In 2016, a female videogame programmer and a female journalist were harassed viciously by anonymous male online users in what became known as GamerGate. Male gamers threatened to rape and kill both women, and the news soon made international headlines, exposing the level of abuse that many women and minorities face when participating in the predominantly male online culture.
Gaming Masculinity explains how the term “gamer” has been constructed in the popular imagination by a core group of male online users in an attempt to shore up an embattled form of geeky masculinity. This latest form of toxicity comes at a moment of upheaval in gaming culture, as women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals demand broader access and representation online. Paying close attention to the online practices of trolling and making memes, author Megan Condis demonstrates that, despite the supposedly disembodied nature of life online, performances of masculinity are still afforded privileged status in gamer culture. Even worse, she finds that these competing discourses are not just relegated to the gaming world but are creating rifts within the culture at large, as witnessed by the direct links between the GamerGate movement and the recent rise of the alt-right during the last presidential election.
Condis asks what this moment can teach us about the performative, collaborative, and sometimes combative ways that American culture enacts race, gender, and sexuality. She concludes by encouraging designers and those who work in the tech industry to think about how their work might have, purposefully or not, been developed in ways that are marked by gender.
About the Author
Megan Condis is an assistant professor in the department of English and creative writing at Stephen F. Austin State University. She writes and designs free-to-play games about her research on her website, megancondis.wordpress.com. She lives in Lufkin, Texas.
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"Get Raped, F****t"
TROLLING AS A GENDERED METAGAME
ONLINE SPACES DEVOTED TO GAMER CULTURE are filled with subcultural codes of conduct designed to police expressions of masculinity. Gamers monitor their own behavior as well as that of their friends by affecting disdain for anything that could be considered feminine or gay. They enact what C. J. Pascoe calls the "repeated repudiation of the specter of failed masculinity" (2007, 5) lest they be ostracized from the group. Part of this work involves repeatedly proclaiming one's heterosexuality through the production of homophobic discourse. Gamers thus regularly "lay claim to masculine identities by lobbing homophobic epithets at one another" (5). This is plain to anyone who has spent time in gaming circles and listened to the insults being flung during play. However, these exchanges are more than merely an unpleasant side effect of gaming's competitive atmosphere. Some gamers frequently turn masculine policing into a metagame in its own right, a game in which one improves one's own standing both by enacting masculine performances of dominance and self-mastery, and by successfully baiting others into losing status by letting their mask of masculinity slip. The result is a singular set of performative gender codes that is unique to this corner of the Internet.
The primary game mechanic in this gendered metagame is commonly known as trolling, or the posting of "inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking other users into a desired emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion" (Cambria et al. 2010). In the spaces frequented by participants in the video game subculture, trolling is an exercise in ascribing gender to oneself and to others. For example, trolls will attempt to solicit responses from their victims using gendered taunts ("bitch," "fag") and by alluding to rape and domestic violence as a metaphor for their dominance in a game. In addition, female gamers, developers, and feminist-identified video game critics are often selected as targets for troll or hacker attacks.
Yet trolling in the video game community goes beyond the simple use of sexist rhetoric. On a fundamental level, trolling is a gendered discursive act, no matter what kind of language the troll uses to cause offense and no matter what population the troll targets. The game of trolling sorts participants into two camps. One camp comprises those who refuse to take the bait. They demonstrate a cool-headed rationality, a mastery over the self that is traditionally associated with the performance of masculinity. The other camp comprises those who take the bait and feed the troll. They are imagined as overly earnest and emotional, as feminine. In other words, the game is set up to reinforce the idea that competent Internet users and elite gamers are defined precisely as those who enact a masculine textual performance (no matter the sex of their actual body) while the chumps and newbs of the gaming world are those who are unable to maintain a masculine facade under pressure. In a digital environment where the body on the other side of the screen is unknowable, policing mechanisms like trolling are well suited to the purpose of gendered discipline because they work by rhetorical posturing. Gamers need not prove that they have a male body to win at the game of trolling. They need only acquiesce to the proposition that a masculine textual presentation (a writing style that values traditionally masculine traits and dismisses all things feminine as undesirable) is the key to earning respect in the gaming community. Of course, not all gamers are active trolls. However, the normalization and widespread acceptance of the presence of trolls in the community and on the Internet at large create a chilling effect on female participation in the culture by positing that gendered abuse is to be expected in gaming culture, and that expressions of outrage about such abuse are nothing more than a sign of naïveté and inexperience.
