About Shira Chess, Ph.D.: Shira Chess is Associate Professor in the Department of Entertainment & Media Studies at the University of Georgia at Athens (UGA), where she is affiliate faculty in the Institute for Women’s Studies. Dr. Chess’s research explores the relationship between gender and media, with a particular focus on video games and digital play. She is the author of three books, Play Like a Feminist, Ready Player Two: Women Gamers and Designed Identity, and the co-authored Folklore, Horror Stories, and the Slender Man: The Development of an Internet Mythology, with Eric Newsom. Her articles have appeared in acclaimed media journals like Critical Studies in Media Communication, New Media & Society, and Feminist Media Studies.
Dr. Chess is also an engaged public scholar and has published work in The New York Times and Salon. Prior to coming to UGA, Dr. Chess was Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, with affiliate faculty appointments in the Armstrong Institute for Interactive Media Studies and the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.
Dr. Chess received her Ph.D. in Communication & Rhetoric from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, her M.A. in Media Arts from Emerson College, and her B.A. in English from the University of South Florida.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in media studies and game studies and begin to bring these areas of study into conversations with gender studies, queer theory, and feminist thought?
[Dr. Shira Chess] I came to academia pretty late. I was not traditional in terms of my trajectory, although I’m not sure anyone really has a traditional trajectory. In the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, I worked as a web developer, a tech writer, and in a variety of other techie jobs. When the tech bubble burst in 2000, I got laid off from my dotcom job like a lot of people did. I was living in the Boston area at the time, and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do.
I was on the T with a friend of mine, and I asked him what he would do if money weren’t an object. He gave me an answer then turned the question back to me and said, “What would you do?” I said, “Oh, I would go to graduate school and study film.” I was surprised by my own answer and decided I should think about that.
Because I didn’t go straight through from undergraduate to graduate school, I didn’t have the professor recommendations, and it was a little tougher for me to get started in academia. I was still living in the Boston area, and Emerson College had a really good program [in Media Arts] that pushed me through. They would accept recommendations from employers rather than just from professors, and it was a hybrid program where you could take a more academic track or a nonacademic, project-based track. Emerson’s M.A. program gave me the ability to figure out what I wanted to do, to test out some ideas, and to try writing some things and see where they landed.
I did my thesis on action television heroines, as I’m sure a lot of people during that time period did. I also wrote one paper on Grand Theft Auto III. I wrote the paper because my advisor at the time had told me, “You should do a feminist analysis of GTA III. You can kill prostitutes in it. You should analyze this.” So, I started playing GTA III and, around the same time, I started reading more [Michel] Foucault. I read Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, and I had this moment where I realized I had nothing to say in terms of a feminist analysis of the game, but thought there were weird things going on that I was interested in.
I wrote the paper and got it published in an edited collection. I was still figuring things out, and I presented variations of the paper a couple of times at conferences. At the same time, I was applying to Ph.D. programs, and one possible future I saw for myself was interrogating, not just the questions I was asking about GTA III, but tangential questions, which were, “Why wasn’t I enjoying playing this game. Why was it stressing me out?”
While I was writing the paper, every night I had a choice between reading Foucault and playing GTA III, and every night I would choose Foucault. That’s saying a lot. [laughs]. I kept asking myself, “Why can’t I play video games? I want to be able to do this.” Soon after that, I found myself getting into a few games. I was working while going to grad school, and some of my coworkers at the time encouraged me to play City of Heroes, which was an MMO [Massively Multiplayer Online] game of the early aughts. Later, I moved into playing World of Warcraft with the same group. I realized that I didn’t respond to all video games like I responded to GTA. I liked some video games, and I wanted to understand why.
I started teasing out those questions, and I applied to doctoral programs, and one of them was at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). I knew where I decided to go would guide what I decided to study because there was no point in studying film or television at RPI at that moment. There was a lot of literature coming out around that time about how to get girls into video games. I refer to this sometimes as my “chopped liver” moment. I thought, “What am I, chopped liver? Why is nobody interested in why I don’t play more video games, and how to get me to play more video games? Why does no one think that matters?”
