Published: Dec. 1, 2001 By

[1]   Video games have emerged as a dominant form of cultural expression in the new millennium. As a cultural and economic force, they have surpassed the Hollywood film industry in terms of total revenues, and they are a major source of technological innovation and creative imagination. Because of their unparalleled ability to engage gamers in varying levels of structural and narrative play as active navigators of diegetic space, well-known experimental filmmaker Chris Marker has even commented that “video games offer deeper insight into the unconscious than the collected works of Jacques Lacan” (cited in Lunenfeld). In recent years, video games have enjoyed unprecedented attention from the academic, art, and music worlds. This attention includes a major interdisciplinary conference, held in New York in 1999 by the Re:Play group, which is comprised of digital theorists, game developers, media critics, computer scientists, scholars, researchers, hackers, and professional game players.

[2]   Although some artists and critics do not consider games as a legitimate art form, a growing number of proponents point out that the increasing popularity of computer and video games and gaming culture indicates the shaping of a new future-directed aesthetics. Exploring and interrogating the new spaces, subject positions, and modes of interactivity facilitated by games and gaming culture are areas of critical investigation explored by several recent major art exhibitions. Among these are the 1999 on-line show “Cracking the Maze,” the 1998 Amsterdam show and conference “The Doors of Perception,” the 1999 Vienna “Synworld” event, the 1999 University of Southern California “Interactive Frictions” exhibit, and the 1999 Zurich “Game Over” show.

[3]   Musical artists have also followed this cultural trend. For example, in 1999 a small New York Label called Lucky Kitchen released a CD, “Blip, Bleep” that is the soundtrack to an imaginary video game. Each of its eighteen tracks, contributed by diverse musicians whose styles range from dance to ambient, demonstrate the high degree to which the aural environment of the arcade has shaped our collective musical sense. The Whitman brothers, otherwise known as Blitter vs. Hrvatski, were among the groups that appeared on the album. They sampled scores of game noises from vintage Commodore 64 titles and used them as the foundation for their drum ‘n’ bass song titled, “Nuclear Cat Gets New Home.” Another song on the album entitled “Family Tree Polo,” asks listeners to imagine that they can bounce through time in an ambulance to rescue injury-prone ancestors in order to ensure their own eventual births. In anticipation of the release of Eidos’ Tomb Raider II, a group of celebrated musicians including Yello, Jimi Tenor, Depeche Mode, Faith No More, Moby, and Apollo 440 recorded a progressive album with electronic music and game samples called, “A Tribute to Lara Croft.”

[4]   This flurry of intellectual and artistic activity seems even more amazing when one considers that prior to the mid-1990s, the emerging genre of video game art was mostly confined to a small underground movement. The movement found space for its public expression on the Internet, where players and game artists created and swapped add-ons, commonly called “patches” or “plug-ins,” that altered pre-existing game characters or added new characters and/or graphics. Computer game playing tips and codes have historically circulated freely on the Internet, thanks in part to the efforts of gamers themselves, who readily share their work with others. While some plug-ins and patches are merely designed to correct programming errors, others allow players to import new playing levels, special effects, or even characters into the gaming environment.

[5]   Certain gaming companies have made patch-making software easily accessible, perhaps in an effort to appropriate these intentionally parasitic practices. Some have perhaps even created the patches themselves. The logic is that a patch like the infamous “Nude Raider,” which disrobes Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, is ultimately good for business. A widespread rumor cited in the curatorial statement for “Cracking the Maze” suggests that Eidos created and distributed the patch themselves as a publicity stunt (Schleiner 1998). In an effort to subvert the potential for corporate reabsorption of their work, some designers have created patches that hybridize games beyond recognition. For example, patches that feature strong female characters who disrupt the plots of commercially produced games prefigured the appearance of similar characters within the cyberworlds of mainstream games. In fact, although they were mostly biologically males, the first game patch artists often chose to create female avatars. Whether they were motivated by a desire for gender experimentation, virtual female companionship, or mastery over women is difficult to assess. However, the early construction of female game characters by men was consistent with a larger gaming aesthetic that privileged intentional slippages between seemingly fixed categories of identity (e.g., human and non-human, biological and machine, etc.) (cf. Schleiner).

[6]   The influence of the mostly male game-patch artists grew stronger as corporate game designers began designing and releasing their own female heroines in first person shooter games (combat games where the player takes on an on-screen avatar) by the mid-1990s. Among the most famous games to date are those of the aforementioned Tomb Raider series, which star Lara Croft as a buxom, gun-toting cyber-anthropologist with a tiny waist and an enormous cult following. While female characters like Lara Croft were entering the gaming mainstream, female players and game hackers began to enter the gaming and game patch worlds like never before, creating their own female avatars otherwise known as “skins.” While men continued to create improbably proportioned female avatars, who were often more body than brain, women and girls formed their own guilds, which allowed the women a space of their own for game play, creative exchange, and the camaraderie that had often been denied them by male gamers. Female gamers began producing experimental skins that challenge real world gender ideals and the aesthetics of both their male peers and the male-dominated gaming companies.

[7]   The presence of women’s clans has lead to the emergence of a specifically female gaming culture, but one that is dedicated to de-essentializing gender identities through intentionally subversive practices of appropriation. As Schleiner explains, “Members of this culture apply a ‘cut and mix’ approach to the female heroine genotypes articulated in earlier gaming patches by mostly male players. Female skinners sample elements from the pre-existing female character lexicon and add new flavors into the mix, resulting in fem monsters better suited to their female inhabitants” (1998). The creative exchange facilitated by the game-patch making movement had an impact on both the gaming and the art worlds, making artists out of gamers and gamers out of artists. In “Cracking the Maze,” Schleiner explains the appeal of this new medium for both men and women:

Although some artists have successfully created games as art, producing a game patch as art offers certain advantages over building a game from scratch. On a technical level, of course, the artist(s) avoids having to put in the extensive time required for programming an interactive game engine. But the parasitic game patch is also a means to infiltrate gaming culture and to contribute to the formation of new configurations of game characters, game spaces and game play. Like the sampling rap MC, game hacker artists operate as culture hackers who manipulate existing techno-semiotic structures towards different ends, or as described by artist Brett Stalbaum, “who endeavor to get inside cultural systems and make them do things they were never intended to do.”

