The 2014 Gamergate controversy, where white men gamers targeted feminists for harassment and abuse in response to perceived attacks against the “real gamer” identity, demonstrates the importance of video gaming culture as a site of gender inequality that requires scholarly study. Research has demonstrated the ways in which the domination of geek masculinity in gaming culture has produced an environment in which women are demeaned, harassed, and relegated to marginalized positions. In order to continue to make meaningful progress in the study of gender inequality and its relationship to “gamer” culture, intersectional research must become the standard approach. I argue that while previous work on gender and the marginalization of women has been critical for the development of an understanding of these inequalities, a more intersectional approach is necessary for a complete understanding of all of the systems of oppression that collectively produce the persistent social inequalities in video game culture.
Anna Cameron is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on video game culture, geek masculinity, and contemporary feminisms. You can contact her at acc4ff@ virginia.edu.
In recent years, video gaming culture has begun to attract interest as an important subject for serious social research. The widespread harassment and marginalization of women in particular has led many scholars to examine the various structures and practices in place that serve to perpetuate gender inequality in gaming. However, this emphasis on gender ignores the intersectional dimensions of video gaming culture, and the ways in which systems of oppression interact in order to marginalize some players and privilege others. Much of the previous research has focused exclusively on the gender—and less frequently, on the race—of those who play video games. I argue video gaming culture must be studied from an intersectional approach that centers the experiences of marginalized groups in gaming. Only through this approach can the dominance of geek masculinity by fully analyzed. Intersectional analysis will enable researchers to more fully understand the ways in which mechanisms of marginalization function within the field and how players navigate this potentially hostile environment.
For much of 2014, the online controversy known as “GamerGate” dominated news cycles and Twitter feeds across the country. The dispute began when an ex-boyfriend of Zoe Quinn, the designer of the critically- acclaimed game Depression Quest, claimed that several of the positive reviews of the game were the result of Quinn engaging in sexual relationships with game critics. These allegations quickly spread throughout gaming circles on social media and some members of the gaming community reacted strongly to the idea that the video game press was biased, ideological, or being censored.
While anti-Quinn proponents positioned their attacks as a defense of ethics in journalism, in practice the GamerGate movement was characterized by violent threats and vitriolic sexual harassment against women involved in gaming. Scholars have described GamerGate as “a misogynist claim to games and gamer identity” (Braithwaite 2016, 3). GamerGaters viewed themselves as the real victims, as the so- called “social justice warriors” they opposed were attempting to change gaming by making it about feminist ideology rather than the “purity” of the games. Braithwaite writes, “For GamerGaters, more diverse and inclusive games can only come at the expense of their own sense of identity. This feels less like an industry’s evolution and more like an attack” (6). According to Braithwaite, this gaming identity is particularly contentious because it has become the site of conflict between the men who have traditionally dominated gaming and the women who are fighting for acceptance and respect in a community they love. Both the rise in casual games popular with women, such as Candy Crush, and the gaming industry’s increased acknowledgment of the diversity of players, began to threaten the white man geek status quo (3).
While the accusations against Quinn proved to be false, the debate over her legitimacy as a game designer belied broader issues of toxic masculinity in gaming—i.e., cisgender male gamers wanting to protect their gamer geek sub-culture and, in the process, reject the feminists who were supposedly ruining it. Anita Sarkeesian, whose video series “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” critiques games for their sexist depictions of women, became another prominent target of the GamerGaters. Both Quinn and Sarkeesian had personal information released online (a practice known as “doxing”), received numerous highly graphic threats, and were forced to leave their homes. Other women who spoke out about GamerGate, including journalists and game designers, were also subjected to threats and the publication of personal information. Some women ultimately left the industry as a result. While many GamerGaters claimed that they were merely advocating for stronger ethical standards in gaming journalism, in reality these arguments became a way to frame themselves as the real victims of the situation and as the true defenders of “real gaming” (Braithwaite 2016).
Although the GamerGate movement itself has largely subsided, the perception that greater diversity and representation within game design and gamer online communities threatens the white masculine identity is still visible. Since the election of Donald Trump, numerous media outlets have drawn connections between the election and the GamerGate movement (Martens 2017; Hess 2017; Marcotte 2016), with one writer calling GamerGate the “canary in the coalmine” for the rise of the alt-right (Lees 2016). Others argue that GamerGate and Trump were both “responses to the gains that women, LGBT people, and people of color made in mediums and genres historically dominated by white men” (Rosenberg 2015) and appealed to similar “deep-seated notions of entitlement and privilege–mixing in fear-mongering, racism, and misogyny through the scapegoating of marginalized people” (Sarkeesian 2017). GamerGate revealed several key issues in modern culture that cannot be ignored, and therefore require further study.
