Author's note: Earlier, I had linked to a tweet from a pro-Gamergate supporter, believing it was a derisive attempt to get suicide hotlines flooded. I have since been informed the tweet was in earnest. I have deleted the tweet. However, the rest of the article stands.
I don't know about you, but I find it pretty amazing to be a geek these days. The glasses I've rocked since the third grade (shout-out to my myopic brethren) are finally cool, the last third of my life has seen my teenage hero, Spider-Man, on the big screen more often than not, and all the weird, "smart kid" stuff I liked is now embraced by most everyone else.
But it's also a pretty tumultuous time to be one, too.
Ask any person who's plugged in to geek culture about the state of it right now, and you're likely to get a reaction that looks a lot like this:
The irony is that while externally, geeks are being accepted as a whole, internally, the story is much different. There's an ugly core of nastiness coming from a very vocal minority, and as geek culture continues to expand, they only grow louder. And while the nastier moments of that ugly minority are starting to be recognized and picked up by mainstream media, it's still largely our problem.
Simply put, there is a war being waged right now for the soul of geek culture.
And it's a hell of a lot uglier than you realize.
Gamergate has taken us to a whole new level of scary
The most prominent battle within this war right now is, without a doubt, the soul-sapping clusterfuck that is the Gamergate controversy. Even if someone is not plugged into geekdom right now, they've probably at least heard of it, especially after this week's episode of [Law & Order: SVU](series:755869) lifted its storyline straight from Gamergate. And even though the episode showed the SVU writers have absolutely no idea how gamer culture actually works or that they had a grasp on the reality of the situation, which happened and is still happening to real people, it still put the issue front and center for a night on national television.
But for those of you that still don't know what Gamergate is all about, allow me to elaborate. It began when jilted ex-boyfriend Eron Gjoni set out to get revenge on his former girlfriend, game developer Zoe Quinn, by publishing a rambling, largely unfounded (but awfully bitter) essay accusing Quinn, among other things, of having an affair with Kotaku games journalist Nathan Grayson, leading to a biased, overly favorable review of Quinn's game Depression Quest.
Even though it was quickly debunked by Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo, and the uproar was enough for Gjoni himself to backpedal (though not enough for him to admit he had lied, blaming it instead on "a typo"), the damage had already been done. Quinn was subjected to an instant and overwhelming backlash, the intensity of which quickly grew to be completely out of proportion to the initial catalyst.
Quinn became the target of a still-ongoing harassment campaign, with her Skype, Tumblr, and Dropbox accounts getting hacked. She began getting rape and death threats daily, and eventually, she was doxed - that is, her personal information, including home address, were dumped onto the internet for anyone to see, a particularly terrifying turn of events for someone who regularly receives threats from men warning her they will show up at her home, rape her, and leave her for dead.
It gets worse. Much, much worse.
But it doesn't begin and end with Quinn. Other women vocal about equality in the industry, outspoken about Gamergate, have also become targets for Gamergate's vitriol. Brianna Wu, the co-founder of video game development studio Giant Spacekat, has received almost 50 death threats in the last five months. Threats like this:
But lest you think she's blowing it out of proportion, that these are idle threats, consider this: The week before last, Wu filed a restraining order against a stalker known only on the internet as "The Commander." He had recorded a video of himself brandishing a knife and threatening to murder her "Assassin's Creed style" in order to "deliver justice."
He was thwarted only because he crashed his car on the way to her house, a location he knew because Wu's home address, like Quinn's, had been blasted onto the internet. In his car were guns, and he claimed to have a friend who planned to help him murder Wu.
In the aftermath of the crash, this is the video he recorded and uploaded to YouTube:
It's bizarre. It's incoherent. It's the screaming ramble of a deeply, deeply mentally disturbed man a man who needs help battling what appear to be some fairly serious demons in his head.
But that doesn't negate the fact that, mentally ill or not, it was a video recorded by a man who had weapons on him at the time he was en route to Wu's house to kill her. That's not grounds for a trip to a therapist - that's grounds for a trip to prison.