[8]   As video game art rises to new levels of sophistication, artists move from patches to explore other evolutionary forms. Male artists like Miltos Manetas create altered video game loops that deal with the compulsion to repeat. 1997’s “Flames” and the subsequent “Flames II” feature repetitive video sequences of a dying Lara Croft. Two other pieces from his famed series “Videos after Video Games” entitled “I am so Sorry” and “I Can’t Go On” feature video game men who are defeated by women time after time. William Latham’s work is another standout in the field, but one that is less obviously oriented toward psychoanalytic themes. His three dimensional “virtual sculptures,” made from a combination of technical and organic materials, are created through the use of genetic algorithms. With his partner, programmer Mark Atkinson, Latham has recently finished work on his first computer game, Evolva. Players take up the character of Evolva who is a master of genetic engineering as well as the ultimate warrior. Latham explains:

The interesting thing [about Evolva] is that players can mutate and customize their in-game character. Though they start out human-like, they end up looking outrageous, their bodies morphed into post-human amalgams of futuristic weapons and flesh. By the end of the game a player’s in-game character is unique to them. By choosing to mutate their characters in different ways players can put their personality into the game they’re playing, save their mutated selves, and send them to friends via the Net. (cited in McClellan 2)

[9]   It is difficult to discern whether or not “Flames” and Evolvasubvert long-held notions of identity and mastery or if are they merely high-tech toys for boys. Perhaps only a very fine line separates a strong political intervention, intended to liberate everyone from constraining gender norms, from a banal male fantasy that oppresses women. The degree to which the gender of the artist matters in the emerging video game art is currently a significant matter of dispute among producers and users of patches and plug-ins. These disputes are only exacerbated by concurrent debates in the gaming world over gender such as how to resolve the apparent contradiction of female gamers who commit themselves to de-essentializing gender identities in the skins they design, but often demand gender exclusivity in their clans.

[10]   The quandaries that emerge when one attempts to evaluate the transformative potential of gender play in video game art and video games are critical to contemporary feminism. Although patches and plug-ins, as well as other avatars, expose that bodies are always constructed and articulated through deployments of power across categories of identity, it is wrong to assume that simply because bodies are assembled that they can be disassembled and reconfigured at will. Avatars may not appear to be as fixed as real-life identities, and their fluidity may appear to free them from certain real life constraints, but even in virtual reality they are subject to organizational practices which, because they are a product of the social, never fully escape the social.

[11]   Video game critics Demaria and Mascio call these temporary corporeal repositories for virtual identities “bodies without flesh,” but I think it would be more accurate to consider them “skins without bodies.” They reify rather than challenge binary organization and existing social hierarchies by limiting the ways in which bodies can be acknowledged in their specificity and strategically deployed against masculinist claims of universality. Furthermore, skins subordinate the body, which has historically been associated with women and the feminine, to the mind, which has historically been associated with men and masculinity.

[12]   The ways in which gender identities are negotiated in video game play reflect the ways that real-life gender investments operate in the real world and carry over to virtual worlds. In Internet-based games, it is possible not only to play with gender, but also to play as a gender by presenting one’s identity as such. It is easy to understand why this feature, which blurs the distinction between virtual and lived identities, seems appealing. Choosing to play as a male, for example, may allow a female gamer to temporarily shed her physical body and gain equal footing with male gamers who never have to deal with gender as a liability. Perhaps for the first time, the battle of the sexes can be fought on a field where what you do (frag your opponent) is considered a more important factor in your probable success than who you are.

[13]   One down side to this potentially subversive practice, however, is that a temporary escape from identity is not an escape from identity politics. Passing as a man appears to be necessary precondition for social acceptance in the male-dominated virtual world. But even more potentially problematic is that the same gender indeterminacy that enables a woman to pass as a male makes it equally possible for a male to pass as a female in order to infiltrate a female clan and claim this space as his own. Although many female clans such as Coven, who play Gemstone III, attempt to make biological sex an absolute criteria for membership, on a practical level there is little they can do to enforce the exclusion of men. Other female clans such as the Kelles, who play EverQuest, take a more pragmatic approach by insisting that all members choose female avatars for game play, but are a little less restrictive about the biological sex of their members. According to their Web site, while they discourage men from applying for membership, they make exceptions in cases where they feel confident that a man, “can convince [us] that he can role-play a female character well and fit in with the rest of our members.”

[14]   Despite the fact that cyberspace is often touted as an arena for positive identity experimentation, one quickly discovers that whether biologically or technologically produced, gender identities in cyberspace, though only skin deep, are often rigid and conform strictly to conventional codes and roles (cf. Springer). It seems intuitive that choosing a gender would be necessarily more liberating than being trapped by the limitations of one’s biological sex. However, if one is expected to wear that identity in a particular and stereotypical way, or wear an identity simply to gain access to otherwise off-limits spaces and experiences, the potential for virtual worlds to facilitate positive changes in the physical world is significantly limited. The optimism generated by early cyberfeminist interventionist texts, like Donna Haraway’s legendary 1985 “Manifesto for Cyborgs” has fizzled to some extent. As Anne Balsamo noted almost a decade later, “the gendered boundary between male and female is one border that remains heavily gendered despite new technologized ways to rewrite the physical body in the flesh” (217).

[15]   These critical ironies make it necessary to sort out why embodiment matters in cyberspace. As an antidote to the uncritical celebration of the virtual incarnation of cyberbodies, “corporeal feminism” contests the mind/body dichotomy and considers the body as a viable basis for subjectivity and identity formation (cf. Grosz, Zita, Kirby, Balsamo, et al.). Corporeal feminism may start with the groundwork laid by the relatively progressive but often masculinist discourses of post-structuralist philosophy, but much like feminist video game art it applies a “cut and mix” method that both critiques and appropriates these discourses by rejecting dualism yet insisting on gender specificity. Where corporeal feminists differ from game hackers is that they view the body not merely as a skin but rather as the very “stuff of subjectivity” (Grosz ix). They contend that the embodied subject problematizes universalist and universalizing claims made by the humanists (who collapse the differences between bodies) and posthumanists (who privilege virtual bodies over lived embodiment) alike. Corporeal feminists point out that the body defeats the mind’s every attempt to annihilate it. It is precisely this inassimilable quality of the body that guards against its total appropriation.

