Chapter 4 – Publics, Counterpublics and Hegemonic Masculinity

The Gamergate media event is characterised by gender-based conflicts between its ‘hardcore gamer’ publics and feminist counterpublics. This thesis has described the self-organisation of these publics around peripheral stakeholders participating in the media event, as well as commentators who mobilised contestations of the ‘gamer’ identity through the ‘death of the gamer’. The conflicts between Gamergate’s antagonistic publics mark another relevant site of analysis, however. Specifically, the discursive politics enacted in these conflicts present an opportunity to map Gamergate’s ‘gamer’ discourse as it interplayed with Gamergate’s feminist discourse. 

Analysing Gamergate’s discursive politics reveals that its online conflicts persisted through the hegemonic masculinity that is systemically embedded in the ‘gamer’ public (Vanderhoef, 2013; Taylor, 2012, pp. 111–112). This is linked to the notion that the character of publics is determined by their participants’ identities, practices, and social and historical contexts (Baym & Boyd, 2012, pp. 320). As such, this chapter investigates the evidence of hegemonic masculinity in the ‘gamer’ – and more broadly, the ‘geek’ – identities. The purpose of this is to determine how Gamergate’s feminist counterpublics contested this hegemonic masculinity, and how its ‘gamer’ publics operated within it.

When Gamergate’s publics contest the ‘gamer’ identity, their exchanges are attempts to govern each other’s respective discourses. For Gamergate’s feminist counterpublic, this means advocating for a diversification of video games and their designs, while also using the ‘death of the gamer’ event as an opportunity to articulate their oppression by ‘hardcore gamers’ into discourse. For masculine Gamergaters however, this act of governance sometimes manifests as performative misogyny, which is an articulation of the role of the masculine ‘gamer’ identity in video game culture (Fuller, et al, 2013, pp. 5). Their contestations took many forms, including playing the role of the victim through the debate and attacks directed at the feminist agenda. These practices are linked to a history of masculine ‘geeks’ taking up a hegemonic status over their interest communities and enforcing authority by performing through the masculine character of video games, which has perpetuated through its medium, social communities and industry (Taylor, 2012, pp. 112–114).

Readers should note that the word ‘hegemony’ has been used in the Gramscian sense. Based on Hall’s interpretation of Gramsci, this thesis suggests that the ‘death of the gamer’ media event is a historical conjuncture of which “different forces come together … to create [a] new terrain, on which a different politics must form up” (Hall, 1987, pp. 16). In other words, this ‘death’ is an event in the dismantling of ‘gamer’ culture by feminists – including its discourse – resulting in a reactionary reconstruction of that culture. 

4.1    Gamergate’s feminist counterpublics

Gamergate’s feminist counterpublics self-organised around the commentators that had narrated the ‘death of the gamer’ media event. These participants tended to support the abolishment of the ‘gamer’ identity – albeit to varying degrees of hostility – in favour of a more diverse and inclusive culture of video game players. For example, responding to Dan Golding’s article on Tumblr, ‘siveambrai’ declared that the ‘death of the gamer’ marks a shift in the cultural identity of video game players: “Its [sic] the first steps at finally abolishing the popular image of the gamer as a young, white guy and replacing it with (hopefully) something more diverse and inclusive” (siveambrai, 2014). Contrastingly, ‘fhylie’ approached Golding’s article with an aggressive disposition towards ‘gamer’ culture: “… gamers [are] realizing that their hobby isn’t actually meaningful and coming face to face with their own lack of meaning” (fhylie, 2014). 

A number of commenters used the ‘death of the gamer’ media event as an opportunity to recount their personal histories of discrimination from ‘gamers’. This dialogue commenced when Tumblr user ‘rhube’ expressed that she was displeased with Golding’s narrative having framed women as newcomers in contemporary video game culture:

Stop painting us as new. Stop painting us as taking someone else’s toys. Stop pretending that the sexism of the ‘old days’ was OK, because only boys played. No. Girls played. Women played. Women have always played. The sexism was there not as some kind of natural consequence of only supplying to boys, but as a consequence of the massively sexist culture in which we still exist and in which you partake. (rhube, 2014)

Several Tumblr users concurred with ‘rhube’s comment, including ‘rubyvroom’, who wrote, “we were there playing all along and nobody wanted to acknowledge us,” and additionally, “white men have been aggressively territorial about gaming all along. The difference is that you’re starting to notice it” (rubyvroom, 2014). Another user, ‘trojanwarred’, elaborated further by detailing their personal experience, which they considered to be commonplace among female video game players: “This has been the case though [sic] many of our childhoods: being told we can’t be into video games, because we’re not boys” (trojanwarred, 2014). In Dr NerdLove’s comments, ‘eris523’ expanded on this point by highlighting the discrimination that is often inflicted upon women who attempt to join marginalised ‘geek’ groups, such as ‘gamer’ communities:

