Hyperrhiz 17: Essays
Code before Content? Brogrammer Culture in Games and Electronic Literature
University of Central Florida
Electronic literature exists at the intersection of the humanities, arts, and STEM: an acronym that itself defines a contested battleground of technical skills. The lack of diversity in STEM has received considerable scrutiny, and computer-related fields particularly suffer from a lack of diversity. Women earn only 18% of computer science degrees as of 2011 (Institute of Education Sciences 2012), and a self-study of the games industry found that women represent only 5% of programmers and 13% of designers (Gamasutra Salary Survey 2014). This has contributed to the rise of “brogrammer” culture in disciplines with strong computer science components, and with it a rhetorical collision of programming and hypermasculine machismo. Brogrammer culture is self-replicating: in technical disciplines, the association of code with masculinity and men’s only spaces plays a pivotal role in reinforcing the status quo. Given this dramatic under-representation of women and nonbinary people in computer science disciplines, the privileging of code-driven and procedural works within the discourse of electronic literature is inherently gendered. The emergence of platforms friendly to non-coders (such as Twine) broadens participation in electronic literature and gaming spaces, but often such works are treated and labeled differently from code-driven and procedural works that occupy the same space. I argue that electronic literature communities must be aware of the gendered rhetoric and socialization surrounding code, and be vigilant against the tendency to value code (and, by extension, male-coded labor) over content when evaluating works in this form.
Electronic literature exists at the intersection of the humanities, arts, and STEM: an acronym that itself defines a contested battleground of technical skills. The lack of diversity in STEM has received considerable scrutiny, and computer-related fields particularly suffer from a lack of diversity. This has contributed to the rise of “brogrammer” culture in disciplines with strong computer science components, and with it a rhetorical collision of programming and hypermasculine machismo. Brogrammer culture is self-replicating: in technical disciplines, the association of code with masculinity and men’s only spaces plays a pivotal role in reinforcing the status quo. Artistic spaces are not exempt from the influence of this culture, as the technologies produced from Silicon Valley become the same tools with which we work, socialize, and create. Code (and our analysis of code’s influence) must consider this unevenness in distribution of STEM knowledge, access and skills. Given the dramatic under-representation of women in computer science disciplines, the privileging of code-driven and procedural works within the discourse of electronic literature is likewise inherently gendered. Electronic literature is part of what is broadly termed STEAM (which integrates arts into these technical disciplines), and thus presents a potentially powerful point of entry as well as a medium for critique and transformation. The emergence of platforms friendly to non-coders (such as Twine, which I analyze here) broadens participation in electronic literature and gaming space, but often such works are treated and labeled differently from code-driven and procedural works that occupy the same space. I argue that electronic literature communities must be aware of the gendered rhetoric and socialization surrounding code, and be vigilant against the tendency to value code (and, by extension, male-coded labor) over content when evaluating works in this form and developing a canon. I will consider the current state of this discourse through an analysis of selected works and trends represented in the latest volume of the Electronic Literature Collection, released in February 2016, on which I served as a member of the editorial team.
A lack of diversity in STEM fields is far from a new trend. As of 2013, workers identifying as women held only 26% of jobs classified as STEM, a downwards trend that Jordan Weissmann blamed in part on “the Brogrammer effect” (Weissmann). The term “brogrammer” evokes a particular type of toxic masculinity that combines knowledge of coding with more typical macho hypermasculine stereotypes. An article capturing the trend notes its rising popularity: “A portmanteau of the frathouse moniker ‘bro’ and ‘programmer,’ the term has become the subject of a Facebook group joined by over 21,000 people; the name of a series of hacker get-togethers in Austin, Tex.; the punch line for online ads; and the topic of a humorous discussion on question-and-answer site Quora titled ‘How does a programmer become a brogrammer?’ (One pointer: Drink Red Bull, beer, and ‘brotein’ shakes)” (MacMillan). Kate Losse notes that not many people would take on the brogrammer label, but that doesn’t change the culture of dominant masculinity: “the problem is that aside from those few guys reveling in their spray-tanned fantasy ‘brogrammer’ masculinity, very few people in programming identify with the term ‘brogrammer’. The brogrammer is always someone else – he is THOSE Facebook guys who yell too loudly at parties and wave bottles in the air, he is not the nice, shy guy who gets paid 30% more because of his race, gender and appeal to the boy-genius fetishes of VCs – in reality, programmers in Silicon Valley can be fully and invisibly privileged without ever touching a Grey Goose bottle-service setup or a tube of hair gel” (Losse). Likewise, perhaps few in electronic literature would identify as brogrammers–but the influence of gender on coding discourse is still significant.
