Review: “Gaming Masculinity: Trolls, Fake Geeks, and the Gendered Battle for Online Culture” by Megan Condis

This book is quite enlightening to me; I do a tiny spot of gaming from time to time and come across antifeministic statements. Often, people are referred to as “gay”, “girly”, or “brah”, with very different values attached.

This book serves as a quite sober and varied view at how gender is seen by persons online, trolls and non-trolls alike, if one can separate an audience into those two quarters.

From the starts, on what “bro’s law” could be:

I propose a new Internet maxim that I will call Bro’s Law, a corollary to the famous Poe’s Law, which describes the inherent difficulty in separating out actual, sincere statements of extremist views from parodies of those same views. The original formulation of Poe’s Law states that “without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake [it] for the genuine article” (Poe 2015). It was coined by Nathan Poe in a discussion about religion, and it highlights the difficulty of coming up with exag bro’s law 13 gerated versions of an already extreme discourse. In his discussion of Poe’s Law, Scott F. Aikin remarks, “The humor and point of these sorts of parody is to present religious bigotry and scientific illiteracy in a fashion that magnifies it and thereby highlights its vice. The question, though, is how magnified those parodies really are. Even the most casual websurfing yields similar, if not more shocking scientific illiteracy and religious bigotry” (2013, 303). In popular usage, Poe’s Law has been evoked to describe extreme political positions of all kinds, not just of religious origin (Aikin 2013, 302). Those who evoke Poe’s Law imply that a philosophical system is sufficiently ridiculous that the sincerely offered statements of belief offered by those within that system will appear to be a parody to those on the outside. At the same time, Poe’s Law suggests that it will be difficult for those within the belief system to tell whether a new entrant into the conversation is legitimately a believer or simply a troll posing as one.

Bro’s Law functions similarly. It states: Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor (and sometimes even with one), it is utterly impossible to parody the views about gender held by many in gaming culture in such a way that someone won’t mistake it for the genuine article. For example, Kaceytron’s larger-than-life performance of a fake geek girl persona is apparently mistaken by many to be the sincere performance of a woman intruding into the heretofore masculine space of online gaming culture. At the same time, it is difficult to tell which of the hateful, misogynist comments that accompany her donations are sincerely hateful and which are a kind of audience participation with her performance by fans who enjoy her schtick.

As such, it’s quite interesting to see how gender issues have moved from real life into the Internet with the advent of the latter; attackers are prone to hide with their own crowd (e.g. 4chan) while using inflammatory language against everything which is what they are not.

Condis does a good job at analysing why that is, and why trolls hide together, afraid of becoming outcasts themselves:

This set of discursive rules makes it difficult for in-group 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.

As attacking somebody online often spans from one’s own insecurities and fears:

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.

The book contains a lot of factual pointers on how companies, even ones such as Microsoft, have normalised a vulgar and unacceptable view of sexual violence:

Microsoft later apologized for the “off the cuff and inappropriate comment” (Greenfield 2013) that was meant to be “friendly gameplay banter” and not “bullying and harassment of any kind” (Ngak 2013). However, the fact that a phrase so commonly associated with rape might be thought of by industry professionals as “friendly banter,” that a presenter at “gaming’s biggest trade show in North America” (Takahashi 2016) would see no problem with directing such a phrase toward a female opponent, and that many in the audience would consider this the laugh line of the presentation point to the normalization of rape discourse in gaming culture.

Instances where certain women have been attacked due to simply highlighting sexism within the gaming world, e.g. Anita Sarkeesian and Kathy Sierra, are brought up and analysed, displaying how the attacks happened. It’s exactly like reading a step-by-step play of well-known terrorist operations, although this happens far more often, and affects non-white males, simply because the victims are non-white males.

Some paragraphs are very well written:

It is tempting to imagine the geeky world of online gaming as an equalopportunity environment, one where women and men exist on an equal playing field. We want to believe that on the Internet, where physical bodies are unimportant in comparison to textual and technical performances, anyone can rise to the top of the social hierarchy, regardless of gender. However, participants are only able to do so when they use the anonymity provided by the Internet to construct a persona in keeping with the new (male) geek chic. Girls can play alongside the boys, but only insofar as they can make themselves seem to be like one of the boys. Queer people are welcome only so long as they work to avoid being seen as fags (see Chapter 4). Ironically, it requires a great deal of labor from both male and female participants in gaming culture to maintain a posture of effortless self-possession. Trolling is a game of aloofness and uncaring that actually requires a great deal of commitment to play.

All in all, there are hopeful parts in this book that state how changes are actually happening in the world of gaming. It would have been great to see the inclusion of analysis post #metoo. I’d love to have seen a bit more editing to make the book not feel as fragmented as it is, but as a whole, this book is very needed, and a necessity for people to understand the gaming world of today.

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