Every time someone claims that a woman is doing for much-detested ‘attention’ what a man is allowed to do for a valid sense of community and belonging or safety in numbers, please remember that some of the people they’re treating badly have been through the selfsame social meat-grinder they use as an excuse, but were denied their strength-in-numbers coping mechanism. (eris523, 2014)

The discrimination that female gamers experience in video game communities is discussed throughout many comments sections. Some commenters expressed that the requisites for participating in gamers’ territories create a hostile culture of exclusivity. In Dr. NerdLove’s comments section, ‘Gentleman Johnny’ wrote that masculine ‘gamers’ are in a position to restrict individuals – particularly women – from participating in their spaces: “This is the same thing behind the ‘fake geek girl’, the idea that since this (gamer, geek, whatever) is your identity, you’re in a position to judge who else is allowed to apply the title to themselves and/or participate” (Gentleman Johnny, 2014). Similarly, ‘Mertyl’ commented to The Guardian arguing that gamers’ safe spaces only serve to “alienate others” (Mertyl, 2014).

The impact of the ‘gamer’ identity’s shifting discourse was exhibited by a number of commenters. Among these participants was Tumblr user ‘program-ix’, who expressed a disconnection with the ‘gamer’ label as a result of its increasingly negative connotations: “I don’t refer to myself as a gamer anymore … The word is no longer one that conjures images of camaraderie. Now all I can think of when someone says ‘gamers’ is ‘what have that group done now?’” (program-ix, 2014). A sizeable portion of Polygon’s commenters also presented viewpoints that could be aligned with Gamergate’s feminist counterpublic, as a number of participants describe ‘gamers’ in a similar light: “sulky, raging troll boys” (Muneraven, 2014), “the worst kinds of people” (EastboundStumptown, 2014) and “the most empowered demographic in gaming” (thomplatt, 2014). Ars Technica’s readers were generally similarly appalled with these masculine ‘troll’ gamers, as user ‘kranchammer’ accumulated 293 ‘up votes’ when they described “a significant chunk of the gaming community” as “sociopaths” (kranchammer, 2014), and Mitlov amassed 547 ‘up votes’ when they expressed their support for Anita Sarkeesian: “Regardless of what you think, the rape and death threats are bullshit, and [if] anyone here knows anyone participating in that stuff, you should flame the hell out of them” (Mitlov, 2014).

Within Gamergate’s feminist discourse, commenters tended to denounce the vitriol with which ‘gamers’ communicate online. For instance, Kotaku user ‘Lozzle’ received 290 ‘recommends’ (the second-highest rated comment for that article) when they censured the ‘gamer’ community’s abrasiveness: “We’re one of the worst fan bases of any genre or industry in all of fandom … We’re awful human beings. Every. Single. One of us” (Lozzle, 2014). Several comments later, ‘Lozzle’s comment was complemented by ‘Cosmo’ describing ‘gamers’ as “vile, immature, easily entertained and swayed, vindictive and egoistic” (Cosmo, 2014), and beekayjay, who wrote: “This was never a community. This was a club-house for white boys. Glad it’s over” (beekayjay, 2014). To emphasise their disapproval of the online harassment, hackings and general misconduct detailed in Polygon’s report, a user named ‘ShumaRadio’ condemned these behaviours as “acts of terrorism” (ShumaRadio, 2014). Similarly, ‘Brian Steel’ commented on BuzzFeed News’ post describing the trolls in video game communities as “cowards that hide behind [the] anonymity of the internet, and think they can get away with things like terrorising others” (Brian Steel, 2014).  

4.2    Victimhood and hegemonic sociality

Leigh Alexander’s declaration that “gamers are over” (Alexander, 2014) was met primarily with negative criticism in the comments section of her Gamasutra article. Commenters asserted that the ‘death of the gamer’ had been fabricated to intimidate ‘gamers’; they described Alexander’s article as a “false narrative” (Joshua Wilson, 2014), “inflammatory” (Sam Stephens, 2014) and “full of derogatory generalisations” (Gabriel Williams, 2014), and a significant number of commenters admitted that they felt stereotyped by the media event. These comments also highlighted personal attachments with the ‘gamer’ label, as many participants broadcasted similar phrases: “I am a gamer” (David Whitesell, 2014; Rachelle Bowers, 2014; Maxim Preobrazhenskiy, 2014), “I am proud to call myself a gamer…” (Dylan Morrison, 2014). In connection with this, several commenters expressed that they were “furious” (Cody Tate, 2014) and “enraged” (Andrew Jackson, 2014) at Alexander’s generalisations, including her assertions that ‘gamers’ are “obtuse shitslingers … wailing hyper-consumers … childish internet-arguers” (Alexander, 2014).

