“Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something… Being a geek is extremely liberating.” Simon Pegg (2013) summed up being a geek quite nicely; holding love and enjoyment for something so strongly that you feel a sense of liberation, wearing your fandom proudly, being unafraid, uninhibited…well, unless you’re a woman. It has been suggested time and again that women are new to the geek community, that we have encroached upon a forbidden and male orientated domain After all, “video game culture has privileged the default gamer, the white male, leading to the maintenance of whiteness and masculinity in this virtual setting” (Fox and Tang, 2014) despite the fact that almost half of the world’s gaming population are women (Matthew 2012), and “adult females now double the number of the once-central under-18 boy demographic” (Todd, 2014). Yet their treatment in the online community is a dichotomy; sexualised, glorified, attacked, questioned and ostracized, the female geek faces a struggle of misogyny and harassment. Whilst the internet has allowed for the growth of the geek community, this environment is still subject to marginalization, ‘gate keeping’ and power plays, an effect damming to women within the gaming and wider community.
Attention was drawn to the gaming community’s controversial treatment of women via the GamerGate saga. This ongoing event seemingly issued from the blog of Eron Gjoni (2014), a gaming developer who poured his heartbreak over the ending of his relationship with girlfriend and fellow developer Zoe Quinn in a very public way. In his long winded post, Gjoni accused Quinn of exchanging sexual favours for positive reviews of her game Depression Quest (2013). As two prominent members of the gaming community, the issue soon spiraled, including the penning of articles that called out the misogyny within the culture (Frank 2014. Chu, 2014.), articles that attacked women and their position in the community (Peacock, 2012. Brown, 2012.) and articles that questioned the integrity of the gaming hierarchy and claimed the end of the gamer was near (Golding, 2014. Alexander, 2014. Young, 2015). Personal attacks began via social media as celebrities and other notable members of the community were drawn in and sides were chosen, “all the while, the individuals that feel so self-righteously vindicated in their anger…have committed these acts of cyber harassment in an effort to disprove the validity of misogyny in gamer culture. There’s the rub” (Backe, 2014).
Geeks and gamers did not always hold the power of popularity that they currently enjoy. Now they can take to their keyboards and wage campaigns to fund and produce multi-million budget films such as “Deadpool” (Fox Studios, 2016), but growing up, many geeks were tormented by the ‘jocks’ and the ‘cool kids’, leaving them to huddle together for safety. With the spread of internet accessibility, the invention of chat rooms and forums and the rise of online gaming, geeks began to expand their social networks, creating niches and havens where they could communicate and connect with like-minded individuals from the safety of their own homes. This lack of face-to-face communication allowed geeks and gamers to present a persona of who they wished to. John Suler (2004) dubbed this ‘the online disinhibition effect’, a set of six factors that influence the online user’s actions, reactions and behaviour in an online setting. Dissociative anonymity is perhaps the principle factor; the use of usernames, generated avatars and lack of personal information allows the user to “separate their actions online from their in-person lifestyle and identity, they feel less vulnerable about self-disclosing and acting out.” (Suler, 2004, pp 2). This allowed a social community to flourish, in fact, around sixty percent of gamers engage in multiplayer forums (Fox and Tang, 2016). Unfortunately this anonymity is also often used as a means of harassment, with no fear of repercussions.
Despite the high number of female gamers, the industry itself consists of few women and thus women are often underrepresented within gaming content (Fox and Tang, 2014). Female characters are often depicted as the princess that requires saving or as an object of male desire, serving to both ostracise the female gamer and normalise sexual harassment. An experiment conducted by Kuznekoff and Rose (2012) revealed that avatars with female voices received thrice the number of negative comments that a fellow male voiced avatar did. A further study concluded that sixty-three percent of female gamers have experienced harassment online, the majority of which was of a sexual nature (Matthew, 2012). Participation in gaming alone is enough to tread on some toes as it defies the traditional trope that women are non-competitive and submissive, along with encroaching on what misogynistic gamers believe to be masculine space, “by their sex alone, women are considered outsiders and can be perceived as violating normative sex role behavior simply by participating” (Fox and Tang, 2016).
As gaming became a more popular past time for many, and ‘casual gamers’, those who play social media based mini games, began to enter the community, there were those who cried foul, those who assumed that many of the new participants were solely taking part because gaming was now the cool thing to do and remembered the days they were mocked and tormented for their enjoyments. “The problem with the Internet, however, is that it lets anyone become otaku (Japanese term used by members of the geek community for those obsessed with a given topic) about anything instantly” (Oswalt, 2010). These members of the community find it hard to believe that women, let alone conventionally attractive women, would be interested in gaming, and thus many are forced to defend themselves from harassment. Dr. Nerdlove (2012) stated “the hotter they are, the greater level of cred they have to prove in order to validate the fact that yeah, they’re actually geeks.” Women, both entering and long standing within the community, are often proclaimed as “an attention addict trying to satisfy her ego and feel pretty by infiltrating a community to seek the attention of guys” (Peacock, 2012). The perceived changing demographics has raised barriers for some, as if warding off an invasion and the majority of arguments “describe almost exclusively women and do not accuse men of seeking attention or pretending to be geeks” (Renaud, 2014). Many female gamers choose not to disclose their gender or play male avatars (Pew, 2015) and with voice modulators so as to avoid the misogynists and gatekeepers, thus employing the disinhibition effect to their favour.
Under all of this scrutiny and backlash, women have continued to rise within the geek and gaming cultures, forging new paths and denouncing the misogyny; threatening to turn the once male-dominated culture into a more equal playing field. Women such as Anita Sarkeesian, despite death and rape threats (@feministfrequency, 2012-2016), creates a web series entitled Tropes Vs. Women (2013-2016), dealing with female representation in video. Geeks for CONsent petitioned the large American comic book and gaming conventions to take note of the treatment of cosplayers on the con floor, resulting in rules and a sexual harassment policy being instigated worldwide. The feminist geek blog Mary Sue critics, analyses and discusses the geek culture, including video games, comics and movies, creating a safe space for women within the community. The ‘geek anthropologist’, Marie-Pierre Renaud, noted in her study The (Fake) Geek Girl Project (2014), “in fact as I pursue research on women’s contributions to geek culture, I make one surprising discovery after another. As it turns out, there are more geeky women that what is generally known, and their contributions are most likely even more relevant than we know.” Despite the harassment that women often find online, they continue to push back. Whilst some may leave their passion for gaming behind or continue to mask their identities online, which in itself “likely contribute(s) to perceptions that women are rare or nonexistent in certain gaming environments” (Fox and Tang, 2016), there are always those that will step forward and demand equality.
The geek and gaming community may seem unimportant for some, but in our internet driven world where the geek is king, it really is a microcosm. How woman are portrayed in video games, how they are treated online as they play side by side with men, how Hollywood portrays and sells the female hero, these all leak into the rest of the world, both internet and physical. Perhaps it is best to think of the geek community as a political faction, a religious group or cultural hive. As Dr. Nerdlove surmised (2012), “worrying about who’s a true geek and who isn’t is throwing up artificial barriers to fandom in the name of preserving some sort of bullshit ideological purity and misses the point of being a geek in the first place. The whole point of being a geek is not caring about what other people think. It’s about the joy of loving something without worrying about being “cool” or being part of the “in crowd” whether the in crowd is dressed in Dolce and Gabanna or Star Fleet uniforms. It’s about loving things because they’re awesome. It’s not about street cred or being “casual” versus “hardcore”. It’s about taking unabashed pleasure in the things you love.”
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