In this paper, I discuss the existing research that has sought to interrogate the social inequalities present in the communities and culture surrounding video games, beginning with work focused on the marginalized position of women in gaming. While work on gender and the marginalization of women has been critical for the development of an understanding of these inequalities, an intersectional approach is necessary for a more complete picture of the divisions within gaming. I argue that the primacy of men and exclusion of women in gaming culture has always been about more than gender alone, as elements of race and sexuality are central to the ideas of identity that dominate gaming culture. Rather than white men opposing white women, we can understand this central division as white cisgender heterosexual men performing a specific kind of masculinity that oppresses and opposes all other groups.
Marginalization of Women
Much of the existing research on social inequality in gaming culture has focused on the position of women. This work has shown that women have three possible roles and are punished for stepping outside of them: they are rendered invisible, seen as sex objects, or seen as the enemy (Herring 1999; Taylor 2006; Taylor 2012; Salter and Blodgett 2012). Three main reasons have been proposed for the marginalization of women in gaming: the rise in popularity of casual versus “hard-core” video games (Crawford 2012; Juul 2010; Taylor 2012), the perceived ownership by men of gaming technology ( Jenkins and Cassell 2008; Crawford 2012; Taylor 2012; Salter and Blodgett 2012), and the structure and content of the games themselves (Burrill 2008; Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2009).
First, women tend to be most associated with the so-called “casual” games that can be downloaded onto a mobile device and played for short periods of time. These games are considered low-status in video gaming culture. Women often have more restricted leisure time than men, and so they have fewer long blocks of time to fill and more social and economic constraints on their choices of activities (Crawford 2012). As a result, long hours spent dedicated to gaming are impossible for many women who are disproportionally responsible for the care of others and are more likely to spend time and money on family members than on themselves (Crawford 2012). These constraints contribute to the higher rates of women who play casual games rather than “hardcore” console and PC games that require greater time commitment (Crawford 2012; Juul 2010). While some mobile games have become wildly popular in recent years, such as Candy Crush, Pokémon Go, and Fortnite, casual games have come to be seen as a shift towards the feminine and therefore are perceived as a threat to the future of dominant masculine hardcore gaming (Vanderhoef 2013). Due in part to their association with the feminine, these games are conferred a lower status than the more time-consuming console games, and the players of casual games are disparaged accordingly by many in the gaming community (Taylor 2012, 112). In the same way women’s work and average wage suffer under patriarchal systems (England 1999), women’s leisure is marred by both segregation and devaluation.
The second reason that has been given for the marginalization of women in gaming is due to the perceived ownership of the technology. Computers are coded as masculine technology, a reason marketers attempted to rebrand them for girls through the “girl games” movement of the 1980s (Jenkins and Cassell 2008). During this time, the gaming industry attempted to attract girls by making “pink games” like Barbie Fashion Designer that used traditional values of femininity and “purple games” like Nancy Drew games that used girls’ real-life interests. While commercially successful, both of these types of games used essentialized notions of the likes and dislikes of boys and girls that ignored what they had in common ( Jenkins and Cassell 2008). In their analysis of the “girl games” movement, Jenkins and Cassell (2008) argue that the movement failed to show that computers were not just for boys, which has made it difficult to change gender stereotypes in gaming even with game designers attempting to take a more fluid approach to gender.
Even in households where technology is shared by all members and is located in a common space, video game technology is viewed as symbolically belonging to the men in the household—who occasionally allow the women to access it (Crawford 2012). The assumption of ownership by men is also perpetuated by the video game industry, which predominately designs gaming technology for the imagined man gamer. One example of this is in the design of Xbox controllers, which are designed for men and are therefore too large to be easily handled by smaller hands (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2009, 81).
The third reason for the marginalization of women in gaming is about the types and content of games that are produced. The proportion of characters appearing in games who are not white men is very small. Among all characters who appear in video games, one study (Williams et al, 2009) found that 86% were men and 15% were women, with an even greater difference for primary characters. The same study found that 85% of primary characters were white, 10% were black, 4% were biracial, and 2% were Asian. Hispanics and Native Americans did not appear as primary characters in any of the games (Williams et al. 2009). Another study (Downs and Smith 2010) found that in the Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube games they sampled, 41% of the women wore sexually revealing clothing and 43% were partially or totally nude, while of the men, 11% wore sexually revealing clothing and 4% were partially or totally nude. This study found a similar overrepresentation of men to the Williams et al. study, with 14% of the characters being women and 86% being men. This shows that in addition to appearing far less frequently than men characters, women characters were also much more likely to be hypersexualized (Downs and Smith 2010, 727). Despite some innovation in representation and game structure in recent decades, it remains a norm for video games to center on a man protagonist in a combative situation, and players are encouraged to identify with this “man of action” (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2009, 81). Violence is often central to this type of game, just as it is presumed to be a central experience of men (Burrill 2008). The wildly popular Halo series is the perfect example of this form, where gamers are exclusively allowed to occupy the position of a masculine warrior in a militaristic science fiction environment (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2009, 82).