"If you do not cancel her talk...this will be the deadliest school shooting in American history."
Likewise, prominent cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, who often discusses video games from a feminist perspective on her YouTube channel Feminist Frequency, drew the wrath of Gamergaters when she condemned the movement. Like Wu and Quinn, she received dozens of rape and death threats and was doxed.
And in October, Sarkeesian had to cancel a speaking engagement at Utah State University after the school received not one, not even two, but three anonymous threats that there would be retribution in the form of mass casualties if the university allowed her to speak. The second threat claimed to be directly affiliated with Gamergate, and the first threat hinted the school would see a repeat of the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre, a mass shooting in which the shooter, who stated he was motivated by misogyny and anti-feminism, gunned down 14 women before killing himself:
If you do not cancel her talk, a Montreal Massacre style attack will be carried out against the attendees, as well as students and staff at the nearby Women’s Center. I have at my disposal a semi-automatic rifle, multiple pistols, and a collection of pipe bombs. This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history and I’m giving you a chance to stop it.
You have 24 hours to cancel Sarkeesian’s talk. You might be foolish enough to just beef up security at the event, but that won’t save you. Even if they’re able to stop me, there are plenty of feminists on campus who won’t be able to defend themselves. One way or another, I’m going to make sure they die.
-anonymous email to Utah State University staff on 10/13/14
Most recently, Gamergaters have turned to flooding gay and trans suicide hotlines, hoping to jam up the lines for someone at a low point, desperate to reach out. While the main origin of these threats have come from 8chan, there is more than enough overlap between the two to understand they are not mutually exclusive. Understanding the Gamergate hashtag has earned itself a negative connotation on Twitter, they've turned their attention to Tumblr with "Operation Firefly", dropping the hashtag in an attempt to spread the word on other platforms. Of course, it has devolved into organized attacks targeted at Tumblr users who are gay, trans, and depressed, encouraging the user to commit suicide, piling on in the hopes that the person will snap and kill him- or herself.
Make no mistake, what's pouring forth from pro-Gamergaters right now is the ugliest sort of human nature, the vilest thoughts being manifested into reality.
I'm "lucky" because I've only been threatened with violence once
As a woman who is both very visible and very active on social media, particularly Twitter, and an outspoken one at that, I've been lucky, for the most part. I'm not quite yet a "name," so to speak; I fly under the radar. I've managed to duck the slings and arrows of imagined misfortune, save for two or three times I made the mistake of using the #Gamergate hashtag and suddenly found myself inundated within minutes by tens of angry guys trying to justify the righteousness of their movement.
It's been rude. It's been insulting (or at least, it was an attempt to be). And it has gotten, at points, downright disgusting. But I'm lucky in that I've only ever received one secondhand death threat: A man who read about our Women in Geek Media panel at last year's New York Comic Con threatened to come to our panel and beat us all with a baseball bat until we were hospitalized - or worse. Luckily, the fellow panel member who received that threat on her social media platform contacted security at NYCC, and they made sure to station someone outside the conference room during our panel.
And I find myself realizing, as I type that, just how screwed-up, just how far deep down the rabbit hole of noxious crazy we've gone that I actually think of myself as being "lucky" that I've only received one death threat, "lucky" that I've only been piled on and buried under an avalanche of anger and vitriol and personal insults by random strangers on Twitter a handful of times.
This is what it means to be "lucky" as a woman active in geek culture in 2015.
But the ugliness isn't limited solely to the gaming industry
As geek culture becomes mainstream culture, one of the branches that's benefited most from this pop culture explosion has been conventions. Everywhere you look now, there's another convention popping up, from the huge, largely commercialized conventions like San Diego Comic-Con, E3, or the aforementioned NYCC, to smaller, more niche conventions such as Walker Stalker, Dragon*Con, PAX, WonderCon, Comikaze Expo, and GeekGirlCon. There are now dozens of geek-centric conventions all around the United States and hundreds more around the world, a fantastic development for people with geekier loves and fandoms to find like-minded others to befriend, share ideas with, and with whom they can just nerd out.
