The amazing conversations happening on, around, and because of this site continue to inspire me with interesting research questions. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to answer some of these someday!
But first, your regularly scheduled scholarly caveat:
Research design is a complex process, and I can only give you a glimpse at it here. These projects are in the kicking-around stage, and are by no means ready to go. Until they’re moved to “active research” status, I probably won’t get a chance to do the deep thinking and design needed to make them work for real.
Time, Labor, and Play
Women, on average, have less free time than men do. This is true across all the OECD countries, though I’m most familiar with the U.S. data. The effect is strongest for married women with children, but it’s true for all women who live with male partners. The main source of the disparity is unpaid work: household chores, childcare, caring for elderly or sick relatives, and so on. Women do most of this work, whether or not they also work outside the home, and whether or not their husbands do.
This effect varies quite a bit across social groups. For example, liberal white-collar couples love to claim that they have an equal distribution of household labor. They are also, unfortunately, usually wrong. These couples only begin to describe the distribution of labor as “unfair” once the female partner is doing more than 75% of the work. Male partners in this group exaggerate their contributions, on average, by nearly half; they also often describe their contributions as “helping,” leaving the responsibility and the managerial role with their female partners. Working-class men, on the other hand, claim they do less than they actually do. At the same time, they are quite likely to do more work than white-collar men, including taking primary responsibility for at least one area of the household.
Because the effect varies across social groups, it might be worth looking at how gamer couples deal with issues of labor and leisure. I’d want to collect information about three kinds of things.
First, I’d look at time use. How much time does each member of the couple spend on paid work? Household labor? Childcare? Gaming? Non-gaming leisure? I could compare what I found to the patterns you’d expect to see, based on demographic factors, so I could tell whether gaming couples are different.
Second, I’d want to collect information about what games the couples played – including how often, with whom, for how long, and so on. I’d particularly look at how the couples made decisions about allocating time to play. I’d focus on major time commitments, whether all at once (e.g. taking a long weekend to go to a con) or over a period of time (e.g. joining a new campaign). I’d love to videotape the conversations where these decisions actually got made, but I’d probably have to settle for getting a description after-the-fact from both parties.
Finally, I’d want to look at the rhetorical strategies the couples used to explain an unjust distribution of time and labor in their relationship. There’s a catalog of existing explanations, such as women comparing how much work they do to how much work other women do and not to how much work their husbands do. I’d want to see which existing strategies get used, and especially whether ideas from gamer discourse (like “go make me a sandwich”) show up in these apparently private decisions.
In my fantasies (and yes, I have research fantasies – what, don’t you?) I’d get to look at two-gamer couples, but also at couples where a gamer woman is dating a non-gamer and at couples where a gamer man is dating a non-gamer. I’d also get to look at same-sex and poly relationships, even though the existing data on leisure and labor for them isn’t very good. I’d be able to follow them for a long period of time, so I could see how people’s leisure changed, and how they explained why it changed. I’d be able to observe people as well as get large-scale quantitative data about their daily habits and activities. And as long as we’re fantasizing, I’d have a few research assistants to help me manage all that information!
I’d expect to find that gamer women have less free time than their male partners – that’s what all the existing evidence suggests, and I see no reason to think gamers would be different. However, I also think I’d find out a lot about how women manage to preserve their gaming lives, and why only some succeed. I’d learn about the kinds of arguments gamers use to justify ongoing inequality; I suspect they’re not entirely the same as the ones other groups use. Finally, I’d be able to highlight those few gaming couples who share labor and leisure equally, and try to generalize some of the things that helped them succeed.
The Nature of Expertise
There’s an argument I regularly hear, which boils down to “But that’s just your opinion!” In gaming culture, I see it most often around issues of media criticism, but it tends to pop up pretty regularly in any argument where one can’t just point to quantitative data. Sometimes it comes up even when there’s hard numbers involved! This argument treats all opinions equally, and rejects the possibility of distinguishing between different opinions. My opinion, your opinion, some random other person’s opinion – all the same, because they’re opinion.
What’s so strange about this, to me, is that many of the people saying don’t seem to actually believe it. They’d never let an amateur diagnose their diseases or teach their children. Hell, many of them seem to have jobs where their training gives them the right to a very informed opinion, which I’m assuming they exercise professionally on a regular basis! So I don’t understand the call to opinion as a sheltering shield from judgment of any kind.
To start my analysis, I’d need to get some data on what kinds of situations provoke this rhetorical move. I’d try to find out what people actually meant when they said “opinion,” and see under what circumstances they used the term. For example, I might use a pile-sorting technique. I’d give people a set of vignettes to read and ask them to sort them into piles of “opinion” and “not opinion.” Then I’d try to work out what the underlying distinction might be.
Based on what I’ve seen informally, I’d expect to see that people are especially likely to cast ideas about gender (or race, or other socially sensitive topics) as “opinion” in this way, even if those ideas are well-grounded. I could probably design a specific study to answer that question, like randomly giving people the same argument in a gender or non-gender context and seeing if there are differences.
