With Great Power: Responsibility as a Geek
[Trigger warning: sexual assault and misogyny]
It’s difficult to put your finger on so-called “geek culture.” Many assume that the words geek and nerd are derogatory, and to a certain extent they are. But increasingly it’s become a self-attributed catch-all for a generation of kids (some, like myself, are now fully grown) who at some point fell deeply into comic books, video games, fantasy novels and the like. The Internet gave these kids a way to connect with one another, and rather than retreating inward they used the Web as a forum for creative expression and general solidarity. We took the word back, and today one is almost proud, in an ironic sort of way, to call him/herself a geek.
I myself am proud to identify as a geek. But I’m not going to write on what I love about my fellow nerds; this ground has been trodden and should be self-evident. Instead, I’m compelled to expose the dark side of the culture that I love.
Anita Sarkeesian is the author of a video blog called “Feminist Frequency.” She’s also self-identifying geek, and has made it her professional mission to deconstruct what she perceives as sexist tropes in video games and associated media. In 2012 she began a campaign on Kickstarter, a crowd-funding website, to raise money for a video series entitled “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games.” It reached its funding goal of $6,000 in less than 24 hours. At the end of 30 days it had raised $158,922
What followed was an absolutely sickening campaign of harassment that opened my eyes to the misogynistic potential of the culture I’m so proud to be a part of. It started with comments on her Facebook and YouTube pages:
“She needs a good dicking, good luck finding it though.”
“I hate ovaries with a brain big enough to post videos.”
“Back to the kitchen, cunt.”
Other comments brought attention to her supposed Jewish ancestry or labeled her as a “feminazi.” Some would point to these commenters as “trolls” who intentionally post inflammatory comments on the Web to provoke a reaction. But it only got worse from there. Sarkeesian’s Wikipedia article was frequently vandalized with images of sex acts. She was the target of mass image harassment, and received emails containing imaged of herself holding up a sign that reads “GIVE ME MONEY YOU SEXIST PIG” or being violently raped by Mario and other video game characters. And in a crescendo of hate, one lonely soul made a full flash game called “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian.” You can look it up if you really want to see it.
Game designer Cliff Bleszinski summed up his feelings on the harassment in a way that really resonated with me: “We’re the gamers, the dorks,” he wrote in a blog post. “We’re the ones who were on our computers during prom. We’re the ones that were in the back of the lunch room who were playing D&D instead of tossing a football around on the quad. We were supposed to be the open, friendly ones, the ones who welcomed all into our wonderful geeky circle.”
Cliff’s not saying that every nerd fits into a narrowly-defined “social outcast” box. Hell, I consider myself a pretty sociable and well-adjusted person. But fundamentally, we identify in most situations with the outcast, the person who for whatever reason doesn’t fit into normative society. The real tragedy of the Sarkeesian story is that our society, the community that we found and molded and took ownership of, has inherited the corruption of the one we sought to escape. We’ve become the bullies.
For every member of the “Anonymous Internet Boy Taliban,” as Clifford calls it, there’s someone who doesn’t intend to aggravate but nonetheless serves to. On the game forums I browse — the domain of the logical gamer — there are posts that dissect Sarkeesian’s argument or trump it using logic. There are posts that vent frustrations about normal gamers being labeled as sexist. And there are posts that decry the so-called “White Knights” who come to Sarkeesian’s defense. These posts miss the point—the important thing we should be talking about is not Sarkeesian’s video content, or even Sarkeesian herself. Gamers need to start talking about privilege.
I know this is the point where I’ll lose a lot of readers, but please bear with me. Privilege is not a big scary monster coming to strike at your masculinity. The process of talking about privilege can be frustrating and painful, but after all, it involves an inversion of your world view. But the fact of the matter is, in some ways, you probably benefit involuntarily from the way your society or culture is structured. Coming to terms with this fact is liberating.
We gamers, we geeks, we nerds have constructed a community under the assumption that it is and will forever be a boy’s club. The tropes that claim to define us, after all, say we’ll never get the girl. Common go-to forum phrases like “there are no girls on the internet” and “tits or gtfo” constantly demonstrate the fact that the space we’ve constructed serves the interests of men. And perhaps it was once truly a boy’s club, but if that were ever true it’s now changing.
According to the Entertainment Software Association, in 2012 women represented 47 percent of game purchasers. One might point out a distinction between gamer cultures and the increasing popularity of mobile apps which still count as video games in such polls. But the fact that Sarkeesian’s campaign raised over 25 times its goal more or less proves the presence of gamers who want to talk about these issues. Maybe women are still underrepresented in game development and consumption, but they are clearly here, and they clearly feel marginalized by their fellow gamers. When we rail on about how frustrating it is that critics of the culture we love are allowed to voice their opinions, we are overtly using our privilege in frightening ways to silence others. In other words, we’re being jerks.
I’ll conclude with a sentiment that any geek like me should understand. Uncle Ben’s last words to Peter Parker were: “With great power comes great responsibility.” We’re not superheroes, but many of us wield social power without knowing it. Our responsibility is to understand this power, realize how people might react to our words, and check it conscientiously. Otherwise, we’re no better than the Green Goblin.