The qualitative sociologist T. L. Taylor is a professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and cofounder and director of research for AnyKey, an organization dedicated to supporting and developing fair and inclusive esports. She explores the interrelations of culture and technology in online leisure environments, writing in a clear style and with an evocative voice about gender, inclusivity, and diversity in those virtual spaces. Around this research she has built a career that has taken her from California to North Carolina to Denmark to Cambridge, brought her in front of audiences at the White House and the International Olympic Committee, and led her to speak to the New York Times, PBS, and the BBC as a gaming expert.
She is the author of three books and the coauthor of another. Her latest, Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming, was published last fall. We spoke about that work, and in particular about online gaming culture, esports, and the economies of live-streaming, and put it in conversation with the Gamergate controversy, noting how the virtual worlds shaped by broader cultural currents might build a more welcoming and accessible future.
B. R. Cohen (BRC): Your research and teaching look at online gaming, esports, the sociology of virtual spaces, and the like. But I want to start with Gamergate. I should know what it is and understand its nuances, but maybe I don’t.
T. L. Taylor (TLT): Well, it began about five years ago, and you might think of it in two ways. First, Gamergate was targeted, systematic harassment of women in gaming, including developers, academics, and game critics. Although it was cloaked in the language of concern about “ethics in gaming,” it was essentially a targeted anti-feminist movement primarily against a host of women. But there’s the second way to think about it. We’ve now seen how its shape and method were a kind of template or dress rehearsal for the alt-right movement, which has been front and center in the last couple years.
BRC: Was that apparent at the time, or has it become clearer since?
TLT: Maybe a little of both. A number of commentaries have since connected what happened in Gamergate with patterns we now see with the alt-right. The forms of harassment are similar, as are the use of various online sites like 4Chan and Reddit.
BRC: Direct connections, too?
TLT: Yeah, definitely. Milo Yiannopoulos and Breitbart played a part in Gamergate. Brett Kavanagh’s friend Mark Judge, and many alt-right guys, were involved in attacking women like Anita Sarkeesian, who is a leading voice on women and videogames. She was viciously harassed. Her life was threatened, and she was doxxed. These Gamergate tactics are the bread and butter of what we see in the alt-right movement more generally. To be frank, I often say that—for good or ill—gaming is the canary in the coal mine for broader cultural, critical, and political issues. Gamergate is a profoundly unfortunate example. To call it misogyny would be an understatement.
Gamergate wasn’t some isolated aberration; it was a convergence of off-line misogyny with online platforms and gaming spaces.
BRC: This was in 2014?
TLT: Around then, yes. I should say, too, as someone who studies gaming culture, gender, and technology, a pattern often emerges here. You start seeing a reactionary response when you get a critical mass of women, people of color, or queer folks in a space expressing their own thoughts about their circumstances, pushing back on the culture, and not merely echoing whatever the dominant culture is saying. This is when you get people involved in things like Gamergate or the alt-right purportedly defending “ethics in games” when, in fact, they’re mostly just perpetuating hate and fear. So it was a really nasty time. The people who bore the brunt of it were developers and people like Sarkeesian.
BRC: As a scholar studying this phenomenon, how much did you get caught up in it?
TLT: I got tagged in briefly early on, but I think in part because of my name I’m often seen as a man online, so I was not targeted in the same way.
BRC: You pointed me to the Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology (ACE) just last fall to show that this is still going on.
TLT: In fact, there was a huge controversy and protest movement that eventually led to the conference being cancelled. The ACE conference chair had invited Steve Bannon as its keynote speaker. I mean, the ACE Twitter account previously had Ada Lovelace and all these amazing women in technology in its header image, and yet two years ago the conference chair behaved appallingly on Twitter toward women, particularly junior women scholars. And then he tried to bring Bannon to a conference he was chairing. Gamergate wasn’t some isolated aberration; it was a convergence of off-line misogyny with online platforms and gaming spaces. The alt-right dovetails into that all too well.
Games for a Fallen World
BRC: So Gamergate is about gender and technology, certainly, but more broadly it’s about how marginalized peoples use these games to connect with each other and are re-marginalized within these online communities.
TLT: It’s this strange unfortunate double side of game culture. Gaming and geek culture have historically been places where people who felt like outsiders found connection through geeky loves and pastimes, whether they are games, anime, or comics. But as is often the case with subcultures, they also have heavily policed themselves. They police the boundaries of what they are and who is allowed in. As gaming has become mainstream, the stakes in policing those boundaries seem to have gotten even higher for many people. The question of whether you’re a “real gamer” or a “real comics fan” becomes more intense. It’s happened in a number of related subcultures. We have Gamergate, yes, but both the comics and science fiction communities, for example, have had their own version of this.