Any examination of gendered discourse and coding culture within the electronic literature community must necessarily take a view to the positioning of electronic literature with relationship to several intersecting fields. Two particularly relevant to this analysis are game studies, which includes the examination of games and game design, and the digital humanities, a tensely-contested space centered on the intervention of technology in traditional humanities fields such as history and literary studies. In game studies, scholars wrestle with a white male dominated “hegemony of play” which “has driven the critical discourse of what is and is not a game” and demands interrogation (Fron, Fullerton and Morie). That hegemony comes with intense pressures on women, as recent online discourse surrounding the absence of women game creators demonstrated. In an examination of a sample of nearly eight thousand tweets from the #1ReasonWhy hashtag (co-authored with Bridget Blodgett), repeated themes of sexual harassment, overt sexualization, general harassment, silencing, and gendered micro-aggressions and assumptions stood out (Blodgett and Salter). Both fields struggle with gender-based power dynamics that go hand-in-hand with a focus on code. Electronic literature, on the other hand, does not have quite the same historical challenges as game studies presents for the placement of women–gamer identity and games discourse has been constructed by rendering women invisible, while electronic literature (particularly when considered within the discursive community of the ELO) has prominent women figures and a significant history of feminist work.
Code for All?
Code occupies an increasingly central position in our cultural discourse: in the US, Barack Obama used his final State of the Union address to call for initiatives to “help students learn to write computer code” (Obama). This builds on projects such as “Hour of Code,” a global initiative in introductory computer science education that brings familiar characters from Disney franchises and Minecraft front and center to teach elementary commands, functions, and variables. Some of these efforts use characters from women-centered franchises: Anna and Elsa of Frozen teach coding through patterns on ice, and Rey and Leia from Star Wars teach programming with droids. Such programs are inspired by the persistent lack of diversity among computer science majors in the US: women earn 57.3% of all bachelor degrees, but only 18.2% of computer science degrees (National Girls Collaborative Project). Given these numbers, it is not surprising that we see static representation of women in STEM fields–this trend, which has been unfortunately termed the leaky pipeline, is not simply a problem of losing women and other marginalized participants at every stage of their careers. The description of the leaky pipeline leads to projects like Hour of Code, which try to address early stages of access while ignoring the fact that they create only isolated moments in a cyclical cultural force.
This call to code echoes the discourse of several intersecting fields that are part of the conversation of electronic literature. It is particularly resonant in the digital humanities, where knowledge of coding has become one of the barriers to significance (if not to entry) within several discursive communities, and code skills have become part of a trend in digital humanities job postings that Amanda Gailey describes as “credential creep” (Gailey). Essays encouraging humanists and particularly graduate students to learn to code are common, such as Michael Widner’s call: “Yes, make 2012 your year of code. Learn to code. Not only is it a critical skill for DH folks, but coding should also be considered a basic literacy. I have been coding since I was 10 years old, when I learned BASIC (and its GOTOs) on my Commodore 64, one of the first popular home computers. I learned to code not because I had specific problems I wanted to solve; instead, coding was (and is) fun, a way of thinking, a way of making the computer do neat things, and an entry into a fascinating and rich culture” (Widner). Regardless of how Widner’s message is received, the trappings of privilege in the piece are inescapable: a programmer at 10, with access to home computers, has a very different perspective than someone without that privilege.