A common theme linking these comments is one of assuming the role of the victim. It is an example of the paranoid, defensive response of privileged participants belonging to a hegemonic social formation (Ante-Contreras, 2015, pp. 227). In the ‘death of the gamer’, it is linked to fears of irrelevancy, losing a sense of ‘gamer’ identity, and the idea that video games are about individual selfhood. The ‘victim’ role was heavily played out in many comment threads, in which commenters reflected on their personal experiences as ‘gamers’ and the subordination associated with this ‘geeky’ cultural persona. Some ‘gamers’ felt that the descriptors that online feminists had used to label them were also “personal attacks” on their identities as ‘gamers’, as user ‘Mitchman’ writes to Kotaku: “Accusations of sexism, racism, and ‘homophobia’ are the gravest [that] one can make in our society, and feminists throw them around like confetti at a parade” (Mitchman, 2014). Commenters also linked trolls’ outward performances of misogyny to the social discrimination associated with being a ‘geek’, as a user with a deleted account (‘deleted7621338’) suggested in Dr NerdLove’s comments: 

The root of the problem, as I see it, is that these geeky guys see themselves as victims and they see their geekdom as the root of their victimhood … The fallacy, however, is seeing these painful experiences as being rooted in some sort of oppressive attitudes towards geeks from the rest of society. (deleted7621338, 2014)

One of the leading articulations of victimhood was that the ‘death of the gamer’ had stereotyped all ‘gamers’ as misogynistic ‘trolls’. Specifically, numerous commenters took personal offence to the false perception that all ‘gamers’ were harassing feminists online. These feelings were articulated under Devin Wilson’s Gamasutraarticle, where ‘Mike Hatley’ accumulated 17 ‘likes’ (the equal third most liked comment on Wilson’s article) when he criticised the notion that the video game community is represented by a small subsection of online trolls: “So trolls that exist in EVERY community now represent the entire community of gamers? Seriously?” (Mike Hatley, 2014). In The New York Times’ comments, a user named ‘Oliver’ condemned the harassment of Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn as “wrong”, but expressed that “attacking whole groups is also wrong. We need to stop this either Us or Them mentality” (Oliver, 2014). Similarly, in Kotaku’s comments, a user with the alias ‘DMoose’ questioned the motives of video game journalists in judging the collective ‘gamer’ community: 

Instead of focusing on these cowardly douchebags that are escalating things by sending these threats anonymously we’re assigning blame to an entire group of people who’s [sic] membership hinges singularly on one thing: if they like video games. (DMoose, 2014)

There was also a trend in which commenters compared gamers’ victimhood to the subjugation of marginalised social groups. Under Alexander’s Gamasutra article, user ‘Benjamin Quintero’ argued that “gamers are … no different than any other oppressed division of society,” and that “gamers are fighting to hold their ground in a world that still rejects them” (Benjamin Quintero, 2014). They stress that the oppression felt by gamers is associated with feelings of abandonment and misunderstanding, and that it is on par with the segregation experienced by people of colour, homosexuals and women throughout history. ‘Benjamin’s comment is juxtaposed in the thread with ‘Chuck Jordan’s, who criticises the “slut-shaming … straight-out-of-the-50’s sexist BS [bullshit] … [and] threats of violence” (Chuck Jordan, 2014) in video game culture. Where ‘Benjamin’s comment generated 23 ‘likes’, ‘Chuck’s feminist expressions were supported with 5 ‘likes’. 

4.3    Gamergate’s anti-feminist publics

Commenters on the ‘death of the gamer’ media event did not tend to deny the prevalence of misogyny and sexism in video games, their communities and the industry. A number of commenters were reluctant to admit that issues of participatory equality and casual discrimination were of concern, however. Instead, defenders of the ‘gamer’ identity privileged the experience of ‘gamers’ through the Gamergate media event and mobilised in various participatory online spaces. One of the central claims of the self-described ‘Gamergaters’ was that ‘gamers’ had suffered as a result of having their identities challenged by online feminist counterpublics. By mobilising to articulate a series of counterclaims, Gamergaters therefore produced ‘gamer’ publics that were organised around an anti-feminist discourse. An example of the development of pro-gamer publics is provided in the 290 comments generated by Alexander’s Gamasutra article. The comment with the most overall ‘likes’ (56), by user ‘R G’, argued that feminism is not central to the issues discussed by Alexander, and reacted against the ‘social justice warriors’ that would label him a misogynist for disagreeing with the perspectives held by Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn: 

