamers are lazy, unlovable, and unadventurous. Which, again, sheds more light on Pringle’s own prejudices about gamers than anything else.
Cat: This, exactly. I’m unable to spend as much time now as I did on games when I was a kid, but it’s not like I ever lost my passion for or interest in them. I’d also argue that different areas of my life can influence each other, too – I grew up playing a lot of games in the fantasy RPG genre, and hey, I have a master’s degree in medieval studies now (which I earned while studying overseas, Ms Pringle!).
I’m not saying my gaming habits are the sole reason I chose that field of study, but they definitely contributed; the whole point I’m trying to make here is that it’s not as cut and dry as she’s making it out to be. It’s like she’s enforcing the whole idea that you need to compartmentalize yourself and your interests, because some are more valid than others. (Where valid equals socially acceptable.)
Perc: I take issue with the whole premise of secrecy, both in the title and in phrases such as “With digital citizens spending a staggering 3-billion hours a week in online games, I ventured out on a mission to find out what they’re onto that the rest of us should know.” I think it portrays ‘digital citizens’ as segregated from the rest of society, living puzzling yet satisfying lives the mainstream needs to study. What is a digital citizen, anyway? It sounds like she’s going out to do a field report for the betterment of traditional society. By her standards, digital citizens are those who never put down the video games in adolescence, choosing to follow a pixellated path instead of outgrowing it.
As for me? I grew up in an far-removed suburb that barely had cellphone reception, in a household with a four-channel TV. Video games were out of the question. Growing up, I developed interests in folklore and material culture that I still enjoy discussing, sometimes in WoW currently. I consider myself a digital citizen–but I think my definition would be vastly different than hers. I’ve incorporated digital media into my hobbies instead of being a one-dimensional adolescent.
When spying happy couples at a gaming conference, some with young children, her response is “My mind was blown. These were the hard core gamers?” This is an ignorant opinion and furthers stereotypes with her judgemental shock. It’s expressing surprise that gamers can have healthy relationships on top of pursuing their hobbies. Even if you aren’t familiar with the terminology, you can infer that being hardcore is probably time-consuming and anti-social from her surprise that ‘hardcore’ players have families.
Norm: Or even her implication that everyone who attends Blizzcon is a “hardcore gamer!”
Cat: I agree, Perc. Note her use of us and them-type vocabulary in the bit you referenced. Why is that even necessary? There’s a great video I came across a while ago (it’s not perfect in terms of inclusiveness, but I still like it) called Avatar Days that I think is relevant here:
People who play WoW are just that: people. People going about their daily lives. If you swapped “online games” with some other social activity in that sentence, the whole sentiment would sound absurd. And the only reason it doesn’t is because of widely-held misconceptions such as the ones Pringle is reinforcing.
Norm: I can commend Pringle for coming to the realization that gamers lead fulfilling lives, but not for her premise that it might not be so. I think what aggravates me most about her blog is that her Secrets aren’t entirely off the mark. I feel like I’ve learned a great deal about myself, and the world, and my interactions with others through Warcraft. It’s enriched me as a human being. The Flavor Text authors frequently talk about WoW as a “petri-dish”, where one can experiment with different ideas and behaviors in a relatively safe space.
But seeing search-engine optimized self-actualization drivel isn’t appealing to me, even when it’s dressed up in sometimes painful stories of learning how to play an MMO. While our internet dragons may not be easily understood by the mainstream media, the writing about games by gamers is almost devastatingly honest and straight-forward. My mister, when asked, described WoW bloggers’ motivation as “I love this so I am going to present what I think about it for free because I want other people to love it, too.” I cannot help but feel that this business venture is an outsider trying to commodify one of my sub-cultures, and getting it hopelessly off-kilter.
What do you think, ladies? Do you think the partial truths in her writing make the errors more galling?