Again, this does not mean that all trolls are necessarily men or that their victims are necessarily women. Because trolling takes place online, it is impossible to tell who the trolls really are, demographically or biologically. Further, trolls who disclose information about their supposed race, gender, and age can hardly be trusted. As Whitney Phillips (2013) explains, their claims to particular identities might simply be a part of the construction of their troll persona. Rather, it means that both the form of trolling (the rules of the rhetorical game) and its content (gendered insults, references to gendered acts of violence) encourage participants to conform to a writing style that aligns with what our culture thinks of as masculine and to disdain and denigrate styles marked as feminine. Thus, a woman who successfully trolls someone raises her status in the troll community by pulling off a masculine performance of aloofness, while a man who falls for a troll's bait exposes himself, at least in that moment, as unacceptably feminine by indulging in an emotional outburst. It might be impossible to tell if a poster is a woman, but the game of trolling allows participants to imagine that they can tell when a poster is acting womanly, and it incentivizes players to avoid behaviors that might be seen as such lest they lose face.
This set of discursive rules makes it difficult for ingroup members to articulate, or even conceptualize, dissention. According to trolling logic, membership in the community means that (and is measured by the fact that) one has the same unemotional masculine-coded reaction to provoking and sexist statements as everyone else. There is little space for disagreement over the codes that govern group membership because group membership only becomes visible through conformity to those codes. One can either roll with the trolls or risk being targeted by them. Thus, trolling works as a silencing disciplinary mechanism on the wider community. Those who disagree with trolling tactics but still consider themselves gamers are incentivized to keep quiet about it lest they be singled out as outsiders themselves.
WHAT IS A TROLL?
According to Susan Herring et al., the term "troll" originally referred to "the practice used in fishing where a baited line is dragged behind a boat, although some Internet discourse refers to the troll as a fictional monster waiting under the bridge to snare innocent bystanders" (2002, 372). Its association with high-profile antibullying and online harassment campaigns has led some scholars like Jonathan Bishop (2012) to claim that the word is becoming overused. Indeed, Farhad Manjoo (2012) argues that the term has become so watered down in common usage that it is now nothing more than "a name given to someone who disagrees with you on the Internet," an ad hominem attack used to dismiss or discredit anyone who goes against the majority opinion in a given space. However, by comparing academic definitions of trolling with definitions created by self-professed trolls, I hope to arrive at a working definition of the term that distinguishes true trolls — the agents of chaos who think of themselves as playing a game — from merely disagreeable people.