BRC: How did you come to this topic, this field? These are all social spaces that I see a sociologist would study. How do you make sense of these gaming and esports cultures in your work?
TLT: Well, I studied sociology as an undergrad at Berkeley and as a graduate student at Brandeis. From early on I was drawn to qualitative work and ethnography in particular. I’m probably not an anthropologist, though, because I’m also drawn to thinking about institutions and organizations in particular ways. Not that anthropologists don’t do that, but sociologists do something slightly different. I ended up at Brandeis, because there were only a handful of places to do qualitative sociology in the US at the time.
BRC: Where did your interest in computers and gaming come from?
TLT: I should’ve also mentioned that I was a community college student before Berkeley, and I’m a first-generation college student from a working-class family. I didn’t grow up with a computer in my home. We didn’t even have an early Atari. I played videogames at the arcade but that was about it. My undergraduate thesis was on consumption practices among young Cambodian refugees in San Francisco. It had nothing to do with technology. But in 1991 I went to graduate school, moving from California to Boston, and started using the internet mostly because it was available and I wanted to stay in touch with a few friends from undergrad. I started spending a lot of time online and ended up doing my dissertation on embodiment in early virtual environments. This was before Second Life. These were text-based worlds, multiuser dungeons. Did you ever get into these things?
BRC: I didn’t. I’m not sure why. I think SimCity was the height of it for me.
As gaming has become mainstream, the stakes in policing those boundaries seem to have gotten even higher for many people.
TLT: You missed out on a host of early text-based games. Zork was one, in which you look around the room, go left, go right, by typing the commands. I got interested in the multiplayer ones because you’d head into online text-based worlds full of random people, bringing to mind that old New Yorker “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” cartoon. In that spirit, a good part of the conversation in the 1990s was about identity on the internet. Sherry Turkle was thinking about identity in new and important ways in Life on the Screen. I was her research assistant in the 1990s, which helped develop my thinking on it. I noticed, though, that there was a sense of a presence in these worlds, which got me thinking about embodiment in online spaces, not just about identities. That’s what I worked on.
BRC: I take it that EverQuest was an exemplar of these games?
TLT: Right, that is what’s known as an MMO or MMORPG, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. EverQuest wasn’t the only one, but in the 1990s it was one of the big ones. Unlike all those text-based worlds we’d been hanging out in, EverQuest and other MMOs brought graphics. My first book [Play between Worlds] was about MMOs.
BRC: Last fall I spoke with Siva Vaidhyanathan, whose research on social media grew along with his own biography as someone coming of academic age in the 1990s, when the internet was taking its current form. It sounds like you had a similar trajectory, but how did you come to study that game?
TLT: By the end of my dissertation I was mostly tired of it, as grad students usually are. Some of the people I met doing my dissertation research started telling me about this game, EverQuest. I thought, “Oh, that sounds like a fun distraction,” so I started playing it. Pretty quickly I realized, “Oh, no, wait, wait, there’s a lot of fascinating stuff happening here.” That’s how I got into the game as a player, and that was the hook that got me studying it as a sociologist.
BRC: When you were in those virtual worlds thinking about identity and then embodiment, did gender dynamics stand out right away?
TLT: Yes, right away. They were clear and crystalized within the game spaces in particular. In my early work on embodiment, I wrote about gender and sexuality, but because game spaces so clearly represent the gender issues visually, they’re hard to miss. Or in the case of esports, they’re so egregious; it’s stark. You asked about gender dynamics but, honestly, it wasn’t until grad school that I had any kind of serious feminist awareness. My eyes were always focused on class and socioeconomic issues when I was younger, because of my own biography coming from a working-class family. So for me, socioeconomic class issues were the early hook, while the feminist and gender questions came later.
BRC: It’s difficult in the necessary discussions of intersectionality to think of socioeconomic factors as an intersection, too. So many things can intersect.
TLT: It’s funny, I teach a games and culture class in which we do sessions on gender and race. I try to model thinking on how various aspects of our identities and biographies interact and collide. I talk about how I am a woman, but I’m also from a working-class family—and a white one at that. It’s very hard to do it all, but thinking across these areas is key. And intersectionality, as a way of thinking about interlocking systems of oppression—particularly for people of color—is such an important concept to expose students to.
BRC: How do you approach it?
TLT: I think for me it’s about the sociological imagination, something that the sociologist C. Wright Mills talked about. When I started taking sociology classes, I was like, “Holy shit.” This idea helped me take what felt deeply personal, individual, and family-based and link it to a bigger conversation. That was the first critical intellectual intervention in my life.