Cat: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I feel like it cheapens some very meaningful realizations that I’ve had, particularly with regards to self-esteem and finding my voice. You know how we used to talk regarding wedding planning when I was engaged to Mr Cat, about appropriating other people’s traditions when they don’t mean anything to you? It’s kind of like that, though I’m loath to make that comparison because subcultures are not equal to ethnicity.
Lani: On the topic of subcultures and appropriation: as you say, Cat, subcultures are not equal to ethnicity and that is a really important point to emphasize. But I do think that Pringle’s venture exists on that same continuum of behavior, if that makes sense. As in, she is obviously an outsider to this subculture, and it’s clear she’s not really invested in truly understanding this subculture because the information she puts on her blog about aspects of WoW that are important to WoW gamers at large (such as class descriptions) are totally false, not at all thoughtful, and she presents herself as someone who is knowledgable of the subject material when she’s not. Those are the same types of behaviors exhibited by people who do appropriate real human cultures and traditions not their own. Here it’s a question of magnitude and importance. Pringle’s behavior is annoying, but not outright offensive the way, say, a white woman wearing a bindi for fashion can be. They are not the same thing, but they stem from the same types of thought processes.
Going back to Norm’s question of the partial truths, I think you both put it really well. WoW has been hugely beneficial for me too–it provided a fun entertainment outlet for me when I was struggling financially in graduate school and does present a relatively safe place to be able to experiment with social identities and interaction, especially if you’re hesitant to do it in “real life” for various reasons (as I am). I’ve made great friends and had a lot good times. WoW has a lot to offer. But like Cat said, I didn’t necessarily go into WoW with the intention of finding romance or getting a job or even starting this blog someday! I just wanted to play a game because I like games, and I had friends who played.
I like what you said too Norm about WoW blogging being a labor of love, and that the community is mostly united by their common interest and passion for the game. Pringle’s blog doesn’t embrace any of that, and furthermore it’s clearly a profit-driven venture. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to make money, hell we all need to pay the bills, but she clearly has no honest love for the game; again apparent because her descriptions of the classes and races are incorrect and misrepresentative. Any halfway decent WoW blogger would never put something so poorly-researched up to the masses of WoW players because they have more respect for the game and their hobby than that. I agree with you entirely when you say “this business venture is an outsider trying to commodify one of my sub-cultures” and it’s insulting. She’s found a way to combine WoW with a fashion rag and has turned around to sell it back to us.
I am upset she’s been invited to speak at Geek Girl Con, particularly because I live in the Seattle area and I am a volunteer for that con. I can’t imagine Pringle has anything to say that the average GGC attendee won’t already know.
Cat: One of the points that really grated on me was her usage of the word “questing”. It comes across as if somehow she’s trying to market the idea that playing WoW is a vision quest for the digital age. I don’t like that.
Lani: Yeah, and I feel that’s really unfair to cultures that do have vision quest traditions as well. Um, a video game made for entertainment is not the same as a human cultural tradition. As far as personal meaning goes, WoW, as with any hobby or interest, is as meaningful as you want it to be. For me, WoW is at this point a pretty defining aspect of who I am, but that largely happened by accident. I didn’t start playing WoW with the intention of eventually doing work for Blizzard, but along the way it happened because I made choices that had the potential to put me in that place, and those choices turned out that way, for various reasons.
It truly has been an amazing, life-changing experience. I’ve built friendships and professional relationships that are very dear to me and my entire perspective on the types of career paths potentially available to me has permanently changed. At the same time, I have guildmates who will never be as involved or invested in the game as I am, and they just play from time to time to relax, or because it’s an activity they can do at home while their kids play in the living room, or whatever. They’re no less WoW gamers than I am. They just invested differently in the game than I did.
Cat: Absolutely, Lani. I referred to meaningful realizations and self-actualization above; you and I have discussed this a few times, how our experiences with Blizzard’s writing contest affected our career paths. I’m now in a job that I find really rewarding and exciting, and I wouldn’t be working where I am if it weren’t for WoW, ultimately (though more indirectly in my case than in yours). But I didn’t set out to find insight into my professional life by playing WoW. It just happened. I doubt most WoW players are consciously on a “quest” to find themselves.
