Gates, Goblins, and Girls

There has been a lot of talk recently about the amount of outrage by young white males in the gaming community as game developers have started to diversify their target audience. This outrage has ranged from boycotting Bioware for offering a subtle LGBT romance option to chasing women out of their homes with death threats. Obviously, it goes without saying that this sort of behavior is inexcusable.

So I won't spend a lot of time talking about how this behavior is wrong; you're adults, you should know better. If you don't, then you're not really someone I want to talk with anyways, so let's leave it at that.  What I do want to talk about is gaming culture in general.

It should come as no surprise that I am a gaming enthusiast. There are pictures of me, not yet potty-trained, playing a DOS game; I was playing EverQuest before I went on my first date; and I was performing basic regression analysis to predict shopping patterns in Dark Age of Camelot long before it was covered in school.

I was mocked, ridiculed, and often times attacked for my atypical hobbies in rural Arkansas. In the video games I played I was a social butterfly or a dangerous foe, but in real life I didn't speak. I didn't excel at anything, and I did nothing to call attention to myself into well into my senior year; I was a geek. A gamer. An outsider.

It got better as I grew older and video games became a larger market, and as comic books became box office hits, but the resentment always lingered. I suffered for my hobbies, I paid my dues in missed connections, stolen lunches, or bloodied noses; why the hell shouldn't everyone else have to as well? In particular, why the hell wouldn't I become angry at the people who made my life miserable for enjoying these things when they not enjoy them? The hypocrites!

This is an ideology known as Gatekeeping; where gamers (comic book enthusiasts, LARPers, or any other niche community) exclude others based on a perceived hierarchy within the community. The community has some loosely defined rules about what constitutes a gamer (Call of Duty versus Farmville) in order to help legitimize the suffering of past gamers. It's essentially like any other cycle of violence: We suffered, so you must as well.

Also, like every other cycle of violence, it's complete bullshit.

Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I'm not really interested in talking about why cycles of violence are bad; you're an adult, you should know this by now. I do, however, want to illustrate some of the nuances of the video game culture that you might not be aware of. In order to do this, I'm going to have to rely on my experiences, so tread carefully if you decide to infer grandiose statements of what it is to be a video game enthusiast - I offer no warranty as to the accuracy of your inferences.

During my tenure as an undergraduate student, I was a part-time national guardsmen with, in effect, a full-scholarship and I was attending a local community college that offered me an avenue to improve upon my dismal high school GPA (see earlier: refusing to stand out) so that I could attend a local university.  As a result, I had a lot of free time, and I invested this time into my favorite hobby: Video games.

More specifically, I invested into one game: World of Warcraft. I played other games in different genres (Left 4 DeadStarCraft, etc), but I want to focus on a Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) for a specific reason. The community in an MMORPG is going to have a lot more nuance than the community in a first person shooter or real time strategy, so it simply holds better to the analysis that needs to happen as a result of this shift in the gaming community.

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I was a competitive raider - I was ranked on international leaderboards. I had a video-game resume (I wish I was kidding, you can see it here), and I interviewed and was interviewed by guilds. These interviews were orders of magnitude more intense than many job interviews that I've had over the years, and they left no stone unturned. I had to know my class, the mathematics behind my class, the content, the classes that fulfilled a similar role as mine, and the mathematics and classes in which I directly supported.

To give you an example, I had to understand how a concept known as "Threat" worked.  Threat, or Aggro, was a mathematical equation in which an 'not player controlled' (NPC) combatant determined who it would attack. If you were at the top of that list, you got slapped in the face by a big ass dragon; not something you wanted if you were a small gnome without a shield.

I had to not only know the mathematics behind how each of my abilities added to this threat table, but which abilities provided the highest damage per second (DPS), lowest threat per second (TPS), and which had the best ratios so that I could adjust depending on various external variables.  In addition to this, I had to know my tanks' (the people with shields who job it was to get slapped around by dragons) strategy for getting and holding onto this dragon's ire. If I went in half a second too early, I might get his attention and die; a half a second too late, and we might run out of time and we would all die.

Add in the fact that I had to be able to perform a secondary role as an "off tank" and I then had to learn the math behind dodges, parries, and diminishing returns on other defensive stats.  It was pretty intense stuff; you can see some of the math (for defensive stats) here.

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Needless to say, everyone had to be on top of their game in order to perform. An underperforming tank would lead to an uncontrolled dragon; slow DPS and you would run out of time; bad healers and your tank would die. So in order to create a group of people capable of completing these tasks, you assembled a very specific team of talented individuals known as a guild, which was capable of fielding one or more "raids" into specific areas to kill specific dragons and assorted mythical enemies.

These raids would have a very specific roster, and in order to fill this roster, guilds would post openings - much like job announcements. The better the guild, the more applications a guild would receive for each opening, and the more competitive the process would become. So while I interviewed for two hours to get into more than one guild, Jo-Blo likely would have a very different experience.

So, as a result, you would have to do things to differentiate yourself from the crowd. Just like an employer might be swayed by civic involvement, so too might a guild be swayed by a prolific person on the forums applying. It wasn't enough to send in an application and the last three weeks of your raid logs (a CSV file that allowed them to datamine your second-by-second performance), you also had to be beneficial in some other way.

