I spent my early teenage years on an online forum dedicated to video games. It was predominantly male, and I very rarely felt unwanted or uncomfortable. When I did, it was usually from a new poster, not the friends I had made.
I remember having several conversations about gender and video games. This was one of the areas where I felt least likely to find common ground. However, I never felt my disagreement was met with anything more than further debate. No one called me an unkind name or failed to play games with me afterwards. I’ve stayed in contact with these people — most of them, anyway- – and it’s been interesting to see how we’ve all evolved on this issue as we’ve grown older.
I’m bringing it up in lieu of a Wired.com piece by Patton Oswalt. It’s an old piece, but one I’ve only recently seen, though I think it unintentionally demonstrates an attitude that, when adopted by people who are not as nice or thoughtful as Oswalt, are problematic. I want to be clear that Oswalt is and always has been an ally re: Gamergate and other hurdles. His piece struck me in large part because the strand that runs through it tracks a great deal to the sense of geek culture ownership that, in my experience, spurs a lot of resentment toward allegedly non-traditional gamers.
This article is not about video games and gender — it’s barely even about video games — but it is about nerd culture writ large. I don’t want to put words in Oswalt’s mouth, but I would categorize it as an articulate evaluation of how this sub-culture has become less of a sub-culture at all and more of mainstream experience. I would say it discusses the “democratization” of nerd culture, and how that can have negative impacts on those who spent early years marinating in the minutiae of a medium or lore or whatever else.
I come a bit later to this seen than Oswalt, so perhaps I feel this change less acutely. What struck me most was not the lamentation about this change in experience, but rather the sense of ownership Oswalt seemingly feels over the culture, and I find it difficult to sympathize because it is this ownership that has contributed to toxification of nerd culture, generally, and gaming culture, specifically.
I am not imputing this on Oswalt; I think he is making a fair point but the origin of it has also led to less well stated, sympathetic views. That feeling of ownership, for example, has popped up when we talk about objectification of women in video games, and how women are purportedly ruining gaming. It comes up when we talk about toxic masculinity in gaming, as the gold standard for heroism the traditional male power fantasy, and any attempt to fiddle with that is viewed as an infringement on one’s desired simulation. Its relevance is magnified when you view video games as the bridge between would-be trash talk and “lighthearted” trolling to legitimate threats and online harassment.
The word “entitlement” comes to mind. I can’t help but wonder what it’s like to live in a world where you get to feel as though something as ethereal and limitless as a culture should exist in stasis. Where is the property right in a sub-culture?
Oswalt’s exploration is benign, but for the bad actors out there, the belief that nerd culture is theirs is an animating force behind the hate and vitriol they spew at those outside their preferred norm. It’s the reason why they will grief or troll. I honestly wonder if Oswalt’s daughter, whom he cites towards the end of his piece, would be better off if that ownership remained. More likely, I suspect she would be shut out by her peers in this culture.
I’m not sure I can say that because obviously my experience prior to women being viewed as a threat to nerd culture was a good one; it wasn’t until boys and men in this sub-culture felt challenged that they really owned lashing out. But I also wonder how many women wanted to be part of that culture and felt shut out and turned off — the opportunity cost of narrow cultural participation and ownership.
I personally sign onto the thesis that the newfound large appeal of previously minority pastimes has led to a ton of sub-par creations. It’s becoming clear in comics, video games, and other nerdy hobbies that the possibility of larger scale endeavors like movies are a driving force in the creative process. On the flip side, broad swaths of people clamoring for super heroes and playable characters that look like them is a product of this democratization — Black Panther is a testament to this.
Ultimately, it seems as though the sense of sub-cultural ownership results in, at best, interesting internecine disputes. At worst, as we’re witnessing now, it results in a vituperative rebuff by those who feel as though they are losing something. In the middle is a sense of stagnation. Yes, the trade-off to scaling nerdiness is that we get a lot more shitty works out there and nowhere near proportional debate over small details that we might see at a smaller level. But the pay-off is that we get a lot more creatives feeling emboldened to explore with these newer markets who maybe aren’t the same guys speaking code to each other at a bar table, you know?