[16]   Thinking through how the insights of corporeal feminism can be put into the service of a feminist cyberpolitics, I am concerned with examining what kinds of gendered identities and bodies can exist in cyberspace and what the conditions are and can be for their existence. In what sense do deconstructive practices which have the potential to produce new gender, sexes, and sexualities through the artificial reconstruction of the body always struggle against the incessant cultural reproduction of hetero-patriachal norms of gender and sexuality? What are the sexual politics of the conceptual framing and practices of becoming a gender? What are the ethical stakes involved in acts of gender performance and appropriation? What are the limitations of these subversive gender acts?

Strategic Alliances

[17]   While corporeal feminists share certain critical investments with post-structuralist philosophers, including their commitment to the interrogation of essentialism, their emphasis on examining how deeds produce doers, and their analyses of how identities are performed through the body, there are several areas in which their objectives are dissimilar. The scope of my discussion is not intended to address all of the possible points of connection and contention between post-structuralist philosophy and corporeal feminism. However, by examining the emerging nexus between the work of Gilles Deleuze and feminism as a potential strategic alliance, it will be possible to elucidate the value of gender specificity for a corporeal cyberfemism. Indeed, Deleuze’s attempt to overturn the dualist and hierarchical organization of identities is shared by corporeal feminists and many patch artists who design the temporary assemblages of non-synthesized identities disseminated over transient networks with lightening speed. The body, according to Deleuze, is not a fixed status, a destiny, or a container for the mind, but rather an ongoing play of forces, intensities, and energies. It is a work in progress, a perpetual becoming. Deleuze therefore does not conceptualize the body as gendered, but rather as a multiplicity of sexes. As Deleuze remarks in Difference and Repetition:

There are as many sexes as there are terms in symbiosis, as many differences as elements contributing to a process of contagion. We know that many beings pass between a man and a woman; they come from different worlds, are born on the wind, form rhizomes around roots; they cannot be understood in terms of production, only in terms of becoming. (242)

[18]   Central to Deleuze’s overall notion of becoming is a sub-concept, “becoming-woman,” that is exemplary of both the promise and shortcoming of Deleuze’s philosophy for women. As commentator Brian Massumi explains:

Becoming-woman involves carrying the indeterminacy, movement, and paradox of the female stereotype past the point at which it is recuperable by the socius as it presently functions, over the limit beyond which lack of definition becomes the positive power to select a trajectory (the leap from the real of possibility into the virtual- breaking away). (87)

[19]   Rather than revaluating “women’s work,” “ways of being/knowing,” etc., as the cultural feminists of the 1980s and earlier proposed, Deleuze advocates an alteration in the meaning of woman altogether. He argues that alteration is necessary to bring about the positive change in material conditions that answers the demand for a greater range of possible gender expressions. In order to be successful at dismantling the traditional metaphysical understanding of sexual difference, Deleuze argues that both women and men must initiate going beyond gender, through practices Massumi calls “strategic misapplications.” The intentional divestments of hegemonic gender associated within becoming-woman, it is reasoned, can change the existing social order for the better.

[20]   Although I see more promise in Deleuze’s notion of becoming than in traditional formulations of ontology, I will approach the crucial question Deleuze fails to address: the stakes and investments for men and women are not the same with respect to the project of becoming-woman. I will also suggest ways in which feminists can apply those aspects of Deleuzian thought that enable our own dynamic yet materially grounded becomings. Early feminist responses to Deleuze’s situation of “becoming woman” outside of empirical gender raised suspicions such as those voiced by Rosi Braidotti in her text Nomadic Subjects:

Clearly, the woman occupies a troubled area in this radical critique of phallogocentrism: insofar as woman is positioned dualistically as the other of this system, she is also annexed to it. Deleuze- not uncharacteristically ignorant of the basic feminist epistemological distinction between Woman as representation and women as concrete agents of experience- ends up making distinctions internal to the category of woman herself. (116)

[21]   Other feminist critics of Deleuze were concerned that becoming-woman threatens to make material conditions faced by real women within contemporary culture appear abstract. The demand for social and sexual autonomy, they argued, was and still is an important aspect of feminist praxis. It appeared to these critics as if women, who have historically been condemned to the body and yet dispossessed of their bodies, were being asked by Deleuze to think of their bodies as something less than real. They asked: how can we deconstruct a subjectivity over which we have never enjoyed control? How can we jettison the category of sex when no sexual symmetry has ever been achieved? Although they may not have identified themselves explicitly as corporeal feminists, these critics were nevertheless at the forefront of a critical and ongoing dialogue between philosophy, feminism, and the body.

[22]   Those in support of Deleuze responded to these concerns by pointing out that sexual difference is indeed a reality, but not a primary or essential aspect of human subjectivity. No real body, they argued, ever achieves gender as it is commonly understood, as a principle binary reality, but rather only to the degree to that it is capable of conforming with socially generated codes of conduct and display. Success, which is always tenuous, depends on the continuous achievement of a pre-given set of clichés and attitudes. Deleuze supports a social constructionist view of gender, but nevertheless he acknowledges that the feminine gender stereotype has been disproportionately burdened by patriarchy and suggests that this is precisely why it offers a more privileged mode of departure from patriarchal investment for both sexes.

[23]   Although Deleuze does not directly cite minority practices like camp, critical mimesis, drag, feminist masquerade, or video game patch art, his project of becoming would seem to advocate exactly these kinds of practices. Significantly, where his concept of becoming may differ from these practices is with regard to the question of identity. Everyone– not just minority subjects– must engage in strategic misapplications, but again Deleuze frustratingly does not give much direct consideration to the question of divergent investments.

