The angry fundamentalists of the church of gaming

Why are gamers such an angry bunch?

I like the idea that the hate storm surrounding Anita Sarkeesian is a surprise to some people. It pleases me that there are still people in the world who possess that level of innocence, that people can still be outraged by the viciousness and ignorance that so many people take for granted when using the Internet.

Sarkeesian you see broke two rules of online communication, the first, which I don’t want to dwell on, is that she forgot to be male. If you want to express any sort of opinion without a penis to give you credibility then you are going to get a certain type of abuse from men, almost regardless of topic.

The second rule she broke however is that she poked the sacred cow, video games.

Gamers are an incredibly diverse bunch as I’m sure we all know, but like with any broad church there are going to be some people in there who are, for want of a better word, fundamentalists.

Gaming is no exception to this and in many ways gaming culture mirrors the structure of an established religion. The younger gamers are often more radical, more extreme in their views and how they express them, the fanboys and the fanatics. The games industry is itself the church, delivering the games which are to be worshipped and revered by the masses. The older generation of gamers tend to view this church with more suspicion, but most, at heart, are still believers.

The big element which links gaming culture to a religion however is just how conservative it is. A lot of gamers do not like change, they will wait like hungry dogs for the next game in a series, but they don’t want it to be too different. Just like the faithful going to church they are expecting to hear what they want to hear, nothing radical, nothing too different, but not word for word what was said last week. It is no coincidence or surprise that so many of the most successful games in recent years are sequels, giving the public more of the same.

You can see evidence of this gaming conservatism if you look at the kind of language that gamers often use to describe new games. New games are jumped upon and embraced of course, but at the same time they are often resented by the faithful. Many games, even successful ones like Skyrim and Battlefield 3, are seen as toned down and casual shadows of the tougher, less forgiving and less accessible games that we cut our teeth on. 

In the face of this orthodoxy the arrival of women on the scene, carrying with them an agenda of change, it is inevitably greeted with vitriol and anger by gamers who perceive their precious stream of the same thing as last year to be under threat. Worse it is not just the women who openly have an agenda who face this wrath; female gamers are also abused merely for the crime of being female. Female gamers are seen as harbingers of some sort of oestrogen induced end of days for gaming, a spoilt little sister who has climbed the rope ladder to our clubhouse and is intending to paint it pink.

It is this conservatism that Sarkeesian’s project confronted, a desire of many gamers to not see things changed. While it only takes a small minority to unleash the torrent of abuse she was subjected to the views held by those who abused her are not that rare, as evidenced by how often they are encountered by female gamers themselves.

This mind set is of course not common to all gamers and gaming does see radical ideas breaking out into the world on a regular basis, but it is something of a concern for anybody wanting to see the medium progress that the biggest titles are always the hardy perennials, Call of Duty, Halo, FIFA, the same Malibu Stacy as last year with a new hat.

To an extent change is already happening, Lara Croft being transformed from a heavily armed blow up doll into a relatable teenage girl wielding a bow is a laudable if clumsy step in the right direction. Of course it could also be seen as an attempt to cash in on The Hunger Games, but even that in itself shows a change in the focus of marketing. Meanwhile recent games like Duke Nukem Forever and Postal 3 which have used their misogyny and crassness as a selling point have been total failures.

Games and gaming are growing up fast and no amount of hostility and rage from the hard line gamers is going to change that.

A gamer of yesteryear. This dying breed will defend its turf to the death.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.