Feminism isn’t the issue here. It’s equality and understanding, something which hasn’t been represented; you either agree completely with Quinn or Sarkeesian’s idea of “feminism”, or have your career fucked or called out repeatedly. (R G, 2014)

‘R G’ finished his comment by sarcastically labelling himself as “a white male who constantly must check his privilege because I stop people from enjoying games just for being a white male” (R G, 2014). Through this, ‘R G’ is performing an ironic awareness with feminist critiques of ‘gamer’ culture. Particularly noteworthy in this comment is the emphasis on career, and the potential to damage such prospects by arguing with Quinn or Sarkeesian’s feminist values.

‘R G’ was promptly rebutted by a user named ‘Lars Doucet’, who admitted that they “disagree with [Sarkeesian] about … many aspects of modern feminism in general”, but stressed that Sarkeesian’s online harassment and death threats are ultimately a more pressing issue, while also adding, “please don’t engage in conspiracy theories about whether their harassment is real” (Lars Doucet, 2014). ‘Lars Doucet’s comment received 37 ‘likes’, making it the third highest liked comment overall. Other commenters also criticised ‘R G’, such as ‘Rob Wright’, who defended Gamergate’s feminist stakeholders: “That’s pretty rich since the people who [are] currently experiencing the dogpile and career fuckery are people like Sarkeesian and Fish” (Rob Wright, 2014). ‘Rob Wright’ received 7 ‘likes’ for their comment, which – compared to ‘R G’s 56 ‘likes’ – indicates that the Gamasutra community displayed more support for anti-feminist discourse. 

Contempt towards Gamegate’s feminist public was prevalent throughout many comments to the articles in the ‘death of the gamer’ media event, but particularly Destructoid’s. Here, this study observed Gamergate’s pro-gamer discourse mobilising others. A general theme of these was that feminists or ‘SJWs’ were attempting to steal or destroy some aspect of video game culture. This was evidenced by user ‘LukasRocks’, whose comment received 84 ‘up votes’ (the highest for that article) by encouraging gamers to “be proud” of their cultural identity in the face of the “SJW” agenda: “The reason we’re here is because we all, in some way, love this hobby. Don’t let anyone use ‘justice’ to take that away from you” (LukasRocks, 2014). Later, user ‘swordcrossrocket’ accumulated 52 ‘up votes’ when they articulated their suspicion that feminists intend to eradicate ‘gamer’ culture: “they want to crush what they see as gamer culture and replace it with a new concoction of their own making that reflects their own values. Values that I think are arbitrary and will harm gaming if widely adopted” (swordcrossrocket, 2014). ‘Asami’s comment, which raised 14 ‘up votes’, also fit into this dialogue: “Gamers didn’t ruin anything. People pushing agendas did” (Asami, 2014). Ultimately, these comments infer that the social stability of the ‘gamer’ identity (and ‘gamer’ culture more generally) is being disrupted by a feminist or SJW ‘other’. This is an inversion on the feminist critiques that isolate a toxic masculinity as the core problem of the video game industry. Rather, the pro-gamer discourse identifies the problem as feminists (or ‘SJWs’) making social critiques of ‘regular’ gamers.

The critique of feminists and ‘SJWs’ that emerged as part of the anti-feminist Gamergate public was mobilised across a number of platforms, including ‘mainstream’ or general news sites, and in particular, in the comments section under Keith Stuart’s article published by The Guardian. Here, user ‘swotpilgrim’ amassed 125 ‘recommendations’ (the most ‘recommended’ comment for that article) when they criticised Sarkeesian’s methods and doubted her intentions to advocate for social justice: “… Sarkeesian [is] applying her opinions and highly selective ‘evidence’ to game tropes and conventions in order to bait trolls and make money” (swotpilgrim, 2014). Also in this comments section, user ‘bearandlily’ received 10 ‘recommendations’ when they condemned feminist critiques of video games in general: “I want SJWs to go away and leave my games alone … I am tired of the type of games I like to play being arrogantly put down by Anita and others” (bearandlily, 2014). Occasionally, instances of anti-feminism stemmed not from opposition to feminist discourse, but from an aversion to feminists’ conduct towards ‘gamers’ in online spaces. User ‘FiveGuysYummy’ expresses this in a comment thread on Kotaku, receiving 7 ‘recommends’: “I dislike them for the way they conduct the witch hunt so viciously and unendingly” (FiveGuysYummy, 2014).  