[24]   For Deleuze, every act of drag is equal to all other acts of drag insofar as each contributes to the overall transformation of being. But, again, are these equivalencies true? If men are, in fact, doomed to the stasis of self-preservation, rather than being open to the ecstasies of becoming, could becoming-woman be nothing more than an evolutionary survival strategy for men, an appropriation and annihilation of the feminine coded once again as the threat of difference? Does becoming amount to an amalgamation of the sexes that is a self-interested erasure of difference? As Andrew Ross has observed:

Patriarchy is constantly reforming masculinity, minute by minute, day by day. Indeed, the reason why patriarchy remains so powerful is due less to its entrenched traditions than to its versatile capacity to shape-change and morph the contours of masculinity to fit with shifts in the social climate; in this it shares with capitalism a modernizing hunger to seize the present and dictate the future. (172)

[25]   If Ross is correct in his analysis of patriarchy, the female avatars created by men are likely to be nothing more than an extension of a masculinist will to power, reflective of a desire to produce, control, and contain the other. When men take on the previously devalued signifiers of female identity in the construction of their own identities, it is possible that they do so not to engage in more empathetic relations with the other but rather to become more other than the other. Can becoming-woman be merely a guard against the feared posthuman demise of the masculinist subject of modernity?

[26]   The dual threat of their recapitulation of gender stereotypes and their appropriation by both male gamers as well as male-dominated gaming industry limits the liberating potential of female and gender-hybrid avatars. While these are serious threats, I am not suggesting that women refrain from the production or habitation of cyber-identities altogether and decline the risk of becoming. But I do want to explore how it may be possible for women to play both with and against Deleuze, to compete and even beat men at the game of becoming. Or, put another way, I want to know how women can “become” better than men.

Lara Croft Does Not Exist

[27]   If female avatars are used by men to secure an image of themselves, perhaps the trick is to discover ways in which women are capable of performing that mirror relation unfaithfully, thus both confirming and confounding the unidirectionality of the gaze. In this section of my discussion I examine the Lara Croft cult phenomenon, known by some gamers simply as “croftness,” to consider ways in which mimesis and multiplicity can short-circuit the return of the self-same, while simultaneously suggesting possible strategies that might enable women in their own becomings. Especially to the uninitiated, or “newbies” in gamespeak, an obvious question may be “Who is Lara Croft?” One way to address this query may be to point to her recent accomplishments. As a recent broadcast special on Lara by Susan Stone of National Public Radio explains:

She was one of Details magazine’s sexiest women of the year in 1998. This year, she was nominated to be an ambassador for British scientific excellence. She has toured with the band U2, has her own line of clothes in England and appears in French car commercials. Forbes magazine says she’s worth $425 million. There’s also legal action over nude pictures of her that have been posted on the Internet.

[28]   Another approach may be to point to her albeit sketchy biography: This thirty-one-year-old, single, brown-haired, brown-eyed Englishwoman, who stands at 5’9″ and weighs 132 lbs., and whose measurements are 34D-24-35 is, according to Details, the new “bit girl.” The daughter of a British lord, Lara was privately tutored until age eleven, when she attended Wimbledon High School for Girls and then Gordonstoun School. An avid athlete, Lara took up marksmanship and freestyle rockclimbing while at Gordonstoun and later, at Swiss finishing school, she pursued extreme skiing. While leisure traveling in the Himalayas, she was the sole survivor of a plane crash. The experience led Lara to denounce her privilege and take up the life of an independent adventuress. Rejecting her parent’s wish that she marry one of her many suitors, an earl, Lara was cut off financially. She now supports herself independently by selling diaries of her travels, in which she gives readers titillating details about her butt-kicking travails.

[29]   Always coy about certain aspects of her identity, Lara takes an intentionally ambiguous stance to maximize speculation and interest from her adoring fans. For example, there is the matter of her sexuality. When asked in a recent interview what a man would have to do to get her attention, Lara coolly replied, “Well, he’d have to know how to handle his weapon… seriously, though, I really don’t have much time for men at the moment – though part of me might enjoy a little romance from time to time.” When pushed further, she would only add, “The thing is, any guy who wanted to go out with me really wouldn’t see that much of me. There’s no room for passengers on my trips, and as soon as I’ve finished one adventure, it’s usually straight into the next” (Shooting Star).

[30]   If Lara Croft defies explanation, it is perhaps because she is both becoming everyone and no one at the same time. Simply put, Lara Croft isn’t real. She lives on a screen and is a screen on which fantasies are projected; if her producer Eidos has its way, as many fantasies as possible. Lara began her so-called life as the brain-child of then twenty-one-year-old graphic artist Toby Gard, who cites the Australian comic figure Tank Girl and American pop artist Nenah Cherry as his principle inspirations for the first-ever female lead video game character. Designed for the Tomb Raiderseries, which debuted in 1996 and has since enjoyed five sequels, we can expect plenty more Lara on the way. A live-action feature film based on the game was released this summer from Twentieth Century Fox starring “It girl” Angelina Jolie. Lara is best understood not as a character, or even as a person, but as a series of fictions waiting to materialize, as the very setting of desire.

[31]   The first “real” Lara Croft debuted before a single Tomb Raider game ever hit shelves. She was actually never just one woman, but rather three very similar looking catalogue models decked out in safari outfits. But once the game shipped and sales went through the roof, Natalie Cook was hired as Lara’s singular human incarnation for a cinema advertisement. As far as Eidos was concerned, Cook did her job right. She did not speak for Lara; she merely presented the public with a visual human approximation. By early 1996, however, Cook was already competing with the digital Lara for media attention as the latter began appearing on the covers of European magazines and even touring with the likes of internationally renowned musicians U2. Cook was eventually nixed when Eidos hired Dave Stewart of Eurythmics to produce a new CD of Lara’s own music, which would be performed by another human Lara body-double, Rhona Mitra.

[32]   Mitra’s initial transition to becoming Lara Croft v2.0 was relatively smooth, although she had to fight a frenzy of rumors circulating in the British tabloids concerning the breast augmentation procedure she underwent in order to better approximate her character (Mitra repeatedly denied allegations that her own father, a plastic surgeon, performed the operation). Despite her immense popularity- she is arguably the most popular human Lara yet- there was a big problem with Rhona Mitra. Mitra spoke as Lara rather than for her. For instance, in one of her interviews she is quoted as saying, “I understand people are wary about this perfect character being brought to life. But I know that I’m her and it will be all right” (Wynne). Soon after this interview, her record deal was stalled; it was eventually released only in France with just two tracks. For taking her job a bit too seriously, Mitra was very quietly released from Eidos.