Perc: I’m bothered by her attitude that WoW is one-stop shopping for relationship success–embarking on any complex hobby with the hopes of finding a perfect pre-made solution leads to disappointment. I handle recruitment for my guild and the applicants only interested in joining us for a certain achievement or piece of loot are hardly ever extended a trial invitation. My current guild has been around for six years and has received consistent positive feedback about how mature, efficient, and stable we are. Meanwhile, I’ve seen many upstart rank-obsessed guilds fail and collapse mid-progression when events failed to live up to expectations. These observations have parallels in other hobbies of mine as well. If you try to impose a fantasy on a hobby, you will grow closed-minded to the actual dynamic environment and be paralyzed when faced with change and disappointment.
There’s also the decidedly romantic slant from the pink postcard text to the comparisons to match.com, which treats WoW as an easy dating service instead of a vibrant community, placing romantic fulfillment over friendship as the key to happiness. I may have met my current boyfriend from WoW, but I’ve also made numerous other friends–people I’ve met up with in real life, sent birthday presents to, and exchange emails with every day.
Norm: There’s nothing particularly special about games, MMOs, or World of Warcraft that will inherently make you more likely to find happiness or self-identity. Like anything else, especially anything social, it is what you make of it. An insightful person will find insights, a kind person will find kind friendships, but a self-obsessed person will find only pixels and trade trolls. You get out of Warcraft only what you put into it, just like the rest of life. There is no magical unicorn (though there is a sparkle pony) that means self-actualization is any easier in a digital world, just as there’s no reason to assume a visit to India bestows Dalai Lama-like peace, or that moving to Cambridge makes you smarter.
Perc: Stephanie Rosenbloom’s New York Times article, “It’s Love at First Kill,” sugarcoats Pringle’s findings, omitting sections that portray gamers as cliched outsiders. Rosenbloom’s article offers more nuanced portrayals of several couples in a fraction of the space Pringle uses to describe the lumbering interactions with “The King.” Rosenbloom characterizes her couples as individuals with multidimensional lives that were brought together by mutual hobbies–instead of outcasts on the flip side of “beautiful, fun, successful.”
Rosenbloom talks about how Pringle’s pocket tank, Caethis, is an animation director in real life and has no romantic interests towards Pringle, which is a much different angle from the one presented on Pringle’s own site. Edit: In Pringle’s latest news update days after the New York Times article, she again furthers the impression that she is now dating him. Regardless of how Pringle wants her experiences to parallel those of her gamer interviewees–it doesn’t. She contacted Brent for professional reasons, to conduct research for her TV show on gamers, and the good friends she’s met for her TV show are simply friends she’s happily met via work. The initial contact between Brent and Pringle was not a result of in-game interactions, and with light playtime and large periods of inactivity on the Armory, it’s fair to say WoW was not the primary form of interaction. Pringle has effectively described 0 friends she’s met from actually logging on and playing the game, which doesn’t capture the social magic well at all. It gives the impression that WoW is something fun you log on to do to spice a pre-existing relationship up.
Caethis is simply referred to as “The King,” a stereotypically masculine and confident tank in contrast to her delicate blue-skinned night elf that struggles to complete a quest on her own. Rosenbloom edits and elevates Pringle’s subject matter to suit the article’s tastes, but ultimately, the couples in “It’s Love at First Kill” describe aspects of the game Pringle has never written about. They deserve a better keystone representative in a major newspaper.
When reading the comments over at the NYT and at Jezebel, I was struck by the large amount of negativity I observed. People chimed in with stories of addiction, cheating, and divorce, horrified that ‘WoW dating’ was now mainstream. While I have observed my own share of sad stories in-game, they parallel those I’ve observed in real life as well–with jealousy, insecurity, and miscommunication as the foundation. To best present a multi-dimensional online social environment, there needs to be more nuanced portrayals of people who enjoy gaming, not more sweeping generalizations. A story about a terrified healer and “The King” questing in isolation misrepresents WoW and fuels paranoia.