BRC: Your work beyond the MIT classroom is in touch with the gaming world as well. You used the phrases “gamers,” “game space,” and “gaming space.” Are those common terms? You’ve got gamers; you’ve got fans, audiences, and markets; and the rise of professionalization comes up in your books. But what is your relationship with the gaming community?
One consistent thread in my studies of online gaming is this notion of the assemblage, an assemblage of sites and practices that people rely on to make up their gaming or online experience.
TLT: That’s a tricky question. I’m a low theory person at best, which means I don’t have typological models in my head, so I use those terms a bit colloquially. There isn’t one single game community or one kind of person who is a gamer. Each of my projects tries in some way to show the heterogeneity of the gaming space.
BRC: I don’t know much about those gamer spaces, those social worlds. That’s probably obvious by now. A few years ago, I was playing a game with my kids, Game of War, which we all joined on our devices, made our avatars, and played and chatted with people from all over the world. It didn’t take long to learn about the ways that personalities stuck out in those games, the ways people played them—aggressively, congenially, or otherwise. This was my first experience seeing that this was an entire social system worth examining. But even that felt different than the trolls on Twitter or the comment threads on Facebook. How do the social networks in these games differ from other social media, from Twitter or Facebook? Is it a whole different beast?
TLT: I would say there are many things happening. For example, much of what I talk about in my new book on live-streaming, Watch Me Play, would look familiar to people who study social networks. And some things would look familiar to people who study precarious labor and the gig economy. The stuff that’s happening in gaming is not separate from those broader cultural trends and developments. But it’s even messier, because people very regularly use a variety of other social networking sites to facilitate their game play or live-streaming.
One of the things I talk about in the book is how people are using Twitch to live broadcast their game play to each other, but they’re also using Twitter to keep in contact with fans and audience members. So one consistent thread in my various studies of online gaming is this notion of the assemblage, an assemblage of sites and practices that people rely on to make up their gaming or online experience. You can’t just take the artifact of the game—the specific software or platform—and fixate on it and think you understand something meaningful about gaming. The assemblage notion extends to different actors, stakeholders, institutions, and platforms; they all have to come together to make a particular game or cultural activity around a game happen.
BRC: You’re marking the development of the combination of so many different networks that couldn’t have happened at any other time.
TLT: Exactly. And for me it’s also a bit of a methodological intervention. If you want to understand these spaces and experiences, you have to understand that people aren’t just Twitter users, they aren’t just television watchers, and so on. We have a range of things cobbled together to make up our leisure or recreational practices.
BRC: You’re being technically intersectional.
TLT: Yes, yes, I like that. I think it would be an analytic mistake to focus on individual artifacts, even if methodologically we sometimes have to home in on particular platforms. But your participants often lead you elsewhere. You miss the dynamic interplay and misunderstand a lot of the social practice if you don’t follow those other threads.
BRC: You also write about structural cultural differences across the world, so it isn’t just about the context of cross-platform gaming experiences at one point in time. It’s also about cultural differences. In preparing for this conversation I kept seeing references to South Korea as a pioneer in a lot of these areas, or to Europe and North America as different regions with similar technical things that play out differently.
TLT: That is the sociology side of me, to be honest. With esports, people will often say “Oh, if we could just be like South Korea.” I wrote about that in Raising the Stakes. At the time, South Korea had television stations broadcasting esports and esports teams and sponsors. The more I looked into it, the more I realized that we can’t be like South Korea. Their esports culture came from a set of government policies, technological infrastructure, and cultural patterns of use based on the way youth culture is organized. So if you build your model based on a particular piece of hardware, software, or infrastructure, you’ll likely miss how it’s developing in other places in completely different ways. It’s a bit “Science & Technology Studies 101” to say that cultural context shapes technologies, but with new fields arising and new social spaces like esports, I’ve found that we need to keep showing this.
If you want to understand these spaces and experiences, you have to understand that people aren’t just Twitter users, they aren’t just television watchers, and so on.
BRC: There’s more to it than drag and drop. Do you still see that kind of a drag-and-drop version of technology transfer circulating in mainstream media?
TLT: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s funny because in the spaces that I study, whether it’s esports or live-streaming, people build elaborate imagined audience-use models in their heads. I think that’s a lovely model, but it depends on so many complex factors that the technological determinists fail to acknowledge. How does the harassment of women and girls or the regulation of their leisure in particular ways shape their participation in gaming? This is where the nastiness of gaming sometimes comes into play, where models circulate in game communities about what “real gaming” is and what “real gamers” look like. And those are often deeply out of touch with the complexity of context in which people game or how taste and preference develop.