[33]   Nevertheless, for a time, Eidos continued to release promotional photographs of Mitra as Lara– these images had reportedly been altered to make the human Lara appear more computer-generated. Eidos announced that from that point forward, they would hire human Lara models only on an ad hoc basis and made it a point to introduce two new human models at the same time as a gesture of their commitment to preserving Lara’s multiplicity. Ironically, Eidos’ decision to push multiplicity was a response to the pressure brought on by Mitra’s appropriation, her becoming Lara. The post-Mitra human models, however, always referred to Lara in the third person.

[34]   Susan Hamilton, an Eidos spokesperson, explained the company’s concurrent decision to shift its marketing strategy away from humans more towards the digital character by telling reporters, “It would be impossible for a human to speak as Lara Croft and to convey her true personality… [Creating a 3D interactive Lara] allows us full control over Lara’s movements and personality” (cited in Gonzales). In 1998, Eidos unveiled its version of 3D interactive Lara . She is still joined from time to time by “official” human models, but also by a growing legion of unofficial lookalikes who gain their own popularity and cult followings by participating in Internet beauty contests over which Eidos has little control. If the various shifts in the Eidos marketing strategy point to their own ambivalence about what human and non-human form or forms Lara should take, they can also be read as an intentional trafficking of human and post-human bodies that will ultimately lead to their fusion in the virtual world. Such a fusion would be in their interest, given the strong likelihood that games will continue to emerge as an unparalleled technology of the self.

[35]   Furthermore, the failure to anchor Lara in one body, one character, or one narrative facilitates opportunities for players to participate in her continuing evolution. After all, wouldn’t game play be easier if we were always already becoming Lara? On the other hand, being Lara is bad. If I am Lara, you can’t be Lara. While people want to become more digital and people want digital creatures to become more human, people do not want to be other people pretending to be digital. While gaming pundits and cultural theorists argue whether or not Lara is “good” or “bad” for humanity or specifically for women, there is little doubt that her continued proliferation will make this question an impossible one to answer. It is difficult to assess what the long-term impact of the live-actionTomb Raider movie, released this summer, will have on Lara’s future. If box office returns are any indication, it appears that the openly bisexual, but undeniably human, Jolie appears to possess the uncanny ability to sustain the complex alliance of identification and desire that digital Lara wields over her fans. Despite a mixed critical reception for this heavily marketed film, rumors abound that the actress is already signed on for at least one sequel. I believe that to a great extent Jolie’s success in the role of Lara can be attributed to her own public image of instability (perhaps it is this very quality that allows Jolie to so seamlessly “become” her characters). However, I can’t help but wonder if Jolie plays the character “too well” and the distinction between them is collapsed, will Eidos renew their resolution to keep Lara virtual or will they finally allow Lara a human embodiment?

[36]   Perhaps in the near future this won’t matter, as players will be able to create an endless supply of their own Laras using software that allows for customizable avatars; skins to be used and disposed of at will. Or perhaps through endless proliferation Lara will eventually become too human and therefore outdated. Perhaps then she will morph into oblivion like yesterday’s model in need of an upgrade. In some ways, it appears that Lara’s fate is already inextricably tied to the destinies of other virtual women in the cyber-world. Consider virtual models like Aimee, Busena, or Webbie Tookay, unveiled just last year by the Elite Modeling Agency. If we think that supermodels are both representatives of ideal beauty and the biggest victims of the fashion system, the admittedly unreal Webbie, who appears at, is merely the next logical step in supermodel evolution. Despite the fact that she is still relatively unknown, she is already considered an ideal alternative to her human predecessors. According to Elite president John Casablancas, “Webbie will never complain about long hours, she’ll never add a pound or get some idiot boyfriend who will mess up her career, and she never talks back” (Gebler Davies). The virtual and easily manipulatable Webbie, it seems, is considered even better than the real thing. The same might be said for Ananova, a virtual news anchorwoman. Described by one European newspaper as a hybrid of Lara Croft and a Spice Girl, Ananova is reputed to read the news 24 hours a day “more quickly and efficiently than any flesh and blood newscaster ever could” (cited in Demaria and Mascio).

[37]   I am struck by a similar sentiment echoed in Mike Ward’s article “Being Lara Croft, or, We are All Sci Fi” which appeared in January 2000 on, an experimental web site that attempts to bridge academic and popular discourses on contemporary cultural practices. Ward’s piece on Lara begins with the promotional campaign for a recent installment in the series,Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, in which the human model Laura Weller performed Lara Croft. The sight of a woman who, unlike digital Lara, “looks back” at him, who returns his gaze with two guns drawn, unnerves Ward. In his words, Weller’s Lara ” is a sexual spectacle at the same time she embodies rage against the spectacle.”

[38]   In his analysis of the campaign, Ward theorizes that this so-called paradoxical performance makes Croft potentially incomprehensible to the spectator. The spectator, who is assumed to be a heterosexual and male, is frightened by his momentary inability to sort out virtual women (incapable of looking back) from real women (capable of looking back). According to Ward it is only the distanced stance the human models, with the notable exception of Mitra, have taken in interviews where they speak of Lara in the third person that allows them to represent Lara without quite becoming her. He finds this an essential aspect of Lara’s popularity with men who are made comfortable by the albeit false distance between the virtual and the real.

[39]   In order to sort through the multiple meanings engendered by the various representations of Lara, Ward also focuses on one of her recent side jobs: as a representative for the Sci-Fi Channel. Alongside human Internet celebrity model Cindy Margolis, the digital Lara recites the Mantra, “I am Sci-Fi.” The human Margolis, who began modeling on the cover of her own greeting card line (and has appeared in Austin Powers as a robot disguised as a go-go girl whose breasts are deadly machine guns) has gone on to become the largest selling poster model in the world. Shooting her 100th poster last year, as “America’s #1 Pin — Up,” Margolis regularly promotes her posters on the Internet, which recently prompted America Online fans to engage in a downloading frenzy at a rate of every 10 seconds for the first 48 hours.