Attempts to treat coding as an easily acquired skill for all also risk obscuring the realities of code and systems as they exist today. The rise of code studies, software studies, and platform studies draw necessary and crucial attention to what lies beneath our interfaces. Such fields also offer opportunities to critique the underlying binaries and assumptions of systems which often would go unseen: feminist and queer code analysis in particular have the potential to disrupt our reliance on unchallenged systems. Electronic literature and digital humanities share a reliance on coded systems and tools that often go under-analyzed. Elizabeth Losh has noted that “articulating a need for a feminist corrective in the digital humanities has come at a much slower pace, perhaps because the instrumentalism of a “tool” seems much less blatantly anti-feminist than the instrumentalism of a gun” (Losh). The reluctance to ascribe intention to software and, indeed, to code itself rises from a bias towards math as neutral, ignore the fact that algorithms have their own intentions and biases. Feminist code has the potential to offer a corrective, and subvert the dominant paradigm of the algorithm. Jeremy Douglass proposes three distinct areas of code as feminist act: code feminism, which is made to be used and executed for a feminist purpose; feminist codework, which is code-like but not intended to be run; and feminist code, which is “executable, syntactically subversive embedded language or new programming [code] languages affording a fundamentally different feminist paradigm for software development” (Schlesinger).
The potential of coding electronic literature as a feminist act has been rightly discussed by several authors. Geniwate discusses The princess murderer (2003), a collaborative Flash project (with Deena Larsen), in terms this space for feminist coding: “Could this have been a feminist act? To a certain extent, the surface narrative is a feminist one, an explosion of surreal sex and violence couched in a game/narrative with no real resolution. However, my own sense of The princess murderer as a ‘transgressive’ text did not seem to be derived from the narrative. Rather I felt that I was treading on a male preserve - programming code - and appropriating it to ‘perform’ the narrative. It was at that point that the programming code started to infest the narrative itself - any attempt to separate them seemed superficial” (Geniwate). Other feminist works take their use of code as a mechanism further.
Feminist Work in the ELC3
While nearly every work of electronic literature relies on some form of code, there is a vast range of dependencies and reliance on coding. The first volume of the Electronic Literature Collection (ELC) introduced several code-specific keywords, including code work (which uses code aesthetics, but it not designed to compile), generative or algorithm-driven works, and several languages. It also included a keyword for “women authors” to highlight works with at least one woman author or contributor, while including no corresponding tag for men or non-binary identifying authors (Hayles, Montfort and Rettberg). This practice (which did not persist into volume 2 or 3) draws attention to the authors as othered. As the community has grown and the collections have become more diverse thanks to the use of social media to spread calls for nominations and submissions, the demographics of the collections themselves have correspondingly changed.
The tools of electronic literature include both code and interfaces. The demise of Flash has left significant fallout within the production of electronic literature. Flash is still well-represented within the ELC3, but new browsers promise to offer little to no support for the playing of existing works, and Adobe has abandoned future support for the Flash editor. In its golden age, Flash offered layers of access based on procedural literacy: someone without scripting knowledge but with mastery of the visual interface can generate animated work, but no meaningful interactivity. Other non-coder-friendly tools such as HyperCard, StorySpace, and Twine particularly act as entrypoints for the construction of hypertextual works, a keyword given to 6 works in the ELC1, 11 works in the ELC2, and 20 works in the ELC3. Meanwhile, the number of works given the keyword generative has been rising, with over 45 included in the ELC3. An analysis of this latest volume (released in February 2016) reveals two of the curated groupings within the collection, Taroko Gorge remixes and Twitter bots, are dedicated to procedural works. Gender representation within these nodes skews towards men, most markedly in the collection of Twitter bots (eight of eleven works are authored by men.) Twitter bots themselves rely upon participation and engagement with a social media platform that has served as an ongoing battleground for discourse on gender, race, identity, class, and politics, with marginalized voices in those conversations subject to continual silencing and harassment. I mention this not as a critique of the collection itself, on which as noted previously I served as part of a four-person editorial team, but as a means to highlight the significant trends towards this type of practice in electronic literature and the gender divisions that can follow.