At NYCC, I spied a girl dressed as Amy Pond from [Doctor Who](series:200668) and barked, "Come along, Pond!" the Eleventh Doctor's regular command to her. She spun around and started walking with me. A short while later, I caught up to a guy in epic Doctor Strange cosplay and exclaimed "By the Eye of Agamatto!" to which he immediately dropped into a classic Sorcerer Supreme pose for me to photograph. I had a reader who, upon meeting me after our panel, completely geeked out: "You were the one who wrote that Marvel Civil War piece? I LOVED THAT!" You won't find that sort of immediate connection, recognition, and camaraderie anywhere else. Really, where else can Gwen Stacy and MJ pose together with Darth Vader?
Only at a con, that's where.
But there were other signs posted at NYCC, prominent and visible, a reminder that there's a disturbing undercurrent that weaves its way around the glorious, joyful cacophony of conventions, a wrong note that's jarring when struck.
With conventions expanding at such a rapid pace, so has the practice of cosplay - you know, those crazy kids who dress up as their favorite characters from comics, anime, movies, TV and video games.
Unfortunately, some convention-goers (predominantly male) think that other convention-goers (predominantly female) dressing up in what could be seen as sexy or skimpy cosplay is an invitation to sexually harass them, whether verbally or physically. When the immersive nature of fandom meets the real-world scenario of conventions, the result is that often, male convention-goers can forget (or remember and choose to ignore) that the girl in front of them, dressing up as their favorite female character, is not actually that character. When the character is one with sex appeal or oft-fantasized about, other cosplayers and fans either forget, don't realize, or don't care that that cosplaying girl is not there to fulfill their fantasies, but because she liked the character, no more and no less.
In a story in Mashable from last October, cosplayer Alana Lelaini described a typical scenario, this time when she was dressed as Lady Rainicorn from [Adventure Time](series:2327876):
I had to physically stop two people from putting hands on me. Dressed as Lady Rainicorn from Adventure Time, she described one of many harassments she experienced at last year's New York Comic Con.
One stopped after I pushed him away; the other asked permission to put his head in my cleavage, and I said no ... He went to take a picture and did it anyway, so I punched him. People believe they have a right to your body.
And while there are certainly cosplayers who welcome the attention, particularly those who do it professionally, there is a line that is all too often crossed at conventions. Professional or not, male or female, no one welcomes harassment or degradation.
But there's still more.
Women aren't the only ones feeling unwelcome in geek culture.
In the last few months, along with learning that Marvel's Thor would be a woman and the [Ghostbusters 3](movie:32733) remake would feature an all-female cast, we've also learned that the mantle of Captain America would be taken up by Falcon, a black superhero. John Boyega, a black actor, turned heads when he showed up in the [Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens](movie:711158) trailer as a Stormtrooper. And Michael B. Jordan, another black actor, is still getting grief a year later for taking on the role of The Human Torch, a traditionally white superhero, in [The Fantastic Four](movie:34667) reboot.
To the surprise of no one, a hardcore group of comic book fans have not taken kindly to the gender- and race-swapping of characters, particularly the latter:
The above examples were some of the mildest I could find. Yet the same group of people the most vocal about their dislike of a black man playing a white superhero are unsurprisingly quiet when the race-swapping goes in the other direction. When Ridley Scott's [Exodus: Gods and Kings](movie:44617) whitewashed an entire Egyptian and Jewish cast of characters, for example, or more recently when Scarlett Johansson was cast as Asian character Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming live-action adaptation of Japanese anime [Ghost in the Shell](movie:1224130).
So why is geekdom so awful right now?
Understand this: It is not about the "ethics in gaming journalism" smokescreen that Gamergaters like to hide behind. It's not about "teaching fake geek girls a lesson" that convention harassers claim. It's not about "faithfulness to the story" as comic book fans say.
It's about fear.