BRC: How do your studies of gaming fit with media portrayals of online communities, esports, or otherwise? You just mentioned determinism, and I think there’s a tendency in the broader media to focus too much on causation and impact, which we probably see with all new technologies. They’ll say, for example, that gaming is causing a problem, gaming is causing a new market, gaming generates harassment, gaming provides new opportunities. Your research helps correct that, I think, by also talking about what leads to gaming, not just what gaming leads to. If people want to talk about how gaming is increasing cultural friction, as with the harassment or gender issues, it would seem that we should attend to its foundations beforehand and not just its outcomes.
TLT: That determinist impulse is so common. When I’m talking to press, I often get the “Where’s it going?” or “What’s next for esports?” questions. And I answer that I am not a futurologist; there’s too much contingency. For me, the most interesting parts of the story are all those contingencies. I’m drawn to skirmishes, gaps, breakdown moments, and the little stories about everything falling apart. Those help to highlight the stakes. None of that is terribly satisfying for people looking for causality models. Esports and live-streaming are closely tied to commercial interests and are in a hype bubble right now. And so I think when I get those questions these days, I just have to say that it’s tied up in pure financial speculation. It’s kind of awful what’s happening in that regard. A lot of people just want to make a lot of money by figuring out what the next thing is. I couldn’t care less about that. For me, those aren’t the most interesting questions.
BRC: Studying commercial spaces and entertainment technologies must bring its own difficulties as a scholar.
TLT: That’s true. Much of the stuff I study either has an inherent commercial element, or there’s somebody who comes along and wants to commercialize it. But I tend to focus on things that have arisen out of user desire and community practice. I think that’s what makes the hype stuff tricky. Even though we’re in an esports bubble right now, I don’t think this thing called esports will ever go away, because it comes from actual people and users building grassroots communities.
BRC: On that point, I want to get back to Twitch and the rise of game live-streaming. Twitch is one of the things that’s commercializing esports, I take it?
TLT: Absolutely. Live-streaming amplified broadcasting, which brought in a bigger audience. That, in turn, has caught the eye of commercial interests. I was just at TwitchCon. It’s now a huge convention, which I guess speaks to the growing phenomenon. It’s massive. Twitch is a video platform on which people stream and watch games. Game live-streaming on a site like Twitch taps into the long-standing pleasures people take in sharing their play with each other, whether that’s sitting on a sofa watching your friend play or making and uploading your own videos. Twitch found a way to build a platform around that user activity. They are, of course, trying to commercialize it. It comes from an authentic and true experience but is now part of a larger culture of monetization and platform economies. Those who are now trying to earn a living or make ends meet by streaming games are tied to gig economies and precarious labor.
BRC: It makes me realize that I didn’t find Dragon’s Lair in your index. That’s my go-to when you talk about spectator videogames. I remember arcades in the 1980s, everybody crowded in to see. It was the only videogame with a TV screen above it so others could watch. Everybody would huddle around.
A lot of people just want to make a lot of money by figuring out what the next thing is. I couldn’t care less about that. For me, those aren’t the most interesting questions.
TLT: Right, that old arcade game, exactly. That sense of spectating is an important part of gaming. Sure, sometimes we play alone, and nobody’s there to watch, but the pleasure of watching and being watched has always been a part of gaming. Esports and Twitch as a platform tapped into that for the digital age. I was trying to understand that space as a sociologist for this new book. I got into the project because I saw that people were trying to bring gaming to spectator audiences and doing so in all kinds of creative ways, jamming technologies together. Then Twitch came along as a platform and made it easy. Or easier, I should say. Part of this story was coming to understand the dynamics of live-streaming not necessarily as sports but as entertainment, as media entertainment.
BRC: So who is the audience for your work? You’ve published books with academic presses and written in an accessible voice about complicated social and technical issues. You also teach about these things at MIT. But you’re also working with, writing about, and writing for these dynamic communities that are still in the making.
TLT: I think the books have been picked up by nonacademics because they act as a kind of legitimizing artifact and help chronicle a history. With esports folks I think they felt like, “Oh my God, somebody is paying serious attention to us.” It was a totem of legitimation, which is gratifying. I honestly don’t expect nonacademics to read my books. I really don’t, but of course it’s rewarding when the communities I study pick them up.
BRC: You do more specific public-facing things, too, like AnyKey, which, and I’m quoting your mission statement here, aims “to help create fair and inclusive spaces” for marginalized communities online.