The Taroko Gorge remixes, which present a notably more procedurally accessible form than the server-driven and API reliant Twitter bots, are correspondingly more diverse. One of the most interesting pieces for gendered discourse within this collection is Kathi Inman Berens’s Tournedo Gorge (2012), which blends the discourse of the recipe and the kitchen with the process of coding and authoring. In the author statement for the collection, Berens writes: “I wrote Tournedo Gorge because I wanted to mash the space of computation with the female, domestic, and tactile” (Berens). This mash-up draws attention to the combination of patterns and creative acts that underlie combinatorial works, while also representing a significant feminist piece within the collection. Divisions between categories of labor based on associations with women’s and men’s work are culturally entrenched, and yet in this piece they are procedurally ensured to mingle and combine.
Procedural works thus offer compelling opportunities to challenge and reconstruct authorship. Works that take existing language as source texts often pull those voices into combinations the original authors would not have considered. For example, Stephanie Strickland and Nick Montfort’s Sea and Spar Between (2010) places Emily Dickinson in post-mortem co-authorship with Herman Melville in a cacophony of poetic styles that invites us to recognize each source text in a seemingly infinite web (Montfort and Strickland). As a poetry generator, the work builds on the traditions both of literary Oulipian texts and of code and algorithms for generating meaning. The work has also served as a platform, inspiring several similar mash-ups (such as Mark Sample’s 2013 House of Leaves of Grass).
The barriers to creating an original procedural work such as Sea and Spar Between are still considerable. A true successor to Flash’s intertwined cinematic and procedural methods has yet to emerge. There are several new platforms represented in ELC3 that are worth engaging, particularly Twine. Twine is an open-source tool designed for non-coders, and thus has drawn in new and diverse creative voices from creators not previously trained in computer science. Twine is in my view the most significant platform we’ve highlighted in the ELC 3 for its proven potential for feminist work: while Twine games can and do contain significant coded and procedural elements, a Twine work’s literary and emotional power is not defined by those mechanisms. The code-free nature of the platform’s fundamental mechanics is a major part of its appeal. However, Twine is not isolated from code: it is a web-based hypertext story or game making tool marketed as accessible to non-programmers. This accessibility is key to its positioning as the platform of choice for what Anna Anthropy has termed the “twine revolution,” a growing community of personal game-makers using Twine to disrupt expectations about games and interactive narratives. Many of these games are made to share deeply personal experiences, from rape and abuse to gender identity and social pressures in highly intimate situations.
The ill-defined space between hypertext and game that Twine occupies is subject to dispute not only because of Twine’s inherent poetics and form, but thanks to the nature of its central creative voices. Merritt Kopas notes the linkage between the “nontraditional” form, content, and authorship dominating Twine works: “these games and authors have faced numerous struggles for legitimacy in games communities. In 2012 and early 2013, a flood of arguments between games scholars, critics, and authors broke loose about whether hypertext works were really games at all. Unsurprisingly, these ‘nontraditional’, contested narrative-focused works were being produced overwhelmingly by nontraditional authors, and especially by trans women, who were sometimes perceived as intruders into the historically very exclusionary space of games” (Kopas). Twine’s significance as a platform of choice for a number of trans women is particularly central to this exclusion, which Kopas notes is often erased in examinations of this moment in games.
Meanwhile, some of the Twine works included in the ELC 3 speak to the very discourse of gender and technology. Dietrich Squinkifer’s Quing’s Quest VII (2014), developed in response to GamerGate as part of Ruin Jam, engages with a battle over games discourse that cannot be separated from a moment pivotal to the future of code culture and by extension electronic literature. GamerGate is a cultural war that overtook games culture in August 2014, centered in part around a game made in Twine: Zoë Quinn’s Depression Quest (2013). Zoë Quin, Patrick Lindsey, and Isaac Shankler collaborated on the game, which was released on Steam and inspired a number of gendered and sexually aggressive attacks on Quinn through social media and other venues (Parkin). Shortly after, Zoë Quinn became a target of renewed attention at the center of GamerGate, along with several other visible women in the games industry who were accused of trying to “ruin” games. Ruin Jam was launched in that spirit, as the announcement for the event explains: “Ruin Jam is a game jam celebrating the nonexistent demise of video games, inspired by a lot of current events and a certain blog post. It's open to anyone and everyone who has been, is being, or plans to be accused of ruining the games industry. All Ruiners are welcome to contribute to the death of video games, provided that they adhere to the spirit of the jam” (Sandel). In their post announcing the game, Squinkifer noted their intentional choice of platform: “It’s made in Twine, because nothing says ‘hey, that’s not really a game!’ like Twine” (Squinkifer, Quing's Quest VII: The Death of Videogames! released). Again, the underlying questions of code vs. apparent “non-code” (as well as visual versus text) become integral to the definition of a work and how it is received, with Twine understood as an inherently subversive choice of platform for entering into dialogue with games.