Norm: I absolutely agree that Rosenbloom’s portrayal of the subject was more level headed, and correctly focused on people who belong to a gaming subculture. As a feminist, I cannot help but compare Pringle’s work with another piece which appeared in the NYT recently, Ginia Bellafante’s Game of Thrones review, “A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms.”
This piece also others fantasy fans, especially female fans. Both pieces are written by women who approach geeky gals as a strange novelty. Bellafonte admits she does not know a single woman who enjoys fantasy, which strikes me as a statement as peculiar as people who insist they’ve never met a gay person. Perhaps your fantasy-fan acquaintances accurately decided you were not a good confidant to regale with stories of their latest ogre quest they were GMing. Maybe she decided to talk about those Sex In the City re-runs with you, instead.
Bellafonte and Pringle are both outsiders to the subjects they are being paid to investigate, and both do it with very little tact or involvement with people in the cultures they are examining. As Perc points out, Pringle never mentions a guild or having deep conversations with other gamers around her. While I also hate to compare gaming subcultures with deep-seated real life prejudices, there is a phrase from a 2006 Declaration by the International Community of Women Living with AIDS/HIV – “Nothing For Us Without Us”. Even well-meaning examination of a minority’s experiences which does not include members of that group at the helm is bound to be off the mark and patronizing.
Cat: I’m glad you brought up the GoT article, Norm. You’ve already addressed the point where she writes that she cannot fathom the existence of the female fantasy fan, and I’d like to comment on this particular excerpt:
If you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort. If you are nearly anyone else, you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary.
Considering I was (am) in the middle of an article series on invented languages right now for the blog, this struck something of an already raw nerve. I certainly don’t delude myself into thinking that everyone enjoys the type of analysis that I do, by any stretch–but I also don’t appreciate having my interests belittled, on top of being told that I apparently don’t exist in someone’s sphere of reality without any basis for that sentiment.
I also feel like this statement acts as a pretty good metaphor for both Bellafante’s and Pringle’s attitude towards the female fantasy fan community: neither has taken the time to hear our voices, or to learn our “language”. (EDIT: We noticed that a few hours after our post was posted, Pringle posted an article about gamers she’d met, and their stories. We applaud this and feel it’s definitely a step in the right direction.) If you’re going to offer up a critique of something, do your homework first. Bellafante could have easily discovered the existence of women who love The Hobbit through a quick Google search. And as far as Pringle’s work is concerned, there’s a fair bit of academic research going on right now about gaming communities from a sociological standpoint that isn’t very hard to find. Examples include Nick Yee’s PlayOn 2.0 project in conjunction with PARC and the articles published in Game Studies, for starters.
Perc: When meeting old guildmates face-to-face, my current boyfriend and I share the full hilarious story of how we met as quarreling rogues in Winterspring insulting each other’s AQ40 gear choices while dying to elites. I sent him a stack of winterfall firewater as an apology for raging over his gear and he assumed I was a guy because there were no other female raiding rogues on the server. (I assumed he was a girl because he was talking about hair ties for his ponytail.)
Much later on, when guildmates joked we must be dating since we were good friends, he sent me white roses–a traditional symbol of friendship–with a sarcastic message to mask his nerves, so I laughed and unromantically interpreted the flowers. Things continued in this vein until our guild fell apart and I was irrationally sad that we’d no longer be in touch. (Ouch, that sounded harsh! Fortunately, we both like dry humor.)
But when talking to friends on whom the gamer sarcasm and subtleties would be lost, we just simply say that we were good friends for ages and finally had some sense. Because when it boils down to it, it’s about shared hobbies, compatible personalities, and communication–it doesn’t matter where the exact locale is. And while WoW was great at initially bringing us together, as it has for so many other personal friendships, I won’t deny we could have avoided some of the communication confusion if we used other media.
