A year or two ago there was a lot of discussion about misogyny among video gamers, due to a stink raised over something called “gamergate”. This turned out to be only the most visible of a large number of cases of a certain core part of “gamer culture” being agressively hostile to women — a syndrome that also seems to rub off on some related cultural areas such as comic book fandom. I recently ran into some people discussing this, and one of them mocked these gamers as being afraid to catch cooties. And with a little distance from the original furor, that made me realize something. It’s a bit speculative, but I think it’s something that will eventually need society’s attention.
But first, a broader question. Where does evil come from? When dealing with random individuals who commit evil acts on their own, there are many answers and many schools of belief which advocate one answer over another. But when people commit evil in groups, things become much clearer. If you look at history’s big acts of mass evil, such as the Nazi holocaust, or the genocides in Armenia or Rwanda — when you look at mass atrocities down the ages, from medieval witch burning to American slavery to the latest horrors perpetrated by ISIS or Boko Haram — it’s clear how evil spreads. It isn’t about baleful supernatural influences, it isn’t about people being born bad, and it isn’t about early childhod trauma: evil of this kind is cultural. Quite often, it isn’t even about the culture people were raised with: in a lot of the more virulent phases of mass evil, the whole thing burns itself out in less than a generation. The people who commit these horrors were talked into it as adults. They were persuaded to be evil. Of course, some people just need the slightest encouragement, and one could just dismiss them as rotten of character, but plenty more who aren’t that bad will also join in if subjected to long term campaigns of propaganda. As human beings, we are extremely prone to allowing our moral compasses to be calibrated by what the society around us defines as normal.
So culture matters. Culture has a huge influence on whether people behave positively or negatively. Not that this is any excuse for the individuals involved — once you’re an adult and have developed independent thought, you bear complete moral responsibility for whether or not you choose to embrace the negative side of whatever propaganda you’re being fed. Even if you grow up acculturated to hate from infancy, to earn any forgiveness for acting on it as an adult is still a tough job and far from automatic.
So yeah, the fact that abusive misogyny is so widespread in gaming is a matter of culture. Mocking insults passed back and forth between people who are pretending to kill each other is to be expected, of course, but that doesn’t account for the special virulence aimed at women, or for how lots of women have found gaming much more bearable if they hide behind a male persona. (There’s plenty of anti-gay denigration too, of course.) There’s something way beyond friendly ribbing going on when women connected to the game industry, such as Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu, receive repeated death threats when they speak out. Clearly the people involved in this hateful behavior have created a culture in which people encourage and normalize acting this way. Which, again, is no excuse for the individual gamer who allows themselves to be persuaded by it; nobody guilty of, say, mailing some woman violent threats accompanied by a photochopped image of herself being raped by Duke Nukem, is deserving of any level of sympathy or support more comforting than a knuckle sandwich. But maybe there are underlying aspects of the situation where a more compassionate view is possible.
It doesn’t help that the game industry panders to this culture as much as it does, for instance by sexualizing such a large percentage of female in-game characters. As in the porn business, the tastes that rule are not those of the majority of the audience, but of the hardcore few who spend the most money. Pandering is profitable.
Was this culture passed down from old-school traditional sexism? It doesn’t seem to have been. Old adages about women belonging in the kitchen or the man being the head of the house are largely absent, except as taunts. It used to be that it was easy to conflate misogyny with patriarchy, but nowadays patriarchal ideology is nearly dead, while misogyny is very much alive. (It may even be on the rise — I’m not sure, but it didn’t seem this bad a decade ago.) As a result, those misogynists who feel the need for an ideological framework are nowadays trying to cobble together a new one using odd bits from sociobiology and pickup-artist jargon. The result, commonly known as “red pill” philosophy, is remarkable more for extreme cynicism than for coherency. It makes Biblical patriarchy seem humane and uplifting by comparison.
When seeing hate like this, we might debate or theorize all day about where it comes from, without reaching any consensus. But there’s a related phenomenon going on which might get us a little closer to seeing what’s what, which is more visible in the comic book arena: the protests against the menace of “fake geek girls”. A number of comic book (and related) fans, and even some creators, have taken to denigrating women who hang around their scene, particularly those who like to dress up a la Adrianne Curry, as being “fake geeks”. Similar terms come up in gaming. The way they describe this supposed fakery makes the girls sound like dangerous predators out to rob the real fans of a precious resource… namely, their attention. Yeah, the sinister plot of pretending to be a comix fan is all done for male attention! And it must be stopped before more true geeks are victimized.
What’s up with that? Normally, if persons of hotness start being fascinated by your interests, most of us would consider that to be good luck, not a threat. What is being threatened? Clearly some of it could be that attractiveness is scary, as this particular line of criticism often seems to skip past the women who are being plain and drab. (Some women have reported that in gamer circles, you have to “dress down” to be taken seriously in face-to-face conversations.)
But why the focus on authenticity? Why the implicit assertion that these cosplayers and so forth are not just doing fandom wrong in some way, but are fundamentally unqualified to participate at all? Why the presumption that by default, they just don’t belong?
