Oh look, a blog post that starts by mentioning Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency videos and the torrent of hate and abuse she’s received from the Gamer community for having opinions. The issues of rampant misogyny in our entertainment culture are important but better people than me are dealing with that. In this post I’m more interested in these self-identifying “gamers” and why they’re a problem that their industry is reluctant to deal with.
I have a bit of past form in this as, in a previous life, I used to self-identify as a “comic book fan”. Not a fan of a particular comic book, but a fan of the entire medium. You can try and dress this up as a pseudo-academic interest in the workings of the medium (by quoting Scott McCloud a lot) but ultimately you become an advocate and a proselytiser, spreading the good news that comics aren’t for kids anymore. That they’re an important medium worthy of respect.
The problem I found with this was that, ultimately, I didn’t want comics to get that respect. Except I did. Only I didn’t. Sure, the comics themselves deserved a wider audience because they were awesome, but the culture that surrounded them couldn’t cope with that wider audience. Normal people would ruin it.
You know, like how Twitter used to be great before all the normal people started using it to talk about X-Factor and no you’re doing it wrong stop that please.
Most of us found ourselves in the comics community because we had rejected mainstream society, or it has rejected us. (I remember Cerebus creator Dave Sim writing about how he felt he could identify with Oscar Wilde because being a comics fan in a 1970s Canadian high school was not unlike being a gay man in Victorian London. And yes, quoting hardline misogynist Dave Sim in this article is rather ironic, I know.)
So, one discovers comics, in my case through being lent some by a friend at school like so much contraband, and one then discovers this whole subculture of people-like-me where one is not judged for being a misfit and a weirdo. It’s comforting. But like all comforting things it’s not always healthy.
In the last decade mainstream media companies, particularly in film and TV, have embraced fandom like never before. Events like Comic-con are barely about comics anymore as the studios pack their latest genre products in to get fan approval. As fans have become networked they’ve become a powerful force with a lot of spending money, so getting them on board can make or break a show. So you get this weird dissonance of beautiful Hollywood actors more accustomed to the glamour of red carpet parties in LA hanging around with the sort of nerds and dorks they spent high school trying to avoid.
Fans have power now, or at least the illusion of it. In reality I think they’re being exploited just like any market, and they enjoy the exploitation because the studios have worked out how to sell it as empowerment. Collectors, who in another era would have obsessively scoured junk shops and flea markets for genuinely rare cultural artefacts now order artificially scarce limited edition “collectables” direct from the manufacturer.
Joss Whedon and Peter Jackson, both obsessive fans in an earlier life, have pioneered the art of fan access while keeping a tight grip on their multi-million dollar enterprises. “Doing it for the fans” and “giving something back to the fans” makes those fans feel part of the team, part of the family, even when they’re just consumers with a bit of an obsession. Meanwhile fan-art is rife all over the Internet with creative talents being poured into rendering corporate-owned characters for no financial compensation.
It’s not hard to see why these people might think they have some sort of “ownership” of these properties. After all, they’ve invested a large chunk of their lives in them. They’ve leant their friends the DVDs. They’ve campaigned to stop the show getting cancelled. They’ve worn the t-shirt.
So when someone comes along and says, hey, maybe this piece of corporate entertainment produced purely to make money in a capitalist society, maybe this might have some social issues, the fans, who let’s remember started this whole venture as mildly persecuted nerds, tend to get a bit protective.
When you say superhero comics are childish escapist fantasy, what you’re saying is the people who avidly read them are childish escapists who can only deal with fantasy. And while that might not be accurate, there’s usually enough truth there to hurt. (And let’s be fair, everyone in the world can be a childish escapist fantasist.)
In the 70s, 80s and early 90s, when comics really were a back-alley pursuit, this knee-jerk response was relatively harmless. Fans weren’t hypernetworked (zines took time to print and distribute) and weren’t spending money in the right ways for the mainstream to take notice.
But nowadays geek culture is mainstream, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I love that nerdy kids at school are in some way respected for that. It feels good. But it also makes that culture a target for the corporate industries, and on a cultural level that sort of attack can be harmful.
I’ve been thinking a bit about Joss Whedon lately. He’s the poster-child for fan engagement from the Buffy days through the Firefly cancellation and Serenity movie and now helming the Marvel Avengers movie franchise. He’s interesting because I honestly don’t believe he’s a heartless manipulator of his core audience yet his business revolves around exploiting them for corporate interests.
The studios know he’s a fan magnet. Anything he touches will probably recoup the a good chunk of the budget because of his rabid fanbase who will also save a chunk of publicity money by spreading the word themselves. And Whedon will play up to that, giving the fans a sense of power and involvement in the process, because they’re important, because they’re invested.
But that investment is hollow. If the money ain’t coming in from the mainstream normals then it’s gonna get canceled and no level of fan activism can stop that.
The fans have no real power. They just have an illusion of power bestowed upon them by those with the actual power until such time as it suits them to take it away.
This willing corporatisation of geek culture would be a tragedy if anyone in that culture seemed to care about it, but illusionary power is a seductive thing, especially when combined with the social bonds that come from being historically alienated and ignored.
Which brings me, finally, to these gamers.
Anita Sarkeesian is criticising an industry which has successfully fooled its audience into thinking they have power. These people do not just buy and play games as you or I might buy and play games. They feel that they are games. Without them there would be no games. They are the heart and soul of the gaming scene. The creators of the games listen to them and respond to them. They are important, vital cogs in the system of making these things that they enjoy playing.
So when someone from outside this culture, someone from that mainstream world that fans have always yearned for acceptance from, offers up a critique that doesn’t quite match the fan narrative, it will tend to be seen as an attack. Not an attack on the industry but an attack on the culture and the individuals who make up that culture.
If anything, Sarkeesian is attacking a corporate system which exploits the base desires of a core audience in order to make a profit. But that audience has been taught to believe that the exploitation is in fact empowerment, and attacking that means taking away their power.
While they need to grow the fuck up and get some perspective, I do sympathise with these gamers because they’re also the victims here. They’ve been sold a lie by the corporate system that the multi-billion dollar gaming industry is the same as the niche, underground, DIY gaming communities where people aren’t “fans”, they’re creative, autonomous people who make stuff as well as consume it.
The industries that support fan culture of corporate properties are as much to blame as the toxic fans attacking Sarkeesian and her ilk. You reap what you sow, people. Stop sowing The Man’s line.