There have been hundreds of articles written about each of these separate incidents, the problems in each subset of geek culture, but the poison seed at the heart of all of it is fear.
In an interview with the UK's Telegraph, Quinn eloquently summarized what the real driving force behind the ugliness is.
Things are starting to change, and [gamers] are starting to push back on that. Now a lot of people who want games to remain an old boys’ club are feeling threatened. They’re using [the ethics] as an excuse to unleash their frustrations. It’s completely misplaced anger and rage.
This explanation applies not just to the gaming industry, but to geek culture as a whole. It's a culture that has its roots in the ostracized, the outcast, a culture that was built and shaped largely by white, straight guys who moved uncomfortably and projected awkwardly in a world that didn't get them. They created their own worlds, worlds into which they could escape, circles where they could achieve and maintain a measure of control and power they couldn't find in the external world. There is more than a little truth in the reason why the stereotype of the "nerd" hasn't changed much since Revenge of the Nerds days.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Sarkeesian was more blunt about it:
But if we're gonna dig down a little bit further, what's happening is that the industry is changing. This consciousness-raising is happening...That's what the GamerGate temper tantrum is reacting to. It's trying to hold on to this status quo, this illusion that gaming is for men, that it can never change, that it can never be more inclusive than that. We're thinking, "Well, inclusiveness is a great thing! Bringing more people into gaming, telling a wider range of stories from different perspectives — that can only be good!" They take that as an attack on their little base of male-dominated gaming.
Picture the whole of geekdom as a huge forest. That nasty core pushing back are the little boys in the treehouse with the "No Girls Allowed" sign, peering outside with fearful rage and chucking sharp rocks out through the windows. While girls and women, blacks and Hispanics and Middle Easterners and Asians, gay and lesbian and LGBTQ* people say, "Hey, guys! This forest is big enough for all of us!" and set about building more treehouses as they do their best to duck the incoming projectiles.
Sociology and psychology can explain what we're seeing
Clearly, I've been pondering this war within the culture I love for a while now. As someone who has always been fascinated with psychology, particularly social psychology, I found myself pondering why no one has really approached what we're seeing from that angle. It's easy to write off what we're seeing as people simply being "crazy," as it simply being a bunch of whiny losers. But that is both insulting to people suffering from mental illness, and reductive and dismissive of how complex the problem is.
There's a theory within social psychology called system justification theory, and it explains everything we're seeing right now within geek culture. Putting it in simple terms, system justification is the idea that people are driven to defend the status quo as long as it suits them, even though it may be harmful or disadvantageous to others. Likewise, they've a psychological need to view themselves, their group, and like-minded individuals in a favorable light, regardless of their actions. In moments when their perceptions of righteousness are challenged, resulting in cognitive dissonance, the psychological need to maintain this status quo results in a defensive backlash. Again, Sarkeesian summarized it during a talk at Portland's XOXO Festival:
The perpetrators do not see themselves as perpetrators at all. They see themselves as noble warriors...[Women] are blamed for the abuse we receive and regularly told that we are either asking for it or inventing it entirely.
This dissonance leads to a psychological reaction called a belief confirmation paradigm. In other words, if a conflicting belief is introduced, and the resulting mental discomfort isn't negated by the person subsequently modifying his belief, he'll seek to alleviate the discomfort by rejecting the new information, deliberately misinterpreting it, and reaffirming his belief by seeking like-minded individuals while attempting to malign or discredit those in the outgroup who share the opposing belief.
Thus, Gamergaters deny that the core of their movement is about sexism or that women are being threatened at all, convention harassers tell themselves the female cosplayers they harass "can't take a joke," and that they're not harassing at all, but "just playing around," and bigoted comic book fans justify their racism by claiming it's not racism at all, but truthfulness to the comics that spurs their actions.
Anyone who has studied history already knows we've seen similar incidents before. Rich Wall Street stockbrokers dismissing Occupy Wall Street supporters as lazy and entitled, the riots, protests, and violence that came with the Civil Rights Movement and women's suffrage, Christian leaders and political conservatives taking increasingly outrageous and hateful stances as gay marriage starts to sweep the country and women, minorities, and LGBTQ* people of all kinds begin to speak up en masse about no longer being second class citizens.