Currently, we’re officers in different guilds on different servers. The general stereotype is that relationships like that are doomed–everyone must raid together until Deathwing do us part. The guild we both played in several years ago was a great compromise for our shared gaming interests, but when it disintegrated, we had a long talk about finding separate guilds that suited our interests as well as new ways to spend time together. If I asked him if he wanted to storm some WoW castles, we’d probably dissolve in a fit of giggles and then find something more crass to do like decorating Stormwind with smoke flares.
Norm: If I were to write my Fantasy Romance in the style of Mainstream media’s tales of gamer dating, I would say Mister was a strong warrior, and I was a gentle healer. We met trying to defeat an almost insurmountable enemy, and discovered we were stronger as a team. I could not hold a monster without dying, but with his strong armor and shield, he could. But even he would not last without my heals, keeping him strong. Together we as a team could defeat anything.
If I were to write my Fantasy Romance for a WoW audience, I would say I was a resto druid and he was a warrior tank, and admit what a horrible EQ cliche that is. I would talk about our hilarious travails co-raid leading our guild’s attempts on Firefighter, and our happy fish feasts eaten under the Big Red Button followed by running in circles in Orgrimmar while staying up late on vent. I would admit we couldn’t defeat “anything”, even together – that guild never killed Firefighter.
But if I were to be real with you, those stories are the Fantasy Romance. I didn’t love him because he was a tank, or he me because I had good AOE heals. His avatar was just pixels. Our avatars never held hands. Our avatars will not have a pretty RP wedding [but if that’s your thing, knock your Aboriginal Socks of the Monkey off].
But the man I got to know over guild chat, vent, and then whispers and emails and phone calls and visits was real. I loved him because he was kind, patient, upbeat, and determined. I loved him because we discovered we held important life goals and priorities in common. I loved him as a person, no different than if we had met at a book club, at work, through friends, or in a bar. And my Fantasy Romance is no fantasy, or even a romance, some days – it’s dishes, dinner, long days at work, and hard talks about family – just like any other relationship. And happy nights on the couch, long walks, dancing in our pajamas, and occasionally still, yes, video games.
It demeans the real romance of life, the nuts and bolts, depending on someone utterly as partners, to compare it to an illusion of a fantasy game for a cheap punchline.
Lani: For me, this is an interesting subject to think about, because as far as romance goes, I have zero experience with it in WoW. I did not meet my partner in WoW, I met him when I lived in Australia studying abroad for my bachelor’s degree. He was one of my assigned flatmates at the university, it just so happened we clicked.
A lot of people find it strange that my partner doesn’t play WoW at all, and never has, while on the other hand I raided three days a week all through TBC and Wrath. I find this is often treated as some totally abnormal inversion of a trope–if only one partner in a heterosexual couple games, usually everyone assumes it’s the man. So I find my story often gets surprised and baffled responses, particularly when it’s revealed that my partner and I spent nearly five years in a serious long-distance relationship. By serious, I mean that he lived in Australia while he finished his degree and waited for his US immigration to pass, and I lived in the US while I finished my degrees. I won’t deny that having WoW as a common activity to share probably would have helped a lot during that time, but ultimately, he is not a gamer, and it wouldn’t have been fun for him.
This actually brings me to a point I’ve wanted to address for a while about gaming and relationships–I often find myself overhearing people express some form of the assumption that a couple in which one person is a gamer and another is not is either doomed to failure or will suffer serious problems over its course. As my co-bloggers have said throughout this piece, one of the things that can bring people together is common interests, and people who meet in WoW automatically share (a usually fairly major) one.
