It’s been nearly a month now since a controversy boiled to the surface over the sexism and misogyny that seems endemic in some videogame genres. It achieved national attention after a prominent feminist gamer and critic-of-gaming, Anita Sarkeesian, cancelled a public appearance out of fear for her safety. Her story revealed that this was only the latest in a long saga of anonymous intimidation by self-styled defenders of the purity of the gaming genre.
I’ll not belabor the points or the history here. Good accounts of the overall controversy can be found in the New York Times. It reveals a fascinating web of discourse and practice in what Nabil Echchaibi and I call a “third space” of digital/media interaction—a separate context afforded by digital and online practices within which substantive communities of practice and shared values and share purpose can form—for good or ill. On one level, who knew that real cultural struggles were taking place around gender in gaming and in ways that would find expression in resistive, even potentially violent practice? Thus is the emergent substantiveness of these spaces.
Sarkeesian offered a convincing analysis of the evolution of the emergent cultural form of the gaming-community-of-discourse in a piece in the Times (you can also see some fascinating responses here). Her point: that the world of gaming was changing due to the demands of shifting demographics within its markets—demographics which are increasingly demanding less violent and masculinist game forms. It’s “game over” for the throwback gamers, in her view. Thus is the feminist critique engaged in actual practice in actual marketplaces—akin to the portentious political shifts that seem to be on the horizon due to immigration in the IRL-world of politics.
The controversy reveals something else that seems important to me, and this coming from research Curtis Coats and I are publishing soon in a book titled Does God Make the Man?: Media, Religion, and the Crisis of Masculinity. Look for it next year from NYU Press. In it we discuss what we learned from talking to men about their ideas of masculinity. There are a couple of insights relevant to “gamergate.” First, as is revealed by the reactions to Sarkeesian and other Feminist critics, a vibrant neo-traditionalist strain remains in American discourses of gender. We identified this as a kind of “elemental” masculinity that sees the essence of masculine purpose in the three “Ps”: Provision, Protection, and Purpose.
The genres of games at the center of this controversy are all about the three “Ps.” Thus what is at issue is not some trivial sense of the masculine gaze and its prerogatives (though that is clearly present here). It is deeper than that. And this brings us to a second learning, that gender discourse today is reflexive and self-conscious. We have ideas about gender and we also have ideas about where those ideas about gender come from and we argue and struggle over those. For the most conservative men we interviewed, feminism loomed large as a direct threat to masculine prerogatives and the opportunities to “just be a man” by pursuing the elemental purposes of manliness.
We can perhaps see, then, that for some of the neo-traditionalist defenders of traditional gaming genres, this is a very serious matter as these games might well seem to them to be one of the last refuges where the real stuff of masculinity was allowed to be worked on and worked out, without the inconvenient framing of broader social and cultural narratives of inclusion and fairness.