In summary, the lower status of casual, women-dominated games compared to “hardcore” men-dominated games, the belief in men’s ownership of gaming technology, and the gendered structure and content of games all contribute to the marginalization of women in gaming. However, research shows that 41% of people who play video games are women (Entertainment Software Association 2016, 3), and GamerGate demonstrates that the presence of women in gamer culture and gamer spaces is pervasive enough to seem threatening to some men players. Evidently, there is a substantial number of women who overcome these sociocultural barriers in order to participate in so-called hardcore gaming. However, these women gamers then face an additional persistent problem: widespread online harassment.
The prevalence of sexism and harassment within online games and in online communication is well-established by scholars. On average, in games where players communicate over microphones, feminine voices receive three times as many negative comments as masculine voices (Kuznekoff and Rose 2012, 541). Additionally, players who conform to masculine norms such as a desire for power over women, heterosexual self-presentation, and a drive to win are more likely to have sexist beliefs about gender and gaming (Fox and Tang 2014, 314). Many players use linguistic profiling, meaning determining someone’s identity through auditory cues in how they sound, to identify other players as women and people of color, which causes women of color to be at unique risk for intersecting oppressions in online gaming (Gray 2012). Women gamers, and women of color in particular, utilize a variety of strategies including camouflaging their gender and aggressively demonstrating their skills and experience in order to manage harassment. While these strategies are at times successful, they require constant work and displace the responsibility of handling harassment onto the victims (Cote 2015).
In order to understand this widespread sexual harassment and the continued marginalization of women even after they overcome initial barriers to playing video games, it is important to understand how game spaces and gamer identity have been coded as masculine. In the following section I examine the specific type of masculinity typically associated with video games—geek masculinity—which has been discussed by Connell (1995) and Taylor (2012).
In particular, an understanding of geek masculinity as the basis of gamer identity will further elucidate why women’s presence in gaming is seen as a violation of masculine spaces.
Geek masculinity is most fully elaborated by T.L. Taylor in her work on the professionalization of e-sports. For Taylor (2012), geek masculinity is a form of masculinity that provides an alternative to more traditional forms of masculinity linked to athletic culture. Instead of knowledge and proficiency in physical sports, in geek masculinity the mastery of technology, science, and gaming are valorized. In geek culture, boys and men gain status, social connections, and pleasure by performing skills and expertise in specialized areas (Taylor 2012, 111). As Taylor writes, “Facilitating an interest in competition or fraternal relationships but via activities like playing computer games thus becomes a powerful alternative modality for geek masculinity” (111).
Geek masculinity has two potentially contradictory connections to hegemonic masculinity. The first is the geek as a subordinated identity within the hegemonic project. As defined by Connell, hegemonic masculinity is “the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women” (1995, 77). What this consists of depends on historical context and can shift depending on who is most powerful in society, but it is rarely fully enacted and remains an impossible goal against which men measure themselves. Within the same framework, other masculinities are subordinated, complicit, or marginalized (Connell 1995, 77).
The most common subordinated masculinity is the homosexual man, subordinated due to the perceived close associations with femininity (Connell 1995, 78). However, some heterosexual men can be oppressed through the labels of “nerd,” “dweeb” and “geek.” These other identities are linked to femininity, which relegates men to positions at the bottom of the gender hierarchy (Taylor 2012). As a result, geek masculinity can dovetail with potentially subversive constructions of sexuality and identity. “This can range from simple disruptions of the objectifications of women to making room for queer identities or alternate sexual and intimacy practices like polyamory or BDSM” (Taylor 2012, 112). While heterosexual geeks may be just as homophobic as non-geeks, geek masculinity has the potential to be accessible to queer identities and practices that are repudiated by hegemonic masculinity (Taylor 2012).