Quing’s Quest invites the player onto the spaceship Social Justice Warrior, carrying the fleeing former royalty of Planet Videogames. The player is embodied as a genderfluid space pirate, described in the text of the game: “As good-looking as ever. Seriously, you are, like, the most gorgeous person of mysterious and indistinct gender in the universe” (Squinkifer). The game pits you and your advisor / lover (“Nero, the genderfluid Social Justice Pirate”) against the forces that destroyed your home planet of Videogames: the Misogynerds. The description evokes the spectre of GamerGate: “They were a big joke, at first. These strange creatures, with their bizzare caste system and complete, utter lack of imagination. But then, as it turned out, they had resources” (Squinkifer). The caste system in question, of course, is one tied to traditional gender binary discourse of men versus women – but it also holds echoes of “hardcore” gamer versus casual, and even of brogrammer versus outsider.
Following Videogames’s invasion by the Misogynerds, the captain suggests migrating to another planet: “New Mediaart, Weirdinternet, Hypertext, or Academia?” Hypertext is dismissed quickly–“Is that even a real planet? I thought it was a satellite,” while academia is even worse–“You’d be willing to climb all the way up that ivory tower, comrade? Wow, our situation must be more desperate that I thought” (Squinkifer). This type of reflective discourse is part of the feminist underpinnings of the platform, as addressed by Porpentine, a game designer and artist who works primarily in Twine (and whose powerful work is represented in the ELC 3). In her early essay “Creation Under Capitalism and the Twine Revolution,” Porpentine critiqued the field of electronic literature as one where much of the discourse is by and for academics, and where barriers of both monetary and academic construction are continually erected. Her words suggest the initial impression an outsider to that community might get thanks to the reliance on closed venues historically in the community: “no wonder hypertext fiction had a lull – they hid behind middle-upper class literary pretensions, acting like it was some kind of avant-garde science. I’m seeing academic essays on hypertext buried behind passwords, I’m seeing a hypertext editor like Twine for $300, I’m seeing stories selling for $30. How many people are buying those?” We have the means to combat some of these perceptions–and indeed open-access collections like those the ELO specializes in are a great benefit, and overall we are moving towards more open models of publication both in academic and commercial spaces–but we as a community can do better. Likewise, questions of commercial viability haunt both producers of electronic literature and those working in personal and artistic game genres, as the vast range of free content and tools available makes it difficult to market commercial work. The reception and production of works in Twine offers one entrypoint into rethinking the value of hypertext, and while the poetics of Twine echo the work of hypertext, this activist, subversive context pushes Twine’s significance forward.
Ian Bogost addresses Twine’s positioning between the domains of hypertext fiction and games and suggests that this tension is part of its significance:
An example might be found in those who see Twine as a new means to facilitate non-traditional creators’ voices in games, and those who see Twine as an unexpected resurgence of hypertext fiction for the web. For the former group, the association with a prior (and largely white and male) tradition exerts an unwelcome colonizing force that undermines the liberationist possibilities of the platform and its practitioners. For the latter, the refusal to acknowledge said lineage signals a blinkered ahistoricism that, in refusing to answer for the shift from (e-)literature to games, posits a cultural and aesthetic move for which it has no theory or justification–a situation that might even undermine its ultimate mission. It’s possible that this conflict cannot be reconciled, at least not in the present. Would that really be such a calamity? Does it not signal the unexpected richness and intrigue of the topic, rather than suggest that one “side” is righteous and the other wicked? (Bogost).