TLT: That’s right, AnyKey has been a more explicitly publicly engaged project. Public talks, stuff on YouTube, things like that. AnyKey is where I try to do most of the public-facing work. My work with the initiative has also involved doing shorter white papers meant to actually provide helpful guidelines or insights, because just trying to distill these complicated things is a monumental task.
BRC: What are the general basics of AnyKey?
TLT: It started a few years ago. This actually dovetails with our conversation about Gamergate. When Gamergate was happening, Intel sort of blew it on their first-pass response. They got a lot of heat at the time, but they actually learned a lesson and made a big announcement that they would be supporting a number of different diversity initiatives. They were going to start taking diversity and inclusion more seriously and dedicated a chunk of money to sponsoring various measures. Because of the esports work I had done, I knew people at the Electronic Sports League (ESL), and one of them who’d been hearing me talk about gender for many years came to me and said, “Do you think there’s something we could do? Should we try to get in on this Intel stuff?” ESL has been working with Intel for years on esports. I said “Sure, let’s try to do something.” We connected up with Morgan Romine, who has a PhD in anthropology and who I codirect AnyKey with, and pitched to Intel research-driven initiatives around diversity and inclusion in esports. It worked, and we got some sponsorship money.
BRC: What exactly do you do there?
TLT: We’ve tried to do a range of things so far. Like I said, it’s research driven so we do fieldwork studies, we do workshops in which we try to get a sense of the key issues by working with various stakeholders, and we spend a lot of time talking to lots of folks in the esports space about the challenges they are facing. I’m the director of research and Morgan, my cofounder and director of initiatives, is the one who spins up concrete projects based on our findings. It covers everything, from practical skills like how to moderate chats to more symbolic issues. As an example, one of the things we heard early on is that women who were active and thriving in the esports space all had had these formative moments in which they saw another woman doing it, being involved in esports in some way, and it gave them a sense of like, “Oh wait, I could do that.” That led us to produce a series of videos profiling women in the scene. It was a “if you could see it, you could be it” kind of thing.
We’re trying to take critical or feminist frameworks and interventions and make them accessible, spread them widely, and get them out of the classroom.
BRC: A kind of social inoculation, exposing them to the possibility?
TLT: Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of amazing when you start talking to people who are really making it. I love it. I have always been very interested in the women who manage to stay in a space that is so hostile to them. I mean anywhere, in any forum, not just online. Like, how the hell are they doing that? What is going on? It was the same way with esports, leading us to think about what we can learn from the women who are there. There was this thing they had come across and someone else was doing it, playing in that space, and it became seared into their imagination that they could do it too. That doesn’t remove all of the barriers, not by a long shot, but that power of the symbolic was real. So we do studies as well as practical things.
BRC: Like the chat moderation guides?
TLT: Right, yes, and we put out other guidelines like that. We have one on gender-inclusive tournaments, for example. We often support women’s tournaments, but we want those tournaments to be trans inclusive. So we did a whole …
BRC: That’s a thing, gender-defined tournaments?
TLT: Yeah, yeah, and women’s tournaments in esports are tricky because I think most of us who support them see them as a stopgap. Ultimately, we don’t want a world in which men and women are playing on separate teams. There’s no good reason for that. But the harassment of women in this space is so strong that we tend to feel that if you don’t give them opportunities in women-only tournaments, they won’t get the experience. So we see women’s tournaments as necessary for now while working toward gender inclusivity more broadly in esports.
But even then, we were seeing tournaments happen that were women-only, but the language around them was not trans inclusive. That led us to put out a white paper covering a variety of issues like, for example, how to be gender inclusive when taking photos for your event, making sure that all the photos aren’t just of men. Even that degree of guidance was necessary. But also explaining to people how pronouns work and how to think about having trans inclusivity based on a “you are who you say you are” rule. It’s all in the research section of the AnyKey website.
One of the things we do with those best practices is simply to try to help people who want to make this space better and to give them language and frameworks. We just released another set of guidelines maybe a month ago on how to moderate your chat if you are streaming your esports tournament. Because the chat can be really awful if left unmoderated. And, again, a lot of people want it to be better but they don’t know where to start. So we put out these guidelines to help people.
BRC: Is this extracurricular for you? Or is it part of your job description?
TLT: Yeah, I don’t get paid for it. It’s extra. [Laughs] Public-facing work is such an interesting challenge, and this work with AnyKey has been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. We’re trying to take critical or feminist frameworks and interventions and make them accessible, spread them widely, and get them out of the classroom. It’s hard. I find a lot of people want things to be better, they want to do better, but they don’t have the tools or alternative language to get there. Once you give them that, they’re like, “Oh, okay, yeah, I can do that.”
This article was commissioned by B. R. Cohen.