However, geek masculinity can also be complicit in hegemonic masculinity. It is difficult to fully place geek masculinity in either category exclusively, as “the nerd stereotype includes aspects of both hypermasculinity (intellect, rejection of sartorial display, lack of ‘feminine’ social and relational skills) and perceived feminization (lack of sports ability, small body size, lack of sexual relationships with women)” (Kendall 1999, 356). Connell (1995) describes complicit masculinity as men who receive social rewards and dividends from their domination over other—typically more feminine—groups gained from the framework of hegemonic masculinity, while failing to fulfill many of the characteristics of hegemonic masculinity. In this view, rather than being more welcoming to marginalized groups, geek masculinity also has the potential to be particularly motivated to reject them. Therefore, in the case of gamer culture and the negative reactions of many men gamers to the rise of women and people of color, geek masculinity can be seen as a form of complicit masculinity.
Within complicit masculinity, we can understand geek masculinity as generating power and status for men through the rejection of other groups of people. In a study of “nerd” users of BlueSky, an online interactive text-based forum, Kendall (2000) finds a conflicted relationship between nerd masculinity and hegemonic masculinity. The participants rejected and mocked certain elements of hegemonic masculinity, particularly regarding violence against women. However, they accepted the hegemonic gender order that “depicts women as inferior and not acceptable gender identity models [that] nevertheless requires that men desire these inferior (even disgusting) creatures” (Kendall 2000, 267). Many of the participants viewed themselves as being the victims of previous mockery, manipulation, and rejection by women and as a result no longer attempted heterosexual relationships—despite continuing to identify as heterosexual. Also, while homosexual and bisexual men were accepted within the BlueSky community, they were still required to engage in conversations depicting women as sexual objects. This suggests that “at least for some men, distance from women comprises a more important component of masculine identity than sexual distance from men” (Kendall 2000, 271). While the participants challenged some elements of hegemonic masculinity, they ultimately derived the most power from the subordination and objectification of women.
From the point of view of men who have successfully used geek masculinity to gain power and control of gaming spaces, “arguments for inclusivity are understood as attacks on men” (Braithwaite 2016, 6). This is because making video games more accessible to other groups would lead to a loss of their domination over these other groups, and would lessen their primary source of social capital and identity. For otherwise subordinated men whose dominance over women in gaming remains their closest tie to hegemonic masculinity (Kendall 2000), ongoing hostility towards women in gaming is a key factor in maintaining their status. While geek masculinity may have initially been a less desirable alternative to more dominant performances of masculinity, it now generates power and status. Salter and Blodgett (2012) write, “For a long time, geeks’ mastery of social media enabled them to form and control their own gaming publics.This mastery and technology helped them to turn their isolation into a powerful social network” (413).
Furthermore, geek masculinity is about race and sexuality as much as it is about gender. As a result, it is not only women who are marginalized by these mechanisms, but anyone who does not fit the image of a stereotypical white, cisgender, heterosexual “geek.” Burrill connects the popularity of ultraviolent videogames to a backlash “against feminism, non-normative sexualities, economic pressures, racial mixing, the ‘weaknesses’ of the metrosexual, and so on” (2008, 33). The previously discussed mechanisms of marginalization in gaming are reinforced, reproduced, and made more difficult to eliminate by their ties to— and embeddedness within—a culture of masculinity, and specifically geek masculinity.
Intersectionality and Future Research
While previous research has successfully identified some important factors contributing to the continued marginalization of women that has become significantly more nuanced since the 1980s, an intersectional approach is necessary for a more complete understanding of marginalization in gaming culture.
An intersectional approach understands that dimensions of identity such as gender and race cannot be separated analytically. This approach means scholars cannot give more importance to one element of a person’s identity, or analyze them separately as if systems of gender, race, class, and sexuality-based oppression have additive effects. Instead, these elements “interact to shape the multiple dimensions” of the experiences of women of color that make their experience “qualitatively different than that of white women” (Crenshaw 1991, 1245). Furthermore, an intersectional approach “focuses not just on differences but also on the way in which differences and domination intersect and are historically and socially constitutive of each other” (Zinn and Dill 1996, 74). A key contribution of intersectional feminism is the contestation of universalizing white, middle-class,
Western women as the experiences of all women, which allows for a more complex analysis that takes into account intersecting experiences of oppression (Choo and Ferree 2010; Collins 2000; Zinn and Dill 1996). Treating white, middle-class Western women as the universal category of “woman” renders all other groups invisible and prevents their voices from being heard (Choo and Ferree 2010). To render non- white women invisible has been one of the effects of the overemphasis on gender in much of the scholarly work on video games, as illustrated by the focus of the GamerGate movement.