The cultural identity of the ‘SJW’ as ‘other’ was recultivated by pro-gamers in terms of oppositional character and censorship. Notably, many commenters suggested that ‘SJWs’ intend to censor ‘gamer’ culture and video game media in general. In Polygon’s comments, there was a conversation thread about what distinguishes a ‘social justice warrior’ from other kinds of activists. Here, ‘ChezDispenser’ compared SJWs to misogynistic ‘trolls’: “Activists further their cause, social justice warriors harm it by being just as insanely awful as their counterparts on the other side of the fence” (ChezDispenser, 2014). According to ‘TheAsterite’, the consequence of including these extremist SJWs in the conversation is that “everyone else is getting censored” (TheAsterite, 2014). In the same comment thread, user ‘Dreamwinder’ asserted that by agreeing with Sarkeesian, SJWs are “doing nothing more than limiting what a game can be, you’re censoring … ‘If you don’t like it, don’t play it’” (Dreamwinder, 2014). Similarly, ‘Matthew Black’ writes to BuzzFeed News highlighting the tensions that SJWs impose between political correctness and censorship: “when you start to censor authors trying to make a rich engaging story because of political correctness then you know its [sic] poisoning that medium” (Matthew Black, 2014).

To summarise these results: Gamergate’s feminist counterpublics criticised the subject position of women as ‘other’ in ‘gamer’ culture, the barriers to participating in ‘gamer’ culture, and the malicious conduct with which ‘gamers’ were interacting socially and politically with other publics. On the other hand, Gamergate’s ‘gamer’ publics expressed suspicions that feminists were scheming to sabotage and censor video games. By acting on these suspicions, some ‘gamers’ assumed the role of the victim, which functioned as a way of defending the ‘hardcore gamer’ as a hegemonic, masculine cultural identity. Based on these findings, this analysis suggests that the ‘gamer’s hegemonic-masculine character is at the focal point of Gamergate’s online conflicts. In order to illustrate this, it is necessary to archaeologically trace the history of the ‘gamer’ identity (and its associated assemblage-based territories) as a masculine, hegemonic discursive formation.

4.4    Masculinity in video game culture

During the 1970s and 1980s when video games were becoming popularised, audiences were stereotyped as consisting predominantly of males – specifically young boys and teenagers (Bryce & Rutter, 2002, pp. 243; Dickey, 2006, pp. 785; Juul, 2010, pp. 12; Schott & Horrell, 2000, pp. 36–37). This stereotype was a result of the way that video games were targeted towards this demographic, and it was perpetuated through the hegemonic masculinity that characterised the video games medium and its industry (Fisher, 2015, pp. 563). Hence, the ‘young, white male’ has since become the mainstream notion of a ‘gamer’, and it is a preconception that remains embedded in public discourse.

Contrary to the notion that ‘gamers’ are made up predominantly of males however, the demography of video game players reveals a degree of gender diversity. In 2013, researchers reported that of the Australians who play video games, 47% are female (Brand, et al, 2014, pp. 6). Similarly, the Entertainment Software Association (2014, pp. 3) reported in the same year that 48% of the U.S. gaming market are female. Some video game scholars have proposed that this upsurge in female players might be due to the rising popularity of smartphone and tablet games – occasionally labelled as ‘casual’ games (Juul, 2010, pp. 5). Others have suggested that socially-oriented online games are the cause – specifically ones that encourage team participation, status building, exploration and identity experimentation (Cole & Griffiths, 2007, pp. 576; Taylor, 2006, pp. 94).

Even alongside the increased gender diversity in the demographics of the market however, meanings associated with the traditional ‘gamer’ identity have persisted towards masculinity; a number of cultural theorists have shown that both the video game industry and its player culture remain obstinately masculine (Schott & Horrell, 2000, pp. 36–37; Shaw, 2012, pp. 40). In fact, there is a resounding argument in this research area claiming that the video game industry is characterised by a masculine culture that resents ‘femaleness’ (Salter & Blodgett, 2012, pp. 413). Gender scholars have explored this masculinity in a number of different ways, but this analysis shall focus on three:

  1. Representations of gender in video game media. 
  2. Problematic forms of social conduct directed towards females in video game communities. 
  3. The overrepresentation of males in the video game industry.