Archetypal trolls go about their unpleasant and disruptive activities using a unique methodology. Claire Hardaker (2010, 218) argues that trolling is not exactly the same thing as purposeful rudeness (which is meant to be understood by the recipient as a slight or an attack) or as an accidental faux pas (which is simply an etiquette mistake on the part of the communicator and not an intended provocation). Rather, trolling is a complex communicative act that simultaneously targets two audiences: the victim, who must be convinced that the troll's inflammatory statement is sincere and thus is in need of rebuke, and one's fellow trolls, who must be able to recognize the actual intended purpose of the post, which is to generate "bites," or "sincere, responses ... such as anger, shock, and curiosity ... in other words, a demonstration by the respondent that he had unwittingly been deceived by the troller's professed pseudo-intent, and was unaware of her real intent" (Hardaker 2010, 233). Michele Tepper writes,
When it takes place within a single, closed community, trolling can sometimes be accepted and reinforced in the ... subculture because it serves the dual purpose of enforcing community standards and of increasing community cohesion by providing a game that all those who know the rules can play against those who do not. It works both as a game and as a method of subcultural boundary demarcation because the playing pieces in this game are not plastic markers or toy money but pieces of information. (1997, 40)
Trolling becomes a mechanism within subcultural communities that is used to distinguish between longtime, loyal gamers and newbies, inexperienced users who have yet to pay their dues and earn the respect of their fellows. After all, "if no one can be prevented from reading or writing to the group" or from participating in an online game, then "there must be some way of distinguishing between those posters to the group who are actually 'in' the group and those who are still 'outside' it, and all this must be accomplished through asynchronous textual production, with none of the verbal or visual cues that are so crucial to traditional notions of subcultural formation" (45). Tepper describes "the hoped for response" by a troll from a newbie as "an indignant correction":
It is through such a correction that the complicated play of cultural capital that constitutes trolling begins. The corrector, being outside of the community in which trolling is practiced, believes he is proving his superiority to the troller by catching the troller's error, but he is in fact proving his inferior command of the codes of the local subculture in which trolling is practiced. (41)
Interestingly, throughout Tepper's text, she describes both the troll and the trolling victim as male. Whether she intended this or not, her account reinforces the twin notions that the Internet is a predominantly masculine space and that trolling is a contest of masculine performance.
Trolls originating in one online community also sometimes join together to strike out at other communities, thus defining themselves in opposition to the group they have targeted (Herring et al. 2002). Such trolls might post disruptive comments designed to throw the targeted community into chaos, or they might simply hack into their target's website in an attempt to shut the community down. These incursions serve the dual purpose of infuriating the target and boosting the social capital of the troll.
Surveillance, Discipline, and Power
GAMER SLANG AND MASCULINE ANXIETY
Those who want to be acknowledged as a member of a subcultural group have to prove that they can speak the lingo — that they understand the slang, rhetorical tics, common references, and inside jokes that define that group. The slang that defines gamer culture contributes to a rhetorical system in which the performance of masculinity (and the rejection of femininity and queerness) is one of the ways one sutures oneself into the community. It is not enough for one to simply feel sufficiently manly or to identify with positive examples of masculinity. One must continually and vocally reassert one's masculinity to others by rejecting that which is considered insufficiently manly.
The roots of Internet culture, which are steeped in what T. L. Taylor (2012) calls geek masculinity, suggest that the game of trolling developed as a way for those male subjects who found themselves locked out of the privileges associated with successful performances of traditional masculinity in the physical world (because of their failure to achieve certain masculine markers such as bodily strength and athleticism) to (re)claim a new kind of manhood. As Taylor argues, "while computer gamers have been historically conflated with the technically savvy ... their identity (as with geeks writ large) is also typically framed in opposition to traditional athletic masculinity" (114). For many years, the geek and the nerd were held up as images of failed masculinity to be avoided at all costs. They were often coded as victims of some kind of affliction or disability. Geeks wore glasses. They had braces on their teeth and corrective footwear on their feet. They were either too fat, too skinny, or too weak to be skilled in athletics. They were clumsy and accident prone, sexually inadequate, and socially and emotionally underdeveloped. "Measured against hegemonic masculinity ... these guys would be found wanting" (117). In fact, according to Mel Stanfill (2010), geeks have traditionally been portrayed in popular media as being so infatuated with their favorite movies, comics, television shows, and video games that they are precluded from having sexual relations with women. Geeks and gamers often found themselves positioned as the insufficiently manly subjects against which the hunky, athletic style of masculinity was measured.
