The depressingly familiar viral story of the “heartbroken nerd” and a Spider-Man video game

The stereotype is heralded in the gaming community – often at the grim expense of the women they blame for their heartbreak.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Last week, a story made the rounds online that looked like your classic, viral, internet tale. “SPIDER-MAN Hidden Wedding Proposal Is Now The Saddest Easter Egg Ever”, “Wedding Proposal Hidden In Spider-Man Unravels”, and “Spider-Man PS4 Marriage Proposal Gone Wrong” all tell the seemingly pitiful story of 26-year-old Tyler Shultz convincing gaming company Insomniac to insert a marriage proposal into their latest Spider-Man game.

However, things, of course, went awry. After Insomniac went ahead and included the proposal (a cinema sign reading “Maddie, Will You Marry Me?”) in the game, Shultz revealed that his girlfriend of over five years, Madison Gamble, had dumped him in the time between requesting the proposal and the game being released. Even worse, Shultz disclosed that Gamble had broken off their relationship so she could run off with his brother.

In a now deleted YouTube video, Shultz details what happened and says that, despite the embarrassment, he didn’t regret the proposal. “It’s a nice little reminder to, you know, the almost mistake that I made,” he said.

Anyone with a heart would feel bad for this guy. Your girlfriend leaving you for your brother after you organised an elaborate, highly public proposal? That blows. But, as you might have guessed, this isn’t the whole story. In fact, almost all of the elements of this proposal that paint Shultz’s ex-girlfriend in a bad light are not as they seem.

In a statement to the Houston Press, Gamble explained that her relationship with Shultz had been deteriorating over the course of a year, after she had to deal with “financial mistakes”, “violent outbursts”, and their relationship becoming that of “a mother and son”. Damningly, she highlights how little Shultz cared for her wants and interests. “Even the proposal,” she said, “was never the way I would have like to be proposed to. I never liked video games, but I sat through them because I loved him.”

Gamble also importantly clarified that she had never had been and is not currently in a romantic relationship with Shultz’s half-brother, who she said had been to check on her in the days following the break-up – but at the request of Shultz himself. “I did not leave Tyler for his half-brother and I have never been unfaithful to Tyler,” she insisted.

Since the story came out, and despite her statement, Gamble has been swamped with harassment. So much so that, at the time of writing, all of her social media accounts have been deleted. And even with Gamble’s explanation out in the open, a search for the story only results in the aforementioned headlines, providing Gamble’s statement as an update; footnoted at the bottom of the original story. The overriding message is that of Tyler’s distress, not of the facts that his ex has a) refuted the story and b) he has deleted the video where he made these claims.

It echoes the pattern of men executing acts of affection in public – despite the woman in question’s repeated, outright rejection. Things like the Russian man who hired a crane to reach his ex-girlfriend’s third floor window, or the man in Bristol last year who said he wouldn’t stop playing piano on a public green until his ex-girlfriend took him back. The trope of the sympathetic, heartbroken bloke is everywhere, making its way into mainstream pop-culture like Season 3, Episode 6 of The Office (US) (in which protagonist Michael Scott proposes publically to his girlfriend of three weeks) or the entire basis for whole casts of characters, like the men in The Big Bang Theory.

It’s been widely noted that this trope is a psychological method to “stack the deck”, ie to make the person feel coerced into giving in to the demands being placed on them. It’s a toxic cliché that heralds the creepy behaviour of “broken”, “sad” men at the sole expense of a woman’s comfort – if not her actual physical safety.

But this story also echoes, as many writers have pointed out, of the misogyny that drove Gamergate. In the summer of 2014, gamer Eron Gjoni published a six-part, 10,000-word blog post accusing his girlfriend, game developer Zoe Quinn, of infidelity and emotional abuse, as well as sleeping with reviewers to get good press for her critically acclaimed game Depression Quest. The public response involved Quinn receiving thousands of rape and death threats, her social media accounts (as well as her Skype and Dropbox accounts) hacked, and having to flee her home after her address was posted online.

“The Internet spent the last month spreading my personal information around, sending me threats, hacking anyone suspected of being friends with me, calling my dad and telling him I’m a whore, sending nude photos of me to colleagues, and basically giving me the ‘burn the witch’ treatment,” Quinn wrote about her experience in September 2014. What became a global conversation about sexism in the video game world, and a targeted harassment campaign of not just Quinn, but several other women in the gaming community, started as a man accusing a woman who’d rejected him of things she didn’t do.

For society as a whole, pressuring woman into romantic entanglements in which they’re clearly not interested is not something new. But, for the gaming community, it is eerily common. Many would hope that we are living in a “post-Gamergate world”, where harassing and targeting women through digital channels is no longer acceptable. But the easy acceptance of Shultz’s version of events, and indeed Insomniac’s willingness to entertain his public proposal request in the first place, shows that understanding of how men apply pressure on unwilling women is still incredibly shallow, especially in the gaming world.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.