[40]   Unlike the perhaps equally inaccessible but human Margolis, whose public image is largely as an image awaiting download, Lara seems to be utterly unaware of her own image and, according to Ward, this distinguishes her as virtual. This unawareness, Ward believes, has a positive effect; it is what makes it possible for Tomb Raider players to anchor their own subjectivity in hers. Infinitely more complex than the typical point and shoot game, Tomb Raider makes the player learn how to be Lara, how to act, how to move, how to shoot, etc. If the player does not master the lesson, play cannot advance until the lesson is learned; the player will not master Tomb Raider until mastery of Lara/self-mastery is accomplished. Of course, once players achieve mastery, the reward is that Lara’s moves become seamless with theirs. The anchoring of subjectivity is successful, and the game progresses. The circle of the look and exhibition are finally closed. Like Lara, you too are now unaware of your own presence or image. If Lara is sci-fi, so are you.

[41]   “First-person shooter” games demand an interface between the player and a virtual body. To “be” Lara, you must learn how to do all of the things she is capable of doing, including not only the mastery of various specific moves, but also how to move through virtual space. As Ward explains:

[Lara] demonstrates her awareness of the player in other ways: her only spoken word is a terse, slightly impatient “no” if you try to make her perform a move that isn’t possible. To the novice player at an impasse, there seems to be a frustrated potentiality in the way she stands and breathes, the user’s ineptitude holding all her agility and lethality at bay. In her poised impatience, she teaches. Eventually, when the cntl, alt, ins, and end keys become second nature, this impatience vanishes. There are no more impasses, only a fluid, reflex connection, a virtuosity that seems to put Lara and the player both in the same body, so that it’s no longer clear which is the origin of her performances.

[42]   Given the way that Lara has been positioned not only in the games but also in her commercial appearances for the Sci-Fi Channel and a growing number of other ventures, Ward contends that Lara is indeed the product being sold. Everything else is just an accessory. Ward finds it odd and to some degree counterintuitive that a product would pitch itself as something that would make one’s life more, rather than less, lonely. Yet this is precisely what Lara commercials promise. For instance, in theTomb Raider IIcampaign, a number of public spaces normally frequented by men, including a men’s room, a bowling alley, a pool hall, a basketball court, and a strip bar, are completely vacant. The reason we are given is becauseTomb Raider is “where the boys are.”

[43]   While Lara is outside on her adventures, the boys are inside, inside of her, being her. But like Lara, they are always also by themselves. Ward claims that for boys, playing Tomb Raider is about becoming one’s own sex object. Tomb Raider is entirely autoerotic since there is no one else’s pleasure to account for, no presence of the other, who has been successfully subsumed into the self as a reward for mastery of the game. For girls, however (who are also implicitly heterosexual), Ward claims that playing with/as Lara is a response to, and appropriation of, the heterosexual male gaze. Ward points out that as Lara, girls are sanctioned to blow the heads off any man who has tried to objectify them in “real life.”

[44]   Ward’s position is that Tomb Raider promotes a world where male interconnection is threatened and self-alienation is likely, and where women are inscrutable and full of a soon-to-be satisfied rage against men. I find Ward’s reading both disturbingly misogynist and incessantly heterosexist. In Lara, Ward seems to be looking for the digital equivalent of a blow-up porno doll. As a result, his reading of the many Laras fails to take into account the complexity of the shifting modes of identification and desire that characterize any fantasy experience as well as any encounter with the other. The final part of his argument, however, is perhaps the most telling. Men’s ability to connect, that Ward claims is threatened when boys would rather play with Lara/themselves than with each other, is only considered problematic when it is an alleged alienation from other men. His glaring failure to address men’s alienation from women, or its consequences, shows either an utter lack of concern for women or that he wishes to appear utterly unconcerned with women qua women and the “rage against the spectacle they embody.”

[45]   Ward’s reading of the human Lara models, and the femaleTomb Raider players, invokes a familiar trope in which women’s aggression is allowed limited recognition, but only as an empty threat incapable of execution. However, it is capable of being viewed as harmless only insofar as he and the other male players ultimately deny the difference between real and virtual women, a difference Ward predicates on virtual women’s inability to return the gaze or be aware of their own image. The gaze is, after all, the execution of the threat, and the self-image is a sign of the presence of an ego needed to produce it. Ward’s conflation of real and virtual women is made possible by the historical alignment of real women and passivity that makes it appear that any threat made by a woman is incapable of being carried out. The ideological linkage of femininity and an unrealizable danger is so strongly enforced, it is arguably part of male attraction towards women. As Hélène Cixous has remarked, “Men need femininity to be associated with death. It is the jitters that give them a hard on.”

[46]   This construction, however, as Lynda Hart notes, only appears to work for men to the extent that the empty threats are perceived as being issued by women who are invested in maintaining the current social order– in other words, those who are “white, middle-class, attractive and presumed heterosexual.” As long as men believe that female models and female gamers fit this description, female clan leaders who take on cyber-aliases like “kilrbitch” (leader of Descent Online Ladies Legion) and clans that take on names like “PMS” (Psycho Men Slayers) will not be considered forces to be reckoned with. In fact, as these identities exist as a pseudo-threat only in cyberspace, it seems that there is nothing to suggest that these clans in and of themselves can have any real impact on real-world relations between men and women. Moreover, it strikes me as impossible to prevent the infiltration of the female clans by men who become female clans-women for the same reasons that they become Lara Croft: mastery over the other as a form of self-mastery.

Killer Woman or Woman Killer?


[47]   As Ward’s reading suggests, real women who kill only in the virtual world may not be a big problem for men. But what about a virtual woman who can really kill? This was the question raised by an episode of the popular science-fiction television show The X-Files, written by William Gibson and Tom Maddox. In “First Person Shooter,” which aired in February 2000, agents Mulder and Scully are sent in to investigate a mysterious death at a gaming corporation in the Silicon Valley. The violent murder, which takes place during a testing session for a soon-to-be released virtual reality combat game, appears to be the result of a fatal attack perpetrated on a male player by the computer-generated image of a beautiful but vicious woman. If the player’s opponent was merely virtual, how is it that a real killing could have taken place inside the game? What makes the death even scarier and more uncanny is that the female killer isn’t even part of the game.

[48]   Mulder and Scully question the two young game designers, the defiant Ivan and the mousy Phoebe, who explain that the entire scenario is digital. Nothing exists outside the game space. A video tape of the session in which the player was murdered appears perfectly normal. However, when they strip the game of all surfaces and textures, they are able to discern a female pointing a gun at the player who is about to be killed. A male video game designer who sometimes contracts with the CIA, and who is considered a god among gamers, is sent into the game to hunt down and kill the virtual woman, whom they decide to call Maitreya. Although he makes it through the first round of the game unscathed, in the second round Maitreya confronts him. She cuts off his hands and then quickly kills him with a broadsword.