So, where does this behavior come from? And how does it compare to people using these tactics outside the gaming community? My hypothesis is that I’d find that gamers’ likelihood of using this strategy varies. Overall, I’d guess that gamers use this strategy less than the mainstream – but on certain topics, they’re much more likely to do so.
Here’s why I’d expect to see that pattern.
First, I think the anti-judgmental turn is a form of defensive behavior. Gamers can’t help but be conscious of how the mainstream treats the things they enjoy. If everyone is constantly telling you that you must be an unwashed loser or a killer-in-training, it makes a lot of sense to develop a certain amount of resistance to anyone who has an opinion about your fun. So I’d expect to see that any kind of media analysis, no matter how well-grounded, triggers an outbreak of opinion-itis.
I also think the nature of expertise is part of the issue. People who are not expert in a domain often can’t even understand the principles by which experts make their decisions. For example, in physics, novices and experts use completely different methods to decide which problems are alike. If we can tell that someone is an expert, we can choose to defer to their knowledge – for example, if someone has a physics degree.
I would guess that gamers value external markers of expertise, and are more appreciative of them than the mainstream. This implies that the “all opinions are alike” argument will mostly come up in contexts where there are no institutions for certifying people as experts, or where the existing institutions are systematically derided (e.g. “oh, you have a degree in Women’s Studies?”). This works to erase the differences between experts and novices, and reduce their different approaches to a simple difference of opinion. What’s interesting about this explanation is that it also explains the tendency for people to come into conversations about feminism with incredibly basic arguments and act like they’ve just shared the wisdom of the ages. I like explanations that account for multiple different behaviors in an elegant way!
Finally, I’d consider why anyone would think that “opinion” is somehow devoid of value or moral force in the first place. For that, I’d turn to a recent study of moral development among Americans aged 18-23 (Lost in Transition, for the curious). While I didn’t agree with all of the book’s points1, the authors found that nearly two-thirds of their interviewees struggled to distinguish between moral decisions and personal preferences. Choice and preference were seen as terms that trumped any kind of judgment. Only a small percentage of these emerging adults felt comfortable with the notion that choices and opinions could have moral content or implications of any kind. To a person who is stuck in this kind of thinking, maybe all opinions really do seem alike!
I’d want to borrow some of the tools Smith and his colleagues used to try to understand the larger moral framework of gamers. If I had to guess, I’d bet that a higher percentage of gamers fall into the morally sophisticated category. We’ve spent a big chunk of our lives taking on other perspectives and reasoning about the impact of our actions on the world! But I also expect that I’d find a correlation between how people understand moral decisions in general, and how likely they are to claim that all opinions are morally and pragmatically equal – whether they’re gamers or not.
The moral framework question is a huge one, and it’s probably a whole research area of its own. That’s why I love research – because one interesting question always leads to another.
Membership Narratives, Relationship Narratives
How do people get involved in gaming? The answer, for most people, is “someone played with me.” When a guy says that, we assume it’s totally normal. When a woman says it, though, the assumption is that it was a male romantic partner who introduced her to the game, and that she’s somehow less of a gamer because of it.
Are there actually gender differences in how people start gaming? That’s the first thing I’d like to know. I’d want to ask a whole lot of people about their introductions to gaming and look for common themes. I’d try to see if there are actually differences between men and women, both in how they discovered role-playing and in how they tell the story. Where possible, I’d want to check up on their stories, because if there’s one thing you learn in this kind of research it’s that people make things up, often without even knowing they’re doing it!
I’d also want to confirm that my perceptions are correct: I’d check whether a woman who was introduced to gaming by a male partner is seen as less of a gamer than one who wasn’t. For example, I could write stories in which a woman was introduced to gaming by a male romantic partner, a female romantic partner, a male friend, a female friend, or by discovering a game book independently. Then I could give a randomly chosen version of the story to people and see what they concluded about the person as a result.
Next, I’d widen my focus. Are there other kinds of stories that make people seem like less of a gamer? Do these stories work the same way for all groups of gamers, or do certain “origin stories” taint the credentials of only some groups? I’d guess women gamers, GLBT gamers, and gamers of color are all likely to be judged based on how they got into gaming, but I’d guess that different stories would be seen as delegitimizing for each group.
Finally, I’d want to get a sense of what about a particular type of introduction to gaming legitimates or undermines that person’s later participation in gaming. By defining some stories as acceptable and others as less acceptable, the community works to define its boundaries. That means by looking at those boundary stories, I can find out some of the ways the community sees itself. I strongly suspect I’d learn that the gaming community holds women to a very different standard than men – but hey, you never know what you’re going to find! That’s why they call it research!
See you next time on Things I Want To Know!
- A note on the book, in case anyone is considering reading it. The authors talk themselves into a bit of a philosophical bind. They argue against authoritarian (“follow these rules to be moral”), consequentialist (“if the outcome was good, the decision was moral”), relativist (“what your culture thinks is moral, is moral”), and individualist (“as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone”) approaches to morality, but they aren’t always clear or consistent about their own stance as researchers. I’d have appreciated a little more clarity about their own biases, which I think would have led to more careful attention to how they talk about different moral stances in their writing, which in turn would have led to them not arguing themselves into a bit of a corner. But the data is great nonetheless. ↩