I barraged my mother with questions at that point. I was driving her nuts. I kept calling her and asking, “What would it take to make you play a video game?” Eventually she said, “I don’t know, Shira, how about a nice shopping game?” By the way, she hates it when I tell this story [laughs]. But I found it really interesting that she would associate shopping with leisure.
At this moment, more video game companies were beginning to make games designed for assumed women audiences. That was the initial crystallizing question that launched me into a lot of the research that I’ve done: how were games designed for this essentialized audience, and what did that look like? I started looking at games like Diner Dash and hidden object games to try to figure out what was going on and how it related to assumptions about women who play. This has changed over time, but certain things have stayed consistent.
[MastersinCommunications.com] This year, you co-edited a special issue of Critical Studies in Media Communication entitled “The Future of Game Studies” with Dr. Mia Consalvo. In your introduction to this special issue, “The Future of Media Studies is Game Studies,” you observe that, while video game studies is often regarded as niche or “other” to the broader concerns of media studies, critical scholarship on video games is instead vital to understanding our current and future media environment, as gaming increasingly “converges” with other media industries and “virtual worlds” become an established reality. Could you provide us with some background on this special issue and how it came to be? What about the current moment motivated you to raise the question of games studies’ relevance for the future?
[Dr. Shira Chess] Mia Consalvo was my academic hero when I was a graduate student. I read all of her work, and she was the person I looked to as a model for what I wanted my own scholarship to be. At some point over the last couple of years, we were having a conversation about collaborating and began talking about what a special issue of Critical Studies in Media Communication might look like. The piece didn’t come from a central moment but more from a history of observing, over many years, how media studies scholarship treats game studies as something niche. You go to conferences, and you see the same people attending the same panels. The conversation about what’s interesting about games never really expands outward beyond the people who had been engaging with that material already.
Of course, that’s the case for a lot of different fields. It’s not just video game studies, it’s also a problem in fan studies and celebrity studies. One of the problems we have in media studies is that we get into our little subgroups and don’t always read outside of what is “useful” for us to read.
We wanted to create an opportunity to showcase emerging scholars and scholarship in a way that was relevant outside of game studies. Rather than to make it about us, we wanted to say, “Hey, if you haven’t paid attention in a minute, here’s what game studies can look like, and here’s some of the really interesting stuff that’s coming from it. Check it out.” It was meant as a rabbit-hole. We invited scholars we thought were particularly interesting, gave them a prompt, and let them run with it. Getting to watch people develop their ideas and think about the question of the future and the next generation of game scholars was a really amazing process.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For those of our readers who may be less familiar with game studies, would you perhaps use this special issue as a way to briefly introduce us to critical scholarship on video games? Why, as you argue in the introduction to the issue, are critical perspectives on games and play invaluable for understanding, not only video games, but also contemporary media industries and their larger cultural politics?
[Dr. Shira Chess] In order to do a good job with a complex object like a videogame you need to approach it from multiple levels at once, as much if not more so than with other media objects. Understanding video games requires putting concerns about the industry and production into conversation with discussions of the content and mechanics of the game and how players engage with it. The complexity of games forces us to think about production differently because production is so influential on some very specific elements of the product. When you’re talking about game engines, the way an engine is designed is very different from how the game is designed, but has a lot of bearing on the game itself. There’s no disentangling it.
Most of our contributors were forward looking about the video game industry and about the content of games. Alexandrina Agloro wrote an amazing piece thinking about alternate reality games and how we can use them for social justice. Aaron Trammell’s contribution is related to one of his forthcoming books and centralizes decolonizing play in thinking about how we’ve based a lot of game studies scholarship on the work of [Johan] Huizinga and other colonizing understandings of what play is and can be. Tara Fickle and Christopher B. Patterson wrote about diversity in the game industry and how it is structured in a way that differs from what people think diversity is or want it to be. Aleena Chia wrote about automation in game engines. Sarah Stang wrote about what close readings and methodologies can be for game studies, specifically thinking about feminist methodologies.
