For a community of outcasts screaming for mainstream legitimacy, the gaming world is remarkably exclusionary: especially towards women and queer gamers. From the aggressively inarticulate teenagers on headsets to the famously putrid comment sections across the gaming blogosphere, homophobia runs rampant in the gaming “community.” And while the word gay (albeit pejoratively) is everywhere, the actual concept of queerness and much less actual instances of same-sex affection are routinely absent from video games. As such, the gaming “community” has become a place where members “say” gay, but don’t “play it.”
While this is no substitute for a comprehensive etiological study of homophobia in gaming, the question is worth asking: where does the norm of homophobia in the gaming community come from? Simply put, it comes from the culture at large. It comes from legislative degradation of queer couples, state supported oppression of gays, lesbian and trans people and, chiefly the normalized devaluation of all things feminine. But there are specific aspects of the medium itself which are complicit in these processes which may become clear when analyzed under a lens attuned to gender differences.
Games which thrive on competition (especially but not exclusively shooters) reward violence, a prime construct of masculinity. Gameplay which rewards competitive violence tacitly prizes masculinity as players are hierarchized and rewarded according to who does the most damage. Thusly, masculinized violence becomes conflated with skill and prowess. The most violent player is the most masculine and the most lauded. And with masculinity as the ideal driving both the gameplay and reward system, femininity thus becomes its antithesis, a marker of weakness and inadequacy. And what is a feminized man? He’s any number of pejorative homophobic phrases hurled over mics in the heat of gameplay. Thusly, while male players are the targets of homophobia in these spaces, what underlies this is the degradation of women.
Key to understanding homophobia either in the gaming community or the culture at large is to understand this devaluation of femininity. As more women than ever are playing videogames, there’s a woefully predictable pushback against the feminizing of what is seen as a traditionally male space. I defer readers to women’s own accounts of their battles with sexism in the gaming community, but the routine dismissal of women gamers is proof positive of a devaluation of women in the gaming community. The language of anti-femininity is expressed against women in very specific ways, usually sexually explicit fashions. This language of anti-femininity is expressed against men as homophobia, further solidifying the link between misogyny and homophobia. The battle against homophobia is the battle against sexism.
While understanding the connection between homophobia and misogyny is key to confronting it, the gaming medium may not be especially receptive to this type of change. Communication between gamers takes place primarily online where anonymity emboldens users to say especially heinous things, contributing to a misogynist climate of hostility which affects both male and female players. Homophobic and misogynist hate speech thusly does not appear only in shooters, but on blogs, forums, across social media and in player to player communication of all types in all genres of gaming.
This ‘meme’ of misogynist communication online reoccurs because of an aforementioned phenomenon: the invasion of women into a boy’s club. Since the medium’s inception, the image of a gamer has been male. From the late 70’s computer nerd, to the bratty 80’s teen and the 90’s disturbed basement dweller, these images has dominated the public imagination and reoccurred over generations, and now, decades later, videogames are still considered exclusively for men. Implicitly meaning, of course, to the exclusion of women: game developers, designers, marketers, the characters themselves – all overwhelmingly men.
Thusly, online spaces marked for “videogames” are not only implicitly intended for men to the exclusion of women but for masculinity to the exclusion of femininity. So long as we are a culture of binarist oppositions, male and female will always be counter, with the prizing of one (masculinity) occurring alongside the devaluation of the Other (femininity). And with the entire gaming industry reifying the default gamer as male, these concomitant processes will continue to function as memes appropriated into online communications, forming a medium-specific articulation of both misogyny and homophobia. Specific to the first person shooter genre, we see this linguistic mechanism coupled with a much larger societal problem, the normalization of violence and its conflation with masculinity, all played out over a pissed off teenager’s headset.
But there’s hope. If players can band together to campaign for everything from a new ending to Mass Effect 3 to millions in Kickstarter funding in less time than it took to write this article, a campaign to act against these norms of devaluation is entirely feasible. Demographics are undeniable and more women and queer gamers than ever are playing games and affecting the culture, by commenting, uploading, tweeting and finding their voices and articulating critiques of this system. Gamers are persistent people and, when banded together in the same legions which can destroy and conquer countless virtual worlds, we can reverse these communicative norms which both harm male and female gamers. Blogs are becoming remarkably critical spaces for understanding and critiquing this type of behavior and, if more gamers understand these dehumanizing connections and find their voices, then we may finally begin the work of ensuring it’s ‘game over’ for both misogyny and homophobia.
Sidney Fussell can be followed on Twitter @mageofcolor
Further Reading: Online Gaming: Can’t We All Get Along? (Medium Difficulty)