Violence is the harbinger of social progress; real change rarely comes without massive amounts of upheaval preceding it.
The good thing is that...
As ugly as things have gotten, and as ugly as they will continue to be for some time yet, even the ugliness is a beacon of hope. What we're seeing now is the death throes of the old, exclusive sort of geek culture as it makes way for the more progressive, inclusive community being ushered in by a younger generation. The more that those they see as "outsiders" push to be included, the more ferociously that scared and angry core will lash out.
The truth is, they are championing a way of life that simply will not exist for much longer. The "beautifully unique sparkleponies" (thanks forever and ever to Chris Kluwe for famously coining that phrase) no longer feel as unique or special now that the culture that has been built for them and by them and has always catered exclusively to them is starting to shift some of its focus away.
The truly sad thing is that they don't realize that there is more than enough for everyone - and if they do, they just don't care. Perhaps the best summary I've ever heard that applies to the uproar in geek culture as a whole came from one of my coworkers. He asked me what Gamergate was all about, and after I explained, he paused for a moment, digesting what I'd said. Then: "So...it's like a restaurant that always serves chicken decides to add some salad to its menu and people freak out because they think the chicken will go away."
Change is happening. While the majority of violence and pushback has come from straight, white men, the truth is that not all straight, white men in geekdom are so close-minded and hateful, not even most. And they are becoming more and more willing to speak up about the wrongness they see within the culture they love, whether it be sexism, racism, homo- or transphobia, or indeed, any sort of bigotry.
They are joining an ongoing and increasingly loud chorus of diverse voices, those who have, until recently, been marginalized and overlooked by the geek culture they'd loved but that had rarely loved them back. And as those in charge of creating the pop culture upon which our fandoms are built start to listen and respond, the whole thing is moving forward into the realm of inclusiveness and awareness at an ever-increasing pace.
For every racist comment that is posted on a forum, there is Fox Studios saying, "We don't care. Our Human Torch is black, because he can be whomever people want him to be." For every sexist one, it's Marvel Studios and DC saying, "Ladies, we hear what you're saying, female-led superhero films are on the way...oh, and while we're at it, let's update some of these costumes so they're not quite so demeaning." For every death threat received by an outspoken woman in gaming, it's the CEO of Blizzard Entertainment taking the stage at BlizzCon to denounce Gamergate. For every Tumblr page of a gay or trans teenager being flooded by Gamergaters is a new video game developer or comic book publisher saying, "We hear you. We need to do better."
It's not perfect yet, not by any means. More concrete changes need to happen, and they need to happen faster. More people in positions of influence, be it in gaming or comic books or television, movies, or conventions, need to publicly and actively take a stand against the nastiness inherent within their own fanbases. They create the product that builds the brand; they can create a more inclusive community within their audience, as well. The scared and bigoted mindset, after all, doesn't solely exist in the audience alone - it also exists in many of the people calling the shots and those in positions of influence (throwing side eye directly at you, Adam Baldwin).
So yes, those who can effect change must do better by their entire fanbase, and solely the ones who actively kick and scream against progress.
But despite the fact that progress may not be happening as fast as many of us would like, the reality is that change is like a snowball: All it takes is a little push to get it going, then it rolls downhill and picks up speed. As it does, the dominoes will start to fall faster and faster and change will happen in leaps and bounds. We're already seeing it now, and while we're not there yet - there are still, as the poem says, miles to go before we sleep - we're getting there faster than ever before.
So yeah, I don't know about you, but I find it pretty amazing to be a geek these days. My people, the new breed of geeks who are climbing up the mountain of progress and change, are renewed by a rekindled sense of purpose as we see that summit so close. And for those of you scared to climb behind us, don't worry - we'll be more than happy to reach down and give you a hand up.
Because there's more than enough room at the top here for all of us. And the view is incredible.