To me this reaction really does seem consistent with a theory that the true threat is cooties.
What does “cooties” mean? Originally the term referred to skin parasites, particularly pediculus humanus capitis, the head louse. But now, among preteen boys, it commonly refers to a metaphorical state of contamination arising from contact with girls (or, sometimes, other persons or groups that kids want to shun). The desire of six- to twelve-year-old boys to keep away from girls, and vice versa, seems to be remarkably consistent and durable across cultures. It seems to be not a cultural artifact at all, but a genuine instinct.
The theory, as far as I know, is that normal childhood development is supposed to have a swing toward attraction to the opposite sex at puberty, coming after an anti-attraction in the preceding period which helps prevent things from getting started earlier than they should. But of course “normal” is just a short way of saying that exceptions are everywhere. The biological systems involved in these changes operate very loosely. Look how often the “attraction to the opposite sex” part ends up working out differently — and that’s the bit that’s going to have the least freedom to vary, as it’s essential for propagation. The other parts that aren’t as critical can vary even more easily. For instance, lots of people report having fallen into crushes on the opposite sex at very young ages where it isn’t supposed to happen.
As an engineer type whose job skills are about getting complicated systems to work dependably, my instincts are fairly good for noticing which bits of a plan are the ones where it’s vulnerable to going off the rails. And in this theoretical plan for how puberty is supposed to work, where I see the biggest vulnerability is in this zigzag reversal of attraction. It could go off course in about four different ways. And if it can, it probably does, more often than we realize.
If we are all programmed with an inborn instinct to avoid the opposite sex, what would happen if it sometimes failed to be temporary — if sometimes it doesn’t deactivate when it’s supposed to? We’d end up with an invisible minority of people who might, in many cases, be sexually attracted to the opposite sex, yet nevertheless don’t enjoy their presence or company and prefer to hang out with their own gender. And, well… when you put it like that, you of course recognize that such people are commonplace, and always have been. To switch the focus briefly from nerds to jocks, we’ve seen plenty of them deride those who they deem overly woman-friendly as “pussyfied” or “whipped”, and heard phrases such as “bros before hos”. And women expressing similar sentiments in terms of sisterhood and the like are well known also. The only new thought here is the notion that maybe this has a common biological basis rather than just being due to some personal psychological quirk, or to being turned off by bad experiences. For women, the bad-experience factors may make it rather impossible to separate out any influence of temperament, but for men there at least superficially appear to be plenty of examples that can’t be ascribed to negative experience.
I think it’s quite possible that we have an unrecognized minority of persons who have a built-in aversion to mixed company, over which they have no choice — persons who can never quite feel comfortable being around the opposite sex all the time, however they try.
It used to be that society accomodated such a temperament pretty well. Almost every culture has been well supplied — sometimes to excess — with areas of daily life in which men and women are kept apart into separate areas and activities. That is, until recently. Our modern culture, in the last couple of generations, has become one where such separation is no longer a normal part of life. And we see this as progress, and in most ways that view is undoubtedly correct. For most of us, it’s a clear improvement.
But what if the remaining areas of single-sex grouping are not just remnants of patriarchy, but persist in order to fulfill an unmet need? What if there’s a significant subset of the populace which, unlike me and probably unlike you, would be genuinely healthier and happier if they could spend more time in the company of only their own gender? Such opportunities are now scarce, and continuing to shrink. Women-only groups are mostly still acceptable enough to create privately, as long as they stay small, but men-only groups are socially difficult because of the appearance (and sometimes more than just the appearance) of patriarchal privilege.
Even a couple of generations ago, it wasn’t that hard to find ways to keep male company. From wealthy private clubs to hunting and fishing trips, from joining the military to careers involving manual skills and hazardous conditions, those who wanted such a thing could have it. But now, where can they go?
Such men might be driven to try to create informal all-male spaces wherever the find an attractive opportunity to do so, and to instinctively (if perhaps inarticulately) try to defend such spaces, and resent any and all non-male intrusions there.
I can see why gaming — at least, the subset of “serious” gaming that’s focused on gritty, high-realism combat action — would seem like a natural spot for this. There are now just as many women as men participating in gaming overall, but that’s fairly recent, and probably not true in the so-called hardcore games.
Maybe some areas of life that can’t be segregated for men only, like gaming, would have a lot less trouble if we were to reopen some other areas that can be. Maybe someday, when sexism is over, there’ll be a recognition of a need for some people to still have single-sex spaces. Can we bring some of that back today, and if so, would it help? Maybe, maybe not. If tried today, maybe opening up something like that might help “drain the swamp”, and ease the pressure that leads people to turn hostile. Maybe it would allow some people who don’t want cooties to calm down and not act like jerks about it. But on the other hand, in today’s culture it might just create a new breeding ground for even more virulent sexism. I don’t know what would happen. I just know that if there really is an unmet instinctive need here, then trying to educate it away will never succeed.