It is well known that supporters of the GamerGate movement primarily targeted women, particularly self-identified feminists. Richard uses Patricia Hill Collins Work on the intersection of gender and race to argue that the media coverage of GamerGate—as well as the GamerGate harassers themselves— largely focused on white women as a result of the “historical conflation of gender as being embodied by white women” (Richard 2016, 71). However, the attacks were based on perceived threats against a very specific gamer identity: the “real” gamer, associated with the white, cisgender, heterosexual man (Evans and Janish 2015, 130). The identity of the “real” gamer “is reified in the overwhelming number of popular games that feature a white, heterosexual, masculine, male protagonist” (Evans and Janish 2015, 130). As Kendall notes, “Women and men of color are excluded entirely from this category, protecting the superior economic and technological status of white men” (2011, 519).
In addition, the GamerGate controversy highlights the ways in which race is marginalized even within spaces created by women as a response to GamerGate. While white feminists used online forums as a space of resistance against the movement, Gray (2016) found that they were unwilling to engage with women of color who supported the Black Lives Matter movement, resulting in women of color’s creation of the hashtag #SolidarityisForWhiteWomen. The white feminists’ lack of knowledge of the women of color’s lived experiences “originates in the inability to recognize common oppression among women” (Gray 2016, 66). In other words, white feminists did not recognize the racialized oppression faced by women of color as a problem facing all women, and as a result, “essentially replicated” the exclusionary practices they created the forums to escape (Gray 2016, 66). Even the Entertainment Software Association’s annual report on players’ demographics ignores race (2016). While this report shows data on a variety of dimensions including age (the average gamer is 35 years old), gender (59% of gamers are men and 41% are women), and parental control (91% of parents are present when their child buys or rents a game), it provides no information on race, class, or sexual identity.
A limited amount of empirical work has taken an intersectional approach to the study of oppression of marginalized groups in gamer culture.Along with her work on the construction of the #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen hashtag, Gray’s intersectional study of the experiences of black women using the Xbox Live (2014) is pioneering in this area. She finds that these women repurpose the existing virtual infrastructures of Xbox Live to organize opposition in response to the inequalities they face in this space. Examples include “resistance griefing,” where they disrupt the game in response to oppression, as well as using Xbox Live discussion forums to advertise their mobilization efforts (Gray 2014).
Other work has also used an intersectional approach successfully.Richard (2016) analyzes the experiences of a diverse group of players and finds that harassment and gatekeeping limit the participation of marginalized players, and that more work is required to dismantle the assumption of the white man player as the norm. Kendall’s work on geek masculinity, which she refers to as “nerd masculinity,” shows how the hegemonic gender order as well as hegemonic ideals of whiteness led to the BlueSky forum, which was an online interactive text-based forum, becoming a space that is welcome to “a few women, nonheterosexuals, and Asian Americans” because they have learned how to perform white masculinities in order to fit in. (Kendall 2000, 272). Shaw (2012) argues that the question of marginalized people identifying with the “gamer” label is a separate one from if marginalized people play video games. Gender, race, and sexuality can shape conversations about games in the right circles, and separating marginalized players into distinct markets is not the solution to the problem of marginalization. Instead, Shaw (2012) argues that the entire gaming market must be constructed as diverse. When research on gamer culture is primarily focused on gender alone—rather than concurrently considering players’ race, class, and sexual identities—important questions remain unexamined. The examples of intersectional research outlined above serve as critical models for how to move beyond this type of gender-focused approach, but there is still much work to be done.
In order to continue to make meaningful progress in the field of gender and video games, intersectional research must become the standard approach. To continue to produce work that draws uncritically on the idea of the typical gamer as a white cisgender heterosexual man is to promote the idea that this is an accurate reflection of gaming culture, and that this is a natural and normal state of affairs. While the existing research on gender in gaming has been influential in identifying games and gaming as a site of oppression against certain groups of people, it is limited by its lack of intersectional considerations. Widespread emphasis on gender tends to neglect the race and sexuality dimensions of both the games themselves and the communities that develop around them, as well as the ways in which these identities contribute to gamers being either marginalized or privileged in their community. Regardless of what identities seem most salient to players at any given time, the race, sexuality, and gender of players must be taken into account for researchers to fully understand why video gaming remains such a visibly hostile place for players outside of the white cisgender heterosexual male paradigm.
To accept the dominance of geek masculinity as the status quo in gaming culture is to perpetuate the problem. Assumptions about who plays video games need to be challenged at every stage of research if this field is to continue to grow more inclusive and listen to the voices it has historically marginalized. Industry professionals, game researchers, game journalists, and anyone involved in gaming culture’s public sphere must consider their own role in perpetuating white man “gamer geek” stereotypes that continue to control the kinds of games that are made and the experiences of those who play them. Despite the sociocultural and technological barriers, gamer culture is already diverse. In order for traditionally marginalized players to finally be heard and accepted as equals, gaming scholars must move beyond their outdated assumptions and undertake research that accurately reflects this diversity.
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