While this is absolutely true, and a really important thing to understand, I also want to point out, mostly for the sake of gamers who are uneasy about non-gamer partners, that common interests aren’t necessarily the be-all end-all of successful relationships. For my partner and I, we really don’t share many interests–he plays guitar obsessively, I play games obsessively. He’s not a big fiction reader, I have a huge personal library that I’ve moved across half the US–twice. (We both really do like to cook, though.) We don’t even share religious beliefs. But we share similar values and goals, and we respect each other, and we respect each other’s personal hobbies. No, I don’t play WoW as much as I did when I didn’t live with him, but he recognizes my right to play WoW as a hobby just as I recognize his right to play the guitar. A happy, healthy relationship with someone who doesn’t share all your interests is possible, what’s not possible is a happy, healthy relationship with someone who does not respect you as a person and individual, and respect your right to make your own choices, including choices of which interests to pursue.
Cat: Lani, I agree–our experiences have actually been quite similar to yours in some ways, right down to the way my husband and I first met. Mr Cat no longer plays WoW, but when he did, the assumption always was that he was the one who got me into the game, not the reverse; in addition, when we did play together, the fact that *he* was the casual and I was the one raiding three days a week and seeing endgame content also threw a lot of people. I found that so frustrating. Anyhow, the main reason we started playing WoW together was because it was an activity we could share despite the pesky Atlantic Ocean that was between us at the time; we’re also card-carrying members of the five-year-long-international-long-distance-relationship club.
Most of our interactions in-game were nothing like what either Pringle or Rosenbloom describe–we primarily interacted via whisper or over Skype/Ventrilo, because much like in real life, we were often on different continents in Azeroth, doing entirely different things. Mr Cat really enjoyed the PvP aspects of the game and spent a lot of time in battlegrounds, whereas I focused on more on questing and raiding. He’d certainly do cute things for me ingame (I remember getting the White Kitten and some Tasty Cupcakes for my birthday in the mail one year), but we definitely weren’t attached at the virtual hip in the way these articles seem to describe. I’m not saying that isn’t a valid way for couples to enjoy time together in Azeroth, it’s just not the ONLY way. We’re also similar to you and your partner, Lani, in that we have some vastly different areas of interest in terms of our hobbies in general. Although we are both gamers, we tend to gravitate towards different genres, and I think that’s probably reflected in how we both chose to play WoW.
As I said, Mr Cat no longer plays, but he understands that WoW is a hugely important part of my life, and something that has had a very positive impact on me. I can definitely be in a relationship with someone who isn’t into WoW, but not with someone who had a problem with ME being into it. When he lost interest in the game, neither of us viewed that as a threat to the stability of our relationship; sure, we’ve had to make adjustments in how we manage our free time, (I imagine some of what we talked about was similar to the conversations you and your boyfriend had when your guild fell apart, Perc) to ensure that both our needs as individuals and as a couple are met, but that’s the nature of human interaction. Maintaining a healthy relationship is a process of constant balancing and re-balancing, because there’s no magic formula. You can’t theorycraft marriage, or quantify it somehow via your race/class combo.
On Geek Girl Con and What Makes an Expert
Norm: Ms. Pringle has been asked to speak at this autumn’s inaugural Geek Girl Con
What is GeekGirlCon? A coming together unapologetically in celebration and sisterhood of the female geek.
Unfortunately, I do not see how Ms. Pringle is an ideal representative to this audience. She does not list any work in the sciences, comics, science-fiction and fantasy, and has only journalist interest in gaming culture. Ms. Pringle is an accomplished woman in her artistic field, but does she identify as a geek? I respect Ms. Pringle’s marketing and self-promotion skills, as she’s done an excellent job positioning herself as an “expert” in a culture to which she is, at best, a new-comer and at worse, a skeptical and insulting anthropologist. As Lani pointed out, I doubt there is much in her presentation that the average woman at this convention has not known or dismissed as foolish or erroneous.