Everybody who contributed to the issue was a critical media scholar, but we tried to diversify the kinds of approaches that people took to the question of the future of game studies. I was surprised that there wasn’t a lot of overlap in what people had to say. They hit on a lot of issues that are really relevant outside of game studies. Often what happens in game studies is a microcosm of what happens more largely with video games in general. People who don’t play video games often don’t play them because of the public reputation of video games as being competitive or masculine or violent. Just as video games are changing, so are audiences and scholarship.
What we really wanted to do was demonstrate some of the groundbreaking scholarship that’s out there and collect this group of emerging scholars that represented the promising directions that we hope game studies will go in. Just as video games are not for one select group of folks, game studies isn’t either. That’s what we were trying to convey.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your most recent book, Play Like a Feminist, builds on the thesis that “video games need feminism as much as feminism needs video games.” Would you unpack this central argument for us? What are some of the key ways that feminist perspectives can introduce new possibilities for video games as a medium or help reinvent an infamously patriarchal industry?
[Dr. Shira Chess] Like with the special issue we were just discussing, I wrote Play Like a Feminist feeling somewhat disillusioned about the fact that when non-gamer feminists talk about video games they often focus on their negative aspects. It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon of arguing that video games are violent, for example. When people say this to me, I always ask, “Which games?” I get asked to review a lot of journal articles on video games. If a journal article starts off by saying, “Video games are x,” my response is always, “Which games?”
Games are not all one thing. You would never talk about film or television that way. Why do we get to talk about games that way? Just because there’s a bigger budget for one segment of the game market doesn’t negate the rest of it.
The market for video games is expansive, and it’s a medium that’s still figuring itself out. By engaging with games that speak to our personal, core values, we get to help form the future of the medium. Being dismissive and saying, “Oh, video games are violent, they’re not for me,” doesn’t really bring about change. My goal with Play Like a Feminist was getting more people into the conversation. Like with game studies conferences, these conversations were too often the same people having the same discussions over and over. I wanted to write a book about games for people who didn’t necessarily play games, which was challenging.
At the same time, I think those engaged in the videogame industry can learn a lot from feminist theory in terms of thinking about different kinds of audiences in new ways. We’ve seen a non-negligible amount of change with indie games already. Content has gotten better and more expansive since more feminists have made video games. That’s influenced the broader industry as well. That feedback loop matters. Not playing because you think it’s not for you doesn’t fix the problem. It means you’re not part of the conversation.
[MastersinCommunications.com] The politics of play and leisure is a theme that runs throughout your work, where you have explored different manifestations of what you’ve referred to as “radical play,” including feminist and queer forms of play. Could you discuss the significance of the politics of play to your scholarship? How does your research explore the complex relationship between media production, content, gameplay, and audience engagement in influencing the political character of play?
[Dr. Shira Chess] When we’re making meaning out of any cultural object, whether it’s video games, television, film, fan-made materials, or anything else, we need to understand how things occur within that ecosystem both within and beyond the product. Beyond the product, we need to know how that object is made in a way that does not absolutely privilege authorial intentionality. Within the product, we need to understand how mechanics, story, and other factors all work in congress.
One of my favorite examples that I’ve written about a lot over the years is Diner Dash. This is a game series that has been around since the early aughts, and you play as someone who is technically a restaurant owner but is functionally a waitress because all of the game mechanics have to do with waitressing.
Talking about Diner Dash in terms of narrative content only takes you so far. There are some narrative elements that have been interesting about Diner Dash from the beginning. The game starts off with your character, Flo, working in a creditor office. You see her overwhelmed by getting bossed around by customers and people she works with, and she runs out of her office and chooses the “much less stressful” life of owning a restaurant. There are weird turns the story takes in subsequent games.
One of my favorites is Flo on the Go, where Flo tries to take a vacation. She goes on a cruise, but a bunch of people are striking. She decides it’s okay to cross the picket line, and the striking workers knock her suitcases overboard. Rather than complaining that she’s lost all her things, she thinks, “Nope! I have to earn back my things by working in the cafe because all the workers are on strike.” At each set of levels, she’s in a new location trying to get to leisure again, but she can’t quite get to leisure because people are constantly thwarting her with their uprisings and unions. In the final level, she goes to space, and even there she can’t find relaxation. The whole story is about her inability to relax.
