"An Underworld Game Patch Router to Female Monsters, Frag Queens and Bobs whose first name is Betty"
In the mid to late 1990's the male populated world of shooter games was subjected to a lethal injection of female heroines. Before mega-hit officially produced games surfaced with digital heroines like Lara Croft, an earlier configuration of the shooter heroine was articulated in the underbelly of the Internet, on the online bazaar of game add-ons, hacks and alterations to official game avatars and graphics. Although at that time the majority of players and game patch artists were of the male gender, at least in corporal form, they were compelled to construct and play female avatars. Their motivations can be attributed to a multitude of sometimes quite contrary desires ranging from cross-gender experimentation, to longing for virtual girlfriends, to mastery and control of female automata.(1) The construction of game character gender is informed by a gaming culture which encourages monstrosity, a slippage between categories of the human and the non-human, the biological and the machine, masculinity and femininity. Many of these early heroines both fascinate and horrify. A few years later, a number of female players and female game hackers are pushing the buttons behind female characters in network shooters like Quake and Unreal, fabricating their own versions of female monstrosity.
The "open sourcing" of games at the content level, making environments, scenarios, weapons, and avatars mutable and customizable through the distribution of game editors and game source code, is a mode of game content development that engenders cultural and gender diversity, a marked contrast to a process of closed source development strictly confined within the computer game industry. Distributing the development process across the Internet opens up game characters to a variety of mutations and alternative identities that extend beyond the limited visions of the corporate driven, young white North American male developers who run the majority of game development and publishing houses. (The Japanese games industry is a different story, in some ways more open culturally but geared almost exclusively for closed source hardware platforms like Playstation.) Hacker culture and contingent "open source" methodologies are well and alive in the online gamer circuits, where a vivacious gift economy of exchange of computer game add-ons is flourishing. Key to the process of hacking is that the hack is an alteration of the original that does not reinvent from the ground up but mutates what was given.(2) Mutations of gender from the pre-established shooter game norm, the white male soldier, take a variety of forms in this online laboratory.
Judith Butler has linked the "improperly gendered", referring to the gaps where the subject fails to conform to ideals of masculinity and femininity, to monstrosity. She writes, "Hence the fear of homosexual desire in a woman may induce a panic that she is losing her femininity, that she is no longer a woman, that she is no longer a proper woman, that if she is not quite a man, she is like one, and hence monstrous in some way. Or in a man, the terror of homosexual desire may lead to a terror of being construed as feminine,..being in some sense a figure of monstrosity or abjection." (3) But monsters are not "newbies" to computer games.(4) A fighting game such as Mortal Combat offers the player a choice of avatar characters including a "regular Joe" white male human and a cast of quasi-human "otherized" monsters; half-human, half-cyborg, half-animal and usually one female character. (Here the woman is construed as yet another monster.) The proto-typical first person shooter cast the protagonist as a white male human and the enemy as monsters. At some point in the trajectory of the shooter genre, the male protagonist morphs into a male monster, (as in the bulky hero in Quake) or a woman (Lara Croft or earlier patched heroines).
Thus the culture of computer gaming both in the online gamer fan enclaves, (which can be construed as open source content R & D labs for the industry), and drifting outward into the game industry and game culture at large, can be described as monster friendly, conducive toward that which terrifies and fascinates through queer border transgressions of humanity, femininity, and masculinity. In this gamer's underworld, a "queer" alternative universe of hyperbole and excess, these border transgressions, gender hacks and mutations engender female death engines ranging from Ken Hodgman's Female Cyborg Patch to Robert Nideffer's transsexual Lara Croft. Other female monsters include frag queens like the Psycho Men Slayer clan's female skins for Quake2 and "improperly gendered" heroines like the brawny ladies of the first Quake. Another quite different source of female heroine construction comes from Japanese anime in patches like the Otakon Doom Wad and the SOS Sailor Moon Wad. These adolescent girl heroines, slighter and more girlish in appearance than their counterparts in the West, and popular among Japanese male and female youth alike, indulge quite excessively in their femininity. (Roses, bunnies, and chocolate are littered around the Sailor Moon wad.) Also true to the conventions of the anime genre, anime game patch heroines maintain secret identities as magically powerful fighters of evil.
