Men. Am I right?
Men are a big topic. Whether you want to discuss global politics, economics, health and safety, the publishing industry, or anything else you have written on a 12-sided die, there is an endless discussion to be had about men and the problems we cause.
When it comes to video games and “gamer culture”, men have a nasty habit of erecting big neon signs that bravely and boldly advertise their aggression, antagonism, and outright hatred towards various groups of people, especially women. So let’s talk about gatekeeping in video games and why, exactly, some men feel the need to protect video games from being touched by filthy female fingers.
Firstly, it’s safe enough to acknowledge that, in the 80s and 90s, video games were advertised towards boys and men and were typically enjoyed more by boys and men. Nowadays, various metrics show a pretty even 50/50 split between men and women (Apologies to non-binary gamers. There doesn’t seem to be much research into non-binary player numbers as of yet.).
So, if you grew up in the 80s or 90s as a young man playing video games, the likelihood is that gaming was a passion for you and your primary form of escapism. As such, you might have felt, and may still do feel, a certain kinship with video games. Perhaps even a sense of entitlement; that video games belong to you, not to anyone else. And especially not to the women who ignored or even bullied you.
This is sort of the crux of incel culture: jaded men who have become embittered by a lack of attention, who feel that they deserved something more from women than what they received growing up. This is what leads to a lot of gatekeeping in video games. If this gatekeeping weren’t so toxic and depressing, the route which led to it could almost be sympathized with. The mindset which reads, “I was ignored as a child. I had no date to the prom. All I had were my video games. And now you think games are cool? You want in on my turf when you ignored and bullied me only a few years ago? I don’t think so.”
This mindset is reminiscent of music fans who “knew them before they were famous”. You may have met that guy at the concert wearing a faded tour shirt from 2005 who is one step away from quizzing other fans on their knowledge of, and love for, the band. He almost wishes he could use his imagined quiz as a test of entry at the door. Literal gatekeeping.
Take that same attitude and inject it into a lonely, angry young man with a Twitter or Reddit account that guarantees him a level of comfortable anonymity. This anonymity is, without a doubt, a very dangerous tool for gatekeepers of video game culture. It emboldens them and allows them the freedom to make remarks and use language that they would otherwise never use in public, or if confronted face-to-face with the people they often threaten and harass.
So, what is all of this gatekeeping? What does it look like?
Usually, it takes the form of young men on the internet with a conservative perspective on gender roles and a certain amount of, presumably learned, aggression towards what they deem to be the “SJW (social justice warrior) agenda”. This is something which generally encompasses fairer representation of women and minorities in video games, such as trans and non-binary people, or even a broader and fairer racial spectrum. It may also include a toning down on the sexualization of women in video games, which they might deem to be unfair or pandering.
These gatekeepers feel that they know what is best for their video games, the industry, and “gamer culture”. They take umbrage with more lifelike female character models, female lead protagonists, gay and lesbian romance options, trans representation, and so on. Anything which evens the playing field, makes video games a healthier, more inclusive space for women and LGBTQ gamers.
But why? Where does their rage and entitlement come from?
As I said at the beginning, it most likely stems from a childhood or young adulthood of finding escapism and shelter in not only video games themselves, but also the culture of gaming: internet forums, conventions, and so on. Nowadays, these areas, including video game stores and online gaming spaces, are all shared with women. These women were not there before, as the gatekeepers see it, so why should they be there now? Are they posers? They can’t be genuine fans. That would be ridiculous.
Speaking personally for a moment, I was a boy who grew up in the 90s, in a rural English town, with only one really good friend who also loved video games. I was overweight and spotty; I had an obsession with video games; I was afraid of the girls in my class. I was a prime candidate for the role of gatekeeper as an adult. What perhaps helped me was the fact that my one of my good friends was gay, was bullied worse than me, and that encouraged in me some empathy. Or maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe it was a thousand other things. Whatever the case, I do often wonder if there is an alternate version of me in another timeline who spends his days furiously and anonymously harassing women on Twitter.
It is difficult to know what the endgame of video game gatekeeping is, other than maintaining a status quo that the gatekeepers themselves deem desirable. Presumably, this status quo would be one where games frequently feature anime girls with uncomfortable sexual features and skimpy outfits, where the online gaming space is populated exclusively by young white men, and where our protagonists are also young white men. Such a world would be a boring one where empathy is not learned and variety is choked out of existence.
While it’s easy to point and laugh, sigh, or cry at the gatekeepers of video games themselves, it’s more important to remember the women who suffer as a result of this.
The most obvious difference between these men and women is the lack of anonymity. Often the women we see being harassed online do not hide behind anything; their name and even the city they live in is on their Twitter profile. These women are video game journalists, developers, bloggers, influencers, marketing managers, etc. They have a public image; they are vulnerable. They must prove every day to the gatekeepers that they have a right to exist and work within the sphere of “gamer culture”.
The most saddening and infuriating aspect of this trend of gatekeeping is the effect it has on the mental well-being, and even the physical safety, of women within the video games industry. Some of these women have managed to find their dream job of taking the hobby their grew up with and finding a way of making money off of it, either by making games or writing about them (or something else entirely).
Because, yes, these women also grew up with video games. They needed their escapism; they love the art; they share the gatekeepers’ passions. And yet they’re also forced to share the same space with aggressive people who threaten them and make their lives difficult.
Gatekeeping, it should also be said, happens everywhere. It happens in the music industry, in any realm where fandom is powerful, and passions are high. In my other job as a book critic and blogger, I have a friend who often behaves as the gatekeeper of literature, flagrantly letting people know what books are good and how to read well. There is something about finding a space to love and feel important, safe, represented, and understood, then marking that as your territory and barring the door against those who might upset the familiarity you’ve found there.
Women are also not the only targets of this gatekeeping aggression. As already mentioned, any non-white, non-male, non-straight group can be, and often is, targeted. And within these groups there is also gatekeeping. We have recently seen an emboldening of transphobic people forming “LGB alliances” in an attempt to remove trans people from a space that should welcome them. As is plain to see here, the more we discuss gatekeeping, the broader the issue becomes.
As for the world of video games and “gamer culture”, it’s unclear where this trend of gatekeeping will lead. The most likely path is one where video games continue to make progress in the realm of inclusivity; meanwhile, the gatekeepers will dig their heels in and scream a little louder. Ultimately, progress marches on, the world gets a little better, but it has to battle against a lot of aggression and intimidation in order to get there.