Oh, you're a web developer? Bam, you're the new website guru. 

An accountant? Awesome, you're the new guild bank manager.

Video editor? Recruiting videos, and go!

Me? I differentiated myself by becoming "published." I was a theorycrafter; I looked at the mathematics behind it all and made it digestible for others; I came up with strategic plans for different encounters and how different players should react to different variables. You can see an example of that for World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic (these are both fairly old and outdated).

I would spend three to four sessions of three to four hours a week raiding; actively competing with my guild to secure content, loot, and places in the ranking. In addition, I would have to spend two to three hours a week "farming" or gathering raw materials, gold, or supplies for raids, and one to five hours a week theorycrafting, becoming "published" (or rather "stickied" on various forums) and keeping myself relevant enough to be considered by higher ranking guilds.

(Not me; random encounter from World of Logs)

It was a large part of my life for two years, and it still is a large part of the lives of millions of other players.  This wasn't "just a game" it was a huge time investment (twelve to twenty four hours a week), a large financial investment ($1,100 initial plus $13 subscription and $60 internet), and a complex social structure with its own politics, economies, and nuances.

As with any society, there were different pockets of individuals with their own behavioral norms, but as a general rule the MMORPG community never displayed a large amount of homophobia or racism; sexual harassment, however, was an unspoken problem.  There are few parallels between MMORPGs and the military, but the chain of command is one of them: Guild masters, like base or unit commanders, are essentially the sole voice of power, except that guild masters had fewer checks and balances levied against them. 

Piss one off, and you're out of the guild and back on the market. There is no recourse or appeal; you're just gone. To make matters worse, to find a new guild, you might have to invest $25 - $150 to transfer your character(s) to a different server or faction; a pretty significant microtransaction.

As a result, there has always been a(n extreme) minority of guild masters who abused their power by trading raid spots or loot for sexually explicit texts, photos, or acts. I was only ever in one guild when such a revelation came to light (I promptly left), but the community was tight nit and any well known guild that had a scandal break had their dirty laundry aired throughout the entire game.

So what fueled this abusive power structure, and what does it have to do with sexism in Gaming Culture?

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To the first part of that question, we have to look at The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg where we learn that, in the brain of an addict, a near-miss is identical to a successful attempt on a neurobiological level. Specifically, whenever we would come close to killing a dragon (e.g. we died when the winged beast was at 2% health), our brains would trick us into believing we had killed it. So we would get a dopamine high and "just one more attempt" ourselves until we fell over at our chairs.

Whenever we lost the bidding war for a piece of loot that we've been waiting for for over three months: Dopamine. Whenever we got it, we would receive a high that would last for weeks, if not months. The fear of being kicked out of a guild plus the server transfer fees plus the interview process just to be placed at the bottom of a wait-list for your gear, or having to bank up virtual currency known as Dragon-Kill-Points (DKP) for months in a new guild made leaving an abusive environment as daunting as quitting a job; especially as we're fighting the artificial dopamine highs created by near misses and we delude ourselves into staying until "that last piece of loot drops," never considering that it may never be coming.

So when an abusive guild master progressively gets worse, it can be hard to say no; especially when the community at large is uninterested in the struggle of one gamer. And ultimately, I think that's the answer to the second part of this question. The sexist, racist, or homophobic assholes in the gaming community are a minority, but the vast majority of gamers are apathetic to the plights of the individual.  Quite simply, who gives a fuck about Jane Doe, the warlock with whom you've never slayed any dragons? Jane doesn't become a person until you've interacted with her directly, so why would you advocate for her rights?

This doesn't make the gaming community a bunch of children or malcontents, but it does make us complicit. On the macro level, the gaming community is extremely welcoming to different backgrounds because we're all united in one common interest: Video Games. We're welcoming because we simply don't care who you love, to whom you pray, or what your chromosone makeup looks like; because, by and large, gamers don't care about (most other) gamers.  Unfortunately, that enables the silent majority to turn a blind eye to the misbehavior of the abusive minority.

That needs to stop.

I've long since retired from competitive MMORPGs, and while I wouldn't trade my past experiences for anything, one of the reasons I left was the culture (the other was a lack of other, non-WoW options). I was a straight white male who felt alienated by the gaming underground and the silence of the community at large.

I was bullied and I had 'suffered' for my passions, I was a one-percenter in every definition of the word in the community, and I had no dog in the fight of promoting equality within the MMO community and I retired, in part, because of the lack of it. Social gaming simply isn't fun when the virtual society so starkly contrasts the physical society we live in; I played MMOs to visit an idealized society where I could interact with others, not to visit a society more deeply flawed than ours.

And as long as Marvel keeps pumping out box office hits, The Big Bang Theory stays on the air, and video games continue to gain prominence, "geek culture" is going to continue to be subsumed under "culture."  This isn't a bad thing and it doesn't negate all of our noogies or swirlies; it validates them. Our hard work and perseverance shouldn't be seen as wasted if we allow the masses to join our ranks, it should be seen as rewarded. 

I, for one, would like for my future kids to enjoy whatever hobby they might like without fear of reprisal; that starts with me breaking the cycle of violence. It starts with the silent majority breaking their silence and it requires the community as a whole to stop wearing their hobbies as a badge of honor.