Gender: Gamer

My gender-queerness is intimately entwined with my love of video games.  I’ve heard some people say they are a gamer first and a <gendered noun> second.  Personally, I leave off the second half of that sentence.  I am simply a gamer, except that it’s not really simple at all.  It’s not that I’m a hard-core gamer, or that I don’t have other hobbies and interests.  Instead, I believe my gender is most accurately described as a version of the masculinity that is valued among people who play video games.  It leaves me with both privilege and responsibilities, and with no easy labels to explain my self to others.

It’s not that I’m not aware of gender, or that I’m not perceived as having gender when I’m in the non-virtual world, or that gender doesn’t affect my life.  It absolutely does, and that relevance has driven much of my self-education about feminism and the anti-patriarchy movement.  However, to borrow a classic narrative, when I was a child I felt more like a gamer than like a little girl or a little boy.  Sure I had Barbies and Tonka trucks, but they were both put into the service of dungeon crawls in the sandbox.  I told a friend of mine that if he started playing with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle dolls zie’d turn into a boy and then I’d stop playing with hir, but then zie told me there was a video game, so it was okay.  As a child I rejected that which was conventional whenever I noticed it, regardless of whether it fit my assigned role, and replacing it with worlds of electronics and imagination.

In elementary school it was Spiderman, Duck Hunt, Super Mario Bros and complex, convoluted games of pretend.  In high school it was Isaac Asimov, Resident Evil, D&D and improv theater.  Always I’d end up playing with people of different genders; few people were as broadly engaged in fantasy, what-ifs and combat mechanics as I was.  As we got older, though, most of the girls I’d played pretend with grew out of it, and the people who shared my interests and behaviors were male-identified.  Everyone else of my gender had a completely different body didn’t phase me much, and sometimes I didn’t fit in with the rest of the group, but at least I knew people sort of like me and I continue to be grateful for that.

In college I went through an exploratory phase where I tried to find a presentation that would lead other people to see me the way I felt I was.  I found that  I certainly didn’t know what pronoun to use for “gamer”, so I could hardly expect anyone else to.  I could make myself look sort of like my other gamer friends, but fundamentally male didn’t fit me any better than female, and I chafed at the implication that the things I loved were a men’s-only club. When I got out of college I needed a job desperately and seized my cissexual privilege to get one; I seldom look back.  Either the people I meet will be gamers-like-me and won’t care what my body looks like, or they won’t be and no presentation will explain it to them.  That this “meritocracy” was excluding other people who looked like me wasn’t something I noticed until later.

Nowadays I cover for my gamer-self at work, but on the weekends I dress up in geek drag: penny arcade t-shirt and PSP.  I stop hiding my vocabulary, interests, knowledge of the X-Man universe.  The parts that do leak out at work label me as the geekest person in my team of IT workers, and I’m okay with that.  My passes-as-female appearance can shake people’s assumptions, which I see as a good thing in and of itself.  If I have never found an embodiment that I feel I own, I always have digital avatars to identify with.  When playing games, my flexibility increases the options I have to choose from.

I have less in common with many women who play games than with other people who are socially and culturally gamers, regardless of gender or lack thereof.  I haven’t met many other gender-agnostic gamers, but there are some men who play games, especially role playing games, who are clearly masculine but unconventionally so.  This is the gender presentation I probably most closely embody in during my non-game playing life.  Geek culture has been referred to as a “subordinate masculinity”, meaning it is in opposition to mainstream masculinity in some ways, but ultimately as a system supports most of the same values and defines itself in opposition to all the people that it marginalizes.  I believe myself to be a member of that masculinity, even while I am sometimes reminded that other members don’t always see me as such.

In living this version of masculinity I have found that I need to check my masculine privilege.  I listen to discussions of being a female gamer rather than participating, because how would I know?  I recognize that some of my professional success comes from being able to act in ways that are perceived as masculine.  I’m learning to corral my confidence and enthusiasm in order to leave room for confidence and enthusiasm that manifests in less aggressive forms.  I notice, now, when I devalue that which is feminine, or when I position myself as the part of a group by excluding all women who aren’t present.  I used to respond to, “watch your language; there’s a lady present!” by saying, “What? Where!?!!”  Now I’ve tried, “f*** yeah!” or “what does that have to do with it?” (Once I was feeling snarky and replied, “since gendered behavior is at least partially a social construct, and the chauvinistic norms of the Edwardian era that deemed women’s ears to fragile for coarse language have become as antiquated as the fashion of the time, could you please not treat me differently because I have breasts?”  It at least shut down the conversation!)  I don’t bother to correct people in online games who use male pronouns for me, but strive to protest against misogynistic or homophobic or sexist chat.  The first may change, as I’ve been thinking about the assumption that gamers are male until proven otherwise.  I suspect introducing World of Warcraft pick up groups to gender-neutral language will be an interesting experience.

That assumption that all gamers are men until proven otherwise is ultimately is why I rejected calling myself “male”.  Society says that this body makes me female, and so it can deal with the fact that its label of “female” includes me, whoever I am.  That I don’t believe myself a woman doesn’t make me a man, and neither does being a member of a subordinate masculinity. I don’t expect this choice to be the right one for anyone but me.  I don’t expect anyone else would take comfort the way I do from ignoring, discounting and appropriating my body as a means of coping with dysphoria.  Perhaps it is my experience in an electronic world that lets me inhabit my person the way I would inhabit an avatar, but that’s a post for another time.

I am working to be a better ally to female gamers, even as I come to terms with my masculine-but-not-male identity.  I’m working to critique those parts of my culture that exclude people not Like Us, while accepting I will also never be simply Like Us.  Sometimes it feels viciously unfair that I have to deal with sexism in my day to day life and *also* wrestle with my own participation in a patriarchal culture, but I know that the alternative isn’t something I’m willing to live with.  Having privilege isn’t my fault, but how I use it is my responsibility.

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5 Responses to Gender: Gamer

  1. James Vonder Haar says:

    Fascinating. Do you know where I can read any more about the “subordinate masculinity?” It’s an interesting topic.

    • Simon B. says:

      Though it’s a different topic, you could have a look at the book “Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing”. Authors speak about “militarized masculinity” in video games field.

  2. oliemoon says:

    This was a really good, insightful read. Thanks for sharing, Blake.

  3. Cuppycake says:

    Awesome post, Blake! Thanks :)

  4. Simon B. says:

    This post is really nice, thank for this reading of your own experience. By some way I share a lot of your “gamer life” and point of view…

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