Presenting at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in June 2013, Microsoft unveiled Killer Instinct to the press, a reboot of a popular franchise from the 1990s and a high-profile release for their upcoming console. To demonstrate the game, Microsoft brought out two employees–one male, one female–to play it onstage. In an incident that would quickly become infamous, the one-sided contest devolved into trash talking, culminating in a joke likening the woman’s defeat to rape. Microsoft quickly clarified that the on-stage banter was not scripted; the male employee, a producer on the game being demonstrated, had simply decided to joke about raping another employee during an official event, in front of hundreds in attendance and millions online.
Neither the videogame industry nor the consumers that sustain it are known for being particularly welcoming to women, and the incident at E3 was notable mainly for the fact that it occurred in an official capacity. The “trash talk” in question bore an uncomfortable resemblance to incident in February 2012, at a reality show about professional gamers, in which a male competitor harassed a female competitor with sexual taunts until she forfeited. The gaming community is large and varied, and the specific subculture of professional competitive gamers is relatively new. (The genre in question is about twenty years old: not new, but hardly ancient.) The cultural space of “e-sports,” and competitive/”hardcore” gamers in general, stands at the convergence of several older, traditionally masculine spaces: sports, violence, capitalism, “geek” culture, and the “tech” culture in which the games are produced. These spaces share a number of characteristics, and in their overlap lies a masculine identity peculiar to the gamer community. Like its constitutive elements, this masculine construction is largely defined by the exclusion of women, and this exclusion is justified as being inherent in the activity, by arguments from biological essentialism, or by assertions of meritocracy.
The community is politically varied, but generally united by a general defensiveness regarding perceived threats. Rhetorically, this is usually expressed in terms of defense of free speech against the predations of “political correctness” in general, and often of feminists in particular. The response to these incursions ranges from grousing on message boards to coordinated campaigns of abuse. A number of high profile attacks have been making headlines in recent years. In 2012, Anita Sarkeesian famously launched a Kickstarter campaign for a series of videos critical of depictions of women in popular game design. The response quickly became the stuff of internet legend: sundry rape and death threats, attempts to hack her email and social media presence, DDOS attacks on her website. These attacks were occasionally justified by a number of specious arguments, but Sarkeesian was a particularly high-profile target. Independent game developer Zoë Quinn, who attracted the wrath of Wizardchan by attempting to bring Depression Quest to the Steam distribution service, was rather openly targeted for no reason except that she’d annoyed a group of gamers by being a woman. The campaign against Jennifer Hepler had a similarly thin justification.
This problem is, of course, larger than videogames, and larger than the internet. The outpouring of hostility against the victim in the Steubenville rape scandal is more famous still, as is the organizational retaliation directed against the men and women speaking out against endemic sexual assault in the military. The exclusion of women is a defining characteristic of the masculine identity shared by these communities, and threats to that arrangement by women must be met with swift retaliation.
These attacks aren’t new, but the fact that we’re hearing about them is. What the masculinist strain of gamer culture shares with these other spheres is a perception that their power is beginning to recede. If the constitutive elements of “gamer masculinity” are being undermined individually, how could it be otherwise? Even the industry itself is beginning to take an interest in reforming itself so as not to aggressively alienate half of the human species. As is often the case with groups who perceive their privilege to be on the wane, violent rhetoric has become so commonplace that it becomes invisible within the community, and online harassment has become so ubiquitous that industry players are concerned it might interfere with their ability to attract new talent. It is to be hoped that, as the paranoid, misogynistic, retaliatory masculinity that has grown in the gamer community becomes more visible, it will become easier to challenge, and eventually replace. Were that accomplished, it would be that much easier to address the toxic origins of misogyny in mainstream culture.