First, the masculine culture of video gaming is evident in the ways that male and female characters are portrayed in its medium. According to some media scholars (Cassell & Jenkins, 1998, pp. 5; Nina Huntemann, 2014, pp. 252), male video game characters are usually painted as hypermasculine heroes, where female characters often fall into one of two categories: “damsels in distress” who are “robbed of agency” and “fully dependent on men”, or “strong, independent, but still hyper-sexualised characters” (Huntemann, 2014, pp. 250). Other critics have noted how such designs can constrain gamers’ outlooks on women, reducing them to sex objects (Salter & Blodgett, 2012, pp. 402; Wu, 2014). This is echoed in video game advertising, which has been known to sexualise women and dissuade potential female players from participating in video game culture (Taylor, 2006, pp. 120–121). This is supported by T.L. Taylor, who affirms that Western culture has encoded video games (and information technologies in general) as primarily masculine interests (Taylor, 2006, pp. 100).

The second way that video game culture is articulated as masculine is with the prevalence of problematic forms of social conduct. Gender scholars have asserted that sexual harassment, misogynistic attacks, and gender discrimination are commonplace for female game developers, journalists, retailers, and players (Shaw, 2014, pp. 275; Wu, 2014). Salter and Blodgett (2012, pp. 413) have also argued that the hypermasculine character of video game culture encourages hostility and rejection in the face of ‘femaleness’. The effects of these attitudes are the marginalisation of women’s roles and perspectives in the video game industry, and the persistent aggression and harassment towards women in video game communities (Fox & Yen Tang, 2014, pp. 314; Vanderhoef, 2013; Bryce & Rutter, 2002, pp. 249; Herring, 1999, pp. 164).

A third way to approach the gendered character of the ‘gamer’ identity is to examine the way that the video game industry is itself heavily gendered and overwhelmingly populated by males (Schott & Horrell, 2000, pp. 37). In 2014, the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) reported that women comprised approximately 22% of the industry’s workplace (IGDA, 2014). Although this statistic had almost doubled from 11.5% in 2009, Prescott and Bogg (2011, pp. 205) argue that it is representative of a male-dominated industry that restricts women from career opportunities and promotions, particularly in the developmental fields of programming, art and design. Adam Gourdin (2005, pp. 13) found that women instead tend to occupy non-developmental fields in the video game industry such as operations, information technology, and human relations. From this data, feminist scholars have stressed that there is an underrepresentation of women’s perspectives in video game workplaces (Prescott & Bogg, 2011, pp. 221–222). They also conclude that the video game industry is saturated in hypermasculinity, which is institutionalised, marketable, and working to perpetuate sexist stereotypes about women (Huntemann, 2014, pp. 256, Salter & Blodgett, 2012, pp. 413; Dill & Thill, 2007, pp. 861).

The masculinity that is observable in video game media, its social communities and its industry has been recognised as a source of gender discrimination in video game culture (Fisher, 2015, pp. 557–558; Fox & Yen Tang, 2014, pp. 314). Notably, gender scholar Adrienne Shaw (2012, pp. 29) has investigated the effects on players who do not identify with its masculine characteristics. Through her interview study, she found that gender is used to segregate target audiences in the video game market: between the aforementioned ‘traditional gamer’ (who is a white, heterosexual male, according to Shaw) and ‘girl gamers’ (Shaw, 2012, pp. 39). In this context, ‘girl gamers’ are video game players who play games intended for females (Cassell & Jenkins, 1998, pp. 11; Dickey, 2006, pp. 788). The issue that Shaw (2012, pp. 40) takes with this characterisation is that it propagates the segregation and hence marginalisation of women in video game-related spaces. Rather than catering specifically to girl gamers, Shaw claims that gender discrimination can only be eradicated by renegotiating social roles in video game discourse – that is, by normalising video games, or rather, emphasising their ‘everydayness’ in contemporary media culture. This is also one of the points argued by Leigh Alexander (2014) in the ‘death of the gamer’ media event.

The framework for counterpublics that Warner (2002, pp. 80–86) provides aptly fits this analysis of feminists participating in the Gamergate media event. Counterpublics mobilise to reform the dominant discourse – for example, to facilitate the acceptance of marginalised identities. Moreover, members of counterpublics are “socially marked by their participation in … discourse” (Warner, 2002, pp. 86). It is this social marking that stigmatises the circulation of counterdiscourses, and makes them into a site of contention in the public sphere. Therefore, this study maintains that feminist counterpublics are participating in Gamergate’s public sphere to negotiate for a diversified, non-masculinised redefinition of the ‘gamer’ identity. Among others, this is evidenced by such Tumblr users as ‘siveambrai’ (2014) and ‘fhylie’ (2014), who expressed support for the abolishment of the masculine ‘gamer’ identity in favour of a more inclusive definition.