[49]   At first, in their search for the serial murderess, Mulder and Scully are unable to differentiate between real and virtual women. A “real” woman is soon caught with the help of local all-male police force. Their sexy suspect, picked up outside a local strip club, captivates the men. But Mulder quickly realizes that her resemblance to the killer in the game is literally only “skin deep.” The woman is quickly released when, during routine questioning, she divulges that she has recently made a small fortune for allowing her entire body to be scanned by a medical records company employee. This provides the first clue, but not an answer.

[50]   Back at the gaming corporation, the cybergeeks known as the Lone Gunmen (recurring characters on the series) are on the case and prepare to solve what they think is a software problem responsible for the murders. Before they are ready to enter the game to activate a patch aimed at solving the problem, the game begins on its own and they are sucked inside where they dodge real bullets. Mulder rushes into the game to rescue them, but he is unable to follow them out before the module closes; hence, he is trapped alone inside the game, where he meets up with Maitreya. Although the game has ended, Mulder and Maitreya are still playing.

[51]   Outside of the game, Scully confronts Ivan, accusing him of intentionally placing the female figure into the game, but it is Phoebe who flees the room with a guilty sob. As Scully follows her into the hall, Phoebe admits that she was the one who created Maitreya to be her own game character in an attempt to make her mark as a woman in the gaming world. She asks Scully to imagine how isolating it is to be in such a male-dominated environment all of the time, a feeling Scully knows all too well. Despite her admission, Phoebe steadfastly claims that she has no idea how the character jumped from her computer to the game mainframe. Maitreya, like Weller’s Lara, and like Phoebe herself, “is a sexual spectacle at the same time she embodies rage against the spectacle.” In fact, she is arguably Phoebe herself in an intensified form.

[52]   Inside the game, Mulder and Maitreya square off. The cyber vixen is able to move and disappear at will, but Mulder is temporarily able to dodge her. Maitreya then begins to multiply herself as she continues to fire. Mulder is all out of ammunition. Finally, Scully steps in with a high powered weapon to rescue her partner. Round after round, she overpowers Maitreya, but the combat escalates. Maitreya comes after Mulder and Scully with a tank and it looks as if they will lose the deadly game.

[53]   Phoebe finally decides that she must enact the game’s kill switch. Ivan tries to stop her, because the kill switch will erase the whole game, but she listens to her conscience. With the push of a few buttons, the game vanishes. For a brief moment, it appears that Mulder and Scully have been also erased but when the module opens, the two agents are inside, battle-weary but safe.

[54]   In the final scene, defeated, Ivan sits by his computer. Suddenly, a new female figure appears on the screen dressed like Maitreya. This new mistress of “First Person Shooter” bears a striking resemblance to Scully. Is the resurrection of a new Maitreya meant to symbolize the idea that the potential for violence is present in any woman who enters male-dominated worlds? Or is the lesson here that women’s capacity for violence is only ever a potential? While the message of Tomb Raider seems to be that real men who attempt to master women by mastering virtual reality succeed, although they may lose their homosociability, the message of “First Person Shooter” seems to be that real women who attempt to master men by mastering virtual reality will be doomed to becoming only virtual.

Corporeal Investments: Bringing the Body Back to the Game


[55]   Games like Tomb Raider and “First Person Shooter” teach us that metaphysics is always a reflection of its own history, a history largely written by men. No matter how future-directed, every practice that attempts to dismantle metaphysical constructs always take place in the present and carries within it the burdens of the past. Nevertheless, I think that it is still possible to find examples of gaming projects that embody positive Deleuzean principles without ultimately sacrificing a commitment to effecting changes in the present material world.

[56]   My discussion has considered the ways in which the disembodiment of gender identities in cyberspace prohibits consideration of the body as a phenomenological experience and stalls attempts to organize bodies around shared experiences and how the body can be reclaimed by corporeal feminism. As cyberbodies continue to reflect the increasing integration of humans and their technology, this project will only become more imperative for feminism (Springer 10).

[57]   Like the other games featuring female cyberbodies that I have examined, Anne-Marie Schleiner’sMadame Polly Gunn’s Boudoir is a video game whose eponymous heroine engages in first person shooter style combat. The premise of this experimental game is that the near future is characterized by data “population overcrowding”; it is flooded with human controlled avatars and software personalities of all ages, sexes and gene lines. This problem is exacerbated by the emergence of a prolific hybrid breed of software agents called data ghosts, which are imprinted personalities of humans who continue to participate, to learn and thrive well beyond the life span of their physically human bodies. Because they have continued along a path of virtual immortality, they have managed to secure successful positions in society and build up considerable resistances, e.g., encryption strategies that help them to maintain their outdated beliefs. The data ghosts have infiltrated the realm of synthetically enhanced erotica, where they criminally relive the twentieth century’s conflation of sexuality with extreme violations of privacy. As a result, the world is polarized between proponents of pornography and right-wing moralism. The data ghosts are creatures of the future who are infected by the past.

[58]   The player’s mission is to “eliminate data ghosts who perpetrate gender crimes” and to “guard against right-wing terrorist avatars.” In this sense the game narrative resembles traditional science-fiction where one must enter into a time-loop paradox and go “back to the future” to carry out changes that will impact one’s survival. However, what makes the game unique is that within its architecture, players occupy varied gender subject positions that are simultaneously occupied by Madame Polly. For example, she is/you are a sex toy for men, a dominatrix, a drag queen, a feminist role model, and a source of abject pleasure for women. The player does not choose these subject positions; the game does. Players are therefore forced to play the game from a variety of shifting perspectives over which they have no control. In a sense, they are played by the game.

[59]   Madame Polly’s assemblages engage in ongoing transformations, representing both the body and identity as limitless but experiential fields of becoming. Where Madame Polly differs from more traditional first person shooter games like Tomb Raider or the fictional “First Person Shooter” is that players are not in control of the game and are in a state of co-consciousness with Madame Polly. While Madame Polly is not real, she nevertheless seems aware of her own image and she is able to return the player’s gaze in a way that implicates all who try to objectify her. In this sense, it is not possible to “win” Madame Polly. But winning isn’t the point of playing. Becoming is. This is why Madame Polly’s assemblages are temporary.