There was a very short-lived, hidden object game called Avenue Flo that begins with a song-and-dance cutscene, where Flo sings a song about how she can’t relax. Knowing the intended audiences for Diner Dash says a lot. There’s a doubling that’s happening where on the one hand, the creators are saying you should spend your leisure time playing this game, but on the other hand, the game is saying, “We know you don’t really feel like you have time to play.” There’s a little wink in there, built into the narrative.
I find it really interesting how productivity was built into the narrative, but it was also built into the actual play. The narrative and gameplay mechanics of the game unfold in conversation, and what’s interesting to me is how video games create this rich texture of storytelling. Because it’s a videogame you can’t just look at the narrative. I spent a lot of time discussing the Heads Up Display (HUD), which is how the game communicates information to you about things that are happening on the screen.
In Grand Theft Auto, the HUD indicates your health through a heart level. In Diner Dash, hearts indicate something, but instead of being about your health, it’s about how your customers love you. It’s all about emotional labor. I’ve likened it to a kind of “third-shift” building off Arlie Russell Hochschild’s famous idea of the “second shift,” where women work a fulltime job at home and also work a fulltime job at the office. The women who play these games take on a third productive role in their leisure time.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Are there particular examples of games or forms of play you would highlight that best represent what “playing like a feminist” looks like?
[Dr. Shira Chess] It’s not always about being politically progressive or not. An example I often like to use is the puzzle game Monument Valley, which is one of my favorite games. You can play it on a lot of platforms, but it’s primarily a mobile game. In it, you travel through [M.C.] Escher-like castle structures. The mechanics are often about changing things and moving things around so you can complete your travels, but it’s also about perspectival shifts. When you’re playing that game frequently, just like with any game, it can remap how you look at the world.
When I was playing Monument Valley, I found myself looking at the world with this notion of perspectival shifts. How does the problem look different, how does the world look different, if I just shift my perspective? That’s a very feminist way of thinking.
You can think about a game like Life is Strange, which is a narrative-driven game where you’re playing as a teenager, and one of the primary mechanics involves turning back time and rethinking your decisions. That ability to rethink what you’ve done already and make better choices has a lot of feminist potential. Of course people can play these games in ways that are not necessarily feminist, but I think there are a lot of games that have feminist potential, and it doesn’t need to just be about the narrative.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your 2017 book, Ready Player Two, interrogates the production of “idealized women gamers” – the titular “Player Two” – as a target audience of the video game industry. It explores how games designed for women like Diner Dash and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood produce a normative “designed identity” that they project onto their players through their content and their mechanics. What are some of the central aspects of “designed identity” this book identified in games targeted toward women, and what did your research reveal about the complexity of how players relate to these identities?
[Dr. Shira Chess] I used the term designed identity in Ready Player Two because I felt it was important to distinguish between the imagined player constructed by the industry and the actual player. An extremely diverse group of people play many different kinds of games, but that diversity isn’t reflected in who designs video games. In 2010, about 11% of the workforce identified as women. That number was closer to 22% a few years later when it was resurveyed.
By comparison, about half of all video game players identify as women, and that number is squishy because it depends on what we count as a game and whom we count as women. This disparity means that for a long time there have been assumptions about gendered leisure practices built into games, and those practices reify themselves. That was my motivation for adopting the idea of designed identity. I saw early on in working on the book that I wasn’t talking about women, I was talking about a mirage of a woman.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Would you put Ready Player Two in conversation with Play Like a Feminist? Are there important ways in which “Player Two” has evolved five years after the publication of this book that have opened more space for “playing like a feminist”? How have these changes impacted your activist scholarship, and your efforts to encourage people to create space for leisure and communicate with people in their lives about the importance of leisure?
[Dr. Shira Chess] Before I wrote Ready Player Two, I would often have conversations with people that were not game players, both men and women. They would ask me what I studied and when I would tell them I would often get angry responses like, “I don’t play video games. They’re violent,” or “I don’t have time for video games.” I have this very vivid memory of being at the dentist as a graduate student and having somebody jabbing the inside of my mouth while telling me why they don’t allow violence in their home.