Video game scholar Jesper Juul (2010, pp. 151) describes the threat that counterpublics pose to ‘hardcore gamers’, as they are concerned that feminists will impact on the types of game designs that they enjoy. Juul writes that some players feel a genuine sense of loss when they see games implement changes to conform to a more accessible and politically correct ideology. These feelings were expressed by a number of commenters in the ‘death of the gamer’ media event, including ‘Dreamwinder’ (2014) and ‘Matthew Black’ (2014) in Polygon’s comments, who both argued that implementing political correctness into game design risks censoring and modulating video games as a legitimate art form.  

In some online subcultures, anti-feminist dispositions can manifest as performative misogyny (Fuller, et al, 2013, pp. 5). This is a form of gatekeeping, intended to govern publics by “pushing femininity to the outskirts of gaming spaces, thus reaffirming the role of the masculine” in the ‘gamer’ identity (Salter & Blodgett, 2012, pp. 413). In the context of Gamergate’s public sphere, this means that the substance of feminist counterpublics becomes a resource through which the Gamergate public mobilises. Notably, this is observable in Destructoid’s comments section, where commenters ‘LukasRocks’ (2014) and ‘swordcrossrocket’ (2014) attempted to rally participants into standing up against the feminist counterpublic’s agenda, and by attempting to preserve the ‘gamer’ identity within the Gamergaters’ discursive terrain.

4.5    The hegemony of geek culture

The masculinity that is embedded in the ‘gamer’ identity is directly linked to the dominative structures – or hegemonies – that embody ‘gamer’ culture, and geek culture generally (Taylor, 2012, pp. 112–114). ‘Geek’ hegemonies refer to the hierarchical social formations that are built into video game communities, which endure through the circulation of discourse (Fisher, 2015, pp. 557; Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, pp. 831). The dynamic character of these masculine hegemonies becomes apparent after looking at the aforementioned ‘revenge of geek culture’, in which ‘mainstream’, ‘non-geek’ participants assimilated themselves into geek culture and its spaces (Mizer, 2013, pp. 22–23). Mizer describes the key event in the ‘revenge of geek culture’ being when geeks began to enforce and normalise their gestural styles through these weak-tie online networks. This occurred when geeks built circumscribed spaces – or online ‘habitats’ – in which to discuss and bond with each other over their shared interests and creative consumption habits (McArthur, 2009, pp. 62; Oswalt, 2010). Saler (2012, pp. 3) affirms the capacity for consumers to do this when he describes geek culture as a nomadic, tactical tradition in place making. But as ‘non-geeks’ (or ‘fake’ geeks) consumed ‘geeky’ media content and began to inhabit social networks related to that content – such as comment threads on blogs, and message boards like 4chan and Reddit – they effectively invaded the geeks’ habitats (Mizer, 2013, pp. 22). This forced coexistence saw that the ‘non-geeks’ were policed into adhering to the social regimes that were initially established within those spaces (Nowviskie, 2012, pp. 244–245). Ultimately, the outcome of this was that the geeks promoted themselves to a hegemonic status over the other cultural formations that chose to participate in their spaces. This is perhaps an extension of the geek as a liminal figure that polices the boundary between computer use and technological intermediates – or ‘noob’ users (Kendall, 1999, pp. 280). Unlike this version of the computer geek however, Tocci (2009, pp. 55) suggests that this ‘hardcore’ fan-geek is policing their spaces in order to maintain the purity of their geek culture. 

The issue with this post-revenge geek culture, however – as Mizer (2013, pp. 4) describes it – is that its shift in power dynamics has induced a sense of disorientation with respect to shaping this new terrain; the ‘geek ideology’ is under pressure to negotiate terms with itself. These terms might involve accommodating for shifting social expectations (regarding such matters as inclusiveness) or determining new ways to distinguish ‘core’ geeks from their ‘inferior’ counterparts. As Gramsci explains however, an ideology held by a hegemonic power must be configured through various, heterogeneous subjects and identities – it is not a shared, uniform ideology (Hall, 1987, pp. 19). This disorientation is what Gramsci describes as the ‘crisis of authority’. Conclusively then, Hall claims that achieving harmony through disorientation is dependent on whether unity can be built through difference – that is, by constructing interests through both politics and ideology (Hall, 1987, pp. 19). 