Western gamer culture and monster worship can partially be traced to adolescent boys' culture and the first female heroines for the most part reflect the sources that informed their male creators. (Certainly the "Amazons and Pistol Packin' Female Roberts" patch reveals an understanding of female anatomy relying disproportionately on gigantic female breasts, but again, what falls outside the norm operates well within the monstrous.) As women and girls are becoming more active in gaming culture, forming their own clans and guilds, creating their own add-ons, and participating in frag fests and other online contests, they are making their own contributions to monstrous gender construction that are much needed in this male dominated combat zone. Rather than opting for the more muted demeanor and "realistic" bodily proportions of a character like "Tina-bob", female shooter clans like Babes with an Attitude, Vicious Vixens and Psycho Men Slayers play female characters whose bad-ass attitude is inscribed in over developed yet distinctly feminine musculature, tight yet functional attire, and clan tattoos. Like their male counterparts, these female monsters are not averse to wielding oversized phallic weaponry in the pursuit of a kill.
Lethal female body architecture, deft combat moves and an organized female affront in the form of female gamer clans are shifting the gender topography of the shooter. Working the keyboard and mouse behind these female fighting machines are the women players who have dared to cross a rigid gender boundary into a violent gamer culture often understood by men and women alike as a boys' world, (embraced by men affirmatively, often disparaged by women). On the Quake Women's Forum, links to various female clans and profiles of female players lend insight into the social conditions and networks in which these female clans have arisen. Aged from their teens to mid thirties, Quake female players' occupations range from network specialists, to high school students, to mothers. Network shooters like Quake and Unreal enable social grouping into clans that coalesce both locally among friends, workers and family, and also long distance over the Internet. The female clan offers a powerful support structure to female gamers, a place where knowledge can be shared and friendship bonds strengthened that extend outside the scope of the game. Or as one PMS member writes in her character profile, "Through the last two years that I have been a PMS member, my fellow clan sisters have been my supporters and inspiration. I owe them alot, not for just the kind words and pats on the back, but also for their kindness and genuine care. These women are the most special friends/family in the whole world."(5)
The growth of female clans and the networking of these clans and female players through alliances like the Quake Women's Forum or on the Female Quake Players Web Ring is facilitating the emergence of a female gamer culture. Members of this culture apply a "cut and mix" approach to the female heroine genotypes articulated in earlier game patches by mostly male players. Female skinners sample elements from the pre-existing female character lexicon and add new flavors into the mix, resulting in fem monsters better suited to their female inhabitants. The fabrication process of hyperbolic monstrosity in patched game character construction and in online distributed game hacking enables various forms of gender experimentation and queer transgression amongst players of all (more than two) genders. It is likely this monster design workshop will flow in other directions as more female players and female patch artists participate, perhaps leading to an even wider range of queer mutations and in-betweens, congeries of butch Drag Kings, Bob-Bettys and androgynous Queens.
- Anne-Marie Schleiner, "Does Lara Croft wear fake polygons?", forthcoming and Anne-Marie Schleiner, "Female Bobs arrive at Dusk" explore the relation of male players to female avatars.
- Anne-Marie Schleiner "Parasitic Interventions: Game Patches and Hacker Art", forthcoming, describes this process.
- Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997, p. 136.
- Judith Halberstam has constructed a theory of "the technology of monsters" in gothic and horror film genres that incorporates Judith Butler's queer theory formulations. Judith Halberstam, Skin shows: gothic horror and the technology of monsters , Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. A "newbie" is a term used for inexperienced players in an online role playing game.