Looking Over the Edge: A Book Review of Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture by Adrienne Shaw

bookcoverGamingattheEdgeIf game studies as a whole suffers from too much confessionalism and too many think pieces to be truly taken seriously, Adrienne Shaw’s Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) walks the very thin line of academic work which includes an element of the personal without crossing into confessional territory. Shaw herself is an assistant professor at Temple University, and her academic training means that not only is the study itself based upon the rigorous standards of social science research, but its presentation in Gaming at the Edge maintains a familiar (to me) academic tone without being pedantic or inaccessible, a refreshing change from both traditional academic print media and the deluge of gaming think pieces online.

In style, Shaw’s book is academic without being inaccessible. She doesn’t employ the jargon so often beloved of academics, and what terms she does use she is careful to define (and even illustrate, in some cases). Although the book targets an academic audience, it is meant to speak to a broader set of issues which impact both players and developers, and it is pitched to be inclusive of both in its readership. This is not a book which is difficult to follow or understand, and it asks only that readers be willing to listen to what it has to say.

Gaming at the Edge focuses on the problem of diversity in gaming in terms of sexuality and gender, but also includes the intersectional significance of race. Shaw is primarily interested in the question of why diversity is so important in games—and to whom. The research behind the book is predicated on qualitative interviews with a variety of non-straight, non-white, and/or non-male gamers (with the exception of two spouses who fit all those qualifications and were included by virtue of their presence during the interviews with their significant others). Shaw wants to examine no only the sociopolitical arguments for why diversity ought to matter, but why it does or does not matter to individual gamers, particularly those who are not straight, white cismen.

Although I was far less interested in the accounts of interviews—which included a surprising number, Shaw noted, of cats—than I was in the overall sociopolitical argument of the book, it was interesting to see how people do and do not value diversity in character representation. In fact, Shaw’s research suggests that individual players are not particularly interested in “seeing themselves” in games, despite the claims of many (especially in online think pieces) proponents of diversity and inclusivity. However, although most of the players Shaw interviewed aren’t looking to replicate their own demographic markers in their characters, they do argue that diversity is important for other reasons—in large part, because they wish to create or interact with or play as characters who aren’t straight, white cismen, even if those characters do not reflect the players’ own demographics.

Shaw’s ultimate point is that people do not always want to play games as a version of themselves; character-creation is not the panacea to the issue of diverse representation in games. The call for diversity is not a desire to play as one’s self; it is a desire to see a diverse world represented in digital space irrespective of the “realism” or “intended audience” of the game. After all, if players aren’t actually interested in play as themselves, then the age-old capitalistic argument that the “intended audience” of games is straight, white cismen and therefore the hero must also be a straight, white cisman is woefully inaccurate. It may well be that designers who are primarily straight, white cismen do default to that set of demographic markers, but that doesn’t mean that the default is the ideal.

Instead, Shaw explains, the purpose of diversity in gaming is sociopolitical in a much broader, more ethical sense. Diversity in games—in all media, in fact—is there to break the dominant culture (straight, white cismen in particular, but also others with demographic markers of privilege) out of its complacency with its privileged position. Shaw writes,

Diversity in video games necessitates that all audiences are confronted with different types of characters. Diversity is not the result of demand by audiences but the social responsibility of media producers. It requires that marginalized groups are represented not only because they are a profitable segment or because in a given text their representation matters but because the assumed normative categories of male, white, and heterosexual do not need to be viewed as defaults when a case for the representation of marginalized groups cannot be made. (225)

In essence, to be inclusive—deliberately, intentionally inclusive, not let-the-player-make-their-own-inclusive-character—is a political act which recognizes the inherent value of a diverse society and also recognizes the inherent political value of popular culture media (such as videogames, television, music, comic books, and film).


Summary: Shaw’s Gaming at the Edge is both accessible and academic, and takes a much-needed critical, sociopolitical stance on the importance of diversity and inclusion in video games.

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