[60]   While strictly speaking, Madame Polly is not a corporeal experience, the game shows that the body has always been a mélange of discursive construction and material experience. Corporeal feminism must also acknowledge this by taking into account not only the relationship between gender and the body but also the specific dynamic configurations of bodies that are also materialized through race, class, and sexuality. This task is especially urgent for two reasons. First, there is frustratingly little information readily available about the race, class, and sexuality of the members of women’s gaming clans. There are a number of difficulties one encounters when trying to collect ethnographic data about female guilds, not only because they are transient coalitions with members joining and leaving all the time, but also because they are organized around the cyber-identites rather than the RL identities of clan members. Madame Pollycreator Anne-Marie Schleiner has noted in her study of women’s clans that players typically range in age from teenagers to women in their mid-thirties and have a wide variety of professional interests. However, she is unable to comment on other aspects of the clans’ composition, giving the impression they are homogeneous (a frequent and often well-founded criticism of mainstream feminism).

[61]   Second, Ward’s position is not anomalous; in fact, it may indicate a kind of status quo. As I approached the completion of this essay, I learned that Maxim magazine had just released the 2001 edition of its “Hot 100” supplement. Gracing the cover is a bikini-clad Aki, the virtual protagonist of another best-selling video game series, Final Fantasy, and the star of her own eponymous feature film, which was also released in summer 2001. Aki is joined by other scantily clad, air-brushed, and otherwise unreal-appearing women. In addition to Rhona Mitra, who came in at number forty-six, number one on this year’s list was Jessica Alba. Alba, like Mitra, is a “real” woman. However, also like Mitra, she portrays and is therefore associated with a non-human image (in this case, a genetically engineered partial human on the popular Fox science-fiction series, Dark Angel). I might add as a personal aside that when I attempted to purchaseMaxim from the campus snack bar at the university where I teach, I inadvertently provoked my own “is she or isn’t she” panic. I was mistaken for a man and teased by the saleswoman for being “one of those guys who can’t wait until Maxim goes on the shelf.” I took away from this encounter not only that Maxim is extremely popular among young men today, and reflects aesthetic trends, but also that it is strictly off-limits to “real” women (despite that the photo editor and one of the three writers of the “Hot 100” are female).

[62]   In closing, I don’t think that Madame Polly is a game that could only have been created by a woman. Nevertheless, I am willing to take the risk of essentialism to suggest that there is something about experiencing the world as a woman that can contribute to the development of a critical vantage point from which a sophisticated critique of gender relations can be elegantly articulated within a very particular configuration of time and space.Madame Polly is an important step in sketching the terms for a corporeal cyberfeminism, a project that is crucial for the future of ethical relations not only between the sexes, but with respect to all assemblages of identity and experience. Despite the fact that even the most future-directed video games like Schleiner’s won’t fix the societal problems that preceded and produced them, hopefully they may create a time and space in which we can begin to explore bodies and identities with sometimes unpredictable but nonetheless potentially positive results– which is, after all, the point of becoming.


I thank the two anonymous reviewers of an earlier version of this essay whose insightful comments have enabled me to refine critical aspects of my argument.

Works Cited

  • Balsamo, Anne. Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.
  • Braidotti, Rosi. “Cyberfeminism with a Difference.” Available: 20 January 2001.
  • —– . Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
  • Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of Medusa.” New French Feminisms. Ed. Elaine and Isabelle de Courtivron Marks. New York: Schocken Books, 1981.
  • Croal, N’Gai and Jane Hughes. “Lara Croft, the Bit Girl.”Newsweek 11/10/1997 1997: 82.
  • Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Massumi, Brian. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
  • Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
  • Details. “Virtual Girl of the Year.” December 1998.
  • Demaria, Cristina and Antonella Mascio. Little Women Grow Up. Available: 19 December 2000.
  • “First Person Shooter.” The X-Files. WTTG: FOX (5): Washington, DC. 27 February 2000.
  • Gebler Davies, Clancy. “Elite Unveils Cyber-Supermodel.” New Statesman 21 May 2000: 30.
  • Gonzales, Desire. “Lara Croft in Femme Fatales.” Femme FatalesDecember 1998.
  • Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
  • Haraway, Donna J. “Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the 1980s.”Socialist Review 80 (1985): 65-108.
  • Hart, Lynda. Fatal Women: Lesbian Sexuality and the Mark of Aggression. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.
  • Jenny-Lee. Sooo, You Want to Join a Clan… 1999. Available: 19 December 2000.
  • Kelles. Home Page. 19 December 2000.
  • Kirby, Vicki. Telling Flesh: The Substance of the Corporeal. New York: Routledge, 1997.
  • Lunenfeld, Peter. “Game Boy.” Artext 68. April 2000: 37-38.
  • Massumi, Brian. A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.
  • Maxim. “Hot 100.” Special supplement. May 2001.
  • McClellan, Jim. Cracks in the Canvas. 1999. Available: 19 December 2000.
  • Ross, Andrew. “The Great White Dude.” Constructing Masculinity. Ed. Maurice Berger, et al. New York: Routledge, 1995. 167-175.
  • Schleiner, Anne-Marie. An Underworld Game Patch Router to Female Monsters, Frag Queens and Bobs Whose First Name is Betty. Mutation.Fem. 1998. Available: http://www.opensorcery.netand
  • — . Madame Polly Gunn’s Boudoir. Available: and
  • — . “Cracking the Maze: Game Plug-ins and Patches as Hacker Art”. version 1.0 16 July 1999. Available: and
  • Shooting Star. “Lara Croft in Bikini.” Bikini. February 1999. Available: 19 December 2000.
  • Springer, Claudia. Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.
  • Stone, Susan. “The Lara Croft Phenomenon.” All Things Considered. National Public Radio, 1999. Available: 19 December 2000.
  • Ward, Mike. Being Lara Croft, or, We Are All Sci-Fi. 14 January. 2000. PopMatters. Available:
  • Wynne, Stuart. The Real Lara Croft(s). 2001. Available: 19 December 2000.
  • Zita, Jacqueline N. Body Talk: Philosophical Reflections on Sex and Gender. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.