As a female geek, I am disappointed that Geek Girl Con would choose someone outside of the gaming community to present a panel on gaming. I admire their goals very much and wish them a roaring success, but as progenitors of a new kind of convention, their choices about what views are presented will shape opinions on what makes a “Girl Geek”. I do not think trite self-help books and Sex and the City style character memes accurately or honestly reflect the interests of geeky women. (“I’m a Shaman, and I’ve always thought of myself as a Charlotte.”)
Adding a dash of dragons to Cosmo’s heteronormative How to Find a Man bait does not suddenly make it a worthy subject of our time and attention. It may make a snappy headline to those outside the culture, but Geek Girl Con is our chance to represent ourselves authentically.
Perc: She writes on her blog that secrets to “life, love, relationships and identity” will be covered at GGC. It’s hard for me to believe that she will provide a well-rounded analysis of all these topics as most everything on her site is framed in terms of a romantic connection.
Adding a dash of dragons to Cosmo’s How to Find a Man bait does not suddenly make it a worthy subject of our time and attention.
No, it doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to attend Geek Girl Con for many of the same reasons I want to go to Blizzcon: to spend time with other people who share common interests, and to celebrate those interests in a venue that I know will be largely free of judgment from the fact that I want to do so (and in the case of GGC, free of judgment of the fact that I am a woman as well). Given our earlier conversations about how Pringle approaches the concept of the girl gamer with a degree of bemused wonder, l can’t see myself finding her panel to hold any interest for me.
Lani: As I mentioned before, as a volunteer for GGC myself, I am disappointed that the people I work for seem to consider Pringle a good choice for this venue. Considering that GGC is supposed to be an arena for self-identified geeky women to celebrate the hobbies and interests we love, Pringle also seems an odd choice because on her blog she is clearly writing for an outside audience, not for people who are already involved in this subculture. She does cite instances at SxSW where people spoke with her after her presentation about the connections they’ve found through WoW, and that her talk inspired people to come forward with their personal stories is wonderful. However it does sadden me to know that fellow gamers still seem to feel it necessary to have a “normal” person validate their hobby before they can speak about it without shame.
Pringle’s wrap up post regarding her panel at SxSW reports that the most important thing that people wanted to talk about was “connection” in game. In the end, that’s most of what ties us to this game – connections with stories, with accomplishments, with goals, with writers and bloggers, with mathematicians, with Twitter, with forums, with jokes, with friends and enemies. She writes,
“Some people [at SXSW] wanted to tell me about the profound connections they’ve formed in online worlds, while other’s [sic] opened up about their struggles to find meaningful connections and love.”
Yes! Warcraft is full of connections, in a world where many–hardcore, casual, and non-gamers alike–have struggled to make meaningful ties in some aspects of RealLife™. Tell us these stories, rather than reverting to sanitized platitudes that say you need the Avatar Secrets to “be a winner”. Perhaps if she had addressed all her work with this honesty, we would be nodding our heads rather than feeling as if we’d sat through an infomercial.
Yet by her own standards, Pringle’s work fails. Her website includes not one quote from another WoW player, only third person stories of her co-worker and questing partner. When she records the story of her first dungeon, the pugged DPS don’t even earn a mention. She does not write about reading trade chat, or joining a guild, or even the occasional Chuck Norris joke. Perhaps she felt this would shatter the illusion of wise but tragic-looking gamers finding inner-peace.
She does not document any interviews, she does not mention whether she spoke to self-identified gamers to see if her “Secrets” held any truth or relevance to our lives. She is not tied to the larger gaming community, which I know to be welcoming to anyone who would like to speak honestly and fairly. I hope Pringle herself discovered this through her work with Digital Nation.
Considering how integral collaboration and the exchange of ideas has been to the success of both WoW itself and the greater fan community, this is a worrying gap. How can she claim to be an expert on a massively social phenomenon when the only voice we hear in her work is her own?
This author claims to speak for gamers and women, and has been taken seriously as an expert by news media and conventions which should know better. It is time for the media to speak authentically about gamers and gaming. Right now, Avatar Secrets has Nothing With Us, and Nothing For Us.