After I wrote Ready Player Two, I noticed there was a shift in the attitude. That’s not to say everybody was playing games, but iOS and Android changed a lot of attitudes about fitting in small bursts of play. I’ve written about this as being both good and bad, but I think it goes beyond that because the reality is that a lot of people aren’t able to have a full sense of leisure, they have to find these elastic spaces in their lives, and mobile devices allow for that.
When I finished Ready Player Two, I had an increasing number of family members and friends who, instead of saying, “I don’t have time for play,” would tell me interesting stories. I was at a birthday party for my son, and I told a woman what I studied, and she said, “Oh my god, three generations of my family play Clash of Clans together.”
That change was both slow and fast. I hadn’t noticed it was happening and then I started to really notice it. I had recommended some games to friends over time and one of the remarks I started to get was to the effect of, “I never knew games like that existed.” When I would hear that phrase it really shook me. In a way, I wrote Play like a Feminist as an answer to this. I wanted to think about why non-gaming women might read a book about video games and decide that they might be important. Gaming circles were very much an answer to that question. Gaming circles are not about one particular game but are a way to help non-gamers develop a vocabulary to figure out their taste in games.
I realized that the problem was there are a lot of people out there who have absolutely no idea what games look like: people who might actually enjoy playing Candy Crush Saga on their phone, or Wordle, or something along those lines but don’t think of themselves as gamers because of all the stigma around that term. I saw this as a way to leverage more people to play. Play Like a Feminist came out in 2020, when there were profound shifts in how we all looked at the world. When I started my research for the book, part of my argument was that the more people who play the more we can rethink the possibilities of the medium. That’s why I wanted to know why more people weren’t playing video games.
Since COVID-19, my feelings have shifted somewhat, and I’ve been thinking a lot more about leisure advocacy. It doesn’t really matter what kind of leisure activities people participate in. I see leisure largely as a matter of political equality. Leisure is about quality of life, and if not everybody is getting a satisfying amount of leisure experience, we need to talk about why and come up with ways to fix that.
There’s no easy answer. This happens in larger and smaller ways. I can talk to people in my life and help them advocate for their own leisure. At the same time, while I can talk about people thinking about their own leisure, we also need to think about the fact that that leisure is often built on the backs of people in other countries who are unable to have leisure because they’re working at factories. Their quality of life shouldn’t suffer to provide us with more opportunities for leisure.
My current activism and research are dedicated to trying to figure out how to talk about that better. Ignoring these problems isn’t the answer, but denying ourselves leisure isn’t the answer either. It’s messy, and I like a good mess.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have any advice you would like to give to students interested in game studies and feminist perspectives in media studies who are currently considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?
[Dr. Shira Chess] As with any graduate career, I would advise folks to set realistic expectations about the field and the market. It’s often tempting for graduate students to jump into a pop culture topic and think that they’ve invented something new. That is rarely true. Even for me now, there are times when I think, “Oh my god, I have the best idea,” and then find that people have been writing on that topic for a very long time. I can enter into that conversation or not, but being aware of that conversation that you are entering is important. That field might be very saturated.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, but you should also have realistic expectations about what that means for your career. Unfortunately, just having a Ph.D. doesn’t guarantee you a job. Make strategic choices about what you’re going to do, and have exit strategies for if academia doesn’t work for you.
That said, the best research is always going to be personal in some way. I started studying video games because I had personal questions about myself and about the world around me, and I think that made my work better. If you don’t understand your personal connection to the research beyond, “I like playing video games,” then you’re going to end up potentially disappointed about where your career lands.
Still, it’s vital we keep having critical conversations on these topics. We live in a time where the value of the humanities is constantly being diminished, and we are constantly being dissuaded from working in the humanities in big ways and little ways. I think that we should push back against that. We should find ways to express the importance of what we’re doing, because the hard sciences are nothing without the humanities.
Thank you, Dr. Chess, for your insights on game studies, feminism, the politics of leisure, and more!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.