How I Use Leeroy Jenkins to Teach Race in Videogames
by Tanner Higgin — University of California, Riverside
September 17, 2009 – 16:47
I think it is important for those of us in media studies, and not just with a game studies focus, to teach how to “read” and interpret videogames given their budding status as one of the dominant media forms of the near future. This is particularly important if you subscribe to McKenzie Wark’s central argument from Gamer Theory that games are not representing the world but the world is beginning to appeal to games as the ideal.
Game studies has done a good job of figuring out what exactly constitutes a game and creating methodologies to interpret games but I don’t think we’ve done a good job of focusing on pedagogy. And let me be clear, by pedagogy I do not mean the educational potentialities of game technologies – those of course have been well documented by James Paul Gee, Constance Steinkuehler, Yasmin B. Kafai and many others. What I mean is how do we as game studies scholars teach students how to read and interpret the games themselves, along with the surrounding discourses and paratextual industries that accompany games? Ed Chang has written an excellent article offering one answer to this question theorizing textual analysis of gameplay or, to use the term he creates, how to “close play” in a similar vein as close reading. I would like to offer another possibility using an example of how I teach game analysis, more specifically the analysis of gamic race, using the famous Leeroy Jenkins World of Warcraft (WOW) machinima.
In my classes, I do not have the curricular freedom or the technical capability to have students play a game like World of Warcraft (my classes are standardized introductory composition). However, most students are aware of the game and a short in-class demonstration of gameplay and further explanation usually affords them a basic understanding of how it works. With that background I then explain how a lot can be gained interpretively from looking at how game texts are appropriated, discussed, and remixed by the players. This builds on another lesson I often teach that I have blogged about previously that makes the point games must be analyzed not just in terms of what they represent visually, but also acknowledging the game technologies that are implicated in that representation (this is connected to Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort’s platform studies series at MIT). Therefore, by looking at the Leeroy Jenkins video and the surrounding player and media discourses students then get a more complete picture of all the different levels of meaning at work and available for analysis in a game.
Drawing on much of my argument put forth in “Blackless Fantasy” published in Games and Culture earlier this year, I then give them an overview of character creation systems in MMORPGs and the seemingly progressive push towards more options for visualization in order to facilitate more diversity. Students usually respond favorably to these changes and view them as the right thing to do given their familiarity with the rhetoric of multiculturalism. Once that is established I point out that even with these options available MMORPGs are predominantly whitewashed environments where blackness is viewed as abnormal and when black or brown avatars are present in MMORPG space they are often lampooned as incongruent with fantasy or sci-fi convention. (But that does not mean blackness is not of central importance to the game itself since high fantasy is obsessed with racial others.) My goal in discussing character creation is to expose the inherent problems of liberal multiculturalism since it understands social equity to be achieved through visibility and not deeper structural changes.
This is a fitting transition into the Leeroy Jenkins video which is representative of how blackness is understood within the context of the world by the players. I show the video with only a short explanation of its narrative purpose in order to illicit a more natural reaction to the humor of the video thus making the exposure of its racial logics more impactful.
After the viewing, we discuss the semiotics at work in the video and how Leeroy, a rare black avatar in WOW, is coded as black. Students often take note of the voice used by the player of Leeroy (a stereotypical 70s blaxploitation voice), the signification of the name as, once again, fitting with blaxploitation, but they often do not take note of the role played by Leeroy within the dynamic of the group.
The bumbling fool that is trying to fit into the predominantly white MMO space but ultimately screws it up for everyone is an example of the Zip Coon minstrel archetype. Demonstrating this to the students shows how these representations have a historical lineage and have undergone many permutations.
In order to counter common reactions to this reading by viewers—reactions that may be circling the classroom—I then have the class look at a Wikipedia discussion that questions the potentially racist content of the video. Please note, this discussion has since been deleted from Wikipedia.
Am I mistaken, or is this whole character a giant racial stereotype? HELLO?! –yuletide
I’m confused. He’s a character in a game. He doesn’t have a race. I’m white and I love chicken. I would lord my possession of good chicken over anyone I met. I would especially use it to deflect or downplay blame. Maybe the person who is racist is you. Megan 02:24, 20 March 2006
Maybe it is, why would that be so remarkable? The video is nothing but a bit of comedy after all. 220.127.116.11 05:00, 13 March 2006
I think you’re mistaken. Why’s it a stereotype? Because of the chicken comment? Even if it is, so what? Surely in some countries people are still free to say what they want, whether or not some folks will be offended by it. Sukiari 22:03, 14 March 2006
The discussion is representative of the common responses to claims of racial insensitivity within and without videogame culture and therefore it educates students as to the contours of the surrounding discourses. It is also productive in that it shows the importance of these issues and usefulness of the critical methodology.
While the students never analyze the game itself, by analyzing a machinima that mediates the game, students are shown how the politics of representation in videogames extend far beyond the character selections available to players and whether they adhere to or subvert dominant stereotypes.
I also like to conclude by pointing out how Blizzard, the game company behind WOW, has dealt with the potentially offensive content of the video by nullifying race while embracing the marketing potential of Leeroy Jenkins.