Diversifying Barbie & Mortal Kombat: 20 Years Later Celebration at MIT

BarbieOn April 6, the Women's & Gender Studies and Comparative Media Studies departments at MIT sponsored the daylong conference "Diversifying Barbie & Mortal Kombat: 20 Years Later Celebration" — spearheaded by the amazing and indefatigable Dr. Kishonna L. Gray and with "opening reflections" by Dr. T.L. Taylor — to explore race, gender, sexuality, representation, and inclusion in games and gaming. "Game studies" is a growing field of academic study, and panels throughout the day explored the questions "Where Are We Now?" and "Where Are We Going?" The Bible for many game studies experts is the book Beyond Barbie & Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming published twenty years ago, now in its third edition called Diversifying Barbie & Mortal Kombat: Intersectional Perspectives and Inclusive Designs in Gaming. I was able to attend the last panel of the day, which featured two of the book's authors, Dr. Yasmin Kafai and Dr. Gabriela Richard, and was moderated by Kishonna (I can call her that because I am lucky enough to know her — you should call her Dr. Gray).

You may remember the ugliness known as "Gamergate," which the Washington Post summed up this way:

On one side are independent game-makers and critics, many of them women, who advocate for greater inclusion in gaming. On the other side of the equation are a motley alliance of vitriolic naysayers: misogynists, anti-feminists, trolls, people convinced they’re being manipulated by a left-leaning and/or corrupt press, and traditionalists who just don’t want their games to change.

There was certainly discussion of Gamergate during the panel, but the participants didn't allow that misogynistic, kyriarchical BS narrative to dominate the conversation. They talked about their own experiences in the field (Dr. Kafai was told, "You can't write about games. You'll never get tenure"; Dr. Richard wanted to explore "stories of women like me, women of color who are not represented, and how lack of representation impacts participation. Who is playing? Who's supposed to play?"). With technology so much a part of educational curriculum these days, gaming and coding have gained a new sort of legitimacy (Dr. Kafai: "I used to work by myself in my basement staring at the wall; now I'm in demand!"), along with opportunities to model cooperative behavior and positive social interactions for young people: "We have these online communities where millions of eight-to-fourteen-year-olds are hanging out. It's unprecedented."

MIT-Panel Dr. Kishonna L. Gray, Dr. Gabriela Richard, and Dr. Yasmin Kafai.

It was a fascinating talk, with some definite areas of overlap and resonances with the children's literature community, specifically around issues of representation and inclusion. Also? Here's a hot tip for a picture book biography: Jerry Lawson. Or any number of the women and men who spoke at the day's event.


Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons University and a BA from Oberlin College.

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