Bogost’s positioning of Twine is likewise a reminder that as we work on expanding our understanding of electronic literature to acknowledge the contributions of diverse voices, communities, and platforms, we must keep an eye on dueling histories and priorities. The same can of course be said of procedural and generative works, which have a history in Oulipian traditions that pre-date code as well as in more recent play with the algorithm as a literary mechanism. Likewise, we must be conscious of our tendency to value and privilege particular forms and their aesthetic development in ways that might close off some less code-based interpretations of what electronic literature is and might be.
At the Electronic Literature Organization conference in 2015 in Bergen, Norway, Flourish Klink offered a provocation in her paper on "Fandom Vs. E-Lit: How Communities Organize" suggesting that fanfiction works, with their networked, communal distribution and participatory formats, could be recognized as a form of electronic literature (Klink). Fanfiction is a form dominated by women authors: the fanfiction Archive of Our Own census found 80% of users identified as female, 6% as genderqueer, 4% as male, 2% as transgender, 2% as trans*, 2% as androgynous, and 2% as agender (Lulu). Despite many fan practices resembling genres of electronic literature, such as the clear connection between Netprov and social media-based roleplaying, discussions of this work have been minimal. When looking towards the next frontiers of electronic literature, there will always be a space for code. However, we should avoid placing our emphasis on code and procedural work as the only way to advance the state of the medium, or even a primary one. By privileging code as a route to innovation, we risk further replicating the hierarchies and exclusionary cultural dynamics that are still playing out with disastrous conflicts now in nearby fields, including gaming. If we instead broaden our lens to consider these types of networked literary practices, we can bring other forms of activist work into community discourse.
While efforts like Obama’s goal of increased computer science education may potentially provide some equity in early access to coding knowledge, the larger cultural divide surrounding programming can be expected to persist well into the future–though electronic literature definitely presents one avenue of addressing that gap, and educational efforts such as Mark Marino’s work with children’s electronic literature present exciting opportunities for integrating these practices into procedural literacy education (Marino). Platforms such as Twine, Inklewriter, and other new-comer friendly tools have emerged from the desire to make the construction of electronic literature and/or games more accessible to a variety of voices, and those platforms are in turn being integrated into classrooms and disciplines not typically affiliated with electronic literature. However, the gaps in representation within STEM-connected fields (particularly in gender and racial diversity) are too firmly entrenched to be transformed by any single effort, and the idea of code as owned by and connected to particularly identities is similarly entrenched–consider even how nearly every programming language privileges English as a primary mode of operation.
Some of the work of challenging these divides might well take the form of more codework, and particularly more of the types of feminist interventions that the works previously discussed by Kathi Inman Berens, Stephanie Strickland, and others point to, with procedural rhetoric and code serving as points of interrogation and inquiry. However, increased access and inclusive representation can also be granted through valuing, promoting, and archiving the significant works emerging on platforms that place fewer code-based barriers between users and creative digital expression. We must as a community be particularly wary of falling into some of the rhetorical traps the digital humanities community has traversed with the discourse surrounding code as an at-times too exalted tool. We are fortunate to have one of the more diverse academic communities at the intersection of literature and technology that I have experienced, but that community can only be strengthened by acknowledging the inequities that surround the code and platforms we rely upon. Likewise, continuing to build upon discursive relationships with other traditions that bridge these fields (construed broadly, from the Computers & Writing community to game studies and beyond) offers more opportunities for changing values.
I bring this discussion forward within the context of feminist discourse surrounding electronic literature not to disparage or to devalue code-driven work, but simply to push for us to keep a broader definition of electronic literature present and valued within the community. As we seek to make electronic literature more relevant in an emerging landscape where Google is widely publishing their “revolutionary” e-lit and mobile apps make nearly every person a potential reader/player, we have the opportunity to demonstrate the best possible application of STEAM, that elusive fusion of technology and arts that brogrammer culture pushes against. Let us resist taking up the battlecry of “learn to code” that resonates through digital humanities communities without first problematizing and interrogating its underlying assumptions, and instead acknowledge that valuing the work of authors outside of the procedural and algorithmic traditions can be as important as a feminist act as pushing for wider code education among communities currently underrepresented in STEM and feminist code poetics–and indeed, these two initiatives can comfortably co-exist.
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