Gramsci warns that crises of authority occur when sexual, moral, cultural, ideological and intellectual questions are posed in political debates (Hall, 1987, pp. 20). In this sense, crises of authority are highlighted in ‘geek’ and ‘gamer’ cultures when concepts of identity – including gender/sexuality, race/ethnicity and class (Cerulo, 1997, pp. 386) – become sites of contestation within their discourses. For example, where ‘geeks’ have traditionally been stereotyped as male, white and/or of Asian descent (Tocci, 2009, pp. 70), some critics argue that a cognitive dissonance occurs when ‘geeks’ are accused of putting up cultural barriers to restrict the participation of other identities (Mizer, 2013, pp. 19; Williams, 2014). In the case of the ‘death of the gamer’, this became apparent when members of Gamergate’s ‘gamer’ public expressed their victimisation throughout the media event. In particular, ‘Mitchman’s comment to Kotaku (2014) argued that when feminists label ‘gamers’ as sexist, they are also inflicting “personal attacks” on their identities.

When the crisis of authority is addressed in weak-tie Internet communities, there occurs a performativity of collective expertise as a substitute for legitimate truths (O’Neil, 2010, pp. 5). This performative demonstration of knowledge functions as a bid to administer respect and rearticulate hegemony (McKenzie, 2002, pp. 39). In such homosocial subcultures as geek culture, ‘cultural respect’ or ‘cultural esteem’ comes to possess a performative character as a means of asserting and maintaining dominance and authority within a networked public (Fuller, et al, 2013, pp. 6–7). The performative character of authority makes the assumed hierarchical structures of hegemonic-masculine ‘geek’ cultures as sites of contestation. 

Because there is a pressure for hegemonies to maintain their esteem in any given ‘geek’ community, they must coordinate a performance of knowledge when issues arise to challenge the existing hierarchical structures of those communities (O’Neil, 2010, pp. 5). Such performances are often organised by a public’s active members, who set the terms for discourse through different modes of performance (Hauser, 1998, pp. 92). In online publics, these members are reinforced through the gestural act of ‘liking’ their comments. This can be observed in the support for ‘R G’s (2014) anti-feminist stance in the comments section of Alexander’s Gamasutra article (2014), compared to other comments that expressed disparate views (Rob Wright, 2014).

4.6    Hegemonic masculinity

Hegemonic masculinity is a concept that arose out of feminist literature, primarily with respect to men’s roles in transforming patriarchy (Goode, 1982; Snodgrass, 1977). Connell and Messerschmidt (2005, pp. 831) contend that although hegemonic masculinity is an issue about gender relations and cultural control, on a deeper level it is embedded in Gramsci’s notions of structural and historical change, within the context of such gender hierarchies. It is a power structure that is configured through gender roles, identities, and more prominently the regimes of practice that are designed to perpetuate men’s dominance over other gender groups (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, pp. 831). These dominative practices (or ‘hegemonic mechanisms’) are not exclusively violent or aggressive; rather they may encapsulate institutional rules and policies, social mechanisms (such as name-calling and conversational rhetoric) and discursive formations, such as ‘statements’ (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, pp. 834). 

Connell and Messerschmidt’s definition of hegemonic masculinity is suitable for describing this narrative of popular culture’s displacement by ‘geek’ culture. Where both of these structures are occupied by a normative masculinity, ‘geek’ culture should be considered another form of masculinity, albeit one that was previously subordinate to the other. The central idea that can be gathered from this narrative is that masculinities are subject to change, and that change may occur through challenging hegemonies or making adjustments to address these challenges. This is because hegemonies are bodies of discourse, which are in a constant state of being territorialised and deterritorialised (Kennedy, et al, 2013, pp. 48). Specifically, in this context, the body of discourse is ‘normative masculinity’, which refers to the systemically ingrained assumption that geek media should be tailored to white, heterosexual males (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, pp. 832). These gender hierarchies persist through men and women who comply with their patriarchal benefits – thus engaging in the circulation of discourse, even though they may not directly enforce the dominance of masculinity. Connell and Messerschmidt (2005, pp. 832) refer to this concept as ‘complicit masculinity’.

Thus, the gender-based conflicts that transpired during the ‘death of the gamer’ media event encompassed Gamergate’s feminist counterpublics challenging the normative masculinity that characterises the hegemony of Gamergate’s ‘gamer’ publics. These ‘gamer’ hegemonies are the product of the systemic masculinity ingrained in the video games medium, community and industry, and they impact on video game communities by restricting the participation of women and other marginalised identities. As such, Gamergate’s feminist counterpublic mobilised around the common purpose of redefining the ‘gamer’ identity to include subjugated social groups. At the opposite end of the debate, Gamergate’s ‘gamer’ publics resisted against these counterpublics by reinforcing their sense of entitlement over the ‘gamer’ identity – specifically by assuming the role of the victim in the media event. This was mobilised through the aggressive masculinity, anti-feminism and sense of victimhood that permeate ‘gamer’ discourse as a result of its derivation from ‘geek’ culture.