We can thus read the development of technology-based games like hacking and trolling (and video gaming in general) as a means of reconstructing manliness to mean the mastery of technology as opposed to the body, and the ability to dominate in textual or intellectual games as opposed to athletics. Films like Real Genius (1985), Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Weird Science (1985), and TRON (1982), as well as books like Ernest Cline's Ready Player One (2011), recuperate the male geek by constructing a social space where he can beat the villain (typically a representative of the traditional mold of masculinity, like a popular jock, or a rich, powerful authority figure, like a military man or a CEO), get the girl, and rise to the top of a new hierarchy of masculinity. In these narratives, gaming, hacking, and trolling function as new sports that value quick-wittedness and technological prowess over brute strength. Indeed, the rise of e-sports and the way in which they mimic traditional sports franchises like the NFL and the NBA can be read as an attempt to take on the mantle of masculinity and athletic celebrity but adapt it to a more geek-friendly context (see Taylor 2012).
One textual game commonly played by trolls is what C. J. Pascoe calls fag talk:
Fag talk and fag imitations serve as a discourse with which boys discipline themselves and each other through joking relationships. Any boy can temporarily become a fag in a given social space or interaction. This does not mean that boys who identify as or are perceived to be homosexual aren't subject to intense harassment. Many are. But becoming a fag has as much to do with failing at the masculine tasks of competence, heterosexual prowess, and strength or in any way revealing weakness or femininity as it does with a sexual identity. This fluidity of the fag identity is what makes the specter of the fag such a powerful disciplinary mechanism. It is fluid enough that boys police their behaviors out of fear of having the fag identity permanently adhere and definitively enough so that boys recognize a fag behavior and strive to avoid it. (2007, 54)
One might be labeled a fag for any number of reasons that may or may not be related to sexual preference. Almost anything can become an occasion for suspicion and the definitions of what constitutes fag behavior are maddenly (intentionally?) vague: "He walks a certain way, talks a certain way, acts a certain way. He's well dressed, sensitive, and emotionally expressive. He has certain tastes in art and music — indeed he has any taste in art and music!" (49). As a result, young men must constantly be on their guard; they must constantly monitor the way they present themselves in order to excise any quirks that might be perceived as gay before they are spotted by someone else. Fag talk is constantly circulating, landing temporarily on almost every cultural participant, each of whom must then foist the label off onto someone else to restore status. Like a game of tag, all players occasionally take a turn at being "it." However, the most skilled players are the ones who can avoid being "it" the majority of the time or who can pass the role off to someone else quickly.
Pascoe also uses the language of games to describe masculine performances centered around the rhetorical figure of the faggot: "In this way the fag became a hot potato that no boy wanted to be left holding. One of the best ways to move out of the fag position was to thrust another boy into that position" (2007, 61). Fag talk is not necessarily or even primarily directed toward actual GLBTQ kids; nor is it typically directed at girls. Rather, straight boys direct the threat of faggotry at each other. Pascoe notes that "most boys engaged in these sorts of practices only when in groups" of other boys. "When not in groups — when in one-on-one interactions with boys or girls — boys were much less likely to engage in gendered and sexed dominance practices. In this sense boys became masculine in groups. ... When with other boys, they postured and bragged" (2007, 107).
Excerpted from "Gaming Masculinity"
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Gamification of Gender 1
Game Break: Bro's Law: Army of Two and the Perils of Parody in Gaming Culture 11
1 "Get Raped, F****t": Trolling as a Gendered Metagame 15
Game Break: Far Cry 3: The Heart of Darkness 38
2 Sexy Sidekicks, Filthy Casuals, and Fake Geek Girls: Meme-ifying Gender in the Gaming Community 44
Game Briak: Hacks and Mods: Remaking the Classics 68
3 No Homosexuals in Star Wars? BioWare, Gamer Identity, and the Politics of Privilege in a Convergence Culture 72
Game Break: Will the Circle Be Unbroken? BioShock Infinite and the Evolution of Hardcore Gaming Culture 86
4 From #GamerGate to Donald Trump: Toxic Masculinity and the Politics of the Alt-Right 95
Epilogue: The Dating Game: Gender Performance and Gamification in the Real World 107
Works Cited 121