Like the Susan Faludi of Team Fortress 2

January 8, 2009 at 4:28 pm (Julia)

Disclaimer: in this post I generalise things, particularly relating to differences between men and women. I’m very aware this isn’t the case all the time, this is just a certain trend I’ve noticed.

I’ve found a certain misogyny, a chauvinism, within the geek community. I’m not talking about 4Chan and their cries of “Tits or GTFO” – I think that’s mostly manageable. Rather, I’m referring to an unpleasant form of our old friend, geek elitism.

(I should probably talk about that for a bit)

Geeks are my people, and I love them. I love that enthusiasm is seen as a good thing, that analysing a book/tv show/computer game etc for hours on end is considered normal. I love them because they think about their entertainment. Leisure, for the geek, is a serious intellectual activity. However, it’s hard to be easy-going about this. Geek elitism can manifest in a belief that one is “better” at liking/playing/knowing about a certain geek fan object (the “I can recite every episode of Battlestar Galactica word for word and you can’t, therefore I’m a bigger fan.” problem), or it can manifest as a belief that one’s interests are far superior to other geeky interests.

The latter is particularly a problem. I think that these days, many geek interests are extremely mainstream. Comics have hit the big screen, and brought a new readership. Computer and video games have much wider variety and player base, fantasy books like Harry Potter become worldwide sensations. This lends itself first to people being “better” fans, “better” geeks, and then to deciding that certain fannish interests aren’t really geeky at all.

This is where the chauvinism comes in. If you looked at the western geek population 20 years ago, and compared it to today, you would see one really big, obvious difference. I’m talking, of course, about the ratio of men to women. There are now more women playing computer/video games, women reading fantasy, women roleplaying, etc than there were 20 years ago. There are fandoms where women make up the largest proportion of fans. There are computer games that are mostly played by women.

Awesome, right?

Wrong.  Women have become geeks, but they’ve done it in their own way, a lot of the time. Yes, there are women who played Counterstrike, and D&D, and know that Han shot first. But if you got a big group of ladygeeks in a room, it’s more likely that they’ll play the Sims or WoW, or be obsessed with Harry Potter or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I think that this is because there are geeky products being marketed to ladies.  At various times, writers and designers have produced a product which has unintentionally been an enormous hit with the ladies. (For example, Xena, which had an enormous female fanbase of both gay and straight women).

This is where the elitism comes in. Women don’t always geek in the same way as men (sometimes they do, and there are men who geek like women). Women interact with the fan object differently, a lot of the time. There’s fanfiction, of course. So, not only do a lot of geek women pick different things to geek about, but then sometimes they don’t do it in the same way as geek men.

This is where our old friend geek elitism rears its ugly head. (Note: there are many geek men who are just lovely, and love them some ladygeek). You get this division of “hard geek” and “soft geek”. Things that fit into the “hard geek” category might include FPS games, books with lots of killing and descriptions of machinery,things with complicated game mechanics, etc. “Soft geek” might include things where character interaction is important, or something where the narrative is the most important thing.

For example: someone who sits down to play Twilight Imperium for 8 hours straight may consider himself “geekier” than someone who sits down to write Buffy fanfiction. There might also be a sense that Twilight Imperium is more mentally taxing, and after all, we know that within geek hierarchy, it’s all about how clever you are. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I love our obsession with intelligence. The world would probably be a better place if, 8 years ago, the US hadn’t voted in a president who barely passed college. But perhaps we should recognise that there are other types of intellect other than “good at strategy”.

About a year ago, I had a conversation with a fresh-out-of-high-school geeky boy, about our respective geeky interests. I described myself as a gamer, and when he asked what I played, the first game I mentioned was The Sims. He rolled his eyes, and said “Oh, you’re a casual gamer.”

Now. I spend many hours a day playing computer games. Yesterday, I spent six hours playing Bioshock. Most nights I get on Steam for some TF2, I’m eagerly awaiting the release of Empire: Total War in a couple of months, and I spend large amounts of time with my partner discussing game strategy and mechanics and storyline. I do not think of myself as a casual gamer. And yet, The Sims (and The Sims 2) are my favourite games. They’re what got me started on computer games. I have invested HOURS into making neighbourhoods and families and building houses and searching the internet for medieval custom content because I want to make a medieval neighbourhood. My approach to The Sims could hardly be called “casual”.

I explained my many other computer game interests to the young man, and I could see that he reevaluated me, and granted me “gamer” status in his mind. Well, woohoo. But to prove my geek credibility to this young man, I had to namedrop games which are not played mostly by women. I had to prove my boygeek cred, and the fact that I play “boy” games means that my “girl” games have slightly more credibility.

Of course, this raises the question of why I felt I had to prove my geek cred to someone 8 years younger than myself, but really, I just wanted him to understand that his immediate dismissal of me was pretty incorrect.

I dislike the attitude in sections of the geek community that if something has a mostly female fanbase, there must be something wrong with it.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Perhaps it’s hard for me to shake off my Arts degree. But there are many instances where things within the geek subculture, my adopted culture which is in so many other ways progressive and amazing and groundbreaking, where I see mirrors to aspects of misogyny in mainstream cultural life. I remember Heather talking about mostly women’s pursuits such as knitting, crochet etc being considered “crafts” rather than “art”, even when their purpose was mostly decorative and for design. It’s almost this idea that a pursuit or hobby that is mostly enjoyed by women is less relevant, less valuable, less clever than similar pursuits enjoyed by men.

I suppose it matters to me because this is the cultural group where I feel most at home. I live in a multicultural society, but I belong to the dominant culture and the trappings of ITS dominant national youth culture feel unnatural to me (southern cross tattoos, etc). The subculture that fits me is the geek subculture, and because in its early days it was so heavily male, it feels like there are areas where women aren’t taken seriously. I don’t see geek as being something I’m going to grow out of, so I feel like I should do something, I guess. I think that generally, geeks are an open and accepting group of people, and I don’t want our young subculture to fall into the same traps as other ones.  There’s probably a blog post somewhere here about geek subculture and the ways it does things differently to others (geographical location being entirely inconsequential, mostly), but I don’t think that’s for me to write today.

I have this theory that when heterosexual boys are in their teens, each one desperately wants a car, a guitar, or a computer, and this can tell you most things about them. There are a couple of other objects that could be added to that (surfboard, perhaps), but all of them, other than “computer”, give girls the role of adoring fan. A girl can be a passenger in your car. She can watch you play guitar. She’s not supposed to fix the car up and drag race it herself, or stand up on stage and crank out powerful riffs. Teenage boys don’t get that experience, because the girls who ARE interested in hanging out with geeks generally want to do things themselves. Some boys absolutely love this, of course. Tom, Dan and Percy all obviously love it when their respective women folk play games with them. But in our subculture of geek, not only do ladies not sit around watching men play computer games and applauding them, sometimes they go off and have their own interests, which they are as passionate about as men are about theirs. And I think it’s here where geek elitism and being a young man combine to make fail: a young man might not understand fanfiction. He might not be able to write well. He may not see the purpose of a pursuit you can’t “win” at. So geek elitism turns this into “that pursuit is not worth my time”, because gosh, geeks can be a prickly, insecure bunch (PS geeks, move on from high school). Geeks tend to take things that they have no talent and interest in and turn them into worthless pursuits, instead of simply acknowledging that it’s not their sort of thing. Young geeks, anyway. Most of the older geeks of my acquaintance are pretty good about things like that, but you still get people doing it, and I’m sure it happens more in general geek society.

I need to wrap this up, but I’m not sure how. Out of practice with essays, I suppose. Essentially: I think elitism within the geek community can be pretty unhealthy, because we should celebrate diversity of geekiness. I think that same elitism can turn particularly nasty when it becomes about male interests v. female ones, because at the end of the day, surely it’s better to have loads of geeky ladies around, being enthusiastic about things, and accepting the geekiness of the men around them? I have many male geek friends who have embraced the strange alien behaviours of their female counterparts, and it generally works out pretty well. Besides, geeks are constantly evolving. Before I met Tom I’d never really played computer games, and now, well. This post was started at 9am, and is being finished now at 4.30 because I kept having breaks to play more Bioshock (it’s seriously awesome, guys).

I kind of feel like geeks have this special chance to craft a new subculture, and really, I just don’t want to see us make the same mistakes other subcultures make. Because, after all, we’re the world’s chosen people.



  1. misterfinn said,

    I for one eagerly support our geek sisters in shattering the cheeto-stained glass ceiling of geekdom.

    I’ve found all sorts of bizarre sexism (and age discrimination, but that’s another matter) in the roleplaying scene and it annoys me. It disturbs me how threatened many guys are by the prospect that women can enjoy the same things they do, or who need to trash-talk other interests to make their own interests seem superior.

    Guys, srsly, stop being so insecure. Treating your hobbies like a second job or obsession doesn’t make you superior or even “more of a fan” than anyone else, male or female, who might enjoy your hobby.

  2. chromefist said,

    You would say that, you big girl.

    Seriously, though, it’s easy to see where it comes from. Pavlov had the answer – if you learn that girls = pain, as geeks invariably learn in high school, then you’ll devise strategies to keep them at arms length and strategies to keep yourself from wanting them any closer than arm’s length. Unless you’re dumb as a carp, like me.

    But yeah, wouldn’t it be great if we could all move on from high school?

  3. andrewcrisp said,

    It’s amazing how dispossessed people will value and hold onto arbitrary things just because it’s all they think they’ve got. I’m sure if I tried the Sims I would like it, but just like with the thousands of books I should read, it’s low on my priority list. It also doesn’t have zombies in it… yet! Ooooh, let me know when The Sims: Zombie Apocalypse comes out!

    But seriously, I think it’s much better to judge geeks on the variety of things they interact with, rather than how much they’re into one particular thing. Being the best at liking Firefly isn’t really going to win you any friends, but saying “OH I LOVE FIREFLY, you should try BSG it’s awesome too!” will.

  4. juliadactyl said,

    Actually, the Sims DOES have Zombies in it. In the Sims 2, the base game and each expansion pack has a “creature” – the base game has aliens (if a man is abducted by aliens while using a telescope at night, he can come back pregnant and give birth to a little green baby), University has zombies (you can resurrect your dead friends for a price, but if you don’t pay enough, they come back wrong), Nightlife has vampires, Open for Business has robot slaves, Pets has werewolves, Seasons has plant people, Bon Voyage has a Bigfoot that you can adopt, Free Time has a genie in a lamp that grants wishes, and Apartment Life has witches. Other than the bigfoot, genie and robot, (which are controllable characters), your sim can actually BECOME the other things, or even a combination of them. Vampire/plant people are interesting because the vamps can’t go out in the sun, but the plant people need the sun to survive, so there’s an indoor UV lamp pretty much for that purpose. I’ve seen alien/vampire/zombie/plant/werewolf/witches/. It’s pretty awesome. Also, you can totally play the game without using those at all.

    The witches were particularly fun, because you can be good, neutral or evil, and your choices affect what spells you can cast and what you look like (really good witches are surrounded by blue sparkles, really evil ones have green skin like in Wizard of Oz).

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