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Trolling Gender Trouble

Over the past two years, gaming culture’s gender problem has been dragged out into the light. Women like Zoe Quinn (a game developer) and Anita Sarkeesian (a feminist pop culture critic) have been the targets of violent sexualized harassment, rape, and death threats. Both women were driven from their homes after their tormentors posted their addresses online as a part of a campaign of harassment.

It’s easy to dismiss these attacks as simply an occupational hazard that anyone who creates content on the Internet for a living must face.  Trolls will be trolls, after all.  In fact, those who are invested in preserving the status quo in gaming culture, a status quo which assumes that “gamers” are predominantly young straight white males and thus that this demographic is the only one that the games industry should cater to, are quick to advance such dismissals.  They suggest that the fault is with the victims, who are simply too thin skinned to make it in rough and tumble communities like Reddit and 4chan.  But the gendered nature of the attacks these women face point to something deeper, something structural about the organization of gamer culture.  This is trolling with a purpose.

These women are the face of a shift in the composition of gaming culture, one that angers and frightens some gamers.  The Electronic Software Association’s 2014 report released this month reveals that adult women are now the largest demographic that plays digital games.  That same report quotes Dr. Jason Allaire, a professor of psychology at North Carolina State University, as saying that “There is no longer a ‘stereotype game player,’ but instead a game player could be your grandparent, your boss, or even your professor.”  In other words, games are no longer a niche, subcultural form of entertainment; they are being played and enjoyed by everyone, young and old, male and female, on all kinds of platforms, from consoles to cell phones to Facebook pages.  This means that game makers are starting to cater to a broader spectrum of desires than those of the privileged few super-fans that we typically think of as “hardcore gamers.”

The trolls targeting Quinn and Sarkeesian figure that if they can scare these high-profile women (and others like Kathy Sierra and Jennifer Hepler and the many women behind the #1reasonwhy hashtag) out of the industry, they can slow down what Dan Golding calls their drift into “irrelevance” (or, at the very least, their decent into a less relevant position than the one they had before).  They can remain, at least for a little while longer, the main group to which this industry caters.  At the very least, their vocal assaults on the expansion of video games into new markets might, for a time, frighten off game developers who calculate that the new business brought in by more inclusive fare could be offset by the loss in sales they will incur by angering what used to be their core demographic, the “consumer kings” of their industry.

The trolls see these campaigns as skirmishes in a grand meta-game, one that pervades every social circle in which gamers can be found.  This game serves as an on-going test of worthiness for those who want to identify as “gamers” and it, too, is profoundly gendered.  Those who refuse to “take the bait” offered up by a troll demonstrate a cool-headed rationality, a mastery over the self that is associated with masculinity and are thus considered to be “true” gamers.  Those who engage with the troll, on the other hand, are imagined as overly earnest and emotional, too feminine to participate in online gaming.

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The archetypical “troll face” Image from Know Your Meme

They forfeit their claim for a place in the community, or so the logic of the game goes, by refusing to play along.  The troll gains a positive reputation in his community by coaxing a reaction out of his target.  In fact, the target is not the audience for the troll’s barbs at all.  His audience is his fellow trolls, to whom he will brag by sharing evidence of his most recent attacks.  Sarkeesian, in a recent TED Talk, described it thusly:

“This social aspect is a powerful motivating factor which provides incentives for players to participate and to escalate the attacks by earning the praise and approval of their peers…. Players earn ‘internet points’ for increasingly brazen attacks.”

Quinn, meanwhile, discovered this mindset by observing and recording planning sessions by 4chan’s trolls, who, as they strategized about how best to make her “crack,” referred to her as “the final boss.”

The game of trolling is set up to reinforce the idea that competent Internet users and elite gamers are defined precisely as those who adopt a dispassionate in the face of cruel and frightening rhetoric, something that’s easy to do only if one doesn’t have to constantly navigate the world in the body of a woman, wondering if this is the time that the rhetoric will transform into a real threat.  This is one of the Internet’s most ingenious contributions to rape culture: the idea that the normalization of violent discourse is rendered harmless because it exists on a platform that is separate from the physical body.  Such discourse, the trolls purport, is “just a joke” and thus should be beneath notice.  The anger and fear that they leave in their wake supposedly represents a moral failing on the part of the harassed and not the harasser.

In fact, sexualized violence is the adopted language of the trolls of gamer culture.  The world’s first documented troll in the world of gaming, back in days when gamers could only interact via text printed on their screens, would puts words into the mouths of his victims, creating the illusion that a character was willing getting him off in the public chat room against the will of her operator.  Today, “I raped you” is gamer speak for “I beat you at that game”  and “tea-bagging” or “corpse-humping” is a common practice used to taunt defeated opponents by re-purposing a game’s animation to make it resemble a sexual act.

"Tea-bagging” Image from Giant Bomb
Image from Giant Bomb

Hackers and modders of the popular multi-player game Grand Theft Auto Online have developed a “prank” that allows users to take control of the avatars of other player characters and force them to perform a strip tease or bend over and get virtually fucked.  Each of these trolls is engaging in a gendered performance to be consumed by other trolls, a performance that communicates the boundaries of what it means to be a “gamer.”  Those who react to the violent gendering of gaming culture with something more than a mere chuckle or an eye roll are supposed to be excised from the club.

Luckily, game developers are starting to realize that the trolls are no longer the primary profit center of their industry.  Games giants like Nintendo, Electronic Arts, and BioWare are pushing back by responding to criticism about inclusiveness in their games and promising to do better by customers outside of the traditional “gamer” base while companies like Riot, the creators of the world’s most popular PC game, League of Legends, is spearheading a movement to reduce the number of trolls in their community.

If the trolls going after Quinn and Sarkeesian represent what it means to be a “typical” gamer, then, as an avid fan of video games myself, I will be glad to see them go.  As Leigh Alexander puts it, “’gamers’ are over.”  Long live the new game players, those invested in making sure the digital playing field is level for anyone who wants to join in the game.

Megan Condis is a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a pretty decent League of Legends player.  Duo with her as Aenea Lucrecia or check out her writing on games, comics, film, and everything else geeky here.

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