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#GamerGate and the Politics of Resentment (Part 2)

24 Sep

(This is Part 2 of an article series that explores a case of harassment in online gaming known as #GamerGate. Please read Part 1 of this post here. Part 2 argues that the sexist harassment campaign is rooted in resentment against current changes in the gaming industry.)

In the early days of the harassment campaign against Zoe Quinn – indie game developer, critic, and cyborg – before the campaign was given its name, a number of editorials were written on a curiously specific theme: the cultural category of “gamer,” and how those who play games relate to it. On Kotaku, Luke Plunkett wrote of the “Death of An Identity.” “Gaming is a hobby I’ve had (on and off) for most of my life,” wrote Emma M. Woolley in The Globe and Mail, “but I’ve never called myself a gamer.  One reason is that while playing video games is something I enjoy, it doesn’t define who I am; another is that I don’t identify with many people who do call themselves gamers.” The “gamer” label has been a problem for games writers for some time; never literally describing everyone who plays any kind of games (which is to say, almost everyone), it’s traditionally been used to exclude casual games, mobile platforms, or certain genres. In its most nativist form, “gamer” (often appended by the modifier “real”) is a term used to denote a class of consumers that cares about gaming more than anyone else, competes more fiercely than anyone else, and is thus deserving of special attention from the industry and the press that covers it. In academic circles, there have been attempts to expand the category of “gamer” to better represent the variety of players out there. These editorials were taking the opposite tack: if this is what “real gamers” really want “gamer” to mean–young white men with disposable income who respond to academic criticism with death threats–then fuck ’em. Let them have it. “‘Gamer’ isn’t just a dated demographic label that most people increasingly prefer not to use,” wrote Leigh Alexander for Gamasutra. “Gamers are over. That’s why they’re so mad.”

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#GamerGate and the Politics of Resentment (Part 1)

22 Sep

In an earlier post on Masculinities 101, I detailed the emergence of a specific masculine identity emerging in and around videogame culture. This masculinist gamer contingent is reflexively hostile towards criticism, and in recent years has been making headlines detailing their attempts to harass and silence women in the wider videogame community. Somewhere in the middle of that list was Zoe Quinn, indie game developer, critic, and cyborg. Quinn, along with co-writer Patrick Lindsey and musician Isaac Shankler, is the developer of  Depression Quest, an interactive fiction game exploring the experience of depression. After a year of availability on the web, Quinn was beset by an online harassment campaign when she brought the game to the Steam service, an online digital distribution platform for PC games. Recently, newfound attacks on Quinn have snowballed into a “scandal” known as GamerGate.

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Not All Men: Activism and Defensiveness in the Wake of Tragedy

19 Jun

There’s nothing particularly interesting about Elliot Rodger.

He wasn’t a supervillain, or a master criminal, or a charismatic manipulator. He didn’t embody a unique cultural moment, or speak to our society’s contradictions like a D.B. Cooper or a Patty Hearst. He was unusual in the sense that rampage shooters are statistically rare, but many utterly mundane things are statistically rare. The Santa Barbara shooting is uniquely disturbing because the poisonous ideology that inspired it is so infuriatingly, terrifyingly common. Continue reading

Masculinity Without Men: The Sontarans and Relational Gender in “Doctor Who”

30 Apr

[F]or male-dominated society, man is the founding principle and woman the excluded opposite of this; and as long as such a distinction is tightly held in place the whole system can function effectively. […] Woman is not just an other in the sense of something beyond his ken, but an other intimately related to him as the image of what he is not, and therefore as an essential reminder of what he is. Man therefore needs this other even as he spurns it, is constrained to give a positive identity to what he regards as a no-thing. Not only is his own being parasitically dependent upon the woman, and upon the act of excluding and subordinating her, but one reason why such exclusion is necessary is because she may not be quite so other after all. Perhaps she stands as a sign of something in man himself which he needs to repress, expel beyond his own being, relegate a securely alien region beyond his own definitive limits. Perhaps what is outside is also somehow inside, what is alien also intimate–so that man needs to police the absolute frontier between the two realms as vigilantly as he does just because it may always be transgressed, has always been transgressed already, and is much less absolute than it appears.

– Terry Eagleton on deconstruction, in Literary Theory: An Introduction

Traditionally, one of the functions of the science-fiction/fantasy genre (or genres, if you prefer) has been to make the familiar strange: to give readers a new perspective on our own world by reconfiguring it. To that end, this post concerns the Sontarans, an alien species from the long-running British sci-fi television series Doctor Who. If you’re not familiar with Doctor Who, allow me to be the first to say: hello, and welcome to the internet. Doctor Who chronicles the episodic journeys of a time-traveling alien named The Doctor. Being  a sci-fi show with a very loose sense of continuity, it depicts a wide variety of fantastical planets and cultures, usually to allegorical effect. Case in point, the Sontarans, an aggressive, militaristic species of vaguely potato-shaped humanoids.

The Doctor refers to the Sontarans as “the greatest soldiers in the galaxy,” and he ought to know, having seen most of it. Having engaged in a war with another alien race known as the Rutan for some fifty-thousand years, theirs is an unsurprisingly martial culture that valorizes duty above all else. To some degree, we’ve seen their like in our own history. The Sontarans glorify not only killing, but dying in violence; they find acts of pity or compassion to be shameful; they fear being out-bred by their enemies and place great emphasis on controlling the technologies of reproduction; they consistently find foreign cultures to be contemptible and incomprehensible. In short, they seem to embody a weaponized, hierarchical form of masculinity often associated with warlords, military dictatorships, and totalitarian states.

What problematizes the perceived masculinity of the Sontarans, or any gender distinctions we might care to make, is that their species lacks the sexual dimorphism we’ve come to expect from intelligent species. They simply do not have sex, either as category or activity. Lacking the time or inclination for any kind of civilian life, and constantly in need of new cannon fodder, the Sontarans reproduce via cloning, in specialized hatcheries aboard warships or on suitable planets. On that basis, to what extent does it still make sense to refer to their culture as masculine? Can masculinity exist independently of the binary Eagleton detailed above, with neither the feminine (as attribute) or women (as entity)?

Perhaps a better question would be whether the binary is flexible enough to accommodate gendering an asexual species. While Eagleton describes this application of masculinity as being believed to have objective existence and absolute value, in practice, the only truly necessary quality it possesses is that of not being feminine (or, perhaps more accurately, being not-feminine). A man becomes masculine, so to speak, by standing next to someone more feminine than himself.

Joanna Bourke, writing in Rape: sex, violence, history, describes a number of scenarios in which this relational masculinity is asserted through violence, most commonly sexual in nature. This violence is highly contextual, and always bound up with identity. Among the more prominent of those identities is that of the soldier. Historically, the association is warfare with rape is so strong that it’s become conventional wisdom: “Women are set outside of culture, becoming merely the ‘bounty’ of war.” Gang rape, in particular, is uniquely common on the battlefield, in rituals of bonding and desensitization. Even the dead are frequent targets of sexual degradation.

The targets vary considerably–female and male, adult and child, living and dead–but they share an assertion of dominance through violence and humiliation that is specifically sexual in nature. What Bourke implies but never actually argues is that the assertion that gender precedes sex, that being a woman is one element, but by no means a deterministic one, of femininity. In the act of rape, the gender binary defines the rapist as masculine and the victim as feminine not because the former is a man and the latter a woman, but because that’s simply what “masculine” and “feminine” ultimately mean.

What, praytell, does this have to do with the Sontarans?

Despite their lack of concern about their own gender (or lack thereof), the Sontarans do find time to engage in old-fashioned misogyny. “Words are the weapon of womenfolk,” says one in response to the mocking of a doomed, disposable redshirt. “I must find you unfit.” Elsewhere, they express disgust with sexual reproduction itself. To a Sontaran, any sexually reproducing species is embarrassingly feminine; even their soldiers literally come out of women. In the absence of such women, the Sontarans have displaced the antipathy they might have shown towards women with an antipathy toward every other civilization they encounter: for all things not-Sontaran. As a result, this violent conquest is itself constitutive of existence and value as a Sontaran. Other species exist to be crushed; the Sontarans exist to crush them.

The kind of systemic, imperialist violence embraced by the militarized masculinity we see in the Sontarans is inherently gendered, even when you take sex out of the equation. When we learn from the Sontarans is that our ideas about sex, violence, power, and gender are so deeply intertwined that we can’t even fully imagine them being separate. In fantasy, we have an opportunity reality does not offer: to see the various elements of the social imaginary out of context, to understand the part by obscuring the whole.

Peter Rauch is an ex-academic looking for his next thing. He writes about media, philosophy, and gender issues at Undisciplined, and writes shorter things as @Wordbeast.

Convergence of Masculinities